The Monument to the Discoveries epitomises Portugal’s Golden Age of Exploration. Located in Belém, the arrival and departure point for Portuguese explorers and their booty-laden ships, the district’s reputation for wealth and glamour has persisted for centuries. The Monument to the Discoveries really is monumental. Made in 1940 but officially installed in 1960, this waterside sculpture soars upwards, a memorial of the 500th anniversary of the death of Henry the Navigator. Etched into the edifice are the late greats of Portuguese navigation, who are marching out to sea following Henry’s lead. But there’s so much more to the neighbourhood. Today, travellers love Belém for its museums (The Berardo Collection) and famous landmarks (Belém Tower), while locals savour the atmosphere – and what could beat the city’s best pastries at Pasteis de Belém. Save some time, and some room: here is our guide to exploring Belém.
The Belém Tower is to Lisbon as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris – it may not be quite as statuesque, but this tower is often thought of as a symbol for the city itself. Dating back to the early 16th century, this stunning UNESCO World Heritage site also managed to survive the devastating earthquake of 1755, making it one of the finest existing examples of traditional Manueline architecture.
Speaking of UNESCO: the eponymous tower isn’t the only Belém landmark given world-class status. Also included is Jerónimos Monastery, just steps away and another symbol of Portugal’s Golden Age. Commissioned to honour Vasco da Gama’s eastern expeditions, the building’s scope and complexity are enough to bring any architecture lover to tears.
Filled with eggy custard, crumbling into flaky layers, and topped with an appealing patina of char spots, the pastel de nata may well be one of Portugal’s most famous exports. But not all pasteis are alike. Follow the locals (and it shouldn’t be hard to spot them, given the queue out the door) to Pasteis de Belém, widely considered to have the best in the city. These ones also come dusted with a coating of cinnamon and icing sugar.
Can’t decide between getting your architectural fix and going for a simple ramble? Combine the two in the Praço do Império, not just the largest public square in the city but in the whole of the Iberian Peninsula. Featuring an ornamental garden and flanked by the Jerónimos Monastery, this is prime photo-taking turf.
Catch a glimpse of the Portuguese president’s digs and meander over to the beautiful, if oddly coloured, Bélem Palace. History lovers can also check out the on-site Presidency Museum, but even for those who don’t wander indoors, its distinctive, petal pink exterior should provide more than enough to gawp at.
After giving yourself an eyeful of old-school architecture, it may be time for a palate cleanser. Happily, Belém isn’t just a destination for all things historical. It’s also home to the Berardo Collection Museum, a collection of modern and contemporary art and one of Portugal’s most visited museums. Highlights include canvases by the likes of Josef Albers and Jean-Michel Basquiat, as well as works by a number of Portuguese artists.
Belém in Lisbon may not be quite as tropical as the other Belém (that one’s in Brazil, mind), but you wouldn’t know it if you wandered into the Tropical Botanic Garden. Over 400 warm weather-loving plants call this park home, including banyan trees, palm trees, and decidedly less common monkey-puzzle trees.
After a visit to the Monument to the Discoveries head to the docas – or docks – in Belém, and you’ll find some of the best views around. Profit from the waterfront sightseeing and snack on something a touch more filling than a pastel de nata at À Margem, a modernist café with a menu of light bites and a winning terrace on which to enjoy them.
Any lengthy neighbourhood excursion is bound to work up a hearty thirst. Luckily, Enoteca de Belém is there to sate it. A miniscule wine bar whose list is much larger in scale than its dining room is in size, the enoteca has an impressive selection of Portuguese wine, and no shortage of port besides. Don’t miss the food either, which offers inventive, contemporary Portuguese cooking.