Belém, a suburb of Lisbon on the Tagus River, is filled with museums, historical sights and monuments.
We spent two full days traversing the streets and museums in Belém. A quick trip on the IC (inter city) train, returning each evening just as the sun was setting. We found much to discover in this attractive suburb.
Walking through Praça do Império park in Belém one of our first discoveries was an art installation we immediately recognized as British Columbian First Nations art. The splendid statue is entitled SeaWolf carved by a talented and well-known Canadian artist, Luke Marston. How fun to come across art from Canada while visiting Portugal!
The impressive Jerónimos Monastery, built in the late 1400’s, is a sight to behold and the best example, we found, of Manueline architecture; a uniquely Portuguese style of architecture from the early 16th century. This UNESCO World Heritage site is where Vasco da Gama, the famous Portuguese explorer who became the first European to sail to India, is entombed.
The interior of the monastery is even more stunning than the grand exterior. The monastery is well cared for and so immense that in addition to the Cloisters and St. Mary’s Church, it houses both the Maritime Museum and the National Museum of Archaeology with plenty of room to spare.
Museu Nacional de Arqueologia
The National Museum of Archaeology, founded in 1893, is the largest and most important Portuguese archaeological museum because it focuses on the history of man on the Iberian Peninsula. The museum has items from 3,200+ archaeological sites that cover more than 500,000 years of history in this area.
Epigraphy is the study and interpretation of ancient inscriptions and the museum’s founder, José Leite de Vasconcelos was a noted epigraphist. Therefore it is not surprising that the museum has one of the best collections of epigraphy in Portugal, the vast majority being from tombstones.
There were plenty of colorful detailed Roman mosaics and exceptional Roman sculptures on display. The most comprehensive ancient Egyptian collection we have seen to date was interesting as well. The majority of the Egyptian artifacts had been purchased and collected by the founder with later pieces added by the last queen consort of Portugal, Queen Amélie (b1865-d1951).
Museu de Marinha
The Navy Museum in Belém, referred to as the Maritime Museum, is dedicated to the history of navigation in Portugal and located in the western wing of the Jerónimos Monastery. King Luís I (1838-1889), was an accomplished navigator and was passionate about oceanography. In 1863, he began collecting and preserving items related to the maritime history of Portugal. The collection has been continually enlarged over the years and in 1963 it opened to the public as a maritime museum.
We particularly liked the collection of navigational instruments and old maps, the dozens of scale models of ships used in Portugal since the 15th century and the beautiful maritime art collection. The crème de la crème of the museum, for us, was the fabulous collection of actual old barges, including a Royal Barge that carried Queen Elizabeth II on an official visit to Portugal in 1957. Many of the shapes of the Portuguese barges were visually similar to the style of boats found in Venice.
Museu do Oriente
The Museum of the Orient is a large museum that embraces the long history of Portugal’s relationship with Asia. There are many fascinating pieces from the Age of the Discoveries in addition to a few rare and unusual pieces in this collection. We found masks, fans, clothing, Chinese opera costumes, musical instruments, ceremonial dishes, asian pottery, jade jewelry, puppets and intricately painted art. There were Japanese screens, samurai armor and collections of the tiny inro and carved netsuke, as well as an assortment of the Japanese elaborately decorated sword guards, called tsuba, that were extremely interesting.
Tobacco was introduced to China by the Portuguese in the mid 16th century as a medicine. The most beautiful miniature bottles were created to carry the finely ground form of tobacco and the museum has a stunning collection of antique snuff bottles. Smoking tobacco was illegal during the Qing dynasty but the habit of taking snuff became widespread throughout the country. It was an excellent museum and we nearly had to be shooed out the door so they could close for the night.
Fairey III airplane
The first aerial crossing of the South Atlantic, was flown by two Portuguese aviators Gago Coutinho and Sacadura Cabral in 1922. They flew in stages between Lisbon, Portugal and Recife, Brazil using three different Fairey III biplanes covering a distance of 5,200 miles (8,383 kilometers) between March 30 and June 17, 1922. Two of the airplanes were lost at sea but the final successful aircraft, the “Santa Cruz”, is displayed at the Museu de Marinha, in Belém.
In the Garden of Belem Tower (Jardim da Torre de Belém) there is a monument to Sacadura Cabral and Gago Coutinho featuring a beautiful life-size bronze replica of the Santa Cruz.
You may notice similarities between Lisbon’s “25 de Abril Bridge” in the above photo and the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco as they are both suspension bridges and both painted orange. Lisbon’s bridge however was built by the American Bridge Company that constructed the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge (not the Golden Gate Bridge), and has more in common with the design of the Bay Bridge.
Padrão dos Descobrimentos
Strolling next to the Tagus river you will come across two large monuments, reminders of Portugal’s Age of Discoveries, or Age of Exploration during the 15th and 16th centuries.
The first is called the Monument to the Discoveries and was built in 1960. This enormous stone monument is 183 feet high (56 meters) x 66 feet wide (20 meters) x 150 feet long (46 meters) honoring 33 prominent figures in Portugal’s Age of Discoveries. The figures themselves installed on the tribute are 23 feet (7 meters) tall with the central figure topping out at 29.5 feet (9 meters) tall.
Included on the monument, naturally, are Vasco da Gama – who discovered the sea route to India and opened the spice trade for Portugal, Pedro Álvares Cabral – who discovered Brazil and Ferdinand Magellan, the first to circumnavigate the globe, as well as multiple navigators, writers, sea captains, missionaries, pilots, a painter, a cartographer, a mathematician and a handful of members of the royal family.
Torre de Belém
Walking a further 15 minutes along the river you will arrive at the striking Belém Tower. The Belém Tower was built in the early 16th century as a fort to protect the coast from foreign attacks, and like the Jerónimos Monastery, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Last but not least we previously mentioned in our [New Year’s in Lisbon Portugal] post the best custard tarts called, Pastéis de Belém, are made in Belém, so we had to stop in. They make a delightful treat after all that walking.
Saúde from these lisboans,
Ted & Julia