When maritime history meets awesome architecture, the birthplace of a famous food, and cool museums, you know that is a place worth visiting. Belém is a neighborhood in western Lisbon along the Tagus, and combines all of these things. Home to some of the city’s elite – and the country’s president – Belém is a popular day trip for locals and tourists alike.
The history of Belém is tied to the Jeronimos Monastery, and it is the most popular first stop for visitors. This massive complex was built in 1495 – construction would continue for years – as a final resting place for members of the royal family, although royal remains have long since been removed. This royal tie put the area on the map, as it were, and the church connected to the monastery became a stopping point for Portuguese seamen to pray before long voyages. In 1497, Vasco de Gama and his men spent a night in prayer here before departing.
The Jeronimos Monastery
Today, both the church and monastery can be toured, although only the church is free. Inside the church lie the tombs of Vasco de Gama and the famed Portuguese poet Pessoa. The monastery cloisters, meanwhile, exhibit some of the finest Manueline architecture in existence. Visit both.
Vasco de Gama is entombed in the church.
The cloisters are stunning!
Monks in the monastery once used egg whites to bleach their robes. But what to do with all the yolks that were left? Meet the venerable pastel de nata, Portugal’s famous egg custard tart. You’ll find them everywhere, but they were invented right here. Pasteis de Belém sells the original – and the best – in the city, just a short walk from Jeronimos’ front door (you can easily find it by the mob of people out front queuing). €1.15 per to take away, and you’ll want to take them to go since the line to eat inside is long, much like the line for Cafe du Monde in New Orleans. Eat it as soon as you get it, as warm is much different (and better) than after it cools off.
The famous pastel de nata. You can see the line behind!
Belém sits on the northern bank of the mouth of the Tagus River, before it opens up into a vast estuary and harbor. As such, it has played an important role in the maritime history of the country. The eastern side of the monastery (actually built into the building itself) is home to the Maritime Museum, or Museu de Marinha. This truly spectacular institution traces the history of Portuguese maritime activities, from Henry the Navigator (you’ll remember him from our day in Porto) and the Age if Exploration all the way to today. Scale models of ships, antique maritime artifacts, and even a replica of the royal cabins aboard the royal yacht are only some of the exhibits, all of which are in English as well as Portuguese. Don’t miss the room dedicated to the royal barges. Yes, royal barges. So cool!
Henry the Navigator sits in front of an old illustrated map in the Maritime Museum.
Here I learned about Portugal’s days as the leader on the seas, and the mighty empire built from Brazil to Africa and India, dominating the lucrative spice trade (and providing much of the manpower for the slave trade – Portugal has been called the Uber for the slave trade, for while they were a minor actual dealer in the industry, they shipped more slaves than anyone else, something that is still a stain on the conscience of the nation). I was introduced to figures I’d studied before like de Gama and Magellan, and to those of whom I’d heard but never known anything about: hello Alfonso de Albuquerque, Portuguese governor of India and oddly namesake of the largest city in New Mexico. I saw some early maps and globes, experienced what the famous Portuguese Indiaman ship was like and why it dominated that trade route, and even met the modern Portuguese navy.
The museum ties pretty much all of the things I loved about Belém together (with the exception of the pastries). We saw Vasco de Gama’s tomb and now can trace the route of his famous voyage around Africa to India, leading to the establishment of Portuguese colonies and trading ports in Goa (India), Macau, Timor L’este, and Yokohama. Here we also can follow the routes of the other explorers, whom we can meet via monument out by the river.
The monument to Portuguese explorers features all those we just read about in the museum!
Belém exists due to its position guarding the entrance to the Tagus, and the Belém Tower, constructed with the same quarried stones as built the Jeronimos Monastery, was one of the prime fortifications here, although it was easily overcome by the Spanish in 1580 and the French in 1831. The tower was originally built on a small island near the banks of the river, but the 1755 earthquake (which leveled Lisbon, as you may recall from when we explored the Alfama district) redirected the river’s flow and caused the tower to be on the northern bank itself.
Today, Belém is home to many of Lisbon’s museums, including a museum of archaeology and several art museums. However, in addition to the Maritime Museum, the only truly must-see institution is the Museu Nacional dos Coches, the National Coach Museum. This history of horse-drawn coaches includes spectacular gilded royal-family-owned wonders as well as more simple models, and even coaches for children to be pulled by ponies or goats. Monitors even offer virtual tours of the insides of some of them. While it may sound like something odd for me to recommend, just trust me and go. This is one of the more unique museums I’ve seen, and I don’t know that another collection of this sort exists anywhere in the world.
Seriously, who wouldn’t want to see these?
Belém is a fairly easy tram ride from central Lisbon, although keep in mind the tram is €3 each way. (The train from Cais do Sodre is €1.90 each way and Belém is three stops.) Once there, your walk will be flat along a couple of streets (the riverfront and the street fronting the monastery), with many places to stop to grab a coffee or food to take a break if needed.
For those visiting Lisbon with even two days in the city, Belém is easily worthy of one of those days. Here you’ll celebrate some amazing history, eat the original pastel de nata, and enjoy the beauty of the riverfront. Don’t miss it!
Thank you to Tourism Lisboa for arranging for my admission to both the Maritime Museum and National Coach Museum.
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