When the hustle and bustle of Lisbon’s city center gets too much for people, the locals pack a lunch of Ruby Porto, Evora cheese, and acorns for some reason, then head out to the beautiful and relaxing Belém District. It’s one of the best parts of Lisbon, featuring outstanding parks, tree-lined plazas, and green open spaces all along the Tejo Estuary.
Technically still within the confines of Lisbon city limits, the Belém District is nowhere near the touristy city center. Sure, Belém looks close on your Google Maps app, but it’s shockingly far away when you enlarge that map to actual size.
Your hotel concierge will talk about the area like it’s “right over there” but, remember, the Portuguese use the Metric System. For those using Imperial, the phrase converts to “get a rental car.”
The Belém District is so far away, we half-expected to go through customs.
Not content to fritter away any more time gawking at Lisbon’s delightful Old Town, we made our way southwest to the city’s waterfront area on Lime Scooters. Why? Because we’re spontaneous, fun-loving and free-spirited folks who might’ve been day-drinking at the time. Regardless of the wisdom of this decision, we nonetheless hopped on our electric scooters and sped off in the direction of the Belém District.
Soon enough, however, the constant pounding of this ancient city’s cobblestone roads and calçada sidewalks made our choice of these tiny-tired, spine-crushing sleds regrettable to say the least. Worse, even cruising along at a semi-blistering 13-mph pace, the 22-mile trek took so long that we finally gave up and called an Uber.
When our driver arrived, we tossed the scooters into a nearby dumpster and completed our journey to Lisbon’s riverfront region, an area best-known as the place where the Portuguese left Lisbon by the shipload.
The Portuguese have a long, proud tradition of leaving Lisbon.
Historically, lots of people have wanted to leave Lisbon. People like fleeing autocrats, retreating Spanish and French troops, and Portugal’s highly skilled professional class.
But the people who most wanted to leave Lisbon were the 15th Century excitement junkies who believed that exploring uncharted oceans—under the constant threat of being torn limb-from-limb by giant sea monsters—was somehow preferable to staying in Lisbon where you’d only have to deal with boring cockroach infestations and rats the size of rabbits.
Belém even has a monument to the Portuguese’s urge to leave Lisbon.
Along the banks of the Tagus River stands the majestic Padrão dos Descobrimentos monument which celebrates Portugal’s “Age of Discovery.” This weirdly shaped collection of rock honors the 15th and 16th Century Portuguese navigators who sailed off into the Great Unknown looking to map maritime routes and find trading partners.
The success of their explorations soon encouraged other European powers to set off on their own Age of Discovery (a time known to the indigenous peoples of Africa, Asia, and the Americas as “The Age of Invasions By Previously Unknown Europeans”).
Though the Portuguese weren’t specifically looking for new territories to conquer and subjugate like some other European powers—cough! Britain! cough!—they weren’t exactly saints themselves. Some of their Merchant Class dabbled a bit in Ye Olde Slave Trade until it was abolished by the Marquês de Pombal in 1761 (a hundred years before America).
In the eyes of history, though, the Portuguese came out of this “Golden Age Of Grand Theft Larceny” period looking a bit better than did the British, Spanish, French, and Dutch. Those greedy, empire-building dickheads expanded their wealth by colonizing the crap out less developed countries and spreading “European culture” such as chronic syphilis.
The Portuguese didn’t want to leave Lisbon, they wanted to leave Lisboa.
The name Lisbon is spelled “Lisboa” practically everywhere and is pronounced Luzboa (or “Leeshj-boa” as the locals sort of say it). The city’s current moniker comes from a centuries-long game of Grapevine or Telephone played by the ancient Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, and Moors, each of whom bastardized the city’s spelling according to their own messed up rules of language. Weirdly enough, Lisbon’s original name was “Cleveland.” Go ahead, Google it, I dare you.
Before you can leave Lisbon, you have to live there, first.
This fertile riverfront delta has been occupied by human beings since as far back as the Iron Age (circa 1200-500BCE). Before that, the area was mainly inhabited by angry raccoons and a weird guy named “Liam” who liked to piss off raccoons.
Lisbon is located near the mouth of the Tagus River and, as such, it made a perfect shipping port for early traders who were doing business with raccoons across the whole Iberian Peninsula, and all of Europe beyond that.
Not everyone who leaves Lisbon did it because they wanted to.
The Celts (no relation to the basketball team) stumbled across the region in 1000 BCE. After “encouraging” the indigenous peoples to skedaddle or die in a horrible bloodbath, the Celts hung out there for the next twelve hundred years. They only left around 200 BCE when the Romans unexpectedly showed up in full-force and told the outmatched Celts to “not let the door hit ’em in the ass” on the way out.
After a few hundred years, the Romans got booted, themselves. Lisbon was then variously occupied by a parade of different barbarian tribes including the Vandals and Visigoths—future name of my thrash-metal band—who passed through the region on their European tour.
While the Vandals just went around painting obscene glyphs and profanity on buildings and overpasses, the Visigoths were instrumental in the fall of the Roman Empire. Often called “Goths” for short, they wore all-black clothing and sulked around bemoaning the mainstream popularity of Gregorian chants.
Some of those who left Lisbon kept coming back.
Around 700 CE, some adventurous Muslims—mostly Berbers and Arabs—traveled up from North Africa and took over the city, but without being total jerks about it. They let everybody continue practicing whatever weird cultural or religious rituals they’d always done, so most Lisbonians didn’t get super-bent about having been invaded and made to eat hummus.
Unfortunately, a group of passing Norwegian Crusaders (yes, they had those apparently) saw this “multicultural tolerance” nonsense and were all like, “Nogen waygen, brogen!”
Enraged by “respect for other peoples,” the Norwegians then invaded, conquered, and held Lisbon for a full three years (good job, Jørgen!) before the Moors took it back.
The Moors lost it again when a set of non-Norwegian crusaders arrived in 1147 CE as part of the “Reconquista” which was not, as I had assumed, the “Coachella” of its time. The place has been mostly Catholic ever since (if you don’t count all the atheists).
Lisbon built a huge home for people who stayed (sorry, dudes only).
You practically can’t miss the former Jerónimos Monastery, a massively long, richly ornate Late Gothic structure which started construction in 1501 and, understandably, took a full century to complete.
For 200 years, the Order of St. Jerome (not one of The Jackson 5) was a bros-only sect of monks aligned with the Knights Templars who provided “assistance” to hunky, sex-starved Crusaders that had just spent months at sea—you know…I would guess.
In 1833, the monastery was given a good power-washing and disinfecting (I hope) before it was given over to a charitable organization to manage.
When Portugal joined the EU in 1985, the welcome ceremonies were held in the monastery’s cloister, because it’s wicked fancy—chandeliers and shit.
Belém’s monuments and gardens will make you want to stay.
Beyond just historic buildings and broad avenues, the Belém District has tons of beautiful gardens, like the Jardim do Ultramar, Jardim Vasco de Gama, Afonso de Albuquerque Square, Jardim Agricola Tropical, and Praça do Império. So don’t come here during pollen season.
These many gardens in the Belém District cover a large portion of the waterfront area, encircling the buildings of the Rua de Belém, and into the gardens around the bright pink Palace of Belém (not shown).
Between the monastery and the river lies the Praça do Império (or Imperial Garden), an illuminated central fountain surrounded by 36,000 square feet of picturesque gardens and pathways. It’s the perfect place to hang out, read a book, or have a clandestine meeting with an Interpol agent. For a little excitement, put on dark sunglasses and a trench-coat, leave a leather briefcase unattended on a park bench, and then watch the fireworks after which they’ll cart you off to prison.
The Belém District’s egg tarts are worth coming back for.
As I’ve said before, the native food of Lisbon isn’t the greatest, so it’s easy to leave room in your stomach for Lisbon’s famous egg tarts from Pastéis de Belém, a pastry shop located next door to the Jerónimos Monastery (where the original tarts were first created in 1837).
These delicious egg pastries have a slightly crispy and light flaky crust with a sweet but a still pretty egg-y custard-like insides. If you don’t like the taste of eggs, you won’t like the taste of these tarts—but we do, so we did.
Those who stayed in Lisbon risked the Curse of Belém Tower.
Belém Tower—or more accurately, the Tower of Saint Vincent—is located in the Belém District kinda in the middle of the Tagus River and looks like something straight out of Camelot. The guy who designed it, King John II, was worried that Lisbon’s defenses weren’t up to snuff, and intended this fort to help defend the city. Yet before he could start construction, he up and died.
The next king picked up the project and actually built the tower using leftover rock from the Jerónimos Monastery, finally completing it two years before he, too, kicked the bucket. Coincidence? Perhaps.
But, over the following decades and without exception, each and every Portuguese monarch who ruled over the town and tower, ultimately died—that’s just a cold, hard empirical fact. So is the tower cursed by the souls of long dead kings? Or was something more nefarious going on? Neither, healthcare just really sucked back then.
Belém is all the escape you’ll need.
After a few hours basking in peaceful serenity, you’ll be ready to head back to Lisbon for some food and Fado.
But if you have more time, you can keep on going for another 20 miles or so and experience all the splendor of the Portuguese Riviera, Portugal’s affordable answer to the French one.