Who could resist visiting the area where Portugal’s most famous explorers set off from? The southwestern-most district of Lisbon, Belém is a historical area that was once the launching port of some of Portugals most epic journeys. Several of the monuments in Belém either commemorate the seafaring past, or were funded by the vast wealth that flowed into Portugal from its colonies. If you are interested in exploring Belém, Lisbon, I have provided a little bit of information on the area – and its main sights – below.
Situated where the River Targus (Rio Tejo) meets the Atlantic Ocean, Belém was originally considered far from the city to be desirable. Historically, life here revolved around the port town, and later, around the large and extravagant Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, built to replace the original, smaller monastery on the site. It fared well during the massive Lisbon earthquake of 1755, and many city dwellers – including King Joseph – moved to Belém after the catastrophe. Eventually, the Ajuda Palace was built, and the area has – on and off – offered a home to the royal family and Government of Portugal.
The area is well known for its beautiful architecture and public spaces, as well as the delicious egg tarts that were invented locally. You can spend a whole day in Belém, but if you are short on time, a half day will let you see the major sites.
Jerónimos Monastery (Mosteiro dos Jerónimos)
The Mosteiro dos Jerónimos is a beautiful building, created due to the 5% tax levied on spices that flowed into Portugal. There must have been a fairly large influx of spices, because this monastery is extravagant. Alongside Belém Tower, it is a UNESCO heritage site, and was built in the 16th century – taking almost 100 years to complete. Two famous Portuguese men are also entombed inside – Vasco da Gama, the first voyager to India, and Luis de Camões, who recorded the achievements of Portuguese explorers in his poem Os Lusíadas.
Belém Tower (Torre de Belém)
Belém Tower is unlike any other defense structure I have visited. It is incredibly ornate, decorated with carvings depicting nautical icons, such as knots and rope work. I did hear that the outside is actually far more beautiful than the inside – but the line was so long, I didn’t go inside to find out. One of the best known symbols of Lisbon, it was built in the 16th century as a fortress to guard the entrance to Lisbon’s harbor. The tower was the last sight of Portugal for many explorers that set off across the Atlantic, many never to return.
Monument to the Discoveries (Padrão dos Descobrimentos)
This giant monument reminded me of the Cosmonauts Monument in Moscow, and juts out over the river harbour. From a distance, it looks very similar to the Soviet Realist style, but once you get up close, you can see it is actually very detailed. Built between 1958 and 1960, it presents a romanticized idealization of Portuguese exploration. Behind the monument, the plaza features a giant compass is made of tile-work. If you are interested in finding out who exactly is featured on the monument, you can take a look at these two photos. I like the fact that a chap called Henry the Navigator is out in front!
Pastéis de Belém
I have mentioned the delicious Pastel de Nata before, but I wouldn’t want anyone to miss out on these delicious treats! The monastery pre-dating the Pastéis de Belém bakery invented the famous egg tart, best enjoyed with cinnamon, after the Liberal Revolution of 1820. The revolution caused many convents and monasteries to close down, and the former residents needed to find other ways to make money. Monks developed the tart from a French recipe, later selling it to a sugar refinery who opened the Pastéis de Belém factory and shop. If you show up and the line is out the door, don’t worry. Service is incredibly quick, and they know how to please a crowd – turning over more than 10,000 tarts a day.
Want to see Belém from a different angle?
We took a two-hour sailing trip with Lisbon By Boat around Belém, which went all the way from the Torre de Belém to the Alfama district, and back along the river. While we didn’t get a chance to sail – the winds were light – we had a fabulous time motoring down the river, enjoying delicious Portuguese wine, cheese and meat. The boat was a comfortable Jeanneau 54DS, and the crew were able to tell us lots of information (and stories!) about the local landmarks. If you are looking for a different view of Belém, I’d highly recommend you check them out!