Mosteiro dos Jerónimos

Top choice in Belém

Portugal, Lisbon, Belem district, Hieronymites Monastery (Mosteiro dos Jeronimos), Santa Maria church

Getty Images/ RM

Belém’s undisputed heart-stealer is this Unesco-listed monastery. The mosteiro is the stuff of pure fantasy: a fusion of Diogo de Boitaca’s creative vision and the spice and pepper dosh of Manuel I, who commissioned it to trumpet Vasco da Gama’s discovery of a sea route to India in 1498.

Wrought for the glory of God, Jerónimos was once populated by monks of the Order of St Jerome, whose spiritual job for four centuries was to comfort sailors and pray for the king’s soul. When the order was dissolved in 1833, the monastery was used as a school and orphanage, until about 1940.

Entering the church through the western portal, you’ll notice tree-trunk-like columns that seem to grow into the ceiling, which is itself a spiderweb of stone. Windows cast a soft golden light over the church. Superstar Vasco da Gama is interred in the lower chancel, just left of the entrance, opposite venerated 16th-century poet Luís Vaz de Camões. From the upper choir, there’s a superb view of the church; the rows of seats are Portugal’s first Renaissance woodcarvings.

There’s nothing like the moment you walk into the honey-stone Manueline cloisters, dripping with organic detail in their delicately scalloped arches, twisting auger-shell turrets and columns intertwined with leaves, vines and knots. It will simply wow. Keep an eye out for symbols of the age, such as the armillary sphere and the cross of the Military Order, plus gargoyles and fantastical beasties on the upper balustrade.

If you plan to visit both the monastery and the Museu Nacional de Arqueologia, you can save a little by purchasing a €12 admission pass valid for both.