by Jessica Infantino Trumble
A day spent in Belém is a journey back to a time when Portugal ruled the seas. This peaceful little suburb of Lisbon played a huge role in the Age of Discovery, as it was the starting point for explorers like Bartolomeu Diaz, Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan. Their journeys literally spanned the globe, staking claims in Africa, Asia, India and South America along the way. Even Columbus landed in Lisbon before returning to Spain after his famous 1492 voyage.
With boatloads of history and impressive panoramic views, Belém warrants at least a half-day of sightseeing, or longer if you have an appetite for discovery.
How to Get There
The easiest way to get to Belém from downtown Lisbon is to hop on tram #15E. You can pick it up at Praça da Figueira, Praça do Comércio or the Cais Sodré rail station, and in about 30 minutes it will drop you off right in front of the Jerónimos Monastery. Just be sure to not get off at the first “Belém” stop, rather wait for the next one named “Mosteiro Jerónimos”. From there most of the main sights will be within walking distance.
Alternatively, you can also take bus #714 from Praça da Figueira or Praça do Comércio, or bus #728 from Praça Comércio or Cais Sodré. When you’re ready to head back to Lisbon, catch the tram or bus from the same stop in front of the monastery (they come about every 10-15 minutes). Both are covered if you have a Lisboa Card, otherwise just pay the driver when you get on.
The Lisboa Card also includes free entry to many sights in Belém including the Belém Tower and Jerónimos Monastery and offers discounts on several others. If you plan on doing a lot of sightseeing or using a lot of public transportation in Lisbon, then the card is a good bet. If your usage will be light, then you can probably skip it.
What to See
Belém offers a good mixture of museums and monuments depending on your preference. Here are just a few of the top highlights.
You can’t miss the impressive Discoveries Monument soaring 171 feet high on the waterfront. Built in 1960 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Prince Henry the Navigator’s death, the monument immortalizes Henry, placing him at the helm of the ship. He’s followed by 32 other larger-than-life figures who also played a role in the Age of Discovery – monarchs, explorers, cartographers, artists, scientists, missionaries and the only female, Henry’s mother Felipa.
As you stand at the base of the monument, look around and take in the view anchored by the 25th of April Bride and Monument to Christ in the distance. Then look down at the inlaid marble map in the square in front of the monument that chronicles the expeditions of Portugal’s explorers.
Next head to the Belém Tower, which was built in 1515 as a fortress and watchtower to guard Lisbon’s harbor. The tower quickly became a symbol of the Age of Discovery since it was the last thing explorers would see as they embarked on their journeys and the first sign of home when they returned.
The exterior is an ostentatious example of Manueline architecture, named after King Manuel I to celebrate the prosperity during his reign. This style of architecture is characterized by intricate ornamentation that glorified Portugal’s achievements as sea, like twisted rope, anchors, shells, flora, Manuel’s armillary sphere and Christian symbols because, after all, someone had to finance the journeys.
Cross the makeshift pedestrian bridge to get to the visitors entrance (during high tide the water can completely surround the tower), then spend some time exploring the various rooms that were once used for cannon firing and spoil storage. The climb to the top of the tower’s terrace is worth the 120 steps for the sweeping view of the Tagus River.
Continuing with the theme of discovery, Portugal’s story of sea exploration comes to life at the Maritime Museum. Located in a wing of the Jerónimos Monastery, adjacent to Calouste Gulbenkian Planetarium, the museum houses a collection of more than 17,000 seafaring items. You’ll get an up-close-and-personal look at model ships from the Age of Discovery, ornate royal barges and other vessels, maps and navigation tools from the past few centuries.
From sea to land, the National Coach Museum offers another perspective on Portuguese transportation from a bygone era. In 1905 when it was clear that motor cars would become all the rage, Queen Amélia had the riding arena at the royal palace turned into an exhibition area to preserve her collection of fancy coaches. The museum’s unique collection began with 29 royal vehicles, along with uniforms, harnesses and other cavalry accessories, which has grown to include even more vehicles, art and artifacts from the 17th to 19th centuries.
Ending up back where you started, the Jerónimos Monastery is another brilliant example of Manueline architecture in Belém. Construction began in 1501 under King Manuel to give thanks for the successful sea voyages of Vasco da Gama and other great explorers, fitting since it was the sale of spices from da Gama’s trip to India that financed the project.
The monastery was inhabited by the Hieronymite order of monks who provided spiritual guidance to sailors before they embarked on their journeys. It’s also the final resting place for King Manuel, da Gama and other Portuguese notables.
The real highlight of the monastery is its cloisters. Just like the Belém Tower, the bold yet elegant, lace-like arches and columns are heavily decorated with nautical motifs, representing a time of Portuguese wealth and sea power. With such breathtaking architecture, it’s no wonder that the monastery and the tower are recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
What to Eat
After a day of sightseeing, treat yourself to one more discovery at Pastes de Belém. This café, which is conveniently located across from the Jerónimos Monastery bus stop, stakes claim as the birthplace of Lisbon’s trademark custard tarts.
They make about 20,000 of the pastel de nata a day, and rumor has is that the closely-guarded recipe is only shared with 3 pastry chefs at a time. The tarts are served with little packets of powdered sugar and cinnamon to sprinkle on top, and usually warm and crunchy right out of the oven.
To read more about Jessica’s travel experiences and tips, check out her blog Boarding Pass.
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