Rima’s Guide to… Belem

Lisbon today is not as it was a decade ago, five, three or even one year ago. Now it is a European ‘destination’. Great tourism advertising and the people it has attracted to Lisbon have effected some changes in every different area of the city. Some treasures have been lost and some new treasures have popped up that we can see, feel and experience!

A week ago I read one (not) short article by a Lithuanian guy about Lisbon and I thought to myself that he really doesn’t know what it means to discover this city. Either he is quite a negative person or maybe he just made very bad choices of the places that he could advise other travelers to visit. So I decided that I will write my tips about a few districts of Lisbon and around that you might consider visiting if you come here.


Last week we took a very nice afternoon walk around Belem. I love this area, because of the uncrowded open areas, the green spaces and the scale of the buildings and monuments. Most of the time I go there in the afternoons because it is less busy and the sunset at the Tejo riverside is astonishing. We were not like crazy tourists going around with a to do list, I just wanted to introduce John to one more area of Lisbon.

LX Factory

You know if it happens that it is a bit rainy, like today, or you just want to experience something different you could start off a bit out of Belem –  in Alcantara. Just under the Ponte 25 de Abril, the most famous bridge in Lisbon, there is a place called LX Factory. In the mid 19th century it was one of the most important manufacturing complexes in Lisbon and now it has been reborn as a creative island, home to exciting brands and startups in different fields like communication, politics, fashion, fine arts, and music. It is full of a dynamic atmosphere and great ideas, and in the middle of it all is the place where you can find the best chocolate cake in the world (according to me). There is also an amazing bookshop with coffee, snacks, Leonardo da Vinci’s flying ideas, crazy inventions, and music corners. Other interesting small shops, galleries, jeweler’s workshops, and restaurants sit side by side surrounded with a lot of cool graffiti and street art. It’s a great place to grab a snack, meet people, study, to come up with new ideas, relax or just hang around and maybe check out some events going on.

We like walks and to take a nice walk next to the river is always good. Nowadays from Alcantara to Belem Tower is a perfect open space for walking, cycling, running, and we thought of rollerblading too, with some restaurants on the docks, sculptures, fishing spots and green areas. 

LX Factory

Power Station – MAAT

Tejo Power Station was, guess what, a power station, generating power for the city of LIson until 1975. Since 1990 it has been the Electricity Museum, and I would say it is an impressive example of Portuguese architecture from the first part of the last century that shows the evolution of energy. Since 2016 it has been a part of MAAT – The Museum of Art, Architecture and Technologies, a brilliantly designed complex. This highly inclusive place has a wide target audience – all kind of people of all ages, offering educational programs that help us to develop understanding and knowledge.

If you are interested in finding out more about the architecture of MAAT then check out this gallery: Archdaily – MAAT

Outside MAAT last week, we also ran into a little funny van – the Museum of Nothing, just a van with white space and empty shelves.      

Museum of Electricity

Monument of the Discoveries

Why do the Portuguese have this monument?

I wouldn’t even ask this question, just take a quick look back at the history of Portugal, with such well-known explorers and important historical moments. The 15th-16th centuries Age of Discovery, India, Vasco da Gama, Pedro Alvares Cabral. This monument is situated at the historical point on the river where ships departed for these journeys of  discovery. Even this monument has a long story as it was constructed as a temporary exhibition, but over time it changed to become a permanent monument. For some years it didn’t have any function until finally in 1985 it was completed and it became possible for the public to take a lift to the top of the monument and to look around Belem from above. It is an impressive view – Belem Tower, Saint Jerónimus Monastery, the tropical garden, Ajuda Palace, the river Tejus, the 25th April Bridge, Almada…   

Monument of  Discoveries

Belem Tower  

I love to look at this tower from the outside, it is so delicate and beautiful! You can also visit the inside if you feel like exploring the architecture, and sometimes nearby in summer time you can come and listen to live jazz in the open air or some other al fresco events. 

Some stories tell that the tower was built on the river bed in the middle of the Tejo but actually there was originally it was a small island. Like most forts and towers on the shore, it was built to function as part of a defence system, but such a pretty one. The architectural style is Portuguese Manueline, I will come back to in very soon.  The big question is how come now the tower is now almost on the shore? It is because after the well-known earthquake of 1755 the river was redirected.

Jerónimus Monastery

I can’t really write a lot about it, because I have never been inside the monastery itself but only the church, I visited the church because it was always free entrance. The first important thing to mention is that this is one more example of the Portuguese late Gothic Manueline style architecture, and as you can probably guess if you have seen it, it is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Church of Santa Maria has two portals, the one we can see from outside is the South portal and the Axial one that is smaller but more important, and if you compare them you can see the transition from Gothic to Renaissance. Personally I like the graceful Gothic style more because it is elegant and light. Some great examples are St. Ann’s Church in Vilnius, St. Mary’s Basilica in Krakow, and Cologne Cathedral. But, coming back to the Manueline style, it probably lasted for just around 30 years from the end of 15th century to the beginning of the 16th. It is important to mention that it was very much influenced by the age of discovery and by the coastal areas of Africa and the Far East. There are many elements taken from things used on ships and aspects of the sea, many pillars and columns are carved like twisted strands of rope, etc. It is not even necessary to go inside to appreciate this, as everything is seen from outside too.

In the church there is the neomanueline tomb of the navigator Vasco da Gama. I forgot to mention that it took around 100 years to build the monastery and church and it was started on the 6th of January 1501. I can only imagine how many more historical treasures could be found inside the monastery if I decided to buy a ticket.

Monastery

Tropical Botanical Garden

Museums and culture are always nice, but I also love to be outside and enjoy the parks in big cities! Just on the other side of the road from Jerónimus monastery, there is the Tropical Botanic Garden. It is a pity that there is an admission fee, but still I like this garden a lot! In a way, this ‘park’ is different since it has a purpose not just for leisure, but also for education and it belongs to the Tropical Research Institute.

I don’t know a lot about plants, but I do know that here in the garden there are more than just the usual ones to discover. There are many species from tropical and subtropical regions, mostly in connection with former Portuguese discoveries and colonies. There are also some beautiful tile panels, marble sculptures, and a small ‘palace’. There is the possibility for guided tours, public lectures and special exhibitions.

After the crowds of the monastery it might be just wonderful to have a peaceful wander around the tropical garden, have a snack or maybe just to find a quiet spot to read a couple pages from whatever book you are on at the moment.

Tropical Botanical Garden

Pasteis de Belem

For sure this was one of the points on my to-do list for my first time in Lisbon, but to be honest it is still on my list anytime I am in Belem. Why? I am not so sure!

Maybe I still believe that this is the best place to enjoy pasteis de nata – you can find them all over Lisbon, but nowhere quite like at Pasteis de Belem. If someone comes the first time they can queue for a really long time without knowing that inside there is lots of table space and quite often to taste it inside takes less queueing than in the take-away line.

Once you get to the end of the queue, how do you eat them? Of course with a good sprinkling of cinnamon and sugar powder! Are they vegan? NO! But you still can come and smell this secret recipe created before the 18th century. There are several stories about how the recipe is protected and that it is still kept a secret for most workers even inside this business. 

So, what is a pasteis de belem? It is the same as pasteis de nata just made in the Fabrica de Pasteis de Belem. It’s an egg custard pastry created by Catholic monks here at the Jerónimus Monastery, the Portuguese will claim these pastries as their own, but the monks originally came from France, so who knows :-). After the Liberal Revolution of 1820 the monks began selling these pastries and after the monastery was closed in 1834 the recipe was sold to the sugar refinery who opened the Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém (The descendants of the original owners still own the business).

Whether or not this is the best pasteis de nata in the world, I can’t say, but here you can really feel the history and it is no more expensive than in other places. Try a pasteis, in fact I even would highly recommend to have lunch there. Oh, and try to come after the rush hour! Then it is easier to enjoy a relaxed atmosphere without a crazy amount of tourists – maybe it can be the last little accent of your nice long day in Belem because they are open until late.

Pasteis de Belem

There are, of course, many other places that I haven’t mentioned like the National Coach Museum, Military Museum, Belem Palace, The Navy Museum, and the Belem Cultural Center. Then there are boat tours, etc. but we always choose places according to our own interests and passions. Definitely you will find great places to have lunch or dinner around exploring by yourself easily, or maybe you could just take some packed lunch and enjoy it next to Belem Tower or in the Tropical Botanical Garden.

Military memorial

Lisbon is not just about Saint Jorge Castle, Alfama, Fado and good wine, there are so many things to do and to see! The easiest way to find them is just to make friends with some locals who will tell you many stories about their motherland and will show the best places in the city!

Or come and visit us we will certainly show the way how to become a local nonlocal 😀   

What will be next? Not Alfama, not Faro, not Sintra or Cascais, next to discover is Marvila and Beato!

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