The full title for this part of Lisbon is Santa Maria de Belem, but it is universally known as Belem. I don’t think I had ever heard of it, arguably Lisbon’s most historical area, but it had so may incredible sights to offer.
Apparently it was from this part of the city that numerous explorers set out on their voyages of discovery. Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan and Henry the Navigator were vaguely familiar names, but Padrao dos Descobrimentos, or Monument to the Discoveries, is an enormous limestone monument commemorating 33 such figures. In the area leading to the monument is a square, on the floor of which is a Compass Rose measuring fifty metres in diameter, and created from black and red limestone. It has a map of the world and there are ships marking the main sea routes and dates of their discoveries by Portugese seafarers. There is an exhibition room and a viewing room inside the monument, but for me these paled in comparison with the external view. To look at fom the square, it is quite awesome in the truest sense of the word, and I spent ages just gazing at the Monument and the Rose, and thinking about the courage and determination of all those explorers, setting out into a world about which they knew nothing, not knowing if they would ever return.
Belem Tower is quite nearby and is well worth a visit. It is a listed UNESCO world Heritage Monument, and justifiably so. Belem Tower guards the entrance to Lisbon’s harbour, and thus the panoramic views from the top are breathtaking. But be warned, the steps are very narrow and spiral and thus hard on older knees and lungs.
Jeronimos Monastery is another must see in this part of Lisbon, and what a sight it is! Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, it was built to commenorate Vasco do Gama’s successful voyage at a time when Portugal was one of the wealthy great powers. It is an amazing piece of architecture, with each of the columns in the cloisters decorated with various sea symbols. I found that the inside was not as impressive as the exterior, but still well worth the entrance fee.
Getting to Belem from the centre of Lisbon is easy – just a matter of a short tram journey from one of the central squares – Praca de Figueira, and get off when you spot the Monastery. Your hotel or hostel will point you in the right direction. And there are lots of little cafes and restaurants in the area to satisfy everyone.
Do not miss Belem, it really is worth at least one day’s visit.