Ask any Lisboner about Belem, the historic neighborhood just to the west of the city center, and they will tell you that it is a neighborhood for tourists, but also that it is a destination no tourist should miss. In Belem, you will find some of Lisbon’s most popular attractions, from the elaborate Belem Tower to the scrumptious Pasteis de Belem. With 24 Hours in Belem, we will learn about Portuguese history, we will photograph strange marvels, we will become experts in Manueline architecture, and we will eat well. We always eat well, don’t we, Internet Stranger?
Morning: Walk to Belem
Since Belem is located about an hour’s walk from Praca do Comercio in the city center, if you want to get there the easy way, you should take either Tram 15 or Tram 127. But who wants to do things the easy way? I recommend leaving the Praca do Comercio and walking straight to the Tejo River. (Don’t walk into the river, Internet Stranger! I won’t be there to fish you out.) Then just make a right and keep going until you hit Belem. You can’t miss it because there will be a giant tower blocking your way.
Since we are taking the scenic route, allow me to point out for you some highlights on the way.
Approximately Top Five best things to look for when walking to belem
1) Stop and smell the flowers.
2) Take as many dramatic photos of bridges as possible. Get frustrated because you don’t know the names of any of the bridges.
3) Enjoy this monument to Fado singers. You can tell it is a Fado monument because it combines a Portuguese guitar with the sad, sad face of Amalia Rodrigues about to sing a sad, sad song. Sad!
4) One fun thing to do is check out hidden street art along the water. Street art is just full of surprises. For example, I was surprised to learn that these are not real birds after I tried to shoot one and take it home to mount on my wall. People can do such clever things with spray paint nowadays.
5) Discover the Padrao dos Descobrimentos. This is a remarkable monument dedicated to Portuguese explorers from the 15th and 16th centuries. The proud looking dude in the front is the famous Portuguese royal Prince Henry the Navigator, but if you look carefully, you can see such other notable explorers as Vasco da Gama, Magellan, and Bartolomeu Dias.
I personally think they should add a plaque explaining how each of the explorers died because it was usually super dramatic. (Da Gama: died of malaria. Magellan: killed by Filipinos because they did not want to convert to Christianity, and then they insisted on keeping his body for reasons that remain unclear.) But I might be misunderstanding the point of a monument here.
Travelerette Treasure: There is a gorgeous compass rose donated to Portugal by South Africa right next to the Padrao dos Descobrimentos. It is fitting because Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias was the first European to sail to the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. But I am less interested in compasses than I am in the freaky sea creatures that decorate the compass rose.
If monsters like that actually existed, I would have been much more likely to become a sailor.
Lunch: Pao Pao Queijo Queijo
Address: R. Belém 126
Because Belem is such a touristy neighborhood, it can be hard to find something tasty and affordable for lunch. That’s why I was so glad to discover Pao Pao Queijo Queijo, which I believe translates to Bread Bread Cheese Cheese. Strangely enough, I didn’t see much cheese being served here, just quick, cheap, and tasty falafel and shawarma.
You can choose to get either falafel or shawarma on a baguette or a pita. I chose a pita shawarma because I am the world’s least vegetarian person, but I kind of regret not taking a chance and getting it on a baguette. I’ve never heard of shawarma baguettes before and the bread looked scrumptious. The line is long but it moves super fast, so it was worth it. I loved the fresh juicy meat, and the herbed mayonnaise sauce complimented the spicy meat perfectly.
After lunch, you will want dessert, but don’t get it here! Just hop a few doors down to legendary Egg Tart Shop, Pasteis de Belem on R. Belém 84-92. This place has been around since 1837, making tarts according to a secret recipe from the Jeronimos Monastery. Of course it is popular with tourists, but there are also about a billion seats, so you shouldn’t have to wait to get served.
Of the three different egg custard tarts I had in Portugal, I think these were my favorite. The pastry is extremely flaky and the custard is warm and light. But really you should just eat as many egg custard tarts as possible when you are in Portugal. If you go to a restaurant and they don’t have any, you should compel them to make you some. That should make you really popular.
Early Afternoon: Belem Tower
Address: Av. Brasília
Hours: 10-6:30 Tuesday-Sunday
Price: 6 Euros
The Belem Tower is a gorgeous 16th century tower that was part of Lisbon’s defense system back when Portugal was an empire and not the world’s top egg tart and dessert wine tourist destination. It is a UNESCO protected sight as well as one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal, so I’m sure as you can imagine, lines get crazy long here on the weekends. But I don’t really think you can say you’ve been to Lisbon until you’ve seen this baby, so let’s head inside. At the very least, you can take the virtual tour.
Travelerette Tip: Bring a book! This may sound like a weird tip, but the stairs up to the top floor of the tower are very skinny and only a certain number of people are allowed up at a time. So you’re going to have to wait on a line that is not short to scale the tower’s top. If you’re solo, that means bringing a book or getting bored. Your choice! I think it’s worth it though, for the amazing views of the river.
My other tip would be to bring a hairbrush because it gets insanely windy at the top of the tower. Don’t believe me? Here is my evidence:
The prosecution rests.
Travelerette Treasure: My favorite thing to do at the Belem Tower is examine all the weird, not entirely cohesive architectural elements present in the building. The Belem Tower is an example of Manueline architecture, which was a prominent form of Portuguese architecture during the Age of Discovery. Because those famous Portuguese explorers were out finding so many fabulous things and bringing them home, Manueline architecture tends to be very ornate and contain elements from architectural styles from all over the world.
For example, you might see a fairly traditional Catholic statue of the Virgin Mary:
But then behind this is a tower with a whole bunch of shields, intricate lattice work, and what looks to be an antennae sticking straight up into the sky.
Also there’s a watchtower with five balls on the top and a braid on the side.
There’s random spiky things that look like Christmas tree clown hats.
There’s a whole bunch of what I guess are shamrocks. Did the Portuguese conquer Ireland at some point? It wouldn’t be surprising.
And finally there’s a whole lot of arrows pointing up in case you are not as good a navigator as Prince Henry and you forget where the sky is.
I’m sure you can find lots of weird details I missed. The hunt for strange and Manueline features should occupy your entire time at Belem Tower. Then it is time for more Manueline marvels at…
Late Afternoon: Jeronimos Monastery
Address: Praça do Império 1400-206
Hours: 10-6:30 Tuesday-Sunday
Price: 10 Euros
The Jeronimos Monastery is yet another of Lisbon’s Manueline beauties. It was made for the monastic Order of St. Jerome. These monks were supposed to pray for King Manuel of Portugal and for all the Portuguese sailors setting off on their missions of discovery around the world, and I can definitely see why you would want both of those things if you were the King of Portugal during the Age of Discovery.
The Jeronimos Monastery is also a UNESCO protected site, so as I’m sure you can imagine, it is chock full of amusing and bizarre information. Let me impart some of my wisdom to you with…
Three Fun Facts about the jeronimos monastery
1) As the Jeronimos Monastery was meant to house monks who were praying for sailors, there are many nautical elements present in the design. On this shield you can see various important tools pictured, like the ladder and hammer, and the knot above looks like a sailor’s knot. I enjoyed the presence of these elements because they are not typically what you would expect to find in a church, and also because they gave me an excuse to go about singing sea shanties in my head and I always like a good shanty.
2) The ceilings are some of the most noteworthy features in the monastery because they have eight ribs holding up each part of the vaulted ceiling. Go around and count them if you don’t believe me! You definitely won’t bump into someone.
They also have an octagonal shape in the center of the ribs in many places. I wonder what the significance of the number eight was to the people who built this monastery? Anyway, I highly recommend walking under these ceilings and pretending that you are a princess being chased by an evil monk/sailor. Whatever floats your boat.
3) Don’t miss the church attached to the Jeronimos Monastery. This is where you can find the tomb of famed Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama. You will recognize him by the big ship on his tomb. Just don’t get too close! He died of malaria and you don’t want to catch it…
Travelerette Tip: Save money by buying a combination ticket for this and the Belem Tower because the combi ticket is only 12 Euros. If you buy them individually, it’s 16 Euros. SMORT!
Travelerette Treasure: You’ve heard of a sacred cow? Well, meet the sacred chicken of the Jeronimos Monastery. I don’t know who this chicken is, but I observe that he is standing on a pedestal, which makes me think he is pretty important. I hope when you visit the Jeronimos Monastery, you are able to find this little guy for yourself, but I’m not going to tell you exactly where to look for him. Be a clever little chicken and I’m sure you can spot him on your own.
Dinner: Belem 2 A 8
Address: R. Belém 2
The good thing about tourist neighborhoods like Belem is that there’s always loads of people there, so you’re very unlikely to walk down a creepy, lonely side street and get murdered. The bad thing about tourist neighborhoods like Belem is that it can be difficult to find a decent meal. That’s why I was so happy to discover Belem 2 A 8. It had the feel of a local place because there were groups of Portuguese guys here just watching soccer on TV, but they have an English menu and there were just enough tourists there so I didn’t feel like a weird out-of-place American.
I began my meal with the unusual combination of chorizo and pineapple. I know chorizo is really popular in Portugal, but I never had it prepared this way. I really enjoyed the combination of the spicy sausage and the sweet pineapple.
In keeping with my philosophy of eating as much seafood as possible in Portugal, my main course was a risotta prepared with codfish tongues. Codfish tongues are actually not tongues at all, but a piece of flesh by the back of the fish’s throat. They have a rich flavor and slightly gelatinous texture. I enjoyed trying this delicacy, but I wouldn’t recommend being this adventurous if you are a picky eater. They have lots of other meat, fish, and vegetarian dishes to choose from.
My absolute favorite dish was the rich chocolate mousse served with candied nuts and a drizzling of an herbal Portuguese liqueur called Beirao. Apparently the combination of seeds and herbs used in Beirao is a state secret, kind of like the recipe to Coca-Cola. All I know about Beirao is that it goes really well with chocolate, and that is my kind of booze.
And That’s How to Have a Perfect Day in Belem!
What would you do with one day in Belem? Have you ever eaten codfish tongues? Do you think you can really catch malaria from the corpse of a Portuguese explorer? Please leave your thoughts below!
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