Belem Lisbon is a fascinating place to visit. It’s a suburb next to the river Tagus (Rio Tejo) with three of the best sights in Lisbon, and several other attractions besides. The most popular things to do in Belem Lisbon revolve around the river area. The Belem Tower is one of the most iconic sights in Portugal. This late medieval watchtower and the nearby Jeronimos Monastery together comprise a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These two monuments are among the best examples of the unique Portuguese Gothic style, Manueline.
It’s also home to a number of fascinating Lisbon museums, including the world’s largest coach museum. There’s also a famous Belem café that’s the spiritual home of one of Portugal’s most famous exports, the Portuguese custard tart. Belem is undoubtedly one of the best areas in Lisbon to visit, only a 30 minute tram ride from the centre. It’s one of the best day trips in Lisbon, though you could easily spend at considerably more time there.
Our guide to what to do in Belem shows you all of this and more.
- 1 Belem Lisbon – Some History
- 2 Torre de Belem
- 3 Mosteiro dos Jeronimos
- 4 Pasteis de Belem
- 5 Padrão dos Descobrimentos – The Monument to the Discoveries
- 6 Museu Nacional dos Coches (National Museum of Coaches)
- 7 Museum of Art, Architecture & Technology (MAAT)
- 8 Maritime Museum (Museu da Marinha)
- 9 Berardo Collection Museum
- 10 Football – Os Belenenses
- 11 How to Get to Belem from Lisbon
Belem Lisbon – Some History
The area’s name comes from the Portuguese word for Bethlehem, and Prince Henry the Navigator started to build a church dedicated to St Mary in the area. King Manuel I later built a larger church on the site, St Mary of Bethlehem. This soon became the church of the Jeronimos Monastery.
Belem was used as the departure point for some of the most important Portuguese Voyages of Discovery. Bartolomeu Dias departed from there on his journey around the Cape of Good Hope in 1488, which opened up trading routes with the East. Vasco da Gama also began his expedition to India in 1497. These brought vast wealth to Portugal, and this is reflected in some of the buildings in Belem, including the splendid Mosteiro dos Jeronimos. This also happened across the rest of Portugal, with some of its finest buildings, including the Monastery at Batalha and Convento de Cristo at Tomar, dating from the late 15th and early 16th centuries.
Subsequently, the area was known for its palaces and gardens, and it was one of the few parts of Lisbon to come through the Great Earthquake of 1755 virtually unscathed. Later it became partly industrialised, with factories and docks being built further along the waterfront.
Torre de Belem
The Belem Tower is one of the most popular attractions in Lisbon. It was built in the early 16th century to commemorate the voyages of Vasco da Gama and to defend the mouth of the Tagus. It was originally known as the Castle of St Vincent. It was also later used as a custom control building and the dungeons were used to incarcerate prisoners.
The Belem Tower is one of the most enduring symbols of Portugal as well as Lisbon, and it looks magnificent in late sunlight or at dusk. Even if you visit Lisbon for a day, I’d urge you to catch the tram to see it.
Mosteiro dos Jeronimos
Portugal grew increasingly rich from the new trading routes, and nowhere illustrates this than the Jeronimos Monastery in Belem. King Dom Manuel I gave the monastery to the Hieronymite monks in return for their spiritual support and prayers. Departing sailors would pray there before leaving on their long voyages, and the monks would pray for their safe return. The monastery was also built in memory of Prince Henry the Navigator, who instigated some of the early Portuguese exploratory journeys down the west coat of Africa. A visit to the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos makes for a great companion with a trip to windswept Sagres on the Algarve, where Henry planned his early ocean forays.
A visit to the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos should be top of any things to do in Lisbon wish list, as it’s probably Lisbon’s finest historical monument. The Manueline style is exuberant and florid, with vivid carvings of leaves and branches, as well as maritime motifs including anchors.
The church at the Mosteiro is magnificent, but don’t miss the elaborately carved cloister just beyond the entrance to the church.
Pasteis de Belem
The Antiga Confeitaria de Belem is one of the best cafes in Lisbon. Since 1837 it has been the home of the pasteis de Belem, deliciously moreish round egg custard tarts known across the world. Elsewhere they are known as pasteis de nata, but not in Belem. The edges are are slightly crisp and flaky, and the custard part just melts in the mouth. You can eat in, enjoying uma bica of great strong coffee, or take a box away.
The pasteis de Belem recipe remains a closely guarded secret. Despite being a bit of a custard tart connoisseur I am unable to offer any further enlightening information on this. However I can tell you that if you climb the steep seven hills of Lisbon to the various miradouros, you’ve earned at least a second helping.
Padrão dos Descobrimentos – The Monument to the Discoveries
The Monument to the Discoveries Lisbon is a monolithic dictatorship-era commemoration of Portugal’s greatest past glories, the Golden Age of the Discoveries. It was built in 1960 during the Estado Novo (New State) regime of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, who ruled Portugal between and 1970. The Monument commemorates the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator.
It’s a giant slab of concrete over 50 metres high, but somehow doesn’t come across as harsh, austere and forbidding as some totalitarian architecture across Europe. This is largely down to the figures of the explorers, which look rather impressive, especially when lit at night.
The Monument is situated next to the north bank of the Tagus river, and is a short distance downstream from the Ponte 25 de Abril suspension bridge. The pavement outside is inlaid with a map of the world and the routes followed by the Portuguese explorers.
You can take a lift to the viewing platform at the top for a great view along the river and over the gardens to the Mosteiro.
Museu Nacional dos Coches (National Museum of Coaches)
One of the more unusual things to do in Lisbon is to pay a visit to the Museum of Coaches. The original part is housed in a beautiful old riding school, and it has recently been expanded, with additional space in a new building across the road.
The collection includes horse-drawn coaches from the 17th to the 19th centuries. They would have been used in processions and on ceremonial occasions. The coach given to King João V is one of the best examples. Some, on the other hand, are hilariously overwrought and ostentatious. Did they really need a gilded Baroque bevy of buxom ladies perched on the wheels? It’s all down to taste. I visited on a wet afternoon, having little prior interest in ceremonial horse-drawn carriages. I haven’t really had any subsequent interest in them either, but I really enjoyed this Museum. It’s a real one-off.
Museum of Art, Architecture & Technology (MAAT)
MAAT is a new museum on the Tagus riverfront, on a spectacular site between the Ponte 25 de Abril and Padrão dos Descobrimentos. It’s adjacent to the Tejo Power Station, which hosts some of its exhibitions.
Maritime Museum (Museu da Marinha)
The Museu da Marinha, also sometimes known as the Navy Museum, is another great place to learn about Portugal’s Voyages of Discovery. It’s in the west wing of the Jeronimos monastery complex.
Exhibits include model ships, a wooden figure of Archangel Raphael that accompanied Vasco da Gama on his trip to India. There are replicas of 16th century maps, and a rare globe from 1645 by the explorer Willem Jansz Blaeu. Some of the largest exhibits are the two ceremonial barges from the 18th century.
There’s also some aviation history to explore, with the Santa Cruz aeroplane that crossed the Atlantic in 1923.
Berardo Collection Museum
The Berardo Collection Museum is one of the best museums in Lisbon, with an emphasis on 20th century and contemporary art. It has works by many of the big names, including Picasso, Warhol and Mondrian, to name just a few. It was free for some years after it opened, and is still just 5 € for an adult ticket. It’s in the Centro Cultural de Belem, across the street from the Museu da Marinha.
Football – Os Belenenses
Portugal are the current European football champions, the greatest achievement in their long, proud history in the sport. Football fans may be curious to look into a fascinating piece of Portuguese football history hidden away behind the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos.
Portuguese football has been almost totally dominated by three teams – Lisbon’s Benfica and Sporting Clube de Portugal, and FC Porto. I say almost, because two other teams have broken the stranglehold once each. One of these is CF Os Belenenses, Portuguese champions in the 1945-46 season.
The team has fallen on harder times since then, and been in and out of the Portuguese Primera Liga this century. Its stadium, the Estadio do Restelo, has fantastic views over Belem and the river. You won’t always see the best football there, but it’s an amazing place to see a game, especially if it’s an evening kick-off.
How to Get to Belem from Lisbon
Getting around Lisbon is fairly straightforward, and a direct tram – the 15 – runs regularly from Lisbon city centre. It starts at Praça da Figueira and continues to Praça do Comercio, before heading out past Cais do Sodré to Belem.
Unfortunately the Lisbon tram 15 is as popular with pickpockets as it is with tourists. The best way to get around this is to avoid putting yourself in a vulnerable position, such as having to buy a ticket on board. Instead, buy a 24 hour ticket from a Metro station before you travel. You can buy one in Rossio station, from which it’s only a short walk to Praça da Figueira.
David Angel is a British writer and photographer who has been travelling and photographing the world for over 25 years. His work is regularly featured in worldwide media including the BBC, the Guardian, the Times and the Sunday Times.