Located 7 km west of the city center of Lisbon, along the bank of the Tagus river, is an interesting and stunning monument called the Monument to the Discoveries (Padrão dos Descobrimentos). Standing at 171 feet (50 meters), it’s a tribute to the success of Portuguese explorations in an era known as The Age of Discoveries, which began in 1415 and led to the creation of Portugal’s empire. The monument we see today, built in 1960, is actually an exact replica of the temporary structure built for the 1940 World Exhibition and is positioned at the starting point for many of those expeditions of long ago. The monument is shaped like a ship’s prow and holds 33 statues of people who played a pivotal role in the expansion of Portugal.
Standing proudly at the forefront of the monument is Henrique the Navigator (1394 – 1460). The son of King João I of Portugal, he is the most important figure associated with Portuguese exploration. His accomplishments include leading the way to the discovery of Madeira, the Azores Islands, and Cape Verde. Standing behind him in V formation are other important historical figures, such as Vasco da Gama (who found a direct route to India), Ferdinand Magellan (the first explorer to circumnavigate the world), and other navigators, writers, missionaries, a mathematician, a cartographer – all from the era of the discoveries.
Another wonderful feature of this monument is that you can go up to the top! The panoramic view that includes the Belém Tower, the National Sanctuary of Christ the King (a statue inspired by Rio’s Christ the Redeemer), and the Ponte 25 de Abril suspension bridge (remarkably similar to the Golden Gate Bridge) is well worth it. You can also go into the monument, which contains a museum and exhibition halls.
The Torre de Belém (Belém Tower) is another iconic landmark of Lisbon, as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and only a short walk along the waterfront from the monument. It is a fortress built out of limestone in the Tagus river (though today it’s easily accessible by a walkway) and was completed in 1521 under the reign of King Manuel I. The architectural style is Manueline (named after the king) – a Portuguese variant of the Gothic style that includes more exuberant decorations with a nautical theme. You can explore all the rooms and peek out of the numerous balconies and Moorish turrets as you wind your way up the narrow spiral staircases to the top for another bird’s-eye view of the surrounding area. You can also head down to the basement where the prisoners were once held. One thing to note – they do limit the number of people who can be in the tower at once (which is a good thing), so you may have to wait a while on the walkway before you are allowed in.
As you can see, the weather was perfect that day for a stroll through Portuguese history along the Tagus!