The picturesque Lisbon suburb of Belém is located on the banks of the Tagus River on the western outskirts of the city. A leafy residential area blessed with beautiful parks and gardens, Belém is forever associated with the Age of Discoveries, a period of maritime glory when Portuguese navigators embarked on long and perilous journeys to chart uncharted seas and chart new lands. It was from here, in 1497, that Vasco da Gama started his historic expedition that led to the opening of a sea route to India.
Belem prospered and the Portuguese king, Manuel I, ordered the construction of the huge Mosteiro dos Jerónimos and the Torre de Belém. Fortunately, both of these survived the great earthquake of 1755 and are today two of the most cherished historic buildings in the country; both are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Also here is the impressive Padrão dos Descobrimentos, a contemporary monument to the Golden Age of Discovery that hovers over the riverfront.
Complemented by a cluster of wonderful museums and a world-class cultural center, family-friendly Belem is easily reached by train or tram. The wide esplanade that flanks the river offers a delightful coastal walk with excellent cafes and restaurants along the way.
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1 Jerónimos Monastery
Among the most celebrated historical monuments in Portugal, the Jerónimos Monastery is also one of the jewels in Lisbon’s tourist crown. Commissioned by King Manuel I in 1501 and timed to coincide with the return of Vasco da Gama (1460-1524) after his momentous journey to India, the church and adjoining monastery are considered the greatest examples of Manueline architecturein the country. The south portal of the church is stunning in its detail, with no less than 40 statues of ornate filigree embellishing the entrance. Inside, the nave is equally exuberant, the vault carved to resemble giant palms fanning from slender octagonal pillars. Several royal tombs are placed in and around the choir, including those of Manuel himself and King João III. At the entrance, Vasco da Gama and the poet Luís de Camões lie to rest. Architect Diogo de Boitaca was originally charged with designing the building, but the lavish carved stone arches and balustrades in the cloister are the work of João de Castilho, who replaced de Boitaca in 1517. The monastery was inhabited by the Order of St. Jerome (Hieronymites) until 1834.
This is one of the most beautiful and peaceful religious sites we found anywhere in Portugal. In consequence, its cultural significance is such that it has long been a UNESCO World Heritage Site .
Adres: Praça do Império, Belém, Lisbon
Official site: www.mosteirojeronimos.pt
2 Belem Tower
Jutting out of the waters of the Belem riverbank, the quirky Belém Tower has become one of Lisbon’s most recognized tourist attractions and a symbol of the city. Completed in 1521, it originally functioned as a fortress to defend the mouth of the Tagus River and is said to have sat in the middle of the estuary (time and tide have shifted the course of the river). The tower was built during the reign of King Manuel I and as such there is an abundance of Manueline architectural symbolism – carved stone maritime motifs such as coiled and twisted rope, armillary spheres and the cross of the Order of Christ, a military order that helped to establish early finance voyages of discovery.
The interior of the tower is spread over several levels and a guided tour takes you from the lower battery, which served as a magazine and dungeon, to an upper terrace where a beautiful view of the river and waterfront of Belem can be admired . Along the way, you’ll discover a lovely Renaissance loggia and the head of a weathered rhinoceros among other surprises, but you’ll have to climb a very steep spiral staircase to find them. Not surprisingly, this unique example of military architecture is a UNESCO World Heritage Site .
Address: Avenida da Brasilia, Belem, Lisbon
Official site: www.torrebelem.pt
3 Ajuda National Palace
National Palace of Ajuda
On a hill overlooking Belém, the construction of the National Palace of Ajuda was commissioned by the Portuguese royal family in 1802, but was incomplete when they were forced into exile in 1807 during the invasion of Napoleon’s troops. The neglected building only became a permanent royal residence when Luís became king in 1861 and married an Italian princess, Maria Pia di Savoia (Queen Maria II).
The union arranged a lavish spree that saw the apartments expensive and lavishly decorated with damask silk wallpaper and wool and velvet carpets. Suites of tables, chairs and cabinets carved from Scotch pine, Brazilian rosewood, oak and mahogany are scattered throughout lavishly decorated rooms. Walk slowly through each drawing room and you will see rare and valuable objects such as the Louis XVI skeleton clock in the audience room. Sometimes it is the entire apartment that dazzles, such as the Pink Room, in which every piece of furniture is decorated Meissen porcelain. And regal opulence is exemplified by the Queen’s bedroom, where a huge bed in lacquered wood imitating ebony, bronze and gilded metal is draped with blue velvet sash. A highlight is the sumptuous Banquet Hall filled with crystal chandeliers suspended from a fantastically painted ceiling. Its grandeur is such that it is still used by the President of Portugal for state ceremonies.
But it’s also the little details that can take your breath away. In the recently opened chapel (outside the confines of the public for many years) look for the Roman prayer book, made in France in 1856 and beautifully bound with mother-of-pearl, silver, gold, paper, cotton and silk.
Adres: Largo da Ajuda, Belém, Lisbon
Official Site: https://www.palacioajuda.gov.pt
4 Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology
Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology
The modern, eye-catching Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (MAAT) was recently inaugurated and is a striking addition to the list of must-see Belém tourist attractions. Presenting itself as the new cultural center of Lisbon, the building runs along the banks of the Rio Tejo to coexist with the iconic Tejo Power Station.
Designed by London-based architects AL_A, MAAT focuses on the serpentine façade, a design element that resembles the prow of a ship, and its patina of reflective, faceted tiles that evoke images of silver snakeskin. The museum regularly hosts national and international exhibitions of renowned contemporary artists and architects, a synthesis designed to present the relationship between art and new technologies.
With MAAT, the existing Museu da Electricidade benefited from a well-considered refurbishment. Housed in the 19th-century era, decommissioned power station and a perfect complement to the modern structure, the Electricity Museum interactive exhibit is imaginatively integrated into the facility’s low-pressure boiler room and steam engine rooms, offering visitors a fascinating insight into the day-to-day workings of this historic factory . Every piece of the machine is original and fully restored, and a guided tour takes you past the control panels and giant furnaces that fired the coals, continuing through the lower level. Here coal ashes were collected by men working in 40 degree heat.
Displays of vintage transformers, electrical switchboards and various lamps perfectly convey the electrical generation process. The beautifully lit steam engine room houses the huge turbines and generators that lit up Lisbon in the first half of the 20th century. Young people are kept amused in the energy room through a series of hands-on experiments designed to test their scientific knowledge. A permanent exhibition dedicated to the discovery of electricity by pioneers such as Michael Faraday , who contributed to the fields of electromagnetism and electrochemistry.
Address: Avenida Brasília, Centro Tejo, Belém, Lisbon
Official site: https://www.maat.pt
5 Former Confectionery of Belém
One of the most appetizing things to do in Belém is to indulge in a plate of Pasteis de Nata —flaky pastries brimming with custard and, if you like, lightly dusted with icing sugar and cinnamon. The cakes are made from a secret recipe that originated in the kitchens of the nearby Mosteiro dos Jerónimos in the early 19th century, and although much imitated throughout Portugal, it is the Antiga Confeitaria de Belém pastelaria that bakes the most authentic . Indeed, only a select few master pastry chefs are privy to the exact ingredients, and they’re sworn to secrecy. Whatever ingredients are used, the rich, sweet cakes are absolutely delicious and the kids will love them.
Baked on site since 1837, the pastries are still served hot in the cavernous building. Some 15,000 appear each day, a figure that can double on busy weekends. Sometimes it’s impossible to get a table, and the only option is to steam them at the counter. You can also buy a box to go. Tea, coffee and other assorted drinks can also be ordered at this historic bakery.
Adres: Rua de Belém 84-92, Belém, Lisbon
Official site: https://pasteisdebelem.pt/
6 Monument to the Discoveries (Monument voor de ontdekkingen)
Built to resemble the shape of a caravel, the huge, angular Monument to the Discoveries is a prominent feature of Belem’s waterfront. Designed by architect Cottinelli Telmo and the sculptor Leopoldo de Almeida, the 52-meter high monolith was inaugurated in 1960 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the death of Henry the navigator . It honors Henry in stone, seen standing directly ahead, along with other historical figures who participated in the development of the Portuguese Age of Discovery. These include Vasco da Gama, who opened a sea route to India in 1498; Pedro Álvares Cabral, discoverer of Brazil in 1500; and Fernão Magalhães (Magellan), who crossed the Pacific in 1520. The beautifully sculpted statues also depict the poet Luís de Camões and King Manuel I.
After admiring the stonework, you can explore the routes of the discoverers on the huge paving compass in marble placed in front of the monument. This beautiful mosaic map of the world is embellished with mermaids and galleons and the dates each new land was sighted. Actually, it looks even better from above, so after globetrotting, head to the top of the monument where you can go over the map stare and enjoy the beautiful views that encompass Belém, the river and the Atlantic Ocean. Another great photo opportunity is at night when the Padrão dos Descobrimentos is in the spotlight.
Address: Avenida da Brasilia, Belem, Lisbon
Official site: www.padraodosdescobrimentos.pt
7 National Coach Museum (koetsmuseum)
The Coach Museum is one of Lisbon’s most popular attractions. The collection of carriages and saddle cars is the finest in the world and also includes fine examples of nests, saloon seats and convertibles. The hotel is housed in a new, modern building of impressive dimensions, royal and ceremonial carriages of three centuries, and luxuriously furnished and decorated, spread over two halls. The oldest coach in the collection was used by Spain’s King Philip II in 1619 during a state visit to Portugal, but it’s not the most ornate. That prize goes to the carriage built in 1716 for the Marquês de Abrantes, the Portuguese ambassador to Pope Clement XI. The Baroquethe riot of gilded life-sized statues clinging to the rear of the carriage is the epitome of pomp and circumstance. A much more subtle decoration is the rear painting adorning the King José I carriage by court artist Cirillo Volkmar Machado, the same man responsible for illustrating the ceiling of the throne room at Mafra Palace . Another highlight is the Crown Carriage , built in London for King João VI and last used by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II during her state visit to Portugal in 1957.
Address: Avenida da Índia 136 Belém, Lisbon.
Official site: https://museudoscoches.gov.pt
8 Portuguese School of Equestrian Art
Weekly presentations of classical dressage – the highest expression of horse training – take place in this purpose-built arena. Shows hosted by members of the Portuguese School of Equestrian Art give locals and tourists the chance to appreciate a display of skill and grace where horse and rider perform a series of choreographed moves and exercises to show off the mountain’s athleticism a classical music soundtrack – equestrian ballet of sorts. Riders are dressed in burgundy formal costume, crowned with a black felt tricorn, and use traditional Portuguese saddles and harnesses. The gentle, pure blood Lusitano horsesare beautifully groomed and really enjoy the sense of occasion. Enhancing the romantic atmosphere is the use of soft lilac and fuchsia spotlights to illuminate the driving ring. In addition to weekly shows, visitors can also witness daily horse training or attend one of the gala shows.
The Portuguese School of Equestrian Sports maintains some of its horses Palácio Nacional de Queluz , a popular day trip from Lisbon.
Adres: Riding Arena Henrique Calado, Calçada da Ajuda, Belém, Lisbon
Official site: https://arteequestre.pt
9 Belém Cultural Center
One of Lisbon’s main cultural centers, the CCB offers a world-class program of performing arts, music and photography. It also houses the famous Museu Coleção Berardo – Portugal’s main museum of modern and contemporary art. Dance and theater stray into the experimental with national and international artists invited to perform. Music fans are treated to an eclectic agenda. Classical music concerts are held here and jazz is regularly broadcast. The CCB is also a stage for World Music and Portugal’s own fado. Art festivals are held throughout the year, along with summer schools and workshops. Visitors can browse the center’s website for information on programs and tickets.
Modern art lovers, meanwhile, are in for a treat. The Permanent Berardo Collection is a unique collection of contemporary art amassed by Portuguese billionaire José Berardo (“Joe” to his friends). The valuable stash includes works by Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, David Hockney, Francis Bacon and Mark Rothko. The collection is so large that works are rotated, but favorites such as Andy Warhol’s Red Lips Judy Garland and Roy Lichtenstein’s Spotty Interiors with Soothing Painting are usually on display. The Portuguese Paula Rego is also in the list.
A terrace café and restaurant offer tranquility and pleasant views of the surrounding area, and there are a number of boutiques and art galleries worth browsing.
Adres: Praça do Império, Belém, Lisbon
10 Maritime Museum
Housed in the west wing of the Jerónimos Monastery , the Maritime Museum is perfectly reminiscent of Portugal’s proud seafaring heritage and , in particular, offers an enlightening journey through the seminal Age of Discovery. The museum is actually where a chapel built by Henry the Navigator once stood. Here sailors took masses before setting sail to chart uncharted waters and explore new lands. Fittingly, the Discoveries Hall displays one of the most important exhibits in the entire collection, a wooden figure representing the Archangel Raphael who accompanied Vasco da Gama on his 1498 expedition to India.
The history of shipbuilding is beautifully and creatively portrayed through dozens of small replica boats displayed in glass cabinets. Arranged in chronological order, they illustrate the transition from the barque to the lantern-rigged and then the later square-rigged caravel to the Portuguese. narrow . Individual gems of note include a 1645 terrestrial globe created by the celebrated Willem Jansz Blaeu. There is also the complete and lavishly decorated wood paneled cabin of King Carlos and Queen Amelia from the royal yacht Amélia , built in 1900. The museum also holds the world’s largest collection of astrolabes.
A fully restored seaplane , the “Santa Cruz”, which made the first transatlantic flight in 1922, can be admired at the exit, but the museum tour continues in a pavilion opposite the main building where a number of original royal ships, one built in 1780 for Queen Maria I, stands in extravagant splendour.
Adres: Praça do Império, Belém, Lisbon
11 Museum of the Presidency of the Republic-Palace of Belém (Museum van het Presidium van de Republiek)
Have you ever wondered what happens to all those gifts presented to heads of state when they visit other countries? In Portugal, they end up in this unusual museum, which houses a fascinating treasure trove of rare and valuable objects given to the country’s presidents by notable national and international personalities. The museum traces the history of the Portuguese Republic since its declaration in 1910 through the official portraits of the President (including a very unusual likeness of Mário Soares (President from 1983-96) by celebrated artist Júlio Pomar, ceremonial and national flags, photographs and documents.
The adjacent Belém Palace is the official residence of the Portuguese president and you can join a tour of the grounds on weekends. A highlight is the beautiful Sala Dourada (Golden Room) under an 18th-century paneled ceiling of gilded wood. You’ll also get to see the grand Sala Império (Empire Room), named for its Empire-style furnishings. Included in the tour are the landscaped gardens adorned with water features and bordered by lavender and myrtle hedges. If you visit on the third Sunday of the month, you can watch the Changing of the Guard, which takes place in front of the palace at 11am and is a wonderful ceremonial treat.
Adres: Praça Afonso de Albuquerque, Belém, Lisbon
Where to Stay in Belém for Sightseeing
We recommend these convenient hotels in the attractive Belém district, near top attractions such as Belém Tower and Jerónimos Monastery:
- Altis Belem Hotel & Spa: waterfront luxury, near Belém Tower, contemporary design, floor-to-ceiling windows, Michelin-starred restaurant, rooftop pool.
- Palacio do Governador: affordable luxury, large rooms, restored 17th-century governor’s mansion, comfortable beds, multiple pools, Mediterranean-style spa.
- Jeronimos 8: mid-range pricing, convenient location, short walk from Jerónimos Monastery, free breakfast buffet, contemporary style.
- Casa Amarela Belem: Budget-friendly guest house, near Belém Tower, bright and simple suites, supermarket next door, communal kitchen and living room.
Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Belém
- Explore the Neighborhood on Foot: A leisurely stroll through this historic waterfront suburb is hugely rewarding, and it’s an ideal way to absorb centuries of history while taking in all the iconic landmarks. Joining a Lisbon Belém Walking Tour Including Skip-the-Line to St. Jerome Monastery and Belém Tower offers a seamless, small-group walking tour experience, with tours led by trusted and knowledgeable guides.
- See the sights from the water: For a romantic perspective, take a Tagus River Sunset Cruise in Lisbon, a serene journey of discovery aboard a sailboat. Enjoy the fresh sea air and a glorious sense of adventure as you pass emblematic city attractions and landmarks gleaming by a setting sun.
Beyond Belém: Other Must-See Sights in and Near Lisbon
A visit to Belém can be combined with exploration further west along the Lisbon coast as part of a day trip option, or to discover some of the excellent nearby beaches. It is well worth traveling to Sintra, a magical and romantic destination north of the Portuguese capital. To the south, across the Tagus River, are equally delightful destinations to absorb, such as Setúbal. And there is always Lisbon’s enchanting old quarter to wander slowly, eyes open and smiling.