Lisbon - A Day in Belém

The Tower of Belém at the edges of the Tagus River in Lisbon, Portugal.
On my second day in Lisbon I took the train out to Belém, a neighborhood in the southwesternmost corner of the city known for its Age of Discovery monuments. Located right on the River Tagus, Belém was often the departure spot for Portuguese explorers leaving to "discover" new lands. Between the Tower of Belém, the Jerónimos Monastery, and some great local eats, a trip to Belém is a beautiful way to spend a day in Lisbon.

The most famous pastry shop in Lisbon, Fábrica de Pasteis de Belém, don't miss their amazing egg pastry.
Perfect Pastel de Belém, fabulous flaky pastry filled with egg custard and a burnished top.
It's always busy at Pasteis de Belém, but don't let the crowds stop you.

Before starting my sightseeing I stopped for breakfast at the famous Fábrica de Pasteis de Belém. It's an absolute Lisbon must. It was here that Portugal's signature egg tarts originated and it's the only sweet shop in the world that can officially call their pastries 'Pastel de Belém' (elsewhere they are pastel de nata.) Don't let the perpetual chaos inside deter you from a sugary treat. Get in line at the cash register to place your order, then hand your receipt to the servers at the counter who will deliver your food. The kitchen sends out wave after wave of pastry to fill demand, guaranteeing your order will be fresh and warm.

I sampled many Pasteis de Nata around the city, and all were good, but none came close to the perfection of Pasteis de Belém. Paper thin layers of buttery crisp pastry are filled with a rich, yet balanced, custard of sugar and egg. The pastry tops blister in high heat adding a toasty hint of caramel to the flavor profile. Powdered sugar and cinnamon are offered to sprinkle onto your pastry, I prefer the cinnamon. When the heat of the tart warms the cinnamon, the most irresistible fragrance of sugar and spice is released. And don't forget a coffee, an espresso or cafe con leche amounts to an ideal breakfast.

The magnificent Torre de Belem in Lisbon, Portugal.
Locals fish from the River Tagus at the base of Torre de Belém in Lisbon, Portugal.

After breakfast I walked a ways down the main street of Belém, past the Jerónimos Monastery and on to the iconic Torre de Belém. My Lisboa card included entrance and allowed me to skip the rather lengthy queue. The tower is a beautiful structure in an incredibly picturesque setting. But there's not a ton to see inside. Visitors can climb to the top of the tower, but my fear of heights and mild claustrophobia kicked in, so I settled for a few photos on the main level. My favorite part was the people watching. During my visit the sandy moat was filled with children playing, while locals fished from the tower's rocky base.

Coming soon, a walk along the Tagus, delicious lunch at the restaurant Os Jerónimos, and a tour of the Jerónimos Monastery.

A lookout for guards at the Torre de Belém in Lisbon.
Locals fish from the River Tagus at the base of Torre de Belém in Lisbon.
Children play in the sandy moat around Lisbon's Torre de Belém.
Egg tarts to die for at Pastéis de Belém in Portugal.
Don't miss Pastéis de Belém when in Lisbon, it's a must!
Pass your receipt to the server to receive your order at Egg tarts to die for at Pastéis de Belém.
A coffee pairs perfectly with a pastry at Lisbon's Pastéis de Belém.
A coffee pairs perfectly with a pastry at Lisbon's Pastéis de Belém.


Lisbon - St. George's Castle & Piri Piri Chicken

Castelo de São Jorge, or St. George's Castle, looks out over red roofed Lisbon.

After breakfast and a ride on Tram 28, my next stop in Lisbon was Castelo de São Jorge, or St. George's Castle. Situated high in the hills, the Moorish castle offers epic views of the city's red roofed buildings and the bordering River Tagus. With such great sight lines it's no wonder the location was chosen to guard the city.

An ancient, gnarled tree stands on the grounds of St. George's Castle.
Heavily fortified St. George's Castle holds a few surprises, can you spot the peacock?

Originally built by the Moors in the 11th century, the castle served as a luxurious refuge for Portuguese Royalty. In the 1500s the castle was fortified, taking on an increased military purpose. By the twentieth century, following a massive earthquake in 1755 and lots of military action, the royal palace and much of the castle was in ruins, necessitating extensive restoration work. Today, while the scale is grand, the castle feels very much like a fortress. Very little of the structure's former splendor remains.

A retired canon guards St. George's Castle and offers a great city view of Lisbon.
Reflections of Lisbon in the window of a cafe at St. George's Castle.
A view of the River Tagus from high in the hills of Lisbon, at St. George's Castle.

My favorite part of St. George's Castle was the animal life. Within the confines of the castle cats and peacocks roam free. The cats were pretty ambivalent towards humans. Most hung out along the edges of the fortress walls, while a few scavenged near the outdoor dining areas. The peacocks seemed to pop up in unexpected spots (can you spot the peacock in this photo?) but were a colorful addition to the somewhat drab stone castle. I had a bit of a laugh as one peacock was quite content to block the entrance to the women's restroom, intimidating several young ladies in need of the facilities.

Along with dozens of cats, proud peacocks roam the grounds of Lisbon's St. George Castle.
One of the many cats at St. George Castle in Lisbon.
A peacock guards the restrooms at St. George's Castle in Lisbon, Portugal.

The views are the biggest draw at the castle. I'm not sure it's a must see attraction unless you are a military or history buff. I enjoyed my visit but you can also get great views from many of the miradors scattered around Lisbon. Entry is discounted if you have purchased a Lisboa Card from the tourism center, otherwise the castle costs 7,50 euros for an adult. I visited in the early afternoon on a Monday and the entrance queue was quite long.

Climb the old stone steps to get the best views at Lisbon's St. George's Castle.
Red roofs peak through the fortifications of St. George Castle in Lisbon, Portugal.
A fantastic view of hilly Lisbon from the top of St. George's Castle.

I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around Lisbon, hopping on and off the tram to take photos. Conveniently, Tram 28 ran right past my guesthouse with stops just a block away in both directions. Also steps away was Casa da India, where I sampled one of Lisbon's many signature dishes, piri-piri chicken.

Spit roasted and served with tangy pepper sauce, Casa da India's half chicken was pretty good. The white meat was a little dry (but the dark drumstick was great) and the french fries merely average. Both were greatly improved by the addition of spicy chili oil. The best thing on the plate might have been the rice, which was speckled with carrots and greens, and (best of all) absorbed some of the salty chicken drippings. Factor in a mini bottle of Vinho Verde, and dinner was a success.

A half chicken with rice and french fries at Casa da India in Lisbon, Portugal.
Make sure to request some Piri Piri sauce to accompany your chicken at Casa da India in Lisbon.
I didn't have any trouble, but keep an eye out for pick pockets on Lisbon's Tram 28.
The view from the balcony at my guesthouse in Lisbon, Portugal.
Chicken is grilled at Casa da India in Lisbon's Chiado neighborhood.
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