Discover Tales of Exploration and Epic Custard Tarts

By Tom Merchant

There are plenty of great reasons to visit Lisbon. There are, of course, the classic tourist drawcards of this romantic city – the winding streets traversed by ancient trams, the historic buildings, fine views across the Tagus, amazing food including the fabled custard tarts, art and friendly welcoming people.

painting 3 pieces

And then there is more, much more. This is one of the world’s oldest cities and history can be found at every turn. The perfect spot for a city break.

In this post, I’ll focus on my favourite district of Lisbon and include a few QuizTrail trivia questions to entertain you. Answers at the end!

Like Rome, Lisbon is built on seven hills with views in all directions, but getting your bearings can be confusing at first. A Hop On Hop Off tourist bus is a good way to orient yourself and to drive by if not actually set foot in all the must-see spots. The HoHo busses are well organised with four different colour-coded routes – red, blue, green and orange.

rail station
A modernist suburban train station seen from a tourist bus.

I enjoyed the red route best, travelling alongside the river to Belém with its tree-lined plazas and open spaces, a real contrast to the bustling city centre. Also, one of the stops is close to the most famous custard tart shop in town!

In the 15th century a handful of seafaring powers began to explore the world. In this Age of Discovery, Lisbon’s shipyards and harbours were located in Belém and, from here, Portuguese explorers set out to discover sea routes to all corners of the world.

Lisbon is proud of its glorious past, commemorated by the historic monuments more evident in Belém than any other district of the city.

Belem Tower afternoon
Late afternoon sun on the Tower of Belém

Let’s start our trail on the waterfront at the picturesque Tower of Belém. Built between 1514 and 1520 in the reign of Manuel I with artillery pieces on two levels, its main purpose was to defend the Tagus estuary. This architectural jewel looks especially good as the sun goes down over the sea beyond the river mouth. The interior is perhaps not worth the long wait in the queues that form here most days.


Over the centuries since the Tower was built, the river has shifted position back and forth. So here’s the first trivia question for you: When the tower was constructed it was… a) in the middle of the river b) on this bank c) on the opposite bank

Monument 2Heading east along the river past the yacht basin and the brick banded lighthouse, you’ll soon encounter the Padrão dos Descobrimento. This monument on the riverside features statues of the early explorers led by Prince Henry the Navigator. Born in 1394, son of King John 1, he became patron of Portuguese exploration. The big step at that time was to venture south past Cape Bojador which lies on the African coast roughly opposite the Canary Islands. The cape’s name in Arabic is Abu Khatar, meaning the Father of Danger, which gives you a sense of what these early explorers faced.

Prince Henry promoted the design of a ship that could sail the world’s unexplored oceans. The caravel was the result; a small, agile sailing ship with lateen sails that enabled it to sail close to the wind. Bartolomeu Dias, Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus all used caravels in their voyages of discovery to the Americas, Africa and to the most prized goal of all: India.

Discoverers map

Turn away from the river and you’ll see the Jerónimos Monastery across the busy main road and rail line. Along with the Tower of Belém, the monastery is a Unesco World Heritage Site. Walk over to the underpass, across the paved map of the world bristling with images of explorers’ caravels.

2. The Treaty of Tordesilas in 1494 divided the world outside Europe into two halves for conquest by Portugal and which other maritime power? a) England b) Castile c) France

You emerge from the underpass into the Jardim da Praça do Império, one of Europe’s largest plazas. It abounds with symmetrical water features, with an enormous fountain as the centrepiece.

Beyond the garden is the fabulous Jerónimos Monastery, originally a modest building closely associated with the seafarers. Vasco da Gama spent his last night ashore here before embarking on his voyage to India. The church was the place for sailor’s wives and mothers to gather and pray for the safe return of their loved ones.

Jeronimos Monastery

The monastery was enlarged and enhanced, appropriately with money from a 5% tax on imported spices. It wasturned into this spectacularly ornate building with a rich architectural style and extensive complex stone work. The design incorporates maritime elements and objects brought back to Portugal from overseas explorations.

3. This architectural style later became known as… a) Manueline b) Mudejar c) Matalan

If the queues put you off, just pay a visit to the church where entrance is free and the queues are shorter.

At the western end of the monastery, you’ll find the Maritime Museum (Museu da Marinha). This is a treasure trove of artefacts from Portugal’s glorious seafaring past. If you like models of boats and even historic aircraft, don’t miss it!

Now walk east, past Starbucks on your left to Pasteis de Belém, the world renowned pastry shop. This is the traditional home of the delicious custard tart known as the Pastel de Nata. Bustling and chaotic and often with a queue outside this is THE place for coffee in Belém. Forget Starbucks just this once!

Pastel de nata

It’s said that only four people know the recipe of these sweet, perfect treats. The recipe has not been written down and the four people never travel together in case of a catastrophic accident.

While we might not have the recipe, we do know that the tarts have a filling made of egg yolks. The bakeries that prepared Pastel de Nata have traditionally been located close to monasteries, benefitting from the monks giving away the yolks of eggs.

4. What did the monks do with the whites of so many eggs? a) used them as a base for paint for manuscripts, b) used them to starch religious clothes c) turned them into alcohol

If you walk up the narrow street next to the Pasteis you’ll find the Botanical Gardens. This is a peaceful place with streams, ducks and geese and an array of tropical plants.

Or you could continue east and find the Coach Museum (the Museo Nacional dos Coches). Here you can see an extensive collections of beautifully decorated royal horse-drawn carriages. Used by royalty and a succession of Popes this truly is a one-off exhibition.

There’s a convenient footbridge nearby which will take you back over the main road and railway to the waterfront and the local ferry station.

Tejo Power stationUpstream, beyond the park, the beautifully restored Tejo Power Station is a red brick and steel temple of the industrial age. Used to generate electricity from 1909 to 1972 it now functions as an electricity museum complete with the original machinery. It’s a gorgeous building – they don’t build industrial plants like this these days – and is one of the most popular museums in the country.

5. What is Tejo? a) a unit of electricity b) the name of the architect c) the name of the river


Just beyond the power station a far more modern building lies languidly beside the river. This is MAAT, the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology.

This is the latest cultural project for Lisbon, opened in October 2016. Designed by Amanda Levete, the British architect responsible for the Exhibition Road Quarter at the V&A in London, it is a stunning creation. The undulating shape is completely covered in 15,000 glazed tiles which gives the impression of a scaly sea creature just emerged from the river. The riverside promenade seems to rise up to enclose the humped shaped and allows visitors to stroll up and over the paved roof.


There is a sweeping view from up there. To the right the river meets the Atlantic Ocean and to the left the riverside walkway draws you towards the city centre and the towering 25 de Abril Bridge.

This bridge, initially named Salazar Bridge, dominates many of the views from the hills of Lisbon.  It was inaugurated in August 1966, and a lower railway deck was added in 1999. With a total length of 2,277 meters, it is the 20th longest suspension bridge in the world. Because of its overall appearance and similar colouring, it is often compared with the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

6. How do they compare in length? The Lisbon bridge is a) longer b) shorter c) virtually the same.

The 25 de Abril Bridge was built by the same company (American Bridge Company) that built the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge (but not the Golden Gate Bridge), explaining its close similarity in appearance with the Bay Bridge.

Gazing peacefully at the scene from across the river is the monument depicting Christ with arms raised, blessing the city. Known locally as Cristo Rei, it was inspired by the Christ the Redeemer statue erected in 1931 on a mountain top overlooking Rio de Janeiro. Cristo Rei was built after WWII in thanks for Portugal escaping the horrors of the conflict. After being consecrated in 1959 it has become a focus for pilgrims.

The statue in Rio is 30m tall on an 8m pedestal atop a 700m high mountain. Cristo Rei is located on a much taller pedestal but only 133m above the river.

7. How tall is the figure itself? a) 15m b) 28m c) 20m

That brings my trail along the river to a close. There is much more of Lisbon; I’ll feature other districts of the city in future posts. Meanwhile, plan a trip and be sure to bring your camera. Any time of year is great here. I’m sure you’ll find hidden gems – let me know the secrets and share your photos:

25 April Bridge

Trivia answers: 1a,  2b,  3a,  4b,  5c,  6b,  7b.

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