How To Spend A Day In Belém, Lisbon

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A historic district beside the Tagus River. Two UNESCO World Heritage Sites and a wealth of other attractions. And the home of a classic Portuguese pastry. This is Belém, just a short distance from the centre of Lisbon. But why spend a day in Belém, and what should you see and do there?

Why Visit Belém?

Along the Tagus estuary to the east of Lisbon, the Belém district was once the location of the city’s docks and shipyards. Numerous explorers of the 15th and 16th centuries, including the famed Vasco da Gama, set off from here, establishing trade routes to India, Africa and the New World, and bringing a new prosperity to the country. This maritime heritage is at the heart of modern day Belém.

The new found wealth enabled the building of the Jerónimos Monastery, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Tower of Belém (also recognised by UNESCO), recalls the Age of Discovery, as does the monument of Padrão dos Descobrimentos. You will also find riverside walks, parks, and a Botanical Garden. There are numerous museums, and – a highlight for some visitors – a bakery where you can buy the original pastéis de Belém.

What To See And Do In Belém

You won’t be able to see everything in a day, so you will have to choose where you want to go. Bear in mind that the tower and the monastery are very popular sites, so plan ahead if you are including them in your itinerary. But make sure you leave time just to walk past the marina and along the waterfront towards the tower: it is a very attractive area.

Jerónimos Monastery

The Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (or Hieronymites Monastery) was built by King Manuel I in the 16th century. It was intended to celebrate Vasco da Gama’s voyage to India and was a magnificent building in the Portuguese Gothic style. It is recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site partly for its architectural value and partly because of its place in Portuguese maritime history.

The monastery is large and includes a breathtaking two-story cloister, full of intricate carvings with religious and nautical symbolism. It also incorporates a Maritime Museum and an Archaeology Museum. However, you need to be aware that there will be a long queue to get in: anecdotal evidence suggests that even with a skip-the-line ticket you will have a long wait.

The queue for the adjoining Church of Santa Maria is generally shorter, and no entrance ticket is required. Even if you don’t go in the monastery I recommend visiting the church with its very ornate interior. Here you will find the tombs of Vasco da Gama and of Luís de Camões, the national poet.

Ornate church interior with carved columns and ceiling.
The ornate interior of the Church of Santa Maria

Belém Tower

The Torre de Belém was also built by Manuel I and is also designated as a World Heritage Site. It was originally built as a fortress on an island in the middle of the river, its purpose being to defend the port. However silting in the river and displacement due to the earthquake of 1755 have moved the tower onto the northern bank.

Despite its functional nature, the tower is elaborate in its design. You can walk through the gardens and admire the exterior, or go inside to see the former prisons and to climb the spiral staircase to get a panoramic view of Belém. However, although the queues are not so long as those for the monastery, you are likely to have a wait before you can get in.

Fortress jutting into the sea. It has turrets and carvings on the exterior and there are lots of people queuing to get in.
The former fortress and prison of Belém Tower

Padrão Dos Descobrimentos

Walking along the riverside from Belém Tower towards the monastery, you come to the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, a monument commemorating the Age of Discovery in Portugal. It was originally built as a temporary exhibit for the Portuguese World Fair in 1940, but has now become a permanent feature of the waterfront.

Standing at the point where ships once set off for the New World, the sculpture – shaped like the prow of a ship – features statues of Portuguese heroes, including Vasco da Gama and Luís de Camões, with Prince Henry the Navigator at the helm.

At the base of the monument is a large mosaic map showing the territories claimed by the Portuguese, and inside is a small museum dedicated to the history of Lisbon.

A large white monument with people standing around. There are carvings of people on the side of the monument.
The Padrão Dos Descobrimentos

Museums Of Belém

One of the most important museums is the Centro Cultural de Belém, a cultural and entertainment complex which includes the Museum of Contemporary Art (MAC/CCB). Elsewhere you will find the very popular National Coach Museum, one of the world’s best collections of vehicles from the 17th to 19th centuries. Other museums in Belém include the Bom Sucesso Fortress, close to the Tower of Belém and now used as a military museum.

Jardim Botânico Tropical

The place to escape the crowds is at the Tropical Botanical Garden, created for research purposes in 1906. It was repurposed for the World Exhibition in 1940 and several buildings from that time remain. Today it has a rather neglected, almost ghostly, feel but its avenues of trees, peaceful ponds and tropical plants (including some very old cacti) make it the perfect place for a quiet stroll.

A group of tropical trees beside a pond.
A quiet corner in the Botanical Garden

Enjoy The Pastéis De Belém

Portugal is known for its sweet pastries, including the pastéis de nata which are filled with egg custard and are said to have originated in the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. Locally they are known as pastéis de Belém, and the secret recipe is still guarded by the Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, which produces at least 20,000 of the tarts every day.

Call into their shop before you leave to enjoy a pastry in their café or buy a selection to take back to your hotel.

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How To Spend A Day In Belém

  • The no15 tram runs to Belém from the Praça do Comércio in the centre of Lisbon.
  • The Lisboa Card gives you unlimited public transport as well as entrance to attractions including the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos and the Torre de Belém (although you will still have to queue to get in).
  • You can also buy a combined ticket for the tower and the monastery (the Belém Bundle).
  • When it comes to food, it is best to avoid the places closest to the monastery as they will get very crowded at peak times. I had a very good meal at the Guelra on Rua de Belém, and there are also several places to eat along the waterfront.
  • If you want more time in Belém there is a choice of places to stay overnight. Have a look at the recommendations on booking.com.

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WorldWideWriter is owned and managed by Karen Warren.

I have been writing and travelling for many years (almost 70 countries at the last count), and I’ve visited every continent except Antarctica. This website is my attempt to inform and inspire other travellers, and to share some of the things I’ve discovered along the way. Read more…

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