Travel Guide of Belem, Lisbon for: Altis Belem Hotel & SpaBelem, Lisbon, Lisbon District
- Historic Lisbon neighborhood far from the crowded city center
- Riverfront scenery is some of the best in the area
- Home to Pasteis de Belem, for classic pasteis de nata
- Cutting-edge museums like MAAT and Museu Colecao Berardo
- Two UNESCO heritage sites: Jeronimos Monastery and Tower of Belem
- Easily reachable by train or tram from central Lisbon
- Many of the restaurants and cafes are hyper-touristy
- Trams here or back to city center are often too crowded to board
What It's Like
History runs deep in Belem, and it does so in almost countless ways. However, if you come here thinking that the sights are all ornate churches and remnants of Portugal's imperial past, you'd be sorely mistaken. Belem's charms run far deeper than it's ostentatious monuments.
The two most famous sights in Belem are Jeronimos Monastery and the Tower of Belem. Both are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and they are -- if nothing else -- striking to behold. The monastery dates back to the 15th century, and its massive Manueline facade set against the bright blue blaze of Lisbon's skies is certainly pretty. It holds the remains of some of Portugal's most famous citizens, including the poet and writer Fernando Pessoa as well as Vasco da Gama, the invader whose seafaring led to violent Portuguese colonization of Africa and Asia. Lines can be incredibly long to enter the building, and only the main chapel is free to enter. The Tower of Belem, constructed in the 16th century, cuts a handsome figure next to the wide Tagus River. While it can be toured, it's best simply enjoyed from the outside.
Perhaps even more enticing is Belem's modern side -- well, it's comparatively more modern side. There are numerous cafes and touristy restaurants up and down the neighborhood's main streets, but the lines and crowds are 100 percent justified at only one of them: Pasteis de Belem. According to the cafe, it started operating in the early 19th century and its recipe for its most famous offering -- pateis de nata -- come directly from the monks at the monastery. Whether or not this is true, the result is a delicious and deliciously Old World experience. To beat the lines, opt for a table inside one of the labyrinthine, classically tiled rooms (tourists tend to queue up for the to-go option).
There's a lot of cool art in this part of town as well. Start with MAAT, a wildly futuristic museum that combines a repurposed electrical plant with a newly built structure that rises from the banks of the Tagus River like a mirror-tiled spaceship. Exhibitions skew modern, and strive to combine art and technology in thought-provoking ways. The top of the structure also has amazing river views. Alternatively, Museu Colecao Berardo offers a stunning collection of famous modernist work as well as temporary contemporary exhibitions. It's free to enter.
Getting to Belem is easy enough, as the neighborhood is connected by tram and train. The latter is the better option, as it runs on a reliable time table and is far less crowded. The journey should take more than 15 minutes. Trams to and from Belem are often too packed to board.
Where to Stay
To be fair: It's a rare traveler that will wind up staying in this somewhat far-flung Lisbon neighborhood. However, for travelers who prefer a slower pace and a bit more quiet, it can fit the bill. River views can be spectacular if you place your self right, so check out high-end properties like the Altis Belem Hotel & Spa.