The perfect day in Belém
January 1, 1970
by Erin Willahan
Where to go and what to eat
Belém is a parish just outside Lisbon that makes a great and accessible day trip. From Lisbon, it’s a quick and scenic 25-minute ride along the Tagus river to Belém station on the Linha de Cascais train. Belem is certainly not a well kept secret, and any day of the week the main areas can be packed with tourists and locals alike. But if done right, the pastries, tropical botanical garden, Jerónimos Monastery, Discoveries Monument, and the Torre de Belém should not be missed.
Fábrica dos Pastéis de Belém
Belém is probably best known to tourists for its delectable egg tart pastries served piping hot at the historic Fábrica dos Pastéis de Belém. Also known as pasteis de nata, these pastries were originally created by monks at the nearby Jerónimos Monastery. When the monastery closed, the owners of the Belem sugar refinery bought the recipe and opened the Pastéis de Belém in 1837. A local source told me that the recipe has since been made public (you can find the little pastries all over Lisbon) but that the owners kept secret one ingredient and one step. Urban legend or not, I have yet to find a pastel de nata quite like it anywhere else in Portugal. Where better to start the day?
For good reason, the Fábrica dos Pastéis de Belém is its own kind of pilgrimage for many and the best way to start off any trip to Belém. Don’t be scared off by the hordes of tourists and locals swarming the take-away counter. Instead, walk right into the building and sit down at one of the over 400 seats. While the inside is often as chaotic as the entrance, the best tactic is to find a seat and get one step closer to pastry heaven is to spot a table that looks about ready to leave (look for receipts on the table or people with empty plates). Allow the patrons to enjoy their time (hovering is rude!) but as soon as they get up to leave, sit down and try not to drown in the saliva of gastronomic suspense.
Contrary to the pandemonium, a waiter will quickly appear to take your order. I always order at least two pastries and an espresso to start out. The pastries arrive promptly and still hot with powdered sugar and cinnamon on the side. As you bite into the tart, the flaky shell gives way to a soft, warm, eggy interior that tastes a bit like tapioca pudding, except more smooth. Rather than devouring the other half of the tart in one bite, you can alternately use a small spoon to eat the pudding-like center, leaving just a light layer of custard on the shell. Then enjoy the flaky shell, slightly saturated by the remaining custard and let it melt in your mouth. While perhaps not as fresh as earlier in the day, another option is to go back to the shop at night. It is open until 11:00 PM in the winter and 12:00 AM in the summer, and the crowds will have cleared out entirely for the most part. Or, do what I did and have two fresh pastries in the daytime and stop back late at night for a take-away 6-pack.
Tropical Botanical Gardens
From the Pastéis de Belém, walk toward the Jerónimos Monastery. But first, take a right before crossing the street and wander into the Tropical Botanical gardens. Despite my frugal ways, I’m a sucker for nature, so I think the 2€ entrance fee is a worthwhile investment. Inside are lush, avian-riddles gardens. Littered between palm trees, cacti, hedges and ponds are roosters, ducks, and even peacocks! Wander through the Bonsai tree garden, or the little footbridges and bamboo of the Zen garden or even up to an old villa where the hedges have been trimmed in ornamental spirals. Spending a few hours meandering through the different areas of the huge garden is a pleasant day in and of itself. My recommendation would be to bring a sack lunch and enjoy a picnic in the perfect spot you discover along the way.
Where to satisfy the hunger
Indeed, there are many choices for delicious food just nearby. If you have a hankering for a burger, Honorato Burgers serves up arguably some of the best burgers in Portugal and the fresh lemonade is absolutely perfect for a hot day. Honorato Burgers is just down the street from the Pasteis de Belem but, while delicious, is almost always crowded. If you’re looking for a more relaxed environment and authentic Portuguese cuisine, I recommend walking up the street (away from the monastery). About two blocks away, along Rua de Junqueira you’ll find O Prado. The restaurant offers a selection of affordable, Portuguese cuisine. The pork and mussels is perfection, with succulent pieces of pork and mussels simmered in a rich, almost tangy sauce. Even better is my personal favorite, the seafood rice. A spattering of some of the freshest seafood Portugal has to offer sits on a bed of rich, curry-like sauce and rice. Almost like a seafood stew, the dish includes shrimp, crab, and mussels. It is quite filling and two people can share the single portion. If you are feeling a little more adventurous, try the seafood and cilantro bread soup. It is a porridge-like seafood soup served in a big metal bowl. Its thick consistency is reminiscent of mashed potatoes or Thanksgiving stuffing and it is filled with generous pieces of crab and shrimp. This one is definitely too filling for me to eat without a partner in crime, so I would recommend sharing the single portion.
If you still have room in your stomach, Santini’s ice cream is just across the street and serves some of the best ice cream this side of Florence, Italy. Normally I am more of a chocolate girl but the fruit flavors at Santini’s are too flavorful and robust to pass up. Indulge in the raspberry, you won’t regret it!
Jerónimos Monastery and Santa Maria Church
A nice walk toward the monastery and then over to the other side of the river will help digest your hearty Portuguese meal. Now classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Jerónimos Monastery is a colossal building that stretches for about a block along Praça do Império street. The nautical themed figures carved into limestone pay tribute to Portugal’s long history of oceanic exploration and can be seen all along the outside of the building.
For a fee, you can explore more of the monastery itself but if you are a cheapskate like myself, the main cathedral (the Church of Santa Maria) is free and remarkable in its own right. Inside is the the typical Catholic adornments: high, arched ceilings, stained glass, altars, etc. But wait, what is that in the corner?! The tomb of none other than Vasco de Gama, the Portugese explorer whose 15th century discovery of an ocean route between Europe and India paved the way for years of global imperialism on the Asian continent. While my travel companions were less enthused, the 9-year-old history nerd in me was ecstatic to realize that this little piece of history was right in front of me, without ropes, or guards, or entrance fees.
Monument to the Discoveries and the Torre de Belém
Outside the monastery, walk across the main road and through the tree-speckled park toward the river. To the left of the Museu Coleção Berardo (a free modern art museum, great for a rainy day!) is a tunnel that leads you across the road to the river side. Just in front of you is the massive Monument to the Discoveries, which pays homage to Portugal’s golden age of exploration nearly 500 years ago. The white sculpture looms over passersby, buskers, bicyclists and a small marina.
As you walk along the stone walk, you may hear street performers playing Brazilian music on the guitar or the clink of espresso cups at one of the many cafes along the water. Walk a little farther and you will find the Torre de Belém. To enter the famed tower does cost some money, but the landmark is just as easily enjoyed from the breezy park below. From this vantage point, the beautiful Portuguese sunset is best enjoyed as it sets over the river. And so ends a perfect day in Belém.