Wealth, fame, and fortune, along with spreading Christianity, were reasons why daring sailors like Ferdinand Magellan, Vasco de Gama, and the likes set sail in uncharted waters. This was from a period known as the Age of Discovery. From 1400 to 300 years later, European explorers, many of which are from the seafaring country of Portugal and Spain, visited and mapped most of the world. Portugal discovered the sea route to India while the Spaniards discovered America.
Portugal, a small kingdom whose economy relied on seafaring in the 15th century, had a visionary ruler in Henry the Navigator. He encouraged and paid many to explore the world. And so this nation once ruled the waves.
Belem is where the Tagus River meets the sea. From its waterfront, many of the great Portuguese explorers embarked on their voyage to discover the world. During this time, Lisbon flourished and many great monuments were constructed.
Belem Tower was one of those. A magnificent fortress also named Tower of St. Vincent, as it was built to honor Lisbon’s patron saint. The tower situated at the mouth of the Tagus River was initially built to defend the city. The 4-storey tower was originally constructed on an island in the Tagus River near the shore. It stands on land today because the riverbank’s location shifted through the years.
Belem’s main street and historical avenues are a strip of 160-year-old buildings that have survived changes and modernization. These include the famous pastry shop, Antiga Confeteria de Belem, known for a particular Portuguese confectionery, an egg tart called
Pasteis de Belem—the flakiest pastry filled with creamy custard. Just across from Jeronimos Monastery, the shop is easily spotted because of the long line spilling over to the sidewalk. Many of which are visitors from the stunning monastery.
The Jeronimos Monastery is a classic example of a Portuguese late Gothic Manueline architecture. Along with the nearby Tower of Belem, it was classified in 1983 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is one of the significant emblems of the Age of Discovery and the distinct maritime motif, which includes corals, sea monsters, and coiled rope, reflects that golden era.
The monastery was built in honor of the successful voyage to India of celebrated Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama. This is also where De Gama, King Manuel, and other prominent figures were laid to rest.
Sitting opposite the monastery, on the banks of the Tagus River, is another stunning iconic monument, the Discoveries Monument. Dedicated to the adventurers and explorers who helped established Portugal as a 14th-century superpower. Unveiled in 1960, on the 500th death anniversary of Prince Henry the Navigator. The massive monument had Prince Henry at the prow of a caravel, backed by figures from Portuguese history that participated in the golden age of discovery.
I have to admit, Belem caught my attention because of one thing only—Pasteis de Belem. If this is the only thing you do, that tram ride to Belem will be worth it already. But it would be a waste to miss its historical sights, which are all within walking distance anyway.
Lisbon’s gateway to the Atlantic, Belem, is where the Tagus meets the sea and where the naval explorer of yore started their journey to the unknown. Take the effort to visit it when in Lisbon.
Jeronimos Monastery: Praca do Imperio
Opening Hours: Oct-Apr: Tues-Sun 10AM-5:30PM May-Sep: Tues-Sun 10AM-6:30PM Admission: €7
Antiga Confiteria de Belem: 84/92 Rua de Belem
One thought on “Belem: The Glory days of Portugal’s Explorers”
It’s a beautiful part of the city. I love the area. We also spent time in the park across from the monastery munching on warm freshly roasted chestnuts. It was a delightfully blue skied day when we went to visit. How fortunate.