Looking to the World: Belém and Portugal’s Golden Age of Discovery

At the mouth of the River Tagus, where ships and caravels once set sail on epic voyages of discovery, Belém (confusingly pronounced ber-layng) is inextricably linked with the explorers that brought Portugal to the world. It was the birthplace of Portgual’s ‘Golden Age of Discovery’: it was from here, for example, that Vasco da Gama left his homeland in 1497 to sail around the Cape of Good Hope and open up the sea route to India, and from where Pedro Álvares Cabral set sail to “discover” Brazil.  This maritime glory – and the wealth that it brought – was celebrated in style: the majestic monastery, the  Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, was built upon Vasco da Gama’s return, while the Torre de Belém defended the mouth of the river from anyone who might be tempted to challenge this new Portuguese supremacy. Eventually, the Portuguese empire stretched from Brazil to the Indies….and Belém was the birthplace of it all.

Today, Belém is a pleasant suburb of Lisbon. It’s quiet, green, with a small scattering of museums in amongst the big monuments that still survive. Popular with locals and tourists, it’s a great place to escape the centre of the city, enjoy a walk along the waterfront, and watch the river come alive. And there is still a sense of excitement, of anticipation – a feeling that this is still where Lisbon, and Portugal, looks out to the rest of the world.

Lisbon - old town


Lisbon - Belem

Built as a fortress in the middle of the Tagus during the years 1514-1520, the Torre de Belém was the starting point for the navigators who set off to discover the trade routes. After the earthquake of 1755, huge tidal waves rolled up the Tagus; the deposits of silt and sand that were left effectively changed the course of the river and left the tower almost on dry land. Today, it’s still one of the enduring symbols of the city of Lisbon.


Lisbon - Belem

The ultimate monument to the wealth that the Age of Discovery brought, the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos was commissioned in around 1501, after Vasco da Gama had returned from his historic voyage to India. Financed largely by the ‘pepper tax’ – a tax levied on spices, precious stones and gold – the monastery was then cared for by the Order of St Jerome until 1834, when all religious orders were disbanded.


The inside of the church at the monastery.

The inside of the church at the monastery.


The tomb of Vasco da Gama.

The tomb of Vasco da Gama, Portugal’s most famous son. He sailed around the cape of Good Hope


Inside the cloisters.

Inside the cloisters at the monastery.


Lisbon - Belem

Occupying an prominent spot on the Belém waterfront, this monument to those explorers and navigators, and the discoveries that they made, was built in 1960 to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Henry the Navigator. Known as the Monument to the Discoveries, it’s designed in the shape of a caravel, with stone statues of Portugal’s most famous explorers lining the sides.


At the head of the 'caravel' is Henry the Navigator (1394-1460), with Alfonso V (1432-81, patron of the first explorers) behind him, and Vasco da Gama (1460-1524) third from the front.

At the head of the ‘caravel’ is Henry the Navigator (1394-1460), with Alfonso V (1432-81, patron of the first explorers) behind him, and Vasco da Gama (1460-1524) third from the front.


Other highlights of Belém – which I didn’t get to see on my lazy holiday – include the Palácio de Belém, the Jardim Botânico Tropical, the Museu de Marinha (Maritime Museum), and the Museu Nacional de Arqueologia. Or you can just do as I did and slowly stroll along the river, imagining the days when you would have been walking past caravels setting sail into the unknown…..

Sunday Traveler

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9 replies »

  1. I’ve never been in Portugal before, or Lisbon by this token, but lately I’ve read a lot about it. It seems that every blogger I know decided to visit Lisbon this year and they all write so captivating posts that make me want to go there right now. Very beautiful photo essay about Belem and Portugal’s explorers.

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