Before I went to Portugal in March 2020, I made a list of all the things I wanted to see while I was there – as I usually do. One of the places that I wanted to visit was Belem while I was in the city of Lisbon. I decided I’d go there because it was listed as something everyone does on all the websites I found while researching prior to my trip. Unfortunately, I hate to tell you, I thought Belem was incredibly overrated and here’s why.
When I read about Belem, a district of Lisbon, I thought it sounded neat because what’s not neat about a little district on the water with a few cool buildings to see and maybe some history to learn?
Nothing, right? It sounds pretty great.
I thought I might learn something about the history of the country. Instead I found a bunch of structures to look at, or old religious sights that are meaningless to me. I also didn’t think it was that far from the city center.
There seemed to be a few cool things to see there such as Belem Tower, Jerónimos Monastery, and the Monument to the Discoveries. To be honest, I was really going to try authentic Pasteis de Belem, Portugal’s traditional custard tart, so I could say that I had the actual Pasteis de Belem and not just regular Pasteis de Nata.
Pro-tip: If someone ever tries to sell you Pasteis de Belem anywhere outside of Belem, don’t buy it because it’s only Pasteis de Belem if you get it in Belem.
Once I got off the train in Belem, I’d decided to walk to Belem Tower and work my way back to the train. Belem Tower is a former defensive structure built between 1514 and 1520 in a Manuelino style of architecture, a type of architecture known for incorporating maritime elements and the discoveries of Vasco da Gama and Pedro Álvares Cabral. Built by the architect Francisco de Arruda, it was used originally to defend the city and later it was a customs house.
Now, it’s just another tourist attraction.
The outside architecture was decorated with animals like rhinoceroses carved with meticulous detail into the limestone that Belem Tower is built from. You can tour the tower (which has 5 floors) and maybe I should have, but I did not feel like waiting on that line when there were other things I wanted to see in the area, like the Monument to the Discoveries, which was my next stop.
My impression of Belem Tower: Honestly, I thought the tower was pretty boring. Don’t get me wrong: it’s pretty to look at. For five minutes. But I didn’t think it was worth the 15 minute train and 10 minute walk.
That was the first strike on my trip out to Belem.
The next stop on my self-guided tour of Belem was a five-minute walk from Belem Tower.
After I’d taken about 100 photos of Belem Tower, I found myself at the Monument to the Discoveries. The Monument to the Discoveries was unveiled in 1960 to commemorate the fifth centenary of one of Portugal’s great discoverers, Prince Henry the Navigator. It’s made of concrete and leiria stone and towers over tourists standing 170 feet tall and 164 feet in diameter. To me, the monument looked as if it were designed to resemble several ship masts and depictions of Portuguese explorers summiting a mountain.
After taking another few dozen pictures of this landmark (because there is nothing else to do here, for real), I headed to an exquisite structure across the street.
The Jerónimos Monastery, surrounded by vast gardens, is towering and grand and you can’t miss it. It was built by the architect Diogo de Boitaca in a stone called Lioz to commemorate the return of the explorer Vasco da Gama from India. Construction on the Manueline style building began in January 1501 but it wasn’t finished until the 17th Century. It stretches for several blocks with multiple towers, a dome at its center, and detailed arches all along the front.
Inside the walls of this impressive structure is the Church of Santa Maria, which houses the tomb of Vasco da Gama, as well as the two-story cloisters.
I decided not to pay to go in because I would’ve been paying simply to take a photo of Vasco da Gama’s tomb and that didn’t seem worth it (remember, I’m not an art museum person).
The last stop on my tour de Belem that sunny and mild afternoon was Pastéis de Belem. I was relieved. I could head back to the city center afterwards and continue my discovery of Portugal with things that I thought were actually worth discovering.
I’d actually tasted the Pastéis de Belem about a month before traveling to Portugal as fate would have it. It was one of my colleague’s birthdays and for a celebration treat, I found these tarts (though they were called Pastéis de Nata since we weren’t in Belem proper) in a bakery in New York City called Joey Bats Cafe because I was told these were his favorites. So as with most things, I wasn’t terribly impressed when I arrived at Pastéis de Belém and tasted the original version because I couldn’t tell the difference between theirs and what I’d eaten in New York City.
The history of these delicious little tarts dates back to the early 17th century when nuns and monks would bake the Pastéis de Nata inside the Jerónimos Monastery. To raise money after the Liberal Wars of 1820, monks began selling the tarts to the nearby sugar refinery. Once the monastery was shut down in 1834, the monks sold the recipe to the refinery and in 1837 the owners opened Pastéis de Belem and the descendants of the original owners still own it today. At least that’s pretty neat!
The line will most likely look terrifying long when you arrive, but fear not, it doesn’t take long for them to serve people. Although I had 20 people in front of me, I was in and out in 10 minutes.
They are a well oiled machine.
I enjoyed my tart thoroughly but to be honest, it didn’t taste much different from the ones I’d had the day before in Lisbon or even the ones that I’d had in New York City (Joey Bats does have some of theirs imported from Portugal after all!).
If you’re going to Belem for the Pastéis de Belem, I’d beg you to reconsider and simply enjoy the tarts that you’ll find in Lisbon proper. They’re just as good. I think making the trip all the way out to Lisbon solely for the Pastéis de Belem is a colossal waste of time.
Overall, I felt like it was a waste of half a day. I didn’t need to see the inside of Belem Tower to know it was overrated. It was just a tower. Sure, it had meaning to the people of Portugal but it wasn’t meaning that was going to translate globally, like, say, visiting Auschwitz.
Had this district not been a train ride away from Lisbon’s City Center, I probably wouldn’t have been so disappointed. But when I’m leaving a bustling city and all I’m presented with are monuments, I’m going to be pretty bummed that I left the city.
From my trip to Belem, I realized, once and for all, that seeing pretty buildings, much like seeing pretty sunsets, in person isn’t worth it for me, especially if they’re located a considerable distance from my hostel. It’s not why I travel.
In the end, I don’t think making this trip out to Belem enhanced my trip to Portugal. I say this time and time again when it comes to things like museums (specifically art museums) but it’s important that when you carve out the time to travel that you stay true to yourself and your interests. Yes, it’s important to try new things, but try them because you want to, not because it’s just another box to tick on your to-do list that you found on the internet.
My final advice: When you travel, be curious, stay open, but be true to yourself and if you know what you don’t like, don’t force yourself to do something just because everyone else has done it. Because as you may find out, some sites, like Belem, are overrated.