The best independent guide to Lisbon
The best independent guide to Lisbon
The Belém district lies along the banks of the Tejo Estuary to the west of Lisbon. This pretty district is the setting for many of Lisbon's most iconic tourist attractions, including the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, Torre de Belem and the Padrão dos Descobrimentos.
Historically, Belem was the location of Lisbon's shipyards and docks, and it was from here that 16th-century explorers discovered the sea routes to East Africa, Brazil and India. Later, these trading routes brought incredible wealth into Portugal, funding the construction of the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, an extravagant monastery in the heart of Belem.
The district is filled with parks, tree-lined plazas and scenic riverside walks, and has a much calmer atmosphere than central Lisbon. Belem is highly recommended during your stay in Lisbon, and it can be easily reached by taking the E15 tram route.
This article will provide an introduction to Belem and includes a suggested tour, advice to get the most from your visit to the district.
Related articles: 3 days in Lisbon – Alfama district - Baixa district
The Torre de Belem – This delightful fort once stood in the centre of the Tejo Estuary and guarded Lisbon from attack by sea. The little fort was inspired by Moorish architecture and boasts whimsically styled watchtowers, decorative stone carvings and Europe's first depiction of a rhinoceros (guide to the Torre de Belem).
The Mosteiro dos Jeronimos – This magnificent monastery took over 100 years to complete and was funded by the wealth of the 16th-century spice trade. Found within this huge complex are Manueline styled cloisters, the beautiful Igreja Santa Maria de Belém church and elaborate stonework surrounding the southern doorway.
Pastéis de Belém - The traditional home of the Pastel de Belém, the original Pastel de Nata custard tart. This bustling café is the perfect place to take a break from sightseeing, and their delicious custard tarts offer a real taste of Portuguese culture.
The Padrão dos Descobrimentos – This towering monument stands high above the banks of the Tejo estuary and celebrates the seafaring history of Portugal. From a distance, it may appear as a massive concrete monstrosity, but up close there is beautiful detailing on its sculpted figures, as well as cleverly hidden symbolism. At the top of the monument is one of the best viewpoints of Lisbon (a guide to the Padrão dos Descobrimentos).
Belém is regarded as one of the best tourist districts in Lisbon and is well worth a visit during your stay. Situated on the western outskirts of the city, the district is typically visited on the second day of sightseeing, after the downtown districts of Baixa and Alfama.
It takes around half a day to see all of the main sights of Belem, but a whole day can be easily spent here if you include visits to its fascinating museums or enjoy a pleasant stroll along the waterfront.
Insight: The Alcantara district and LxFactory artisan area, are also to the west of Lisbon (and served by the E15 tram route), and are often visited after the Belem district.
The following map is a suggested tour of Belem, which begins from the E15 tram stop (travel details can be found later in this article). The most common tour of Belem follows stages 1 to 10, but this can be extended by visiting the eastern side of the district and taking a riverside walk to the MAAT museum viewpoint (18).
Sights of the tour: 1) Southern Doorway (Mosteiro dos Jeronimos) 2) Igreja Santa Maria de Belém 3) Mosteiro dos Jeronimos 4) Jardim da Praça do Império 5) Padrão dos Descobrimentos 6) Farol de Belém (Old Belem Lighthouse) 7) Torre de Belém 8) Monumento aos Combatentes do Ultramar 9) Centro Cultural de Belém 10) Pastéis de Belém 11) Palácio Nacional de Belém 12) Jardim Afonso de Albuquerque 13) Jardim Botânico Tropical
Museums: 14) Museu Nacional dos Coches 15) Museu de Marinha 16) Coleção Berardo (contemporary art gallery) 17) Central Tejo (power station museum part of MAAT) 18) Museu de Arte, Arquitetura e Tecnologia (MAAT)
As one of the most popular tourist areas of Lisbon, Belem can unfortunately become very crowded during the peak season. Here are some insights on how to get the most from your day trip during the busiest months.
There will always be a long queue for the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, but there is rarely a queue for the Igreja Santa Maria de Belém, the church which is attached to the monastery. Inside the church is the tomb of King Manuel I and Vasco da Gama, along with beautiful examples of Manueline stone carvings. Best of all, the church is free to visit. The entrance to the church is via the Western doorway, next to the queue to enter the monastery.
The Igreja Santa Maria de Belém with its beautiful carved stone pillars
The finest stone carvings of the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos surround the exterior of the southern doorway into the Igreja Santa Maria de Belém. These can be viewed from the outside, with no need to queue or pay an admission fee.
The Torre de Belem is another busy attraction, again with long queues to enter, but its best aspects are all on the outside. The fort is surprisingly small and the internal rooms sparsely decorated, and it’s not worth a 40-minute wait to enter.
The best photo of the Torre de Belem is from the outside, and there is not much more to see by entering it.
The Fábrica Pastéis de Belém is deceptively large and has many inner rooms, however you may still have a long wait for a table. Instead of eating inside, why not buy a pack of its delicious Pastéis de Belém from the attached shop and enjoy them within the pretty gardens of the Jardim da Praça do Império.
At lunchtime, every restaurant in Belem is likely to be busy. It’s better planning an early or late lunch to avoid rushed or poor service.
The walk between the Padrão dos Descobrimentos and the Torre de Belém is incredibly scenic, but again may be very crowded. If you’d prefer a more peaceful stroll, head eastwards from the Doca de Belém and ferry terminal to the MAAT museum. There is a scenic viewpoint on the roof of the MAAT museum, which is free to climb up to.
The view of the Ponte 25 de Abril bridge from the MAAT view point
Belem lies 5km to the west of central Lisbon and the Baixa district. The easiest way to travel to Belem is by taking the number 15 tram, which departs from the Praça da Figueira and passes through the Praça do Comércio. The journey takes 15 minutes and a single ticket purchased on the tram costs €3. There is also a 24-hour unlimited public transport ticket costing €6.40, but this can only be purchased from any metro station (and not on the tram). The tram stop for Belem is called ‘Belem-Jeronimos’ and is next to the Jeronimos monastery.
While the E15 tram is the easiest way to travel to Belem, it does get very crowded and attracts skilled pickpockets.
Good alternatives are the 714 or 728 bus routes, which connect Belem and the Baixa districts and follow the same route as the tram. The bus is cheaper than the tram, with a single bus ticket costing €2.
Related articles: Tram E15
The E15 tram outside of the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos
Belem can offer an inexpensive day trip if you choose to wander the district and view the exteriors of the main sights. Entrance fees and costs are:
• 2 x €3 for the tram (2x €2 return bus fare)
• €6 - Padrao dos Descobrimentos
• €6 - Torre de Belem
• €10 - Mosteiro dos Jeronimos
• Free - Igreja Santa Maria de Belém
• €5 - Pastel de Belém
• €5 - Museu Coleção Berardo art gallery
The Mosteiro dos Jeronimos
The Mosteiro dos Jerónimos is an extravagant monastery that was funded by the 5 per cent tax levied on spices that flowed into Portugal. Originally designed as a modest monastery, the excessive trade wealth extended the construction by 60 years, resulting in one of the most ornate religious buildings of Portugal.
The site has a close connection to the early explorers, with Vasco da Gama spending his last night here before his epic voyage to India. The church was later where sailors' wives would come to pray for the safe return of their loved ones.
The Manueline styled cloisters
The Padrão dos Descobrimentos
The Padrão dos Descobrimentos was originally erected as a temporary monument for the World Exhibition hosted in Lisbon in 1940. It was made a permanent structure in the 1960s and commemorated 500 years since the death of Henry the Navigator (Infante Dom Henrique).
On the western side of the monument you’ll find depictions of the explorers, while on the eastern side are the key financiers, with both sides supporting the statue of Infante Dom Henrique, the driving force behind Portugal's 15th century ‘Age of Discovery’. The monument is ingeniously designed to give the appearance of the bow of a boat overlooking the estuary, with the rear representing the Latin Cross.
Related articles: Padrão dos Descobrimentos
The eastern side of the Padrão dos Descobrimentos
Torre de Belem
The delightful Torre de Belem once stood in the centre of the Tejo Estuary and guarded the city against attack by sea. For such a minor defensive fortification, the Torre de Belem was built with elaborate craftsmanship and is adorned with beautifully carved stonework in the Manueline style of architecture.
Related articles: The Torre de Belem
The shield-shaped battlements of the Torre de Belem
The Centro Cultural de Belem (CCB)
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. http://museuberardo.pt
Museu Nacional dos Coches Museum
The Museu Nacional dos Coches Museum is home to a fascinating and niche collection of 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 being housed in a modern complex, with a secondary, smaller collection displayed in the formal royal arena.
Official website: http://museudoscoches.gov.pt/pt/
The royal riding arena and the delightful coaches
Palácio de Belém
The pink Palácio de Belém is the official residence of the President of Portugal
Museu de Marinha
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; the first contains historical artefacts and models of ships, while the second boasts impressive royal yachts and fascinating early aircraft.https://ccm.marinha.pt/pt/museu
Jardim da Praça do Império
The Jardim da Praça do Império is one of Europe's largest plazas. It is filled with ornamental water gardens, with a grand fountain as its centrepiece.
Monumento aos Combatentes do Ultramar
The Monumento aos Combatentes do Ultramar is a war memorial honouring Portuguese soldiers who died during the African independence uprisings of the 1960-1970s. The name of each soldier who died is inscribed on the walls surrounding the memorial.
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