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A tour of Portugal's capital city should no doubt include the neighborhood of Belem, the port area of Lisbon where voyagers once set sail in the age of exploration. The windswept district is a seaside offering of monasteries, gardens and sweet pastries that are worth return expeditions.
House of God
Public transit line Tram 15 runs from Lisbon's inner city to the quieter region of Belem. Main Street is lined with centuries-old buildings and shops that beckon a detour. However, it is best to save shopping and eating for later and keep heading west toward Jeronimo's Monastery.
The massive retreat was built in 1502 on another kind of hallowed ground - there once stood a hermitage founded by Prince Henry the Navigator, where Vasco da Gama and his crew rested before their voyage to India. The monastery commemorates Vasco da Gama's successful voyages, and as a final honor, his tomb is located just inside the entrance. The facade of the monastery is ornate with architectural details of many saints around its arch. Yet, the interior is the truly stunning sight, a cavernous display of ornamented pillars and finely crafted stone.
A garden, a monument a tower
As travelers exit the monastery and head to the water they will first stumble across a large garden. This fountain area makes for a quick and pleasant stroll, as hedges are cut to resemble municipal coats of arms of Portugal. Just beyond it is a much more towering sight to rival the cathedral - a massive monument dedicated to Portugal's age of discovery. The bow of a gigantic three-sailed ship is rendered in stone, along with famed Portuguese historical figures, among them poets, kings and the explorers Vasco de Gama, Magellan and Cabral. The crew of navigators and artists all stand along the bow ready to make their contributions to the voyage. Travelers can turn right at the water to catch a glimpse of the Belem Tower, the fortress originally built to guard Lisbon's harbor. It has now become a symbol of the nation.
There is plenty more to see in the area of Belem, including museums and exotic gardens. However, a premier stop is the famed pastry shop nearby. The building is impossible to miss, as it is often bustling, with people ordering more than a few of the flaky treats within. The shop sells a custard pastry called nata that has become synonymous with the neighborhood, and has since made its way around the world. The interior, much like Jeronimo, is larger than anticipated - hungry patrons should head to one of the underutilized back rooms to grab an empty table.
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