My Exciting Lisboa Encounters: Exploring Belém and Delicious Local Food

Previously: My Wonderful Lisboa Encounters: A Musician Who Busks at São Jorge Castle


It was not until we saw waves and waves of party-goers all dressed up and ready in Baixa that we realized it was a Friday night! We were wandering in the neighborhood, and we didn’t know a good place to have dinner. Looking for food, one of my close friends always told me: “Just follow your nose.” To me, I’d say “Just follow the crowd.” Wherever someplace is packed with diners, it’s got to be… good.

An interesting dinner on a Friday night!

A diner joint that doesn’t look special at all outside… but with a crowd waiting for a table. We had to check it out.

Following the herd of all-dressed-up-and-fancy, we excitedly walked into the allies which later I learned was a hip dining and drinking district in the city of Lisbon. Soon enough we spotted a rather secretive door of a restaurant that had a crowd lining up outside. More than that, we found a TripAdvisor label on the door that said: “TripAdvisor recommended.” Without hesitation, we went in. Luckily, it didn’t take long for the hostess to find a table of two to squeeze us in. As we shared the table with a local couple who just visited China a month ago, we started to chat about their adventures in Shanghai over a couple of Sagres beers. One thing different they said, between dining in Europe and Asia, was that the diners usually don’t wave or holler at the servers. They will eventually attend to you.

Eating in a local diner

Enjoying local Portuguese dishes at a diner in Baixa District.

The next night we had an excursion to Sintra, which ended up with some drama (let’s talk about that later). We dragged ourselves back to Baixa at night and entered a deli that was apparently very local. They didn’t have an English menu, and the servers could not speak much English. We sat at the counter and ordered some Portuguese food by gesturing and pointing the dishes at the other table. Then I started to look around as we were waiting. I saw a few tables around me had a very diverse mix of nationalities – Europeans, Asians, and Africans were chatting in fluent Portuguese (definitely not English), and were having a good time. They seem they had known each other very well.

I always think the best way to observe people is by sitting at the bar.

It was new to me as it would be rare for me to see a group of culturally diverse people hanging out in a local language in any Asian country. I was wondering if that meant ‘international.’ Some Asian countries do not have immigration or colonial history, and it was usually difficult for the ex-pats to blend into the local society. In other words, (although I know a co-worker from the US could speak fluent Japanese), it was not a common sight in Seoul or Tokyo that a group of diners from all around the world is speaking Korean or Japanese in a local deli.
I expressed my point of view with my friend Lee later, but she had a different theory. She thought the ex-pats would not have to learn Portuguese to survive in Lisbon, had the city been multi-cultural ‘enough’ to provide an ‘international’ environment for them to blend in with just English. Well, either way, I guessed I had to let it go.

Tasting the authentic Portuguese tart at the Pastéis de Belém

Have a cup of tea and don’t forget to taste the legendary tart that comes right out of the oven.

Our quest for Portuguese cuisine continued as we were determined to try a genuine Portuguese Tart in Belem on the last day of our stay in Lisbon. By that time, we already had a couple of tarts in other cafes, and unfortunately, those tarts were just too sweet and filled with buttery custard that I didn’t really like. I almost thought those were “authentic” and if that was the case, I would have been very disappointed because I have tasted so much better ones in Macau, and feel free to check out my Macau food guide for all the amazing dishes I tried there.

I was not sure if custard was supposed to be in the recipe, and luckily my doubts and concerns were finally cleared until I had one in Pastéis de Belém. I believe the district of Belém requires no introduction as it appears in every tourist guidebook. The district is filled with iconic landmarks, as well as the famous Pastéis de Belém – one of the oldest bakeries in Portugal opened in 1837.

By 10 am, the bakery was already packed – but only on the outside. Squeezing our way through the roaring crowd we were surprised that the place was huge. We found ourselves a table and went back to the counter for the long-awaited Portuguese tarts and coffee. THAT was what I have been looking for – buttery crispy warm crust filled with rich yet light custard. Some might not like it, but it was the best tarts that I had in Lisbon.

The view of the Monument of the Discoveries with Ponte 25 de Abril in the background.

Monument of the Discoveries

Afterward, we walked on the colorfully and artistically paved pavements along the city’s waterfront, under the blue sky, towards the nearby Tower of Belém and Monasterio dos Jeronimos.

There are quite a lot of landmarks to explore, and the Monument of the Discoveries, or Padrão dos Descobrimentos in Portuguese, is a striking monument on the river bank, where ships departed to explore and trade with India and the Orient. This monument celebrates the Portuguese Age of Discovery between the 15th and 16th centuries. The monument, however, was rather new as the project started in 1939 and opened in 1958. Designed by Portuguese architect José Ângelo Cottinelli Telmo, and sculptor Leopoldo de Almeida. A number of statues are created on both sides of this giant art piece, with Henry the Navigator at the top front, and other important figures who play an important role in the Portuguese Age of Discovery, from navigators, missionaries, travelers, explorers, writers, to members of the Royal family. Can you name any of them?

MAAT (Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology)

MAAT (The Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology) Lisbon, PortugalThe MAAT, one of Lisbon’s newest museums and modern projects of architecture, isn’t just another art space. Designed by British architect Amanda Levete, this futuristic building is home to a museum of art, architecture, and technology. And a work of art itself. Located in the district of Belém, one of the most beautiful Lisbon neighborhoods, the MAAT offers also great views of the Tagus River and the city on its back.

This is actually one of my favorite things about the building: the way it connects with the river without losing sight of the city. Besides having a walk by the river and admiring the MAAT from the outside, you can also go inside and visit national and international exhibitions by contemporary artists, architects, and thinkers.

The MAAT is part of a bigger campus that includes also the old Tagus Power Station, one of the most visited museums in Portugal, and a landscape project by Lebanese architect Vladimir Djurovic. Entrance for both the MAAT and the Tagus Power Station is free of charge on the first Sunday of every month.

Popular with locals and visitors alike, the MAAT brought new life to Belém’s riverfront and it’s already an iconic symbol of Lisbon in the 21st century.

The inner cloister of the tower displaying the backside of the niche of the virgin and two turrets

Tower of Belém

It is officially called the Tower of Saint Vincent, but it is more commonly known as the “Tower of Belém”. It is a 16-century fortification that served as a point of embarkation and disembarkation of Portuguese explorers and as a ceremonial gateway to Lison.

The tower was built in the Late Gothic Manueline style, a unique Portuguese architecture genre that united artistic features from the Spanish Plateresque style, Italian urban architecture, and Flemish elements. Walking at the roof of the tower, I was quite surprised that it features whimsical, curvy, and diversified columns that reminded me a little bit of Gaudi’s work in Barcelona.


Jerónimos Monastery

The Western portal, the transition from the Gothic style to Renaissance, by sculptor Nicolau Chanterene, 1517.

The monastery is also in Late Gothic Manueline-style, housing archaeology & maritime museums in its wings. The ornaments in the cloister of the Monastery were something to see.

The construction of the monastery and church began in 1501, funded by King Manuel and it took 100 years to build. It is a symbol of the Portuguese Age of Discovery and still functions as an important religious site. While we were there, the monastery was packed with worshipers, celebrating Easter. Together with the Tower of Belém, they were both classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the year of 1983.

Next: My Whimsical Lisboa Encounters: The Sintra and How We got Left Behind

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