With two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, a palace, a museum and a café famous for its pastel de nata, there was no way I was spending four days in Lisbon without making a day trip to its western suburb of Belém on the banks of the Tagus River. The easiest way to get to Belém is to hop on a tram, which takes half an hour from central Lisbon, and I caught the number 15 tram from Praça da Figueira, next to Rossio Square.
Antiga Confeitaria de Belém
Antiga Confeitaria de Belém is reputed to be the best place in Lisbon for pastel de nata, so it was my first port of call when I reached Belém. The cavernous café, which is just down the road from the Mosteiro dos Jerónimo, looked a little intimidating from the outside as there were lots of tourists milling around. But most of the tourists were buying pastries to take away with them so I headed inside to see if there were any spare tables and found a maze of rooms with plenty of empty tables to choose from.
The café was a wonderfully relaxed place. Old fashioned and charming, it had a red tiled floor, and blue and white tiles on the walls, and wasn’t remotely snooty or pretentious like some of these famous cafés can be. The service was good, too – quick and efficient.
I ordered the pastel de nata and when the Portuguese custard tarts arrived they were incredible – a delicious combination of warm, creamy custard surrounded by a crisp, flaky pastry. They weren’t too sweet either and there was icing sugar and cinnamon on the table for topping the tarts. It was the perfect way to start the day.
Mosterio dos Jerónimo
Having had my pastel de nata fix, I headed up the road to the Mosteiro dos Jerónimo. I wrote about the magnificent monastery in my last blog post as it was such an astonishing building I felt it deserved its own post. Then I wandered through the Praça do Imperio gardens on my way to the Torre de Belém, a 20-minute walk away.
Torre de Belém
Built on the banks of the Tagus River by King Manuel I in the early 16th century to protect Lisbon from a sea invasion, the Torre de Belém is one of Lisbon’s most iconic buildings and is featured on lots of the city’s tourist memorabilia. There was a long queue to get into the tower when I arrived, but luckily I’d bought a combined ticket at the Mosteiro dos Jerónimo, which meant I was able to bypass the long line of people and stroll right in.
The stone tower is pretty and features lots of ornate carvings, some of which are very Moorish, and the viewing platform at the top of the tower provides great views over Belém (above, with the Ajuda Palace high on the hill in the background) and the Tagus River. However it’s quite small and doesn’t take long to look around. I left feeling rather underwhelmed. It was okay but there wasn’t a huge amount to see, and I didn’t feel it justified the 40-minute round trip from the monastery.
Ajuda National Palace
Nestled in the hills overlooking Belém is the astonishing Ajuda National Palace. Built by King John VI in the early 19th century, the palace wasn’t completed as planned because the royal family had to flee the country in 1807 when Napoleon invaded, spending 14 years in exile in Brazil.
As I approached the enormous palace – a 20-minute walk uphill from central Belém – I couldn’t help thinking it looked rather shabby and in need of some love. But I was pleasantly surprised when I went inside and found it was packed with remarkable treasures. The palace was quiet and there weren’t too many other people around – I’m not sure it’s on many tourists’ radar – which meant I could take my time wandering around and looking at all there was to see. And there was a lot to see.
The palace was home to the Portuguese royal family from the mid-19th century until the end of the monarchy in 1910, and became a museum in 1968. Two floors of the palace are open to the public and there are lots of rooms – all lavishly decorated – to visit, including the king’s and queen’s bedrooms, the audience room, the music room and the throne room.
Some of the rooms are quite unusual – there’s the pink room, so-called because all the walls and furniture are pink, which is filled with porcelain figures. The oval archers room is an unusual shape and the state dining room, with its two long rows of ivory-coloured tables and chairs, is jaw-droppingly grand. State banquets are still held here and the room was laid out as though ready for an event.
Other notable rooms included the painting studio, which features beautiful wooden furniture, and the billiards room, which is home to some rather inviting wooden chairs. I loved the Ajuda Palace, it’s the epitome of a hidden gem – an all-but forgotten palace tucked away in the hills, a little rough around the edges, but a delightful experience inside.
Museum of Electricity
My last stop of the day was the Museum of Electricity, a renovated power station on the banks of the Tagus River. It’s a striking building – all industrial red brick and grey metal. I headed upstairs to the second floor of the cavernous building, which was hosting a photography exhibition. The museum often hosts art exhibitions and when I visited, it was hosting an excellent exhibition of contemporary photos from around the world that depicted sport, nature and people going about their everyday lives.
Having checked out the exhibition, I wandered into the Tejo Power Station boiler room, which features lots of wonderful metal contraptions, machines and pipes (as above) and teaches you how boiler rooms work. As I walked around I could hear the sound of the engines whirring, which made me feel as though I was inside a working electricity station.
The Museum of Electricity is home to lots of machines with detailed explanations about how they work and the role they play in making electricity. One of my favourite displays featured black and white photos of the sub-station and the various men who once worked there. The photos were fascinating and I was especially taken by one photograph of a man inside his tool warehouse. I also enjoyed an exhibition about some of the leading players in the discovery of electricity such as Thomas Edison, André-Marie Ampère and Alessandro Volta.
At one point, I followed a sign to go inside a furnace, and as I climbed the steps to do so, I could hear the furnace crank up. Inside I walked across a red hot coal walkway and everything around me was a fierce red and black. I then walked downstairs to a large room where the ashes came out from the furnace and there were models of two men collecting the half-burned coal from the funnels above.
The museum was great and one of the most curious museums I’ve visited. I was expecting a fairly conventional electricity museum and until I got there, was unaware it also hosted art exhibitions. The photo exhibition was excellent, but I really enjoyed seeing the power station and learning how they make electricity. It was a well thought-out, fascinating place.