Day 3: Belém, Ajuda and Bairro Alto
On the third of these 4 days in Lisbon, we’ll venture away from the city center and explore the historic riverside suburbs of Belem and Ajuda. We’ll then come back to the city center and visit the most charming spots of the Bairro Alto (Upper Town), a neighborhood that we just got a small taste of during the busy first day.
Morning in the Market
Since it is at its liveliest during the morning hours, I recommend starting day 3 in Lisbon with a quick visit to the Mercado da Ribeira in Chiado (Tuesday-Saturday 5am-2pm). Lisbon’s central market hosts inside its massive interior dozens of your usual market stalls, flower shops, local and seafood restaurants, drinking holes and a buzzing atmosphere during the morning hours. It’s a good opportunity to buy some snacks for the day and there might even be some live music upstairs.
#15 Tram to Belem
Just across the market is the Cais do Sodre rail station, where you can catch the #15 tram all the way to Belem (you can also catch this line from Praca da Figueira or just in front of the arch of Praca do Comercio).
The lovely riverside suburb of Belem is a 20-minute ride from the historic city center. A very popular tourist destination, Belem boasts a number of iconic Lisbon landmarks as well as museums (which we usually skip, as I mentioned in the intro). Belem was the site from which Vasco da Gama set sail to India in the 15th century, a journey which pretty much fired Portugal’s magical era known as the Golden Age. But with all due respect to the famous explorer, Belem’s main draw these days is a legendary cafe.
Breakfast in Belem
Be sure to leave some room in your stomachs because you simply cannot miss the first real stop of the day. Get off the #15 tram just in front of the Presidential Palace and say hello to the serious-looking guards before heading to Pastéis de Belém. If you’re not sure where it is, just follow the crowds.
This is without a doubt a culinary experience that you don’t want to miss. This special cafe has somehow mastered the art of making the pastel de nata – a custard-filled tart that you can’t stop eating. These tarts are ubiquitous in Portugal but they taste nothing like they do here. Perhaps it’s because Pastéis de Belém has been around since 1837!
Don’t be intimidated by the waves of people marching towards the cafe or by a number of patrons inside. Though it seems small when you first enter, the cafe is huge when you discover all the inner dining halls they managed to score over the years. Oh, and the coffee’s pretty damn good too.
Mosteiro dos Jeronimos
You might have some feelings of guilt for having a few delicious custard-filled tarts but the good news is that we have some walking to do. From the cafe, head across the street to Mosteiro dos Jeronimos – a 16th-century monetary erected in celebration of Vasco de Gama’s return from his voyage to discover a path to the Orient. The great explorer’s tomb lies inside the monastery but do take the time to admire the intricate Gothic-style exterior architecture of this UNESCO World Heritage Site before heading inside (free).
Walk down to the banks of the Rio Tejo via the leafy grounds of the Praca do Imperio and head to Padrao dos Descobrimentos – an iconic Lisbon landmark commemorating Prince Henry the Navigator. You can pay a few Euros and climb to the top of the monument but in any case, you can catch great views from this spot across the river to the Ponte de 25 Abril – the ‘Golden Gate Bridge’ lookalike, and the Torre de Belem – our next stop.
Torre de Belem
The riverside area makes for a lovely stroll, especially in the direction of the Tower of Belem. Built during the early part of the 16th century, the tower’s purpose was to defend the strategic mouth of the River Tejo and was later used as a prison for political rivals. You can admire the tower’s architecture and grandeur from the outside but if you fancy a look inside, check the opening hours and have €5 ready.
Lunch in Belem
For lunch, head to Rua Vieira Portuense – a lovely pedestrian street that’s lined with excellent Portuguese restaurants and orange trees. After checking out a few menus, we settled for Floresta de Belem and treated ourselves to a delicious local lunch consisting of fish, potatoes, and steamed vegetables. We washed everything down with a bottle of white wine and paid less than €30 for the both of us!
Jardim Botânico da Ajuda
We wrapped up our visit to the suburbs with a 15-minute walk up the hill to the botanical gardens of Ajuda (€2). This is one of Lisbon’s most tranquil and historical gardens, built in the 18th century and not frequented by too many tourists who seem to be turned off by the steep hike to its entrance.
The gardens are divided into eight manicured sections and boast water fountains, trees from around the world, terraces, and great views. This is a good spot to relax before catching the #18 tram from just outside the garden’s entrance back to the city center.
Get off the #18 tram just in front of the Mercado da Ribeira, where we started the day, and catch the Elevador da Bica to the get to the Upper Town (€3.50 return or free with the Lisbon Card). This is another iconic Lisbon lift, famous for its arched entrance and its steep ascent via the Bica neighborhood. We departed midway through the climb to the Bairro Alto to explore the narrow side streets on either side of the lift. This place has a lot of character to it and makes for a pleasant walk to our next stop.
Miradouro de Santa Catarina
This was by far our favorite spot in Lisbon and I recommend finishing your day at this lookout to watch the sunset. Surprisingly, for such a cramped part of the city, making it to Santa Catarina is a treat for the eyes, with wide open spaces and panoramic views to the city lying below. You can chill in the small park or grab a seat in the kiosk and enjoy the great atmosphere over a fresh glass of Sagres.
The streets around Santa Catarina are also worth a stroll, dotted with impressive houses and their tiled facades along with rows of orange trees.