Belém is a fascinating part of Lisbon, although it was originally way outside the city and important for its strategic position near the mouth of the River Tagus. With its illustrious naval history, medieval monuments and recent crop of cool museums, there are plenty of things to do in Belém. So much so that you should allow at least half a day, if not a whole one, to explore its sights.
Note: Don’t forget to check out my other suggestions for what to see in Lisbon when you’re working out how many days to spend in this gorgeous city.
What’s so special about Belém in Lisbon?
Although the metropolis of Lisbon had spread significantly by the early 20th century, until the 1940 Portuguese World Exhibition, it was a very different scene from the one you see today. The then dictator, Salazar, was keen to show off Portugal’s accomplishments and might to the rest of the world. In doing so, he completely changed the face of Belém with the construction of several monuments that can still be seen today.
In more recent years, Belém has provided the perfect backdrop for new museums, helping it become the modern, trendy area it is today and it’s surprising to see that, somehow, all the different pieces fit together so well.
Belém is home to some of the most visited museums and famous monuments in Portugal but even if you don’t feel like going for any of that, it’s still a very pleasant part of Lisbon to just go for a walk and take in the views. In a way, Belém is a great example of the city’s permanent love for the River Tagus.
Without further ado, let’s find out what to do in Belem…
1. Visit the UNESCO World Heritage Jerónimos Monastery
When in Belém this is the ‘must see’ monument, even if just from the outside. First, because it’s big and beautiful; second, because it’s very important; and third, because it’s on the list of UNESCO’s World Heritage monuments.
This glorious monastery was built in 1502 by order of the king to thank the Virgin Mary for the successful voyage of Vasco da Gama to India during the Age of Discovery, the spoils of which provided much of the wealth needed to create such a fine building. In terms of architectural style, it mixes traits from both Gothic and Manueline styles, with plenty of elaborate details and sea motifs carved into the stone.
Surprisingly, and thankfully, Jerónimos Monastery survived the infamous 1755 earthquake without much damage.
Great names in Portuguese history have their final resting place here, like Vasco da Gama, poet Luis de Camões (author of the epic poem The Lusiads), King Sebastião and poet Fernando Pessoa, among others.
As if you need another reason to love this monument, it is believed to have been the birthplace of Pastéis de Belém, the original recipe for pastel de nata. More on this in #8.
For a guided tour of Belém by a local historian or archaeologist that includes the monastery and Belem Tower, I suggest this very small group or even private tour with Context Travel.
Tip: If you are visiting the monastery without a tour, don’t wait in the often very long line to buy tickets. Go to the kiosk in the park across the road or buy your ticket online in advance.
Tip 2: If you are short on time (or money), visit the church for free – the much shorter queue on the right of the entrance to the monastery.
Opening times: October to May – From 10.00 am to 5.30 pm (last admission at 5.00 pm) | May to September – From 10.00 am to 6.30 pm (last admission at 6.00 pm). Closed: Mondays and 1st January, Easter Sunday, 1st May, 13th June and 25th December
Incidentally, if you’re looking for a fascinating and well-written book about Lisbon’s history to give this and other Lisbon sights some context, try Barry Hatton’s Queen of Lisbon.
2. Stroll around Belem’s emblematic Praça do Império
The main square in Belém was actually once a beach – the river used to almost reach the monastery in days gone by. However, to create space to build the monuments and park for the suitably impressive Portuguese World Exhibition in 1940, the land was reclaimed from the water.
This attractive square has manicured gardens with imposing sculptures, lakes and a fountain and sometimes hosts outdoor events. In recent years, it’s been the venue for the utterly bizarre but fun Iberian Masks Festival. On a more sedate but regular basis, you are likely to stumble across outdor craft fairs in this area.
3. Find the rhino on Torre de Belém/ Belém Tower
Declared World Heritage by UNESCO in 1983 Belém Tower was built in the early 16th century as part of a defence system on the Tagus estuary, although it would later serve as a prison. If you do venture inside the tower you can visit the bulwark where you can see the artillery, the bulwark terrace, a chapel and several rooms (King’s, governor’s and audience).
Most of the beauty of Belém Tower, however, is on the outside, which features traditional Manueline decorative motifs.
The armillary sphere, the cross of the Order of Christ and ropes are some of the things you can easily spot but if you pay close attention, at the base of the tower you can find part of a rhinoceros. It is believed to represent a real live rhinoceros that was sent as a gift from the Sultan of Cambay (now Gujarat) to the Portuguese king.
Note: Belém Tower is quite a walk from the centre of Belém so if you’re travelling by tram, you may be better off disembarking at Largo Princessa and doubling back on yourself to take Rua Praia do Bom Successo towards the footbridge over Avenida do Brasil (directions). Or you can walk along the riverfront from the Discoveries Monument, although you’ll have to walk around the edge of the marina.
Tip: If you’re short on time, this is one monument you don’t need to enter – the queues are long.
Address: Av. Brasília, 1400-038 Lisbon
Opening times: October to May: from 10.00 am to 5.30 pm (last admission at 5.00 pm) | May to September: from 10.00 am to 6.30 pm (last admission at 5.00 pm). Closed on Mondays and 1st January, Easter Sunday, 1st May, 13th June and 25th December.
4. Meet Portuguese heroes and see the views from the Discoveries Monument
This 56-metre high monument was first erected in temporary form as part of the 1940 Portuguese World Exhibition. Twenty years later, to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Henry the Navigator, it was rebuilt, this time using stone masonry from Leiria and Sintra.
The river-facing side of the Discoveries Monument (Padrão dos Descobrimentos) represents a caravel (the sailing ship of choice for 15th century Portuguese sea voyages of exploration) carrying Henry the Navigator and several other Portuguese personalities who played a major role in the Portuguese maritime discoveries. Sculpted on both sides of the prow you will find a total of 32 figures, from navigators, priests and warriors to cartographers and chroniclers, among others.
When standing in front of the Discoveries Monument, be sure to look down; not at your feet but at the compass rose made in 1960 in the traditional Portuguese pavement style of calçada. This impressive planisphere is decorated with mythical sea creatures as well as important dates and places related to the Portuguese discoveries of the 15th and 16 centuries.
Tip: You’ll get a bird’s eye view of the Compass Rose from the top of the monument, as well as great views up and downstream the Tagus and across Belém. However, if the weather is bad, and therefore the views will be poor, you might think twice about paying the €6 entrance fee.
Another way to see the Discoveries Monument, albeit not so close up, is on a boat trip along the Tagus.
Address: Av. Brasília, 1400-038 Lisbon
Opening times: March to September from 10 am to 7 pm every day (last admission: 6:30 pm) | October to February from 10 am to 6 pm – Tuesday to Sunday (last admission 5:30 pm). Closed on 1st January; 1st May and 25th December.
5. Get your art and architecture fix at the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (MAAT)
Get ready for one of the most Instagram famous buildings in the city! The iconic red brick Tejo Power Station, a symbol of this blue collar area of Lisbon, has a new friend built right next to it on the banks of the River Tejo – the futuristic and swirly MAAT. Together, these two very different buildings form Lisbon’s Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (MAAT).
A former thermoelectric power plant, the Tejo Power Station generated Lisbon’s electricity from 1909 to 1954 and its brick covered façade exhibits several architectural styles, like Classicism and Art Nouveau. Years ago it became a museum which now hosts a permanent exhibition about the evolution of electricity as well as on the story of this power plant. This is one of Mike’s all-time favourite museums, thanks to the heavy duty machinery on display.
In stark contrast, the highly photogenic and modern-looking MAAT building hosts exhibitions, workshops, talks and several other cultural events. Located right in front of the river this building features a pedestrian roof with marvelous views over the city and the river so even if you don’t go inside, you can walk onto the roof.
Note: Severe storms in December 2019 have damaged the entrance to the new MAAT building so it is closed for reparis until the end of March 2020. The Power Station (Central) building is still open.
Address: Av. Brasília, 1300-598 Lisbon
Opening times: Open from 11 am to 7 pm. Closed on Tuesdays. Also closes on 1st January, 1st May and 25th December. On 24th and 31st of December, the museum closes at 3pm.
6. Hang out at the Centro Cultural de Belém (aka, CCB) / Belém Cultural Center
When CCB first opened in 1992, many critics complained that it was an eyesore, given the contrast between its straight lines and the classical beauty of nearby Mosteiro dos Jerónimos and Torre de Belém. Over time, the wealth of exhibitions, concerts, cultural events, shops and several other activities that the Belém Cultural Centre hosts have won it a place in the hearts of Lisbon-dwellers.
CCB is the kind of place where there’s always something going on, which makes it a good spot to spend some quality time indoors if you happen to be visiting Lisbon and the weather is not so great – there’s also a café and restaurants for snacks, meals or just a cocktail with a great view.
Address: Praça do Império, Belem, Lisbon
Opening times: Monday to Friday from 8 am to 8 pm, Saturdays, Sundays and holidays from 10 am to 6 pm. Closed on December 25th but unlike most places, it’s open on 1st January.
7. Marvel at fairytale carriages in the National Coach Museum
You’ll find a dazzling array of coaches, cabriolets, state carriages, sedan chairs, litters and landaus from the 17th to the early 20th century in this museum. The original Coach Museum was opened in 1905 by order of queen Amélia and housed this extraordinary collection in the beautifully decorated royal riding school building until 2015, when a new, purpose built new museum was established.
The permanent exhibition features some one-of-a-kind items like rare royal coaches, Pope mobiles, and the promenade vehicle in which the Portuguese royal family was travelling in 1908 when the king and the heir to the throne were shot and killed.
Most of the carriages are in the new building next to Belem train station but it’s worth going to see the smaller collection in the Roual Riding School building on Rua da Junqueira if you like painted ceilings.
Address: Avenida da Índia 136, 1300-004 Lisbon
Opening times: Tuesday to Sunday: from 10:00 am to 6 pm (last admission: 5:30 pm). Closed on Mondays, January 1st, May 1st, Easter Sunday, June 13th, December 24th and 25th.
8. Indulge your sweet tooth with an original-recipe Pastel de Belém
While history-rich monuments and museums can be fascinating, one of the ‘must dos’ when visiting Portugal is to try a Portuguese custard tart, aka pastel de nata or pastel de Belém. Flaky and buttery on the outside, sweet and creamy on the inside, these delicious pastries originated right here in Belém and it is believed that the recipe came from the Jerónimos Monastery.
In the 19th century someone in the monastery created these pastries in order to sell them to visitors and make enough money to survive. The original recipe, kept in a vault, is the one still used today by Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, which serves thousands of pastéis every day.
If you go inside, take a moment to notice the bule and white tiles and the weird and wonderful animals depicted on them.
Tip: The line outside the Antiga Confeitaria de Belém is most likely for the takeaway counter. If you want to sit inside and enjoy a coffee with your warm pastel de Belém, go inside and, if the first room(s) are full, keep going to the larger café area at the back of the building. There may be a line here at peak times so wait to be seated as the waiters get understandably cross if you disrespect the queuing system.
Address: Rua de Belém 84 92, 1300-085 Lisbon
Opening times: Everyday from 8:00 am to 11 pm. On December 24th, 25th, 31st and January 1st it closes at 7 pm.
9. Check out the contemporary art at the Berardo Museum
The Museu Coleção Berardo is one of the most visited museums in Portugal when it comes to modern and contemporary art and never fails to impress me with its temporary exhibits.
The Berardo Collection showcases the most meaningful artistic movements from the beginning of the 20th century to the present day, with a selection of more than 900 works from over 70 artistic tendencies. You’ll find big names such as Picasso, Dalí, Andy Warhol and Vieira da Silva as well as other international artists.
Find out about other great Lisbon museums in this article.
Address: Praça do Império, 1449-003 Lisbon
Opening times: Open every day Monday to Sunday – from 10 am to 7 pm (last admission: 6:30 pm) | 24th December from 10 am to 14:30 pm (last admission 2 pm), 31st December from 10 am to 14:30 pm (last admission 2 pm), 1st January from 12 pm to 7 pm (last admission 6:30 pm). Closed on December 25th and 21st January.
10. Watch the changing of the guard outside Belém Palace
On the third Sunday of the month, traffic comes to a standstill in Belém to allow for the pomp and ceremony that surrounds the traditional changing of the guards outside the president’s palace.
The ritual began back in 1910 when the Portuguese monarchy were ousted and Portugal became a republic. It involves a lot of choreographed marching and serious faces on the part of the guards on foot, accompanied by the music of the brass band.
Once the men outside the palace gates have done their bit and swapped places, the cavalry ride in from the direction of the Jeronimos Monastery on their white and grey Lusitano horses. The first group of riders carry instruments and simultaneously show off their musical skills and horsemanship. The horseback band is followed by another group of guards on horseback with shiny swords and sharp stares.
I stumbled upon this fascinating display by accident but if you want to make a point of seeing it, be on Rua da Junqueira before 11 am, when the horseback procession and band begins.
11. Escape the crowds in the Tropical Botanical Gardens
Just behind the Jeronimos Monastery lies an oasis of calm where you can refresh your mind and soul between museums and monuments. These botanical gardens have recently been renovated – they were looking ratehr tired when I last visited – so should be fun to explore and discover oddities like the Chinese pagoda and the bust of Camões, Portugal’s beloved poet.
There are some lovely azulejos around one of the ponds and some African sculptures dotted around for you to find.
The Jardim Botanical Tropical is open daily from 9 am to 8 pm and costs €4 for adults.
The remaining entires on my list of things to do in Belem are still on my own wish list for future trips to Lisbon but if you have a special interest in any of these, you might want to factor them into your visit.
12. Discover the world of Portuguese folk art at Museu de Arte Popular
This small museum displays items connected to Portuguese folk art, from costumes, jewelry and musical instruments to ceramics and traditional farming tools, among others. It also hosts temporary exhibitions.
Address: Av. Brasília 202, 1400-038 Lisbon
Opening times: Wednesday to Sunday from 10 am to 6 pm (last admission 5:30 pm), Saturdays and Sundays closed from 1 pm to 2 pm. Closed on Mondays, Tuesdays, January 1st, Easter Sunday, May 1st, June 13th, 24th and 25th December.
13. Learn about Portuguese naval history and vessels at the Naval Museum
Created by royal decree in 1863, it was almost 100 years later that this museum moved to its new home in the Jeronimos Monastery. This naval museum focuses very much on the period of the Portuguese Age of Discoveries in the 15th and 16th centuries, although it also features older items, some dating back to the Roman era.
On display you’ll find a variety of objects, from models of royal vessels and ships to nautical charts, navigation instruments, paintings, photographs, weapons and awards, among other items.
Address: Praça do Império, Belem
Opening times: May 1st – September 30th from 10 am to 6 pm (last admission 5:30 pm) | October 1st to April 30th from 10 am to 5 pm (last admission 4:30 pm). Open every day except January 1st, Easter Sunday, May 1st and December 25th.
14. Dig deep into Portuguese history and prehistory at the National Archaeology Museum
The Museu Nacional de Arqueologia occupies the former dormitory of the Jerónimos monastery and boasts a remarkable collection focusing, as one might expect, on Portugal. The items on display date from the pre- and protohistoric, Roman, Arab and medieval periods, and span several areas, like archaeology, ethnography, pre-Latin and Latin epigraphy, coins and written documentation.
Worthy of special attention are the Egyptian section and the Iron Age warrior sculpted in stone, which was found in the north of Portugal.
Address: Praça do Império, Belem, Lisbon
Opening times: Tuesday to Sunday from 10 am to 6 pm (last admission 5:45 pm). Closed on Mondays, Easter Sunday, May 1st, June 13th, 24th and 25th December, January 1st.
15. Explore 20th century Portuguese military history inside a fortress
The Museu do Combatente + Monumento aos Combatentes do Ultramar (Monumnent to Overseas Fighters and the Fighters’ Museum)
The Fort of Bom Sucesso (a piece of history in itself) houses a museum that focuses on the Portuguese military interventions that took place in the 20th century, i.e. World War I, the overseas campaigns in what were, at the time, Portuguese colonies and Peace Missions.
The permanent exhibition explores the history of military aviation and the figure of the Portuguese soldier in the 20th century. Outside you’ll find the Monument to the Overseas Fighters, a tribute to the soldiers who fought in Africa from 1961 to 1974.
Address: Forte do Bom Sucesso, 1400-038 Lisbon
Opening times: October to March: 10 am – 5 pm | April to September: 10 am – 6 pm.
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