Head west of the city centre to a corner of Lisbon that’s at the heart of Portuguese history. Near the mouth of the River Tagus, Belém is the site of maritime legends, the birthplace of the pastel de nata (custard tart) and home of some of Portugal’s most important museums and galleries.
It was from here in the 15th century (Portugal’s Age of Discovery) that explorer Vasco da Gama set sail for India, returning with treasures that ultimately funded Belém’s extravagant buildings and helped establish Portugal as a global power. However, Belém doesn’t lean on its history and monuments to form an identity – it’s also an essential stop for those interested in understanding modern Portugal, from cutting-edge cultural institutions to food you won’t find anywhere else. With Culture Trip, you can enjoy a guided walking tour of Belém as part of our specially curated small-group Portugal trip, led by our local insider.
Arrive by riverboat
The most popular way to travel from central Lisbon to Belém is on the number 15 tram, departing from Praça da Figueira. But if you’re in no rush, the best way to see the sights – and avoid being squeezed in like a sardine – is to take one of the hop-on, hop-off riverboat services from Cais do Sodré pier. Lisboat will deliver you to Belém in around 45 minutes – a single ticket lasts for 24 hours, and you can take as many journeys as you like.
Marvel at the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos
Get a close-up look of Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, a palatial monastery that graces many a postcard in Lisbon. From its beginnings in 1501, it took almost a century to complete, thanks to increasingly elaborate designs – a testament to the prosperity of Lisbon at the height of the Portuguese Empire. Check out its impressive cloisters, replete with masterful stonework, and pay your respects to the major historical figures buried here such as Vasco da Gama and celebrated poet Luís de Camões.
Dive into the Navy Museum
You can’t help but be awe-struck by Portugal’s maritime history, as its salty sailors dominated the seas and pioneered the Age of Discovery. Belém was at the heart of this – and its Navy Museum (Museu de Marinha) brings to life its nautical achievements throughout the ages. Among its collection of over 17,000 objects are model ships and replicas of 16th-century maps, showing the world as it was once thought to be.
Celebrate Portugal’s Age of Discovery
This imposing 1960s monument was built to celebrate the country’s contribution to the Age of Discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries. It depicts 33 historical figures, including Henry the Navigator, Vasco da Gama, Afonso de Albuquerque and Ferdinand Magellan, organiser of the first expedition to circumnavigate the globe. For a small fee, you can take an elevator to the top for panoramic views of Belém and the river.
Visit the Torre de Belém
Monastery, Building, Architectural Landmark, Historical Landmark
Another of Lisbon’s most iconic buildings, the Unesco-protected Torre de Belém rises from the water near the mouth of the Tagus. One of the few 16th-century Manueline-style buildings to have survived the catastrophic 1755 Lisbon earthquake, this military fortress symbolises the resilience of the city it guards. Queues can be long, but it’s worth the wait to explore the dungeons and views of the river across to the Rio-inspired statue of Christ.
Set sail on the Tagus
If you’re feeling inspired enough to embark on your own voyage along the Tagus, it’s possible to charter a boat for a day. Companies such as Nautal let you choose whether to have skipper or not, and vessels range from speedboats and catamarans to sailboats and luxury yachts (if you have the budget, of course). You’ll need the correct license if you plan to skipper your own.
Eat a pastel de nata or two
Cafe, Pastries, $
With flaky pastry and a warm, gooey centre, there’s a lot to love about Portugal’s national desert, the pastel de nata (custard tart). Pastéis de Belém is the best place to try them, as the family-owned bakery uses the original recipe first created by monks in the monastery next door. Don’t let the lengthy queues put you off – most customers get their pastéis to go, so you’ll have one in your hands (and mouth) in no time.
Sample some of Portugal’s best cuisine
As it’s not possible to survive on pastéis de nata alone, luckily there are plenty of opportunities in Belém to sample excellent Portuguese cuisine. The place to go if you want to eat like a local is Taberna Dos Ferreiros. In a laid-back, airy room with flagstone flooring, it serves up fresh takes on traditional food, such as peixinhos da horta (fried green beans) with a sauce made of mustard, curry and soy that you won’t find elsewhere.
Get your fix of modern and contemporary art
If you’ve been lured to Lisbon by its reputation for cutting-edge contemporary art, don’t miss Belém’s Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (MAAT). The gently curved building, designed by the British architect Amanda Levete, mimics the rippling river over which it presides. There’s no permanent collection, but exhibitions, including immersive audio-visual work, are pulled from archives of more than 250 Portuguese artists.
Explore the Centro Cultural de Belém
Architectural Landmark, Art Gallery, Theater
The Centro Cultural de Belém is Portugal’s biggest arts complex, with over 100,000sqm (1,000,000sqft) playing host to jazz and opera concerts, dance performances and art exhibitions. The standout section is the Berardo Collection of modern and contemporary art, which showcases work from the likes of Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon and seminal subculture photographer Nan Goldin. Once you’ve had your creative fill, head to the terrace café on the first floor, which overlooks the river.
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