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The Belem District of Lisbon - A Tourist Guide

Belem is the charming district to the west of central Lisbon, and is the setting for many of the capital’s most iconic tourist attractions. The Belem district makes for an enjoyable half day excursion, and combines historic monuments, fascinating museums and attractive formal gardens, all of which line the cooling waters of the Tejo Estuary.

Belem was originally the location of Lisbon’s shipyards and harbours, and from here Portuguese 15th century explorers discovered sea routes to India, Africa and Brazil. Many of the historic monuments found in Belem either commemorate this glorious past, or were funded by the vast wealth that flowed into Portugal from the colonies.

Belem is filled with parks, tree-lined plazas and green open spaces, and is a breath of fresh air from claustrophobic and chaotic central Lisbon. This article will provide an introduction to Belem, and includes an overview of the main tourist attractions, a suggested tour and at the end of the guide details on how to travel to Belem from central Lisbon.

 

 

Quick details for a trip to Belém

Insider tip: To escape the crowds head to the Jardim Botânico (Tropical Gardens) or visit the contemporary art of the Coleção Berardo Museum.
Money Saving Tip: For a waterside view of Belem, instead of joining one of the expensive boat tours, take a ride on the Belem ferry as it crosses to Porto Brandao on the southern side of the Tejo
Pickpockets: Unfortunately, pickpockets are prevalent on the tram and crowded areas, so always use common sense with valuables.

Our Suggested Tour of Belem

The following is our suggested half day tour of the Belem district. All of the optional sights and activities would convert the trip from a half day into a full day.
• Tram from Central Lisbon to Belem (catch the 728 bus if it’s too crowded)
• Mosteiro dos Jeronimos – 45 minutes (plus time to queue and get tickets!)
• The Church of Mosteiro dos Jeronimos – 15 minutes
• Wander through the Jardim da Praça do Império – 10 minutes
• The Padrão dos Descobrimentos and viewing platform – 30 minutes
• Walk to the Torre de Belem along the estuary and around the Doca do Bom Sucesso – 30 minutes
• Torre de Belem - 30 minutes (there can be a long queue for tickets)

• Monumento aos Combatentes do Ultramar – 10 minutes
• Museu do Combatente (Military Museum) – 30 minutes, (optional)
• Walk back to the Jardim da Praça do Império – 15 minutes
• The BCC and Coleção Berardo (Museum modern art gallery) - 45 minutes (optional)
• Eat a Custard tart and drink a strong coffee at the Pasties de Belem - 15 minutes to re-energise!
• Museu da Marinha - 30 minutes (optional)
• The Jardim Botânico Tropical - 30minutes (optional)
• Belem Palace – 5 minutes (as can only view from the outside)
• National Coach Museum - 45 minutes (optional)
• The ferry ride to Porto Brandao or tourist boat cruise - 1hour (optional)
• The eastwards estuary walk, to the MAAT museum and old power station - 20 minutes (optional)
• MAAT museum and rooftop viewing platform 30 minutes (optional)
• Tram or bus back to central Lisbon

 

 

An Excursion to Belem

A typical visit to Belem takes half a day, but this can be easily extended to a full day by visiting the museums, taking a leisurely walk along the waterfront or joining a boat tour. Belem is an area which can be easily explored independently and there is no need to join one of the numerous gimmicky tours.

Within Belem, there is an abundance of cafes and restaurants, and finding somewhere for lunch will not be an issue. Establishments closer to the waterfront or tourist attractions tend to be more expensive, for much better value try the smaller backstreets behind the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos or further to the east along the tram route.

Belem’s Popularity

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 the 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.

One of the most pleasant activities of Belem, which avoids the hordes of tourists, is strolling along with waterfront, either westwards towards the Torre de Belem or eastwards towards the modern MAAT museum.

The Tourist attraction of Belem

The following section details the major and most popular sights and attractions in Belem.

The Mosteiro dos Jeronimos

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 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 is not just a joy to look at, it 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 map, which traces the extent of Portuguese influence around the world.

Torre de Belem (Belem Tower)

The delightful Torre de Belem once stood in the centre of the Tejo Estuary, to guard the city against sea bound attack, and today the little fort has become the emblem of Lisbon. For such a trivial defensive fortification, the Torre de Belem was constructed with elaborate craftsmanship and is adorned with beautiful carved stonework.

The Torre de Belém was inspired by North African designs, and comprises of Moorish watchtowers and decorative battlements, while inside is the first European 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.

The Centro Cultural de Belem (CCB)

The Belem Cultural Centre (BCC) was constructed to host the 1992 European presidency when it rotated around host countries. Today the sprawling complex contains concert halls, exhibition rooms and the Museu Coleção Berardo, Lisbon finest contempered art gallery. Also inside the vast BCC are a selection of quieter cafes and restaurants.
Museu Coleção Berardo website: http://museuberardo.pt

El Centro Cultural de Belém
Museo Nacional dos Coches Museum

The Museo 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 and a succession of popes. The museum is divided into two sections, the large collection is housed in an ultra-modern concrete complex, while the secondary collection is exhibited in the ornate Portuguese royal area.
Official website: http://museudoscoches.gov.pt/pt/

Pastéis de Belem

The Pastéis de Belem bakery is the traditional home of the delicious custard tart (known as the Pastel de Nata) and no trip to Belem is complete without savouring one in this loud and chaotic cafe.

Random fact: Many of the 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 Nata is next to the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos!

Palácio de Belém

The striking pink Palácio de Belém is the official residence of the President of Portugal

Palacio Nacional Belem
Museu da Marinha (The Navy Museum)

The Museu da Marinha details Portugal's maritime history and is housed in the western end of the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos. The museum is divided into two distinct sections with the first containing historic artefacts and numerous models of boats, while the second displays royal yachts and fascinating early aircraft.
Museu da Marinha website: https://ccm.marinha.pt/pt/museu

Jardim da Praça do Império

The Jardim da Praça do Império is one of Europe’s largest plazas and is bound by the expansive BCC and the extravagant Mosteiro dos Jeronimos. The grounds of the plaza are filled with decorative and symmetrical water gardens, with a grand fountain as the centrepiece.

Monumento aos Combatentes do Ultramar

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 Monumento Combatentes Ultramar Lisbon
The Best Activity of Belem

The best activity in Belem is the 30-minute walk from “Pastéis de Belem” to the Torre de Belem. This route passes the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, the Discoveries Monument and goes through carefully maintained parks (namely, 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 than this in Lisbon.

Travel to Belem

Belem is 5km to the west of the Baixa district and downtown Lisbon. The easiest method to travel to Belem is by the number 15E tram, which departs from Praça do Comércio. The journey takes 15 minutes and a single ticket purchased on the tram costs €2.90.

The unlimited public transport ticket for 24h costs €6.30 and can be purchased from any metro station (but not on the tram). The tram stop for Belem is very obvious being called "Belem-Jeronimos" and is next to the vast 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 Praça do Comércio and Belem, on its way to Restelo. A single bus ticket is cheaper than the tram and only costs €1.85.

 

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