Lisbon - Belem, Historical District of Lisbon

Portugal has a long history of sea exploration, filled with colorful tales of discovery. This history is amply illustrated in Lisbon's Belem section. For the traveler, there are enough things to see here to occupy several vacations.

One of the most often visited sites is the Jeronimos Monastery also known as the Monastery of the Hieronymites, built in 1502. The cloisters contain many maritime themes echoing Lisbon's relationship to the sea in the form of carved sea monsters, coiled ropes and more. The exterior houses a garden with elaborately shaped bushes depicting many of Portugal's coats-of-arms.

Nearby is the equally renowned Belem Tower, completed in 1515 as a fortress to guard Lisbon's harbor. From this spot many of Portugal's great explorers began their journeys. But the tower is of more than historical significance. It's also a work of art. Festooned with sculptures, it will entrance any lover of outdoor art.

Covering the monument are carvings incorporating many of the themes of The Discoveries, the name given to Portugal's long line of exploratory firsts. Dias' trip around the Cape of Good Hope, the voyages of Magellan, Vasco da Gama's discovery of the sea route to India and more are depicted on the walls.

That theme is continued in The Discoveries Monument. It treats many of the same heroic exploits but in a fascinating modern manner. Made of huge stone rectangles, carved figures are crowded along one ramp. The effect is that of a group of heroes rushing to see what is ahead.

Erected in 1960 it represents a three-masted ship ready to set sail on an unknown ocean, armed only with courage and curiosity. Cartographers, monks and others follow Prince Henry the Navigator as they set out on their great quest to see what is beyond the horizon. The interior contains exhibit space where visitors can see a film about Lisbon, then climb to the top for a view of the spectacular surroundings.

But Belem offers other fascinating sights.

The Ajuda Palace, constructed in the early 19th century, offers tourists a look at Lisbon's royal past. The neo-classical facade provides one of the highlights of the architecture of the period. But even more impressive sights await within.

Filled with tapestries, marble statues and thousands of objet d'arts, the Ajuda Palace will occupy those who enjoy fine art for hours. The frescoed ceilings alone makes the trip worthwhile.

Take a breather in mid-afternoon and enjoy a refreshing drink or light meal at one of the many cafes in Belem. Then head out to see the Berardo Museum, the 25 de Abril Bridge and the dozens of other sights in this historical district of Lisbon.