Belém and Ajuda

With its maritime history, attractive riverside location and slew of good museums, Belém (pronounced ber-layng) is rightly one of Lisbon’s most popular suburbs. It was from here that Vasco da Gama set off for India in 1497, and the vast Mosteiro dos Jerónimos was built here to honour his safe return. Along with the monastery and the landmark Torre de Belém, the suburb boasts a group of small museums, most of them set up under the Salazar regime during the Expo in 1940. However, the best of the lot, the Berardo Collection, is a more recent addition. Just to the north of Belém is Ajuda, famed for its palace and ancient botanical gardens. When you visit Belém bear in mind that quite a few of the sights are closed on Mondays, and many are free on the first Sunday of the month.

What to see in Belém

Mosteiro dos Jerónimos

If there’s one building that symbolizes the golden age of the Portuguese discoveries, it’s the Mosteiros dos Jerónimos, which dominates the north side of the Praça do Império. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the monastery and its adjacent church were built to fulfil a promise made by Portugal’s king, Dom Manuel, should Vasco da Gama return safely from his inaugural voyage to India in 1498. The fact that the spices he returned with were more than enough to fund the building was, perhaps, a happy coincidence. Construction duly began in 1502 under the architect Diogo de Boitaca, who had made his name on the Igreja de Jesus in Setúbal, considered to be the first ever Manueline building.

Appropriately, Vasco da Gama’s tomb now lies just inside the fantastically embellished entrance to the church. Crowned by an elaborate medley of statues, including Henry the Navigator, the 32m-high entrance was designed by the Spaniard João de Castilho, who took over the building of the church in 1517; the portal now forms the obligatory backdrop to weekend wedding photos. The church’s interior is even more dazzling, displaying the maritime influences typical of Manueline architecture: the pillars are carved to resemble giant palms fanning out into a ceiling resembling a delicate jungle canopy. The church also contains the tomb of Luís de Camões (1527–1570), Portugal’s greatest poet and recorder of the discoveries, alongside those of former presidents and dignitaries.

Equally impressive is the adjacent monastery, gathered round sumptuously vaulted cloisters with nautical symbols carved into the honey-coloured limestone. You can still see the twelve niches where navigators stopped for confession before their voyages of exploration, until the Hieronymite monks were forced out during the dissolution of 1834. In 2007, the monastery was again influential in blessing future trade: the Treaty of Lisbon was signed here to cement the format of the European Union.

Centro Cultural de Belém

Built to host Lisbon’s Presidency of the European Union in 1992, with a stylish pink marble facade, Centro Cultural de Belém is one of the city’s main cultural centres and is home to the wonderful Berardo Collection, as well as putting on regular cultural exhibitions and concerts, plus live entertainment at the weekend.

Berardo Collection

With its entrance via the first floor of the Centro Cultural de Belém, the Berardo Collection is a unique assortment of modern art amassed by wealthy Madeiran Joe Berardo. Some of the most celebrated artists of the current and last centuries are displayed, though note that the collection is so large that not all of it can be shown at once, and two floors are given over to temporary exhibits.

The best parts of the permanent collection (some of which should be on display) include Eric Fischl’s giant panels of sunbathers; Andy Warhol’s distinctive Judy Garland; and Chris Ofili’s Adoration of Captain Shit, made with elephant dung. Portugal’s Paula Rego is well represented, with works such as The Past and Present and The Barn, while Francis Bacon, David Hockney, Picasso, Miró, Man Ray, Max Ernst and Mark Rothko usually feature, along with various video artists.

Torre de Belém

Reached via a narrow walkway and jutting into the river, the impressive Torre de Belém (Tower of Belém) has become an iconic symbol of Lisbon. It typifies the Manueline style that was prominent during the reign of Manuel, its windows and stairways embellished with arches and decorative symbols representing Portugal’s explorations into the New World. Built as a fortress to defend the mouth of the River Tejo, it took five years to complete, though when it opened in 1520 it would have been near the centre of the river – the earthquake of 1755 shifted the river’s course.

Today, visitors are free to explore the tower’s various levels – each with a slightly different framed view of the river – to a top terrace where you get a blowy panorama of Belém. It’s also possible to duck into the dungeon, a low-ceilinged room used to store gunpowder and lock up prisoners.

Museu de Arte Popular

In a space which feels slightly too large for its exhibits, the charming Museu de Arte Popular chronicles Portugal’s folk art, from beautiful wood and cork toys to ceramics, rugs and fascinating traditional costumes, including amazing cloaks from the Trás-os-Montes region. Black-and-white photos and old films of folk costumes and dances complete the appeal.

Museu dos Coches

Housed in a vast contemporary building, the Museu dos Coches (Coach Museum) contains one of the world’s largest collections of carriages and saddlery, including a rare sixteenth-century coach designed for King Felipe I. Heavily gilded, ornate and often beautifully painted, the royal carriages, sedan chairs and children’s cabriolets, dating from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, make a sharp contrast to the stark modern building, which gives great views over Belém and the river.

Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology

The impressively futuristic building alongside the Museu da Electricidade is the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology, designed by British architect Amanda Levete in a spaceship-like form that allows you to walk across the top of the curved roof to enjoy some great views over the river. Hosts a range of temporary exhibitions exploring the relationship between art, architecture and technology.

Palácio Nacional da Ajuda

The massive nineteenth-century Palácio Nacional da Ajuda sits on a hillside above Belém. The Portuguese royal family ordered its construction in 1802, but it was incomplete when they were forced to flee to Brazil during the invasion of Napoleon’s troops in 1807. Despite this, Dom João moved into the palace when he returned to Portugal in 1821.

Most of what you see today was commissioned by João’s granddaughter Dona Maria II and Dom Ferdinand, and gives an eye-popping insight into the opulent life the royals lived: the queen could warm her feet on a polar-bearskin rug when she got out of bed. There’s also an enormous throne and ballroom, while the banqueting hall, full of crystal chandeliers, is highly impressive.

Jardim Botânico da Ajuda

Opposite the Palácio Nacional da Ajuda, the attractive Jardim Botânico da Ajuda is one of the city’s oldest botanical gardens. Commissioned by the Marquês de Pombal and laid out in 1768, it was owned by the royal family until the birth of the Republic in 1910 and substantially replanted in the 1990s. Today, it’s a fine example of formal Portuguese gardening, boasting some great views over Belém.

Pastéis de Belém

The pastel de nata is Portugal’s queen of tarts. And one of the best places to try one – or two, is the Pastéis de Belém. The café-cum-pastry shop has been serving up these delectable tarts, a perfect contrast of oozy gooey custard and flaky pastry since 1837, using a recipe from the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos.

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Mani Ramaswamy

written by
Mani Ramaswamy

updated 26.04.2021

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