I’d highly recommend spending half a day at least of your visit to Lisbon exploring the Monastery of Jerónimos and the other things of interest in the neighbourhood of Belém – you could easily make it a day if you have enough time.
Unfortunately, it was raining on the day we visited in November, but as we only had one day to see the sights, we had to make the best of it. To get there, we made our way by Metro to Cais do Sodré and then outside the station, we found the tram stop for the No 15E tram, which will take you in 15-20 minutes right opposite the Monastery of Jerónimos. The journey’s a pleasant one, as you run parallel with the waterfront with glimpses of the River Tagus, between the warehouses, many now converted into shops, restaurants and museums. There were quite a few tourists on the tram, and I expect in high season it would be packed, so keep an eye on your valuables.
It’s pretty difficult to miss the Monastery of Jerónimos when you arrive, with its ornately carved stone frontage. Just follow the crowds to the entrance – this is one of Lisbon’s premier tourist attractions. To enter the church (more like a cathedral), you turn right at the entrance, past the beggars and into the enormous, vaulted nave. On left and right you’ll find the tombs of Vasco da Gama, the famous Portuguese Explorer who established a trade route to India in the 15th century and his contemporary, the writer Luís Vaz de Camões who chronicled his voyages.
The monastery was founded by Henry the Navigator in 1450 and was developed in thanks for these successful explorations from Lisbon, that established trade routes to the East and brought back wealth to Portugal and Lisbon. The monastery is known as a fine example of the Manueline style after King Manuel I, characterised by the richly detailed stone carving and Gothic, Italian and Spanish influences. There are plenty of interesting and beautiful altars and niches to admire, and intricately carved columns that soar up to the ceiling. Once you’ve seen the main church, you can decide whether to continue your visit, by buying a ticket for €6 that will take you into the monastery cloisters, enable you to see the upper level choir of the church and see an interesting exhibition about the development of the monastery over the centuries. There’s also a large open refectory on the ground floor and some confessionals to play hide and seek in. The double level cloisters were beautiful, with a central grassy area, but the rain made it all a bit cold and damp for us, although on a hot summer’s day it would be wonderfully cool and shaded.
Once you’ve completed your visit to the monastery, you can explore some of the other attractions of Belem that are close to the monastery. If you head from the monastery directly towards the river, you’ll find the Padrão dos Descobrimentos or Monument to the Discoveries, which must be one of the most famous and photographed sculpture in all of Portugal. You’ll recognise it instantly when you see it, as the group of figures, lead by Henry the Navigator, as if on the prow of a boat, gaze out from the shore towards the River Tagus and the oceans beyond. The Monument was erected in 1960 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the death of Henry the Navigator and behind him are the figures of other explorers, artists and missionaries. Take a look at the open paved area in front of the monument, where you can see on the map of the world, the destinations reached by these explorers from Lisbon and the dates they arrived there.
Not far along the shore, and within sight of the monument, you’ll find the Tower of Belem, Unfortunately, as it was a wet and windy day, we weren’t feeling inclined to get even more soaked by going along the waterfront to see the tower.
Instead we walked back along the road that the tram had brought us and made the obligatory visit to buy some of those delicious, vanilla and cinnamon custard tarts, known as Pasteis de Nata, but here known as Pasteis de Belem, after the famous bakery here. You’ll spot the place by the dark blue blinds and the crowds of people in the doorway, queuing to buy some of the famous Pasteis. We noticed a sign saying that there was seating available, and so we made our way into the warren of rooms, leading one from another, until we reached the largest room, where we found some free tables. I thought it was very pleasant and not overprices for such a tourist spot – I think our coffees and Pasteis were around €5. However, I suspect that on a weekend in summer it could be a nightmare – on the busiest days they sell up to 50,000 of those little tarts. In summer I’d buy mine and sit in the shaded park that’s between the monastery and the river to eat them.
If you have more time and better weather than we did, you can also explore the tropical gardens and the Palacio de Belem in the same neighbourhood. It’s an area that I’d have loved to have explored more fully, especially when the sun’s shining.
- Visit Lisboa – Official Tourism Website
- Go Lisbon Blog – I found lots of useful articles on things to do in Lisbon
- On this trip we stayed at the gorgeous luxury boutique Hotel Heritage Av. Liberdade, which was ideally located for sightseeing
- On this trip I used the Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Top 10 travel guide to Lisbon which is a pocket sized guide that’s ideal for sightseeing if you’re there for a short time – read my review here
- Podcast – Hostelworld Podcast – Only in Lisbon
- Podcast – Guardian Unlimited Podcast – Lisbon