Monastery of Jeronimo
Tower of Belem, a UNESCO world heritage site
Shakespeare in Belem
Electric Tram
Cod Salad
Pasteis de Belem
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The Dramatic, Dynamic, Diverse District of Portugal’s Capital City

Not all that long ago, visitors to Lisbon made the trek to Belem, in the south-west corner of the city, for three reasons: to see the magnificent fourteenth century World Heritage Sites of Jeronimos monastery, to see the sixteenth century Belem Tower and to sample a couple of the lauded, legendary flaky egg tarts solely available at the Pasties de Nata bakery.

But over the years, Belem has become home to a multitude of worthy attractions, drawing locals and tourists alike to this unique riverfront enclave.

You can bike over, hail a taxi, or even take a tuk-tuk. As we are big fans of the traditional Portuguese trams, we took the #28 from the landmark Commerce Square in central Lisbon. Twenty-two minutes later, we were in the heart of Belem and right in front of the notable Jeronimos monastery with its eight cloisters. Venturing forth into the block-long building, we came upon two nearly identical crypts. We were delighted to discover both that of the esteemed poet who immortalized the world-famous navigator/explorer, Vasco de Gama and that of de Gama himself.

It’s not just his countrymen who admire this brilliant man for finding a direct trade route to India, thus putting his homeland on the map. He not only brought Portugal fame and fortune but at the same time surpassed his fellow navigator/explorer, Christopher Columbus, who with the same goal as de Gama’s, seems to have sailed off in the wrong direction entirely.

Not far from the monastery is the magnificent marble Monument to the Discoveries. This extraordinary sculpture depicting the many courageous Portuguese adventurers, such as de Gama, Magellan and the others who travelled far and wide in the name of their country, stands proudly at the river’s edge.

We decided to have an early lunch at the Belem Hotel. With so many options in the neighbourhood, we were glad we made the right choice. Our grilled cod in a citrusy sauce served with perky steamed veggies was perfectly cooked and delicious. Paired with the fish, a couple of glasses of vino verde hit the spot. We shared the very best flan ever and awarded the entire meal a most deserving five stars.

It was a beautiful day, and as Belem is thankfully nice and flat (with those exquisite mosaic tiles underfoot), level with the river, and thankfully does not share the vertical topography over which we ascended and descended in the rest of Lisbon’s nearly vertical streets, we comfortably browsed the area.

First of all, we explored the impressive sprawling cultural centre with its elegant conference rooms, art galleries, bookstore and interesting shops.

We walked past the egg tart bakery with its never-ending queue (even though reasonable facsimiles of the prized little pastries can now be found in most of Lisbon’s bakeries). After ambling through one of Belem’s numerous leafy parks, we strolled along the riverfront walk (alongside the bikers, joggers, dog walkers and zipping electric scooters) and soon reached the nineteenth century red brick repurposed power station, now the Technology segment of the extraordinary museum of art, architecture, and technology, fondly known as the MAAT.

There are forty-one museums in Lisbon, the famed Gulbenkian among them, but the user-friendly MAAT is by far the darling of them all. And it’s easy to see why.

The sight of this cutting-edge, white-tiled monolith jutting out over the paved riverfront path caused us to gasp in disbelief. We cautiously joined the other curious museum goers, walking along the top surface of its organic, fluid looking roof. So clever. Well before you enter, the MAAT has stimulated the imagination and piqued your interest as to what fascinating surprises may lay within. And the visitor is not let down. On the contrary. The stark white galleries are spacious and well lit, allowing a comfortable walk around the world class art and photography installations.

We consider ourselves to be avid culture-vultures and knowledgeable museum goers and without question, the MAAT ranks up there with the cream of the crop.

Then suddenly it was late afternoon, and we were anxious to see the hip and happening district of FX Factory.

You can walk or hop on a tram to the far end (or is it the beginning?) of Belem to this newish former industrial neighbourhood. Once a bleak run-down sore spot-on Lisbon’s otherwise beautiful landscape, it’s become “the” place to be.

We wandered amongst the dozens of stalls selling Portuguese handicrafts of every description, picked up a little handmade ceramic dish for olives and their pits. Our tummies were telling us it was a long time since lunch. After checking out the scores of interesting places to eat for a likely candidate, we settled on a little outdoor bistro called simply “Dogs”.

Visions of the meat market in Guangzhou back in the 1980s crossed our minds. Understandably concerned at what the menu would have on offer, we soon found there was no need to worry. “Dogs” here referred to “hot dogs”, otherwise known as frankfurters, wieners, sausages or even bratwurst. We ordered two “hot dogs” with mustard and sauerkraut, which came with a pile of the ever-popular sweet potato chips, a seemingly Portuguese staple. It was just about twilight by the time we had our tasty “dogs” and wandered around the busy stalls and shops.

This was perfect timing (as we were told) to take the elevator up to the rooftop lounge of the nearby Rio Maravilha, a crowded three-level hangout for students and singles. Perfect. We found a seat and joined right in. It looked like everyone was sipping the same drink. Because we like to meld in with the locals wherever we go, we ordered a couple of Portico Tonicos, the cocktail of the moment, half white wine, and half tonic, garnished with cloves, lime and sprigs of coriander. As we sat and sipped beneath the imposing, very red, 25 April bridge (the spitting image of San Francisco’s Golden Gate) and enjoyed the view of the Tagus River, the QE 2 surprisingly floated into the picture. Then we saw the towering replica of Brazil’s statue of Christ the Redeemer on the other bank of the river. That’s when the whimsical, a bit naughty version at the end of our table made sense.

We enjoyed the joke, the drinks, and the ambiance as the obliging glow of the Belem sunset reflected in the water.

Truly, the most magical and indelible ending to what was a perfect day.

Text Sandi Butchkiss / Photos Cliff Shaffran