An Architectural Tour of Belém, Lisbon ♦ Take a trip back to the Age of Discovery on this architectural walking tour of Lisbon’s riverside Belém district, where the lure of the sea is tangible to this day. Secrets From Portugal brings you all about the amazing Belém, the golden age of exploration is still beautifully mapped out in the pale limestone buildings of Belém to the west of Lisbon, where the River Tagus broadens to meet the wave-lashed Atlantic.
When great navigators set sail in caravels from Lisbon in the 15th century, they returned with magnificent riches from newly collected colonial lands to fill the royal coffers. Today, this golden age of exploration is still beautifully mapped out in the pale limestone buildings of Belém to the west of Lisbon, where the River Tagus broadens to meet the wave-lashed Atlantic.
With its mighty monastery and fortress, this neighbourhood was the showpiece of King Manuel I, the namesake of the whimsical and exuberant Gothic style known as Manueline. Exploring the area on foot takes you to landmarks that will catapult you back to those glory days of discovery, as well as to a clutch of contemporary architectural icons.
Art Museum, Architecture Museum, Science Museum
The MAAT – Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology, which opened its doors to the public on 5 October. Presenting itself as a new cultural centre in the city of Lisbon, the MAAT represents an ambition to host national and international exhibitions with contributions by contemporary artists, architects and thinkers.
A space for debate, critical thinking and international dialogue, which offers an intense and diverse programme conceived for all audiences and ages. The new building rises on the riverfront with an architectural narrative that is sensitive to the city’s cultural heritage and future, offering, among other features, a pedestrian roof that offers a privileged view of Lisbon and the Tagus, and which immediately became an iconic location.
Museu Nacional dos Coches
Transportation Museum, History Museum
The National Coach Museum assembles the world’s finest collection of ceremonial and promenade vehicles from the 16th to the 19th century. Mostly originating from the Portuguese Royal House, it also includes vehicles from the Church and private collections. This excellent collection enables visitors to understand the technical and artistic evolution of animal-drawn transportation used by European courts before the advent of the automobile. 70 vehicles are exposed in the new building, the oldest dating from the 16th century while the most recent one is a 19th century mounted courier. As well as a collection of horse-drawn vehicles, the Museum also boasts a set of accessories used in ceremonial parades, equestrian games, cavalry harnesses and portrays of the Portuguese Royal Family.
Situated high up in gardens on a gently sloped hill, Belém Palace is the official residence of Portugal’s president since 1910. It was built in 1559 and altered in the 18th century by King João V. The Presidency Museum is part of the palace and can be visited every day (except Mondays). It tells the story of the Portuguese Republic and its Presidents, with a permanent collection explaining the history of the nationals symbols (flag and anthem) and the role of the presidents through photographs. In one gallery are portraits of every Portuguese president, and in another are the gifts each received from world leaders and other prominent figures.
Mosteiro dos Jerónimos
Follow Rua de Belém west, stopping en route at Pastéis de Belém for a cheeky pastel de Belém custard tart (this historic bakery has been making the best since 1837), before arriving at Belém’s architectural crowning glory: Jerónimos Monastery. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a shining example of the Manueline style, built to celebrate Vasco da Gama’s inaugural voyage to India in 1498.
The cloisters brim with delicate stonework details that nod to those seafaring triumphs, with a riot of shell-shaped turrets, arches like twisted rope and motifs like the armillary sphere. Be sure to also visit the refectory to glimpse azulejo panels depicting the biblical miracle of the loaves and fishes, and the richly ornamented church with its weblike rib-vaulting. Part of the complex also shelters the Museu de Marinha, providing deeper insight into the Age of Discovery with model ships, maps and navigation instruments.
Centro Cultural de Belém
It might be hewn from the same rustic limestone as the monastery just opposite, but in all other respects the Centro Cultural de Belém is its architectural antithesis. Designed as a city in microcosm, with courtyards, squares, bridges and gardens, the clean-lined, light-drenched cultural complex raised a few critical eyebrows when it opened in 1993. Designed by architects Vittorio Gregotti (Italy) and Manuel Salgado (Portugal), it brings together concert halls, conference and exhibition centres and the outstanding Berardo Collection of modern and contemporary art. Head up to Topo terrace for drinks with cracking river views.
Padrão dos Descobrimentos
Like the prow of a mighty caravel, this huge monument to Portugal’s great navigators rises above the Tagus River. Surely one of the most Instagrammable landmarks of Lisbon, the limestone monument was erected in 1960 to mark the 500th anniversary of Prince Henry the Navigator’s death. On either side of the caravel are stone carvings of famous mariners, cartographers, monarchs, scientists and other prominent figures of the age. Alongside Henry at the helm is another Age of Discovery superstars, including Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan. At the front, you’ll see the black-and-red limestone compass rose mosaic, mapping out the main routes of Portuguese expansion in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Torre de Belém
Architectural Landmark, Historical Landmark
Popping up above the river, this eye-catching Manueline fortress is a Lisbon landmark and a symbol of the Age of Discovery. Designed by famous military architect Francisco de Arruda and built between 1514 and 1520, the limestone fort forms part of Belém’s UNESCO World Heritage Site together with Mosteiro dos Jerónimos.
The twisted ropes, knots and vaults of the stonework are typical of the age, but Francisco de Arruda, inspired by his travels in Morocco, added a pinch of Moorish style, visible in the arched windows and ribbed cupolas of the watchtowers. Look carefully for the stone rhinoceros, which depicts the real one that was a gift from India in 1515. King Manuel I soon tired of it as a pet and shipped it off to Pope Leo X to win favour. The sunsets here are magic, so linger until then if you can.