Exploring the Belém district, filled with some iconic landmarks and many architectural and historical sights, is on most people’s to-do list when visiting Lisbon. Situated southwest of the center of the capital, Belém is located on the Tagus River and was once a major maritime port, a fact that still influences the district today. Read on for our favourite things to see and do while you’re there.
Everyone who visits Portugal learns about the famous pasteis de nata, but to sink your teeth into the real deal, made using the original 187-year-old recipe, you need to take a trip to Pasteis de Belém. The first owners of this well-known pastry shop (which was a sugar refinery at that time) purchased the recipe in the 1830s from the monks of the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (Jerónimos Monastery), who first sold the pastries as a way to raise money. Flaky on the outside and creamy on the inside, they are delicious pastries, and it didn’t take long for the Pasteis de Belém to become one of the most popular pastry shops in Lisbon. A visit is a must, and while indoor seating is provided, the waits can be really long, so most visitors take their pasteis to go.
Grand and impressive, the Jerónimos Monastery is quite the sight to behold, even from the outside. This is one of the locations where tourists can gain an appreciation of Manueline architecture, a Portuguese style from the 16th century with Gothic tones. It is also the site where many ancient Portuguese explorers sought shelter, either before or after a trip, and the monastery is the final resting ground of Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese explorer who was the first European to sail to India. This is one of the few UNESCO World Heritage sites in Belém and a National Monument, declared in 1907. Entrance to the monastery costs €10.
By the riverside are two major landmarks, with a 15-minute walk between them, which both serve to remind visitors of Portugal’s significant role in the Age of Discoveries. The Belém Tower (Torre de Belém) was built in the 16th century as a fort to protect the coast from foreign attacks, and like the Jerónimos Monastery, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an example of Manueline architecture. The Padrão dos Descobrimentos (or Monument to the Discoveries) was built in 1960 and pays tribute to 33 prominent figures in Portugal’s Age of Discoveries, including Henry the Navigator and the poet Luís Vaz de Camões.
Practically every traditional restaurant in Lisbon serves seafood, but few experiences trump sitting by the river and snacking on shrimp, crab, fish dips or clams while gazing at the April 25 Bridge (Ponte 25 de Abril) or the Cristo Rei monument. There are many restaurants in this part of the city, but a little digging will take you to locations that are slightly more hidden. Beside the marina is a base for the Naval Association, which has a few restaurants with extensive menus, and terrace seating a few feet from the river’s edge. You don’t need to be a member of the club to dine at the restaurant.
A casual cruise along the Tagus River, by sailboat, is one of the most romantic experiences in Lisbon and tours leave daily from Belém. A few companies offer trips during the morning and afternoon (for €38 per adult and €19 per child) as well as sunset trips (€45 per adult and €22,50 per child). This is definitely a great experience that anyone can enjoy, and gives visitors a different view of the city.
Behind the Jeronimos Monastery and Pasteis de Belém is Belém’s Tropical Botanical Garden, or Jardim Botânico Tropical. The entrance fee is only €2 and in the summer the doors are open between 10am and 8pm; they close a couple hours earlier in the winter. The garden was founded in 1912, is one of the largest gardens around Lisbon, and is located on the property of the 18th-century Palácio dos Condes da Calheta. The Jardim Botânico Tropical is as beautiful as it is serene, with over 600 floral species to observe; a definite treat for botany enthusiasts.
The center was built to host the European Presidency, and is now a venue for city events and exhibitions. One of the top things to do in the Belém Cultural Center is visit the Berardo Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, which is housed here. It’s free to enter. It is the largest cultural building in the entire country and is located almost next door to the Jeronimos Monastery.
Lisbon is characterized by art, architecture and technological advancements, and the MAAT (Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology) pays tribute to them all. Opened in 2016, it is one of the newest additions to the Lisbon landmarks list. It’s open from noon to 8pm and there’s a €5 admission fee. The MAAT offers plenty to see and do, from exhibitions to sit-down lectures and debates.
Portugal is a fantastic location to visit for anyone who enjoys strolling through palaces, and Belém Palace is one of the most beautiful of them all. It is a 16th-century estate that has served as the official residence for Portugal’s presidents since 1910, and although most parts of the palace cannot be entered, one area has been made into a museum and is open for visits during the week (except Mondays) from 10am to 6pm. Entry costs €2.5.