Belem – beyond the pastéis

In the 15th and 16th Centuries, Portugal was one of the great maritime superpowers. The Golden Age of Discovery witnessed Portuguese explorers like Vasco da Gama and Fernão de Magalhães discover new lands previously unknown to Europeans; and, the creation of global trade routes stretching across the world from Asia to Africa and to Latin America. The rich maritime tradition still lives today in modern day Lisbon with the fishermen who travel into the Atlantic Ocean daily. One of the best places to learn about the maritime history of Portugal is Belém.

Belém is located approximately 20 minutes away from Praça da Figueira in downtown Lisbon. There are a number of easy and inexpensive ways to get to Belém including Tram 15, Bus 28, or the ubiquitous tuk-tuk.

Belém is rich historically and offers broad options for people of all ages to see and learn about Portugal’s maritime history including the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Museu de Marinha, and Torre de Belém. Out of all of these sites, our favorite was the Museu de Marinha. This small museum, which is connected to the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, provides a good overview of just about every aspect of lisbon’s maritime history from discovery, to economic trade, to fisherman, to the use of boats for the royal family.

Attendance at the Museu de Marinha stood in sharp contrast to the crowds next door at the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. We were able to roam and spend as much time as we wanted looking at the instruments, replicas, photographs and paintings throughout the museum without navigating the crowds during the summertime peak tourist season. The best part of the museum was the separate building with restored and original boats on display. The wooden construction and elaborate paint and décor were astonishingly beautiful.

Museu de Marinha was also the perfect place to reenergize and rest midday at the café. Its menu boasted a delicious assortment of food and drink to recharge before our trek to the Torre de Belém.

As a traveler, I think it might be easy to overlook Museu de Marinha because most tourist books and websites will refer to it as the place for kids. Of the three sites, it was the place that captured our son’s imagination the most. For us, it was equally exciting and brought Lisbon’s rich maritime history to life.

Dorothy Hoffman is the creator of the travel blog, Squirts and Seniors. She is a Gen X-er who writes about traveling at home and abroad with her young son and aging parents.