My favourite things to do in Belem, Lisbon:
Bright, yellow trams rattle along the streets shoulder to shoulder with buses. Stunning views of 16thcentury monuments in Manueline style characterize the skyscape. A vast stretch of tropical garden, buildings with colourful facades made of tiles, and distinctive museums dot the landscape. The river Tagus studded with 25th of April bridge, the Christ the King statue – inspired by the Christ the Redeemer statue of Rio de Janeiro – at the far end, and celebrated eateries make up Belem, the culture capital of Lisbon.
Belem district pronounced as Belé is one of the top attractions in Lisbon and rightly so. There is so much to see and do in Belem, it is best to slot an entire day to explore and appreciate the grandeur it offers.
Here’s a list of my favourite things to do in Belem, Lisbon
Eat Pastél de Belém (Pastry of Belem)
Portuguese are renowned for their gastronomy, especially pastries. Every region in Portugal boasts its speciality pastry and the locals promote it like their life depends on it, perhaps it does for some.
On top of the list is the celebrity pastry, Pastél de Belém. It is one of the seven wonders of Portuguese cuisines, and I can vouch for its credibility.
The origin of the pastry dates back to the 19thcentury. Owing to the liberal revolution of 1820, of which you will hear a lot while in Portugal, all convents and monasteries in Portugal were shut down. The revolution led to the expulsion of clergymen and workers. Trying to make ends meet, someone from the monastery offered sweet pastries for sale in the shop, now renowned as Pastéis de Belém (Pasteis de Belem). These pastries soon became popular and attracted visitors of both the monastery and the Torre de Belem (Belem Tower).
People visit Belem district especially to eat this pastry. Pastél de Belém is the original version of Pastél de Nata (custard tart) abound in bakeries around Lisbon or Portugal for that matter. It is served warm with a dash of sugar and cinnamon. When eaten warm it melts in your mouth and leaves you craving for more. And now the best part, in spite of its reputation the pastry only costs 1.20 euro (in 2018).
Tip: If you want to take some home, they also do take away, a box of six pastries but please remeber that they last only three days.
Admire the Manueline style architecture
Stone’s throw from Pastéis de Belém, standing gracefully tall, luring you with its spectacular faćade, is the UNESCO world heritage site, Jerónimos Monastery.
If love at first sight could be expressed for things, then that’s exactly what I felt for the monastery.
It is one of the significant representations of Portuguese Late Gothic or Manueline architecture. As you crane your neck to admire the intricate sculptures in awe, you understand why it took 100 years, i.e., from 1501 to 1601, to build the masterpiece.
It is also a fascinating sight to see sparrows feed chicks, flying in and out of the narrow cavities of the sculpted side wall.
The monastery is also Vasco de Gama’s final resting place. He was the first European to sail to India. Before him, many including Christopher Columbus tried in futile. The monastery is a commemoration to his voyage to India. It is here, Vasco da Gama and his crew spent their last night in prayers before setting off on their expedition to India.
The Manueline style is unique to Portugal, and it is my new favourite architecture style. As part of its ornamentation, it incorporates maritime elements such as seashells, pearls, sea monsters, coral, and seaweed. It also uses elements used on ships such as coiled ropes, anchor chains, and spheres, along with elements from newly discovered lands such as India, Japan and Brazil among others.
Unfortunately, the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, considered one of the deadliest earthquakes in history, destroyed much of Manueline architecture.
Tip: Avoid the long queue in front of the ticket counter by buying a one-day or two-day Lisbon card. The card provides free entry to most of the tourist attractions in Lisbon including tram and bus rides.
A stroll in the park – Jardim Botânico Tropical (Tropical Botanical Garden)
The tropical garden hosts over 600 species of flora including endangered species, such as dragon trees and monkey puzzle trees. Need I say, it is a paradise for Botanists.
However, what held my attention the most was a group of Muscovy ducks and their chicks swimming without care. Taking a break from duck watching, I also occasionally gasped at the breath-taking views of the monastery through the spectacular fountain in the garden.
Ramp walk enjoying the views of Discoverer monument, and Tower of Belem on the River Tagus
I highly recommend the rejuvenating ramp walk between the Discovery monument and the tower of Belem. Watching the 25thof April bridge, speeding boats, people and seagulls paired with the complementary music, the sound of the river occasionally punctuated by seagull calls, and the gust of wind was the best part of my visit to Belem.
The Discovery Monument
On the Northern bank of the river Tagus sits the impressive Discoverer monument telling tales of Lisbon’s glorious past. It was built in 1960 to commemorate the 500th death anniversary of Prince Henry the Navigator, who inspired the Age of Discovery. The monument depicts a three-sailed ship ready to depart. Embossed on the monument are 33 sculptures of prominent figures from the Portuguese Age of Discovery, including King Manuel, poet Camoes, explorer Vasco de Game and the only female sculpture, Queen Philippa, mother of Prince Henry the Navigator, among others.
The square across the monument illustrates a compass rose gifted by the South African government. The compass shows the routes Portuguese traversed during the Age of Discovery.
Atop the monument, you can enjoy a bird’s eye view of laid-back Belem.
25th of April Bridge
The bridge is a spectacular sight, viewed from anywhere it is visible in Lisbon. It connects Lisbon to the municipality of Almada, and people often compare it to the Golden Gate bridge of San Fransico, in the US. The story behind its name is equally fascinating. It was originally named after the dictator Salazar, of whom you will never stop hearing. His dictatorship lasted 48 years, making it the longest dictatorship in Europe, giving shudders to people even today as they speak of him. The bridge was later christened after the revolution of April 25, 1974, aka the Carnation Revolution.
Tower of Belem
It is the kind of tower that inspires fairy-tale authors to create beautiful princesses with long tresses only to trap them on the highest, inaccessible floor of the tower, until a knight comes in a speedboat (customizing it to Lisbon’s environment) and crawls up the tower using the long tresses and finally kisses and rescues the princess.
Built in the early 16thcentury as a fort in the Portuguese Manueline style with Moorish influence by the north bank of Tagus river (Rio Tejo), the original purpose of the four-storied tower was to protect the coast from foreign attacks. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for the significant role it played in the Portuguese maritime discoveries during the era of the Age of Discovery. It is also a part of the seven wonders of Portugal.
Many prominent explorers left to discover the new world from this very shore while monks prayed for their safe return in Jerónimos Monastery.
Other things to do in Belem, Lisbon:
- Maritime Museum to discover the Portuguese world exploration at the sea
- Coaches Museum for a collection of royal coaches
- Berardo Museum for modern art
- Archeology Museum for fascinating archeological finds
- Belem Cultural Center for interesting exhibitions and events
- Belem Palace to explore the home of Portugal’s president
- Memorial Chruch to explore a neoclassical architecture
- Ajuda Palace to explore a Portuguese royal palace
- Ajuda Botanical Garden to relax and enjoy the beautiful view of the river Tagus
things to do in Belem, Lisbon
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