The original, independent guide to Lisbon
Belem is the charming district to the west of Lisbon, and is the setting for many of the city’s most iconic tourist attractions.
Originally, Belem was the location of Lisbon’s shipyards and docks, and from here departed the 15th-century voyages that discovered the sea routes to India, East Africa and Brazil. This rich seafaring heritage is commemorated in Belem, along with extravagant buildings that were funded by the vast wealth that flowed into Portugal from the newly discovered colonies.
For visitors, Belem is one of the finest areas of Lisbon, and offers outstanding tourist attractions, informative museums and beautiful views along the Tejo Estuary. Belem is unlike the rest of Lisbon, being filled with parks, tree-lined plazas and green open spaces, and is a breath of fresh air from claustrophobic and chaotic central Lisbon.
Belem is one of our favourite districts of Lisbon, and we highly recommend that you visit during your holiday to Lisbon. This article will provide an introduction to Belem, and includes a suggested tour, details of tourist attractions and travel information.
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The following is our suggested half day tour of the Belem district, and is the route we recommend to friends and family when they visit Belem for the first time.
The tour displayed in the interactive map below:
Most visitors to Belem travel from central Lisbon by the E15 tram, but if it is too crowded the 728 bus service follows the same route. Both the tram and bus stop (1) and are next to the magnificent Mosteiro dos Jeronimos (2) (45min typical visit).
The Torre de Belem and western side of Belem
Depending on the time of day, there can be very long queues for the monastery, and it may be easier just to visit the equally impressive Igreja Santa Maria de Belem church (3) (15minutes, free).
From the monastery pass through the Jardim da Praça do Império (4), to the Tejo River; there is an underpass that passes beneath the train line. The grand Padrão dos Descobrimentos (5) (30 minutes), commemorates Portuguese 15th century explorers, and from the top of the monument are some of the best panoramic views of Belem and great photo opportunities.
The next part is the pleasant riverside walk (1km), which passes the Old Belem Lighthouse (6), the Bom Sucesso docks (7) and the Sacadura Cabral monument (8) before reaching the Torre de Belem (9). This is charming little fort is Lisbon’s most photographed monument, but the austere interior is not often worth the long wait in the ticket queue.
Close by is the Monumento aos Combatentes do Ultramar (10) a war memorial, and the Museu do Combatente Military Museum (11) (30 minutes optional attraction).
Lisbon’s premier contemporary art gallery is the Coleção Berardo (12) (45 minutes) and is housed in the BCC (Centro Cultural de Belém) This sprawling complex was constructed to host the European parliament in 1992. The Museu da Marinha (13) (30minutes optional) details the seafaring history of Portugal.
The Padrao dos Descobrimentos celebrates Portugal’s seafaring history
By now you are surly flagging and its time for a coffee and Pastéis de Belém (a custard tart) in the Fábrica Pastéis de Belém (14) the traditional home of the desert. If instead you would prefer to escape the tourist masses, the Jardim Botânico (15) offers tranquil gardens and peaceful setting.
The pink Palácio Nacional de Belém (16) is the President of Portugal official residence, and is passed on the way to the fascinating Museu Nacional dos Coches (17). This unique museum exhibits lavish horse draw coaches, and one section of the musuem is housed in the royal riding hall.
Next is a pleasant riverside walk (18) to the ultra-modern MAAT (19) museum. From the roof of this complex are stunning views of the Ponte 25 de Abril bridge and the Rio Tejo. Lisbon’s originally power station has been lovely restored, and is called the Central Tejo (20) (30minutes optional), and is an enthralling museum if you have any interest in giant machinery.
On the way back to the tram/bus stop (1), pass through the pretty gardens of Jardim Afonso de Albuquerque (21) and Jardim de Belém (22).
The main issue with Belem, is its popularity. During the summer season and at the weekends expect it to be very busy, and this is compounded by coach tours filled with cruise ship passengers. Our advice is to start early or late in the day, and pre-book as many tickets as possible to avoid the long queues.
A good way to discover Belem is to join an organised tour. We have worked with Getyourguide for the previous six years and a section of their best tours of Belem includes:
The following section details the major and most popular sights and attractions in Belem.
The Mosteiro dos Jerónimos is the extravagant monastery that was funded by the 5% tax levied on spices that flowed into Portugal. Originally designed as a modest monastery complex, the excessive trade wealth extended the construction by 50 years, to create one of the most ornate religious buildings of Portugal.
The site has a close connection to the early explorers, as Vasco da Gama spent his last night here before his epic voyage to India. Later the church was the location that sailors’ wives would come to pray for the safe return of their loved ones. The monastery is simply breath-taking, with beautiful stone carvings throughout the vast religious building, just expect long queues to get inside.....
Quick tip: The queues to enter the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos can be horrendously long, but there is never a queue just to visit the church, plus there is no entrance fee!
The Padrão dos Descobrimentos (the Discoveries Monument) is one of the most iconic monuments of Lisbon. It was constructed to promote national self-confidence, whilst honouring the great Portuguese explorers. From afar the monument harks from the harsh Soviet Socialist Realism style of architecture, but up close there is incredible lifelike detail to give each of the characters their own distinct personality.
On the western side of the monument are the depictions of the explorers, while on the eastern side are the key financiers, with both sides supporting the statue of Infante D. Henrique, the primary instigator of Portugal’s 15th century Golden Age of Discovery. The monument is ingeniously designed so as to give the appearance of the bow of a boat overlooking the estuary, with the rear representing the Latin Cross.
The Padrão dos Descobrimentos also boasts a panoramic viewing platform at the top of the 52m high monument (€5 entry), which provides some of the best views over Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, the Tejo Estuary and Belem. On the plaza floor in front of the Padrão dos Descobrimentos is a map, which traces the extent of Portuguese influence around the world.
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The delightful Torre de Belem once stood in the centre of the Tejo Estuary, and guard the city against sea bound attack. For such a minor defensive fortification, the Torre de Belem was built with elaborate craftsmanship and is adorned with beautifully carved stonework, that exemplify the Manueline style of architecture.
The Torre de Belem is best viewed from the outside as the interior is a little sparse but there is Europe’s first recorded evidence of a rhinoceros, in the form of a stone carving.
Interesting Fact: The fort was once in the centre of the Tejo but since its construction, the flow of water has altered and is now positioned on the edge of the banks of the estuary.
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The Belem Cultural Centre (BCC) was constructed to host the 1992 European presidency. Today this sprawling complex contains concert halls, exhibition rooms and the Museu Coleção Berardo, Lisbon’s best contemporary art gallery. Also inside the vast BCC are a selection of quieter cafes and restaurants.
Museu Coleção Berardo website: http://museuberardo.pt
The Museu Nacional dos Coches Museum exhibits one of the most fascinating and niche collections in Lisbon; royal horse-drawn carriages. These wonderfully decorative carriages span many centuries and include vehicles used by European royalty. The museum has two buildings; the main collection is housed in an ultra-modern complex, while the secondary smaller collection is show in the formal royal arena.
Official website: http://museudoscoches.gov.pt/pt/
The Fábrica dos Pastéis de Belém is the traditional home of the delicious Pastel de Belém custard tart (often known as Pastel de Nata) and no trip to Belem is complete without savouring one, in this loud and chaotic cafe.
The Pastel de Belém was the original custard tart, and the exact recipe is a closely guarded secret. Very similar custard tarts (which are equally as delicious) produced by other bakeries are called Pastel de Natas. For a good example think of Coke-Cola/Pepsi and a generic version of coke.
So, by enjoying a Pastel de Belém, you are experiencing the original tart, which has remained consistent for over 150 years.
Random fact: Many traditional Portuguese cakes and tarts have sweet yolk based fillings, and originate from bakeries that were close to major monasteries. The reason is that the egg whites were used by the monks to starch religious clothes, giving the yolks free to the bakeries close by. Hence the home of the Pastéis de Belém is next to the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos!
The pink Palácio de Belém is the official residence of the President of Portugal
The Museu de Marinha details Portugal's maritime history and is housed in the western end of the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos. The museum is divided into two sections, with the first containing historic artefacts and numerous models of boats, while the second displays royal yachts and fascinating early aircraft.
Museu de Marinha website: https://ccm.marinha.pt/pt/museu
The Jardim da Praça do Império is one of Europe’s largest plazas and is filled with ornamental water gardens, with a grand fountain as the centrepiece.
The Monumento aos Combatentes do Ultramar is the war memorial that honours Portuguese soldiers who died during the Africa independence uprisings of the 1960-1970s. The name of each soldier who died is inscribed in the walls that surround the memorial.
The walk from the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos (2) to the Torre de Belem (9) is one of the best routes in Lisbon. This route passes the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, the Discoveries Monument and goes through carefully maintained parks (the Jardim da Praça do Império and the Jardim da Torre de Belem) while following the banks of the Tejo Estuary. On a bright sunny day, there is no better walk in Lisbon.
Belem is 5km to the west of central Lisbon and the Baixa district. The easiest method to travel to Belem is by the number 15 tram, which departs from Praça do Comércio. The journey takes 15 minutes and a single ticket purchased on the tram costs €3.00. There is a 24h unlimited public transport ticket costing €6.40, but this can only be purchased from a metro station (not on the tram). The tram stop for Belem is called "Belem-Jeronimos" and is next to the Jeronimos monastery.
The tram can get very crowded, an alternative method to travel to Belem is to catch the number 728 bus, which passes through the Praça do Comércio and Belem, on its way to Restelo. A single bus ticket is cheaper than the tram and only costs €2.00.
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