Portugal Travel

Belém—The Launch Point for World Discovery

Just southwest of the heart of Lisbon, Portugal along the Rio Tejo (River Tagus) is the suburb of Belém (or Bethlehem). This spot was the launch point for many voyages of discovery in the 1400 and 1500’s. In 1498, Vasco da Gama sailed from here and was the first to circumnavigate Africa via the Cape of Good Hope, thereby establishing a sea route to India. Reaching India was of course the goal of Columbus in 1492 when he sailed west and landed in the Caribbean. This feat would soon make Portugal the leader in world trade, displacing the Venetians who ruled the merchant routes in the 1400’s. At Belém, the river becomes wide as it empties into the Atlantic Ocean.  Don’t miss visiting Belém on a trip to Lisbon. For information on Lisbon and a map of sights I visited in Portugal, click here.

View towards Lisbon and the River Tagus from the Belem Tower.

View towards Lisbon and the River Tagus from the Belem Tower (the Discoveries Monument is in the distance at the river’s edge).

Getting to Belém

It is easy to get here from central Lisbon. Lisbon has a great subway (Metro) system.  Take the Metro to the Cais do Sodre stop and then take a bus right outside the station (about a 15 minute ride) to Belém just along the river front. There is a lot to see in Belem. Since I just had a couple hours, I visited the Belém Tower and the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos.  You can get a combination ticket to theses sights for 10 Euros, there is a kiosk at the monastery.  In addition to the main sights, there are some beautiful gardens along the river front and the town is worth exploring too, with several restaurants nearby.

The gardens and fountain in front of the Belem Monastery.

The gardens and fountain in front of the Belem Monastery.

Belém Tower (Torre de Belém)

This tower is a symbol of Lisbon and dates to 1515—it was a defensive structure protecting the harbor of Lisbon. The tower’s decorative stone work is considered a classic of 16th century military architecture. It sits in the Tagus River’s edge, just in the water although when built it was on dry land—the water level has risen over 500 years. You can climb all the way to the top (6 levels, a great view from the roof level) and at each level there are exhibits about the history of the world explorations that began from Lisbon.

A view of the Belem Tower (built in 1515).

A view of the Belem Tower (built in 1515).

It was here where I learned why Brazil speaks Portuguese and the rest of Latin America speaks Spanish–due to an agreement (the Treaty of Tordesillas, 1494) by King Manuel I (1469-1521) of Portugal and the Crown of Spain. They drew a north-south line 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands (off Africa), which was halfway between the Cape Verde Islands (Portuguese) and Columbus’s initial claims in the Caribbean for Spain. This line happened to run through eastern Brazil, although they didn’t know it at the time.

The intricate stonework of the Belem Tower.

The intricate stonework of the Belem Tower.

Belém Monastery (Mosteiro dos Jeronimos)

This is where the explorers and merchants would worship prior to leaving on long voyages and upon their safe return. The monastery was established in 1496 by King Manuel I, and the church was constructed in 1501. This masterpiece is considered one of the great architectural achievements of the 1500’s. From a technical standpoint, it was so well constructed that it survived a devastating earthquake in 1755 that leveled most of Lisbon. The “Manueline style” of decoration and architecture is an acknowledgement of the King’s influence. Vasco de Gama’s tomb is here.

The intricate decorations above the doorway (south portal).

The intricate decorations above the doorway (south portal).

Inside the Sacristy with many paintings.

Inside the Sacristy with many paintings.

Interior view of the church.

Interior view of the church.

The cloisters of the monastery. The tracery decor is Manueline style.

The cloisters of the monastery. The tracery decor is Manueline style.

Discoveries Monument (Padrāo dos Descobrimentos)

Built in 1960 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator, the great uncle of King Manuel I. Just east of the Torre de Belém is the Discoveries Monument, paying homage to the many explorers and discoveries to come from Portugal. Inside is a multimedia exhibit on the history of Lisbon.

The Discoveries Monument. Henry the Navigator leads the way.

The Discoveries Monument. Henry the Navigator leads the way.

There are also several museums in Belém, including the Museum of Coaches (beautiful decorated old royal coaches), and the Maritime Museum; given more time these would be worthwhile to visit.

References:  Great Monasteries of Europe, by Bernhard Schütz, Abbeville Press Publishers, 2004; informational plaques at Belém Tower.

A Weekend in Lisbon, Portugal

A view of Lisbon looking northeast along the River Tagus.

There are some great sights in and near Lisbon (‘Lisboa’ in Portuguese). I had a free weekend and another free afternoon during a business trip in May, and didn’t waste a moment. I was able to visit Belém, Sintra, and Tomar as well as Lisbon.

Locations visited in Portugal.

Lisbon has a very scenic setting along the Rio Tejo (Tagus River), just a few miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean. Since an earthquake in 1755 leveled the city, most of the architecture is not old, but it is still quite beautiful. The Portuguese love white buildings with red roofs and that is the image in my mind that I’m taking away from my visit. May is a great time of year to visit; the temperature was in the low 80’s F, and clear. In this post I share a few key sights in Lisbon and some tips for getting around. In other posts I will share my travel experiences to Belém, Sintra and Tomar.

A view of Lisbon and the River Tagus from the Castelo de Sao Jorge (the Praça do Comércio (historical plaza) is in the middle left of this view).

Getting Around. Lisbon has a somewhat small city feel, making it easy to get around. There is a good bus and Metro (subway) system. The Metro is well-signposted, efficient, clean, and easy to navigate. The automatic ticket kiosks have an English navigation option, and an all-day ticket for the Metro and bus system is €5.50. I used it a lot during my stay. There is also a trolley system in the heart of Lisbon covered by the same ticket. For visiting sights, a ‘Lisboa Card’ available, which provides a cost-effective way to see a number of tourist locations. I found it easy to get by on English, even in less touristy places.

A Lisbon Metro station.

San Francisco? No, Lisbon! The street cars are a great way to get around this hilly city.

Castelo de Sao Jorge (Castle of St. George). This Moorish castle dominates a hill overlooking the heart of Lisbon and Tagus River. It dates from the 11thcentury, and was a royal palace for 400 years. It is a great place to visit in the afternoon, as the sun is setting to the west overlooking the city. The castle is mainly a series of walls, and it was very enjoyable to walk the walls and take in all the different views of Lisbon from this vantage point. This spot has been inhabited for millennia. There are some ruins near the castle (part of the castle entrance fee) dating from the 7thcentury BC, now protected by modern shelters. The entry fee was €7.50.

The entrance to Castelo de Sao Jorge.

The walls of Castelo de Sao Jorge.

There are many restaurants right below the castle in this old part of Lisbon.

Sé Catedral (Lisbon Cathedral). This Romanesque 12thcentury cathedral looks out of place since it was one of the few medieval-era buildings to survive the earthquake of 1755. I was impressed with the interior. It is an enjoyable walk up hill from the cathedral to the castle area.

The Lisbon Cathedral.

The interior of the Lisbon Cathedral–rounded archways, heavy, thick walls and small windows, all typical features of Romanesque architecture.

Plazas.The Praça do Comércio is right at the waters’ edge and commemorates the seafaring history of Lisbon.

The Praca do Comercio in Lisbon. This plaza is right on the river waterfront.

Rossio Square is the center of Lisbon, and also has a train station (just to the west of the Square) from which the train to Sintra leaves (see separate post on Sintra). These plazas are connected by several avenues, one of which (Dos Correerios) is a pedestrian street where many restaurants are located.

Rossio Square – the heart of old Lisbon.

Dos Correerios pedestrian street in old Lisbon.

Elevador de Santa Justa (The Elevator). This elevator structure was built in the early 1900’s and is simply a viewing platform overlooking the central part of Lisbon and a lift for people visiting Barrio Alto where the ruins of Covent do Carmo are located. One can walk up the streets behind the tower and then take the walkway to the Tower for free (just below the observation deck). Lisbon is hilly and several lifts like this were in earlier years scattered throughout Lisbon.

Take this elevator to the top for a great view of old Lisbon.