10 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Belém

Belém
Belém
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The picturesque Lisbon suburb of Belém lies on the banks of the River Tagus on the western edge of the city. A leafy residential area blessed with wonderful parks and gardens, Belém is forever associated with the era of Discoveries, a period of maritime glory when Portuguese navigators embarked on long and perilous voyages to chart unknown seas and map new lands. It was from here, in 1497, that Vasco da Gama embarked on his historic expedition that led to the opening of a sea route to India.

Belem blossomed, and Portugal's king, Manuel I, ordered the construction of the vast Mosteiro dos Jerónimos and the Torre de Belém. Fortunately, these both survived the great earthquake of 1755 and today are two of the most cherished historic buildings in the country; both are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Also here is the impressive Padrão dos Descobrimentos, a contemporary monument to the Golden Age of Discovery that soars over the riverfront.

Complemented by a cluster of superb museums and a world-class cultural center, family-friendly Belem is easily reached from the city by train or tram. The wide esplanade that flanks the river provides a wonderful seaside stroll with excellent cafes and restaurants along the way.

1 Mosteiro dos Jerónimos

Mosteiro dos Jerónimos
Mosteiro dos Jerónimos
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Among the most celebrated historic monuments in Portugal, the Jerónimos monastery is also one of the jewels in Lisbon's sightseeing crown. Commissioned by King Manuel I in 1501 and timed to coincide with the return of Vasco da Gama (1460-1524) after his momentous voyage to India, the church and adjacent monastery are considered the greatest examples of Manueline architecture in the country. The church's south portal is astonishing in its detail, with no less than 40 statues of ornate filigree embellishing the entrance. Inside, the nave is equally exuberant, the vaulting carved to resemble giant palms fanning out from slender octagonal pillars. Several royal tombs are placed in and around the chancel, including those of Manuel himself and King João III. Laid to rest nearer the entrance are Vasco da Gama and the poet Luís de Camões. Architect Diogo de Boitaca was originally tasked with designing the building but the sumptuous carved stone arches and balustrades in the cloister are the work of João de Castilho, who replaced de Boitaca in 1517. The monastery was occupied by the Order of St. Jerome (Hieronymites) until 1834.

This is one of the most beautiful and tranquil religious sites found anywhere in Portugal. Indeed, its cultural significance is such that it has long been a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Address: Praça do Império, Belém, Lisbon

Official site: www.mosteirojeronimos.pt

2 Torre de Belém

Torre de Belém
Torre de Belém
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Jutting out of the water off the Belem riverfront, the quirky-looking Belém Tower is one of the most recognized of all Lisbon's tourist attractions and has become a symbol of the city. Completed in 1521, it originally functioned as a fortress to defend the mouth of the River Tagus and would have sat in the middle of the estuary (time and tide has shifted the river's course). The tower was built during the reign of King Manuel I and as such is regaled with plenty of Manueline architectural symbolism - carved stone maritime motifs like coiled and twisted rope, armillary spheres, and the Cross of the Order of Christ, a military order that helped finance early voyages of discovery.

The tower's interior is arranged over various levels, and a tour takes you from the lower battery, which served as a magazine and a dungeon, to an upper terrace where splendid views of the river and Belem's waterfront can be admired. Along the way, you'll discover a beautiful Renaissance loggia and a weathered rhinoceros' head among other surprises, but you'll have to climb a very steep spiral staircase to find them. Not surprisingly, this unique example of military architecture is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Address: Avenida da Brasília, Belém, Lisbon

Official site: www.torrebelem.pt

3 Palácio Nacional da Ajuda

Palácio Nacional da Ajuda
Palácio Nacional da Ajuda
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On a hill overlooking Belém, the construction of the National Palace of Ajuda was ordered by the Portuguese royal family in 1802, but was incomplete when the they were forced into exile in Brazil in 1807 during the invasion of Napoleon's troops. The neglected building only became a permanent royal residence when Luís I became king in 1861 and married an Italian princess, Maria Pia di Savoia (Queen Maria II).

The union prompted a lavish spending spree that saw the apartments expensively furnished and richly decorated with damask silk wallpaper and wool and velvet tapestries. Suites of tables, chairs, and cabinets carved from Scotch pine, Brazilian rosewood, oak, and mahogany are set across sumptuously ornamented rooms. Wander slowly through each salon and you'll notice rare and valuable items such as the Louis XVI skeleton clock in the Audience Room. Sometimes it's the entire apartment that dazzles, such as the Pink Room, in which every piece of furniture is decorated with Meissen porcelain. And regal excess is exemplified by the Queen's Bedroom where a huge bed set in lacquered wood imitating ebony, bronze, and gilded metal is draped with blue velvet sash. A highlight is the opulent Banqueting Hall replete with crystal chandeliers suspended from a fantastically frescoed ceiling. Its grandeur is such that it's still used by the President of Portugal for state ceremonies.

But it's also the small details that can catch your breath. In the recently opened chapel (off limits to the public for many years) seek out the Roman prayer book, made in France in 1856 and exquisitely bound with mother-of-pearl, silver, gold, paper, cotton, and silk.

Address: Largo da Ajuda, Belém, Lisbon

4 Antiga Confeitaria de Belém

Antiga Confeitaria de Belém
Antiga Confeitaria de Belém Jordiet.
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One of the most appetizing things to see and do in Belém is to indulge in a plate of Pasteis de Belém - flaky pastries crammed with custard cream and, if you want, lightly dusted with icing sugar and cinnamon. The tarts are made from a secret recipe that originated in the kitchens of the nearby Mosteiro dos Jerónimos at the beginning of the 19th century, and while much imitated across Portugal, it's the Antiga Confeitaria de Belém pastelaria that bakes the most authentic. Indeed, only a select number of master confectioners are privy to the exact ingredients and they are sworn to secrecy. Whatever ingredients are used the rich, sweet cakes are absolutely mouth-watering, and the kids will love them.

The pastries have been baked on site since 1837 and are served still warm in the cavernous premises. Around 15,000 are turned out every day, a figure that can double during busy weekends. Sometimes it's impossible to get a table, and the only option is to munch them standing at the counter. You can also purchase a box to go. Tea, coffee, and other assorted drinks can also be ordered at this historic bakery.

Address: Rua de Belém 84-92, Belém, Lisbon

5 Museu da Electricidade (Electricity Museum)

Museu da Electricidade (Electricity Museum)
Museu da Electricidade (Electricity Museum)
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The decommissioned Central Tejo electricity generating station that houses the Electricity Museum is itself a remarkable example of industrial architecture. Dating from 1891, the impressive red brick structure lies on the riverbank, and its cathedral-like dimensions dominate the vicinity. The interactive exhibition has been imaginatively integrated into the facility's low-pressure boilers room and steam engine rooms and offers visitors a fascinating insight into the day-to-day workings of this historic plant. Every piece of machinery is original and has been fully restored, and a tour takes you past the control consoles and gigantic furnaces that fired the coal and continues through the lower level. Here, coal ashes were collected by men working in 40-degree heat.

Displays of vintage transformers, electrical switchboards, and assorted lamps perfectly convey the electric generating process. The beautifully lit steam engine room houses the enormous turbines and generators that illuminated Lisbon in the first half of the 20th century. Youngsters are kept amused in the energy room by an array of hands-on experiments designed to test their scientific knowledge, while a permanent exhibition devoted to the discovery of electricity profiles pioneers such as Michael Faraday, who contributed to the fields of electromagnetism and electrochemistry.

Address: Avenida da Brasília, Belém, Lisbon

6 Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries)

Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries)
Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries)
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Built to resemble the shape of a caravel, the massive, angular Monument to the Discoveries is a prominent feature of the Belem waterfront. Designed by architect Cottinelli Telmo and the sculptor Leopoldo de Almeida, the 52 meter-high monolith was inaugurated in 1960 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the death of Henry the Navigator. It honors Henry in stone, seen standing at the prow, along with other historical figures that took part in the development of the Portuguese Age of Discovery. These include Vasco da Gama, who opened up a sea route to India in 1498; Pedro Álvares Cabral, discoverer of Brazil in 1500; and Fernão Magalhães (Magellan), who crossed the Pacific in 1520. The beautifully carved statues also figure poet Luís de Camões and King Manuel I.

After admiring the masonry, you can retrace the routes of the discoverers on the huge pavement compass set in marble in front of the monument. This stunning mosaic map of the world is embellished with mermaids and galleons and the dates when each new land was sighted. Actually it looks even better from above, so after globetrotting head to the top of the monument where you can gaze over the map and soak in the marvelous views that encompass Belém, the river, and the Atlantic Ocean. Another fabulous photo opportunity is at night when the Padrão dos Descobrimentos is bathed in spotlight.

Address: Avenida da Brasília, Belém, Lisbon

7 Museu Nacional dos Coches (Coach Museum)

Museu Nacional dos Coches (Coach Museum)
Museu Nacional dos Coches (Coach Museum) Geerd-Olaf Freyer
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The Coach Museum is one of Lisbon's most popular sightseeing attractions. The collection of carriages and saddlery is the finest in the world and also includes fine examples of litters, sedan chairs, and cabriolets. Presently housed in the east wing of the Palacio de Belém, a former riding school built by Italian architect Giacomo Azzolini in 1726, the museum was the idea of Queen Amélia and opened in 1905.

Set under a stuccoed and frescoed hall, royal coaches and ceremonial carriages spanning three centuries and sumptuously decorated and upholstered line the marble floor. The oldest coach in the collection was used by Spain's King Philip II in 1619 during a state visit to Portugal, but it's not the most ornate. That prize goes to the coach built in 1716 for the Marquês de Abrantes, the Portuguese ambassador to Pope Clement XI. The Baroque riot of gilded life-size statues clinging to the rear of the coach is the epitome of pomp and extravagance. A far more subtle decoration is the rear panel painting adorning the King José I coach by court artist Cirillo Volkmar Machado, the same man responsible for illustrating the Throne Room ceiling at Mafra Palace. Another highlight is the Crown Carriage built in London for King João VI and last used by British monarch Queen Elizabeth II during her state visit to Portugal in 1957.

Address: Praça Afonso de Albuquerque, Belém, Lisbon.

Official site: www.museudoscoches.pt

8 Centro Cultural de Belém

Centro Cultural de Belém
Centro Cultural de Belém Leandro Neumann Ciuffo
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One of Lisbon's premier cultural centers, the CCB offers a world-class program of performing arts, music, and photography. It also houses the renowned Museu Coleção Berardo - Portugal's principal museum of modern and contemporary art. Dance and theater err towards the experimental with national and international artists invited to perform. Music fans are treated to an eclectic agenda. Classical music concerts are held here, and jazz gets a regular airing. The CCB is also a stage for World Music and Portugal's own fado. Arts festivals are held throughout the year along with summer schools and workshops. Visitors can browse the center's website for program and ticketing information.

Modern art buffs, meanwhile, are in for a treat. The permanent Berardo Collection is a unique collection of contemporary art amassed by Portuguese billionaire José Berardo ("Joe" to his friends). The valuable stash includes works by Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, David Hockney, Francis Bacon, and Mark Rothko. The collection is so vast that works are rotated, but favorites like Andy Warhol's red-lipped Judy Garland and Roy Lichtenstein's spotty Interior with Restful Painting are usually exhibited. Portugal's Paula Rego is also in the frame.

A terrace café and restaurant provide respite and pleasant views of the surroundings, and there are a number of boutiques and art galleries worth browsing.

Address: Praça do Império, Belém, Lisbon

Official site: http://www.ccb.pt

9 Museu de Marinha (Maritime Museum)

Museu de Marinha (Maritime Museum)
Museu de Marinha (Maritime Museum) Philip Larson
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Housed in the west wing of the Jerónimos monastery, the Maritime Museum perfectly evokes Portugal's proud seafaring heritage and, in particular, provides an illuminating voyage through the pioneering Age of Discovery. The museum is actually where a chapel built by Henry the Navigator once stood. Here, mariners took mass before setting sail to chart unknown waters and explore new lands. Fittingly, the Discoveries Hall displays one of the most important exhibits in the entire collection, a wooden figure representing the Archangel Raphael that accompanied Vasco da Gama on his expedition to India in 1498.

The history of shipbuilding is imparted in a wonderfully creative manner by way of dozens of small replica boats displayed in glass cabinets. Arranged in chronological order, they illustrate the transition from the barque to the lanteen-rigged and then the later square-rigged caravel, to the Portuguese nau. Individual gems of note include a 1645 terrestrial globe made by the celebrated Willem Jansz Blaeu. There's also the complete and opulently furnished wood-paneled cabin of King Carlos and Queen Amélia from the royal yacht Amélia, built in 1900. The museum also holds the world's largest collection of astrolabes.

A fully restored seaplane, the "Santa Cruz," which made the first trans-South Atlantic flight in 1922, can be admired by the exit, but the museum tour continues in a pavilion opposite the main building where a number of original royal barges, one of which was built in 1780 for Queen Maria I, stand in extravagant splendor.

Address: Praça do Império, Belém, Lisbon

10 Museu da Presidência da República-Palácio de Belém (Museum of the Presidency of the Republic)

Museu da Presidência da República-Palácio de Belém (Museum of the Presidency of the Republic)
Museu da Presidência da República-Palácio de Belém (Museum of the Presidency of the Republic) Philip Larson
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Have you ever wondered what happens to all those gifts presented to heads of state when they're visiting other countries? In Portugal, they end up in this unusual museum, which houses a fascinating hoard of rare and valuable artifacts given to the country's presidents by notable national and international personalities. The museum chronicles the history of the Portuguese republic since its declaration in 1910 through the presidents' official portraits (including a very offbeat likeness of Mário Soares (president from 1983-96) by celebrated artist Júlio Pomar, ceremonial and national flags, photographs, and documents.

The adjacent Belém Palace is the official residence of the Portuguese President and you can join a guided tour of the premises on weekends. A highlight is the beautiful Sala Dourada (Golden Room) set under an 18th-century paneled ceiling of gilded wood. You'll also be shown the grand Sala Império (Empire Room), named for its Empire-style furniture. Included in the tour are the landscaped gardens ornamented with water features and bordered by lavender and myrtle hedges. If you visit on the third Sunday of the month, you can watch the changing of the guard, which takes place at 11am in front of the palace and is a wonderful ceremonial treat.

Address: Praça Afonso de Albuquerque, Belém, Lisbon

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