Lisbon is a beautiful city to explore. There are endless historic sights, shops, restaurants, and great bars. But to really get a sense of the culture and history of the city, it’s worth heading just outside the center to nearby Belem, home to the historic locations where discoverers of old departed across the open ocean. From Belem, Portugal’s empire grew and spread across the sea and around the world. On a sun-soaked day, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would ever want to leave. As the sun illuminates the white marble of the monument, tower, and monastery, one might think Belem is the true center of the empire. Just a short hop on the train or car from Lisbon, Belem is well worth the detour.
The main sights of Belem are all a short walk from each other; beautifully connected by a waterfront path. Though bicycles, pedi-cabs, and even electric unicycles ply the path, it’s certainly walkable just as well and makes for a great stroll in the sun. All along the path are food trucks and folding chairs, so it’s perfect to take a break with a Sagres or Super Bock, the two massive Portuguese beers found across much of the country. There are also numerous bars and cafes running along the waterfront with great views. Walking the entirety of Belem’s sights won’t take long, so it’s best to wander a little bit and take the time to slow down and enjoy the local treats.
Speaking of treats, it’s practically mandatory in Belem to try the local pastries, Pasteis de Belem. These egg custard tarts were created at the monastery as little energy boosters for the monks and may have fueled the empire. Try one decked out with powdered sugar from the world famous Pasteis de Belem around the corner from the monastery.
A good historical visitation of Belem starts at Jeronimos Monastery, the massive gothic edifice that spans an entire block of the town. Supposedly where the monks created the pastries, it’s still home to an order or monks and houses several museums as well. The grounds are well worth exploring including the Jardim de Belem gardens and lawns in front. Several massive fountains house ducks and other semi-aquatic fowl while the French-style manicured gardens spread out around the monastery. In a town mostly decked out in white marble, it’s the best place to see some greenery.
Toward the water, perched on it’s own man-made pond just beyond the underpass from the gardens sits A Margem. This restaurant and bar isn’t just a good place to grab some food, it’s also phenomenal for a drink overlooking water both man-made and natural with the pool blending seamlessly into the river from the patio. There are few things more pleasurable in life than soaking up the Portuguese sun with a beer overlooking what was once the end of the world.
After building an appreciation for their bravery, it’s time to discover the famous Portuguese explorers at the Discovery Monument, a massive stone sculpture in the shape of a caravel, an early ship of Portuguese design that ruled the waves. They’ve got all the famous explorers, Vasco de Gamma, Vasco Balboa, Pico de Gallo, Vasco de Llama, Cardio Vasco Lars Istem, and Rocky Balboa. I didn’t read the whole plaque, but I assume. These brave explorers set out from nearby areas across the unknown seas, discovering passages around Africa, Asian islands, and the Americas. Though the empire is no more, the influence of Portugal’s culture is undeniable across much of the globe.
To continue to celebrate the explorers, head down the waterfront to Belem Tower, a gothic structure that doesn’t look quite like a fortress, but most assuredly is. Though it looks more decorative than defensive, it was built to defend the river and the riches of the city as they poured in from across the world. It was so successful that it continued to protect the city until the 20th century.
Just next to the tower is the War Museum. Though the military isn’t often the first impression of Portugal, there is a ton of interesting history here from the Moorish empire to the Napoleonic wars and even into modern times. Portugal isn’t a large country, but it’s might is on display here. The grounds are nice to explore with several displays of weaponry and artillery sprinkled around.
Lisbon may get all the attention, but little Belem just to the west really connects Portuguese history to the water. With a short hop from downtown, Belem is easily reachable and can be explored at any pace. Sunny days are recommended when the sun drenches the water and the waterfront and it practically begs for a break to enjoy a Super Bock. Though the explorers may inspire quick movement, it’s best to wader slowly and take time to enjoy the atmosphere along the river. Make the time to explore this historic outpost when near Lisbon.