Belém is an area in western Lisbon, spreading out around the waterfront and well known for its popularity with locals and tourists alike. It is a beautiful area to explore, to see the statues and monuments and look out across the river Tagus. However, the main reason the tourists keep coming is for the attractions, three of which stand out: the famous tower, the amazing Discoveries monument and the café where the delicious Portuguese custard tart originated. Everything is within walking distance from each other and Belém is the perfect place for a stroll.
See the historic Torre de Belém
The historic Belém tower is one of Lisbon’s most famous attractions, and can be found in the centre of Belém, the river lapping against its sides. Dating back 500 years, it was originally a fort, aiming to protect the city of Lisbon from foreign invaders coming by sea. Nowadays, the tower is a vision in white stone, covered in turrets and carvings of shields and wild animals. See if you can spot the rhino hidden in its outside walls, a tribute to the first ever rhinoceros to make it to Europe! It was a gift from India to the Portuguese king, and is now immortalised in stone for visitors to spot.
This stunning tower is well worth seeing for its grandeur along, but for those interested in knowing more it is possible to access the terraces and the inside, where you can find ancient rooms like the audience room and the chapel. The base of the tower also tends to be surrounded by street vendors selling refreshments, making it the perfect place to stop and relax – you can feel very smug while lounging on a bench with the tower and the river in your sights and sipping on a cold glass of wine or a homemade lemonade!
Climb the Padrão dos Descobrimentos monument
The Monument of the Discoveries is a celebration of Portugal’s seafaring past. While much more modern than the Belém Tower, it is just as beautiful and unique, displaying the explorers striving towards the seas and the mysteries they hold. Its white colour against a blue sky and its imposing height make it extremely impressive and it is well worth a visit for this alone. However, it is also possible to climb to the terrace at the top, which boasts views across the area of Belém, the Tagus River and the 25 de abril Suspension Bridge.
See the Rose Compass
In front of the monument is another stunning creation, but this time you have to look down rather than up! The Rose was a gift from South Africa and displays a gigantic compass complete with a map of the world in the centre, markers showing you everywhere that Portugal once colonised. Cross from America to Australia in a few seconds and take a photo of yourself with your own country under your feet!
Pastéis de Belém, a cafe with a past
Anyone who has spent time in Portugal will have heard of the famous pastel de nata – the Portuguese egg custard tart. However, did you know they originated from a monastery in Lisbon? The pastries were created to a secret recipe, and in 1834 when the monasteries were shut down, they began to be sold in a café next door. This café, Pastéis de Belém, still follows exactly the same recipe today, and they actually are the only place in the world licensed to use the name ‘pastel de Belém’ to refer to this tasty treat.
It is possible to order custard tarts (amongst their other specialities) to take away; however, I strongly recommend taking the time to sit in this historic café and soak up the atmosphere, maybe while enjoying a delicious Portuguese coffee with your custard tart! Pastéis de Belém’s interior is extremely pretty and is decorated in a typically Portuguese style, covered in blue and white tiles. You can even peep into the kitchens and see the hundreds of custard tarts sold every day being baked.
Try one for yourself!
Pastéis de Belém are unmissable; they are sweet, filled with smooth custard and surrounded by crunchy pastry. The Portuguese eat them sprinkled with cinnamon and icing sugar; they are so delicious, one may not be enough!
However, Pastéis de Belém has much more on offer than their famous tarts: there is a wide variety of drinks and lunch-style food available in addition to many other kinds of pastries. Do not imagine it would be an expensive treat either – in Portugal food and drink tends to be very cheap, and despite its status as Portugal’s most famous café, Pastéis de Belém sells its products for a very similar price to what you would pay anywhere else. The whole experience is one not to be missed; you’ll never forget your first pastel de Belém!
Belém is for everyone
Belém is easily accessed by either bus or train, both of which regularly travel from central Lisbon. This lovely area of the city has something for everyone, come and wander and eat and see for yourself!
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