The beautiful district of Belém is home to some of our favorite historic sites in Lisbon. Plan to spend at least half a day here exploring the Jardim da Praça do Império, the Jerónimos Monastery, the Torre de Belém, the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, and of course, treat yourself to some Natas at Pasteis de Belém.
Padrão dos Descobrimentos
Located on the northern bank of the Tagus River in the Belém, Padrão dos Descobrimentos, meaning “Monument to the Discoveries” pays tribute to the seafaring forefathers of Portugal. 33 notable explorers are carved on the monument including Henry the Navigator, Vasco da Gama, Bartholomew Diaz, Pedro Alvares Cabral, and the list goes on. The original monument was built using temporary materials and was showcased in 1940 as part of the Portuguese World Exhibition. It was later rebuilt in 1960 out of permanent materials to mark the 500 anniversary of the death of the Infante Dom Henrique (Henry the Navigator). The monument stands 50 meters/164 feet tall. Visitors can climb to the top for views of the Lisbon for a small fee of 5 euros (as of April 2018).
Now a popular tourist site, the Torre de Belém (Belém Tower) once played a key role during the Portuguese maritime discoveries. Commissioned by King John II, the tower was built in the early 16th century to defend Lisbon’s shores and serve as a ceremonial gateway to the city. The tower serves as a prime example of the Portuguese Manueline architectural style. This is especially evident in the rib vaulting, crosses of the Order of Christ, armillary spheres and other nautical themed motifs, like twisted rope detailing. The tower stands 30 meters / 98 feet tall. For a fee of 6 euro (as of April 2018) visitors can tour the tower and take in the views for the top. A combination ticket with the Jerónimos Monastery can also be purchased.
Monastery of Jerónimos
The site of the Jeronimos Monastery was also once the site of a hermitage founded by Prince Henry the Navigator. Here, Vasco da Gama and his crew spent their last night in Portugal before embarking on the open seas for India. The monastery was commissioned in 1502 by King Manuel 1 in memory of Henry the Navigator, and to honor the Virgin Mary, Our Lady, for the Portuguese maritime successes. Upon its completion nearly 100 years later, the monastery operated under the Order of St. Jerome, which is why we know it today as the Jerónimos (or Hieronymite) Monastery. The monastery is an outstanding example of the Portuguese Manueline style of architecture.
The Manuline Style of the 16th Century is one of the most iconic and influential architectural designs in Portuguese history. The style drew heavily from maritime motifs including nautical navigation and sailing equipment, and maritime wildlife and motifs.
The Belém Tower & Monastery of Jerónimos are two of the premier Manueline examples in the country.
Armillary Sphere shown here is navigation tool used along with celestial navigation by early sailors on the open ocean. It allowed the Portugues explorers to sail the open ocean reaching India, China and the Americas. It is a common part Manueline design and can be seen in the period and modern Portuguese architecture and design. FUN FACT: The Armillary Sphere is also displayed on the Portuguese Flag.
Location on the western side of Lisbon, a stroll through the Ajuda neighborhood might make you second-guess your whereabouts. At a glance, the Ponte 25 de Abril bridge could easily be mistaken for California’s famous Golden Gate bridge. And just across the way, the Santuário Nacional de Cristo Rei ( National Sanctuary of Christ the King) might take you back to Rio, Brazil. After all, Brazil’s Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) statue inspired the city of Lisbon to build a similar statue...
The Ajuda neighborhood is also home to one of our favorite palaces, the Palácio Nacional da Ajuda (Palace of Ajuda). The palace once served as a permanent residence of the royal family during the reign of King Luis I and his wife, Maria Pia of Savoy, but is now open to the public as a museum. So, what’s special about it? Unlike many of the palaces and castles in Europe, the Palace of Ajuda wasn’t leveled during WWII. The furniture and rooms are more authentic than many other palaces we have seen. Although the palace was never destroyed, it was no stranger to conflict; it was invaded by Napoleon’s troops in 1807 while still under construction and struggled to reach completion due to other political and financial problems.