Luxury Travel Blog

Ideas to inspire your world: luxury, culture, food, travel, style

May 31, 2023

Belem, a Neighborhood of Culture, Food & Maritime History on the Lisbon Waterfront

Belem, a historic neighborhood in Lisbon, Portugal, offers visitors a glimpse into the city’s influential maritime past and its continuously evolving future.

In a strategic position along the Tagus River where it flows into the Atlantic Ocean, Belem was central to Lisbon’s military defenses and served as the departure point for Portuguese explorers in the 15th and 16th centuries, when Portugal emerged as a maritime power during the Age of Discovery.

Renowned Portuguese explorers such as Vasco da Gama (who established the first sea route to India in 1498) and Ferdinand Magellan (the first to circumnavigate the globe) set sail from Belem.

During private touring in Belem, we take our travelers to see landmarks to Portugal’s seafaring past, such as the Monument of the Discoveries, the Tower of Belem and the Jeronimos Monastery.

The Monument of the Discoveries is a colossal sculpture resembling the prow of a ship. Completed in 1960, it celebrates Portugal’s maritime history and depicts notable Portuguese figures, including Henry the Navigator and other explorers.

At the base of the monument is an impressive calcada (mosaic pavement) of a world map that illustrates historic Portuguese trade routes inside a compass rose design

Nearby is the magnificent Jeronimos Monastery. A masterpiece of the ornate Manueline style of architecture, the monastery was initiated in 1501 and completed a century later.

King Manuel I (r. 1495–1521) commissioned the monastic complex as a burial place for his royal family and as a stop for sailors seeking spiritual sustenance before departing from the nearby docks.

Construction of Jeronimos Monastery was funded primarily by profits from Portugal’s maritime trade, inextricably linking the complex to Portuguese exploration during the Age of Discovery.

The extravagant Manueline architectural style of Jeronimos Monastery is a synthesis of Gothic, Renaissance and Moorish features that developed during the reign of Manuel I. Nautical symbols, such as ropes, coral, shells, anchors and sea creatures, decorate surfaces throughout the complex. Plants and animals brought back by Portuguese explorers are another sculptural theme.

During a private tour of Jeronimos Monastery, we take our travelers to see the two-story cloisters…

…the former refectory…

…and the church.

Dedicated to the Virgin Mary of Belem (Bethlehem), the church has vaulted ceilings supported by slender columns and is known for containing the tombs of Vasco da Gama and members of the Portuguese royal family. (Jeronimos Monastery was constructed on the site of a church where Vasco da Gama prayed before his voyage to India in 1497.)

In the monastery’s west wing is the Maritime Museum, which has an extensive collection of model ships, royal barges, historical maps and navigational instruments.

Jeronimos Monastery is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in conjunction with the nearby Tower of Belem. Dating from the 16th century, the Tower of Belem is a crenellated fortification on the riverfront that has served as a defensive post, a ceremonial embarkation point for sailors, a customs checkpoint and a prison.

The tower is predominantly Manueline in style, with rope, knot and cross motifs decorating the stonework.

Not to be missed in Belem is having a pastel de nata (Lisbon’s iconic egg tart) at Pasteis de Belem, the historic bakery where they originated and are still made according to a secret recipe passed down from the monks at Jeronimos Monastery.

Another favorite stop in Belem is one of Lisbon’s most prestigious ceramics studios, which has been in operation since the 1700s. We can arrange a private behind-the-scenes tour to see azulejos (tin-glazed ceramic tiles) being made by hand.

Depending on the interests of our travelers, other places we like to include during private touring around Belem are the National Coach Museum, which is known for its collection of historic royal coaches, some of which are displayed in the ornate riding ring of the Belem Palace complex…

…the futuristic Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (MAAT)…

…the Belem Cultural Center, a modern complex with an art museum and performing arts facilities…

…and Ajuda National Palace, a 19th-century royal residence in the adjacent Ajuda district that overlooks Belem. One wing of the palace houses the Royal Treasure Museum, which displays the Portuguese crown jewels, Brazilian gold, diplomatic gifts and other objects that belonged to the House of Braganza royal family and court.

Private tours of the highlights and backstreets of Belem with a local expert guide are included in Artisans of Leisure’s exclusive Lisbon tours.

Contact Artisans of Leisure to begin planning a private luxury Portugal tour featuring the highlights of Lisbon, including the Belem district and other favorite destinations in the beautiful and fascinating Portuguese capital.

Destinations:  Europe, Portugal

Tags:  art and design tours, azulejo, Belem, Belem Tower, colonial history, history, history tours, Insider Lisbon, insider Portugal, Jeronimos Monastery, Lisbon, Lisbon private tours, Lisbon tours, luxury Portugal tours, maritime, maritime history tours, National Coach Museum, Pasteis de Belem, pastel de nata, Portugal tours, Portuguese history, Portuguese tiles, Royal Treasure Museum, UNESCO, UNESCO World Heritage Site