Belém is such a delightful district just west of downtown Lisbon. It can be easily reached from central Lisbon via Tram #15E so it was a perfect place for us to have an enjoyable half-day excursion.
Belém is located at the mouth of the Tagus River and it was of great importance during the period of Portuguese discoveries and maritime exploration, where Portugal gained great power and wealth through colonization. This is probably why Belém has some of the most iconic landmarks in Lisbon, and perhaps in all of Portugal.
We got off the Tram at the Jerónimos Monastery stop. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Jerónimos Monastery is probably one of the most ornate religious buildings in Portugal. It was funded by the tax money from the wealth gained by sea trading back in the 15th and 16th centuries. The monastery is simply magnificent with beautiful stone carvings throughout its exterior.
Unfortunately (though expectedly) there was already a long line by the time we arrived and we don’t typically like to wait in long queues, so we decided to just hang around and admire the structure from the outside. Though we did run into some sort of horse guard parade practice in front of the monastery which was a nice treat for the kids.
Next, we walked through the beautiful grounds of the Praça do Império (Portuguese for Empire Square) to the Monument of the Discoveries, which is located on the northern bank of the Tagus River.
This monument is essentially a huge slab of concrete that was sculpted in 1960 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the death of Henry the Navigator (the primary architect of Portugal’s Golden Age of Discovery). It is shaped in the form of a ship’s bow, with a statue of Henry at the very front, followed by various figures from Portuguese history. The monument gives the impression of a boat overlooking the estuary, and at its back representing a cross. This is my favorite landmark in Belem as I just love its ingenious design and its beautiful setting by the edge of the river with the 25th of April Bridge in the background.
Later on we strolled along the river to see another UNESCO World Heritage Site – Tower of Belém. Due to Belém’s great strategic location in the protection and the defense of Lisbon, the Tower of Belém was originally built as a military outpost to guard the city. It is truly a magnificent structure with elaborate stonework throughout its exterior. Not only was it part of a defense system at the mouth of the Tagus River back in the day, it is now also a ceremonial gateway to Lisbon as it is the first structure that the visitors see when arriving at the city from the sea.
After we slowly made our way back to the center of the town, we made one last stop at the pastry shop pastéis de Belém to sample their world famous custard tart. The shop/cafe is located on Belém’s main street near the Monastery, and you can choose to either dine-in or take-out. There was a sign for two separate queues outside for the entrance to the take-out counter which lead to two cash registers to place and pay for your order. They would then give you a receipt showing how many custard tarts you’ve purchased.
Unfortunately there was not another queue for the pick-up counter so it became quite chaotic to say the least, with everyone trying to push their way to the front of the pick-up counter in order to give the staff their receipt in exchange for their order. It took us a little while to realize that we would never get our tarts if we didn’t push our way to get to the counter, as other customers kept piling in in front of us. Needless to say, Rich was the one got assigned this not-so-pleasant task while I escaped with the kids to the far corner of the store to catch a breather.
When we finally got our hands (and mouths) on the goods, OH. MY. GOODNESS.! They were pure deliciousness and was definitely well worth the effort. The only regret was that we only bought one for each of us as we were not sure how the
picky kiddos would like them. And there was no way we wanted to go through the whole queueing and pushing process again at that moment. Luckily we did get to eat custard tarts a few more times during our stay in Lisbon and even tried it with cinnamon sugar sprinkled on top. So yum! If you ever find yourself in Lisbon, you definitely need to add eating their traditional Portuguese custard tarts on your must-do list!