The old port district of Alcántara got a face-lift in the 1990s, and since then it has been a nightlife hub, as well as a great place to relax by the river on warm days. The inauguration in 2008 of the Museu do Oriente marked the advent of one of Lisbon's most enticing tourist attractions. Farther west, some of Lisbon's grandest monuments and museums are in the district of Belém (the Portuguese word for Bethlehem). It was from here that the country's great explorers set out during the period of the discoveries. The wealth brought back from the New World helped pay for many of the neighborhood's structures, some of which are the best examples of the uniquely Portuguese late-Gothic architecture known as Manueline. The area's historical attractions are complemented by the modern and contemporary art and performances showcased in Lisbon's largest cultural center.
Mosteiro dos Jerónimos
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a supreme example of the Manueline style of building (named after King Dom Manuel I), which represented a marked departure from earlier Gothic architecture. Much of it is characterized by elaborate sculptural details, often with a maritime motif. João de Castilho was responsible for the southern portal, which forms the main entrance to the church: the figure on the central pillar is Henry the Navigator. Inside, the spacious interior contrasts with the riot of decoration on the six nave columns and complex latticework ceiling. This is the resting place of both explorer Vasco de Gama and national poet Luís de Camões. Don't miss the Gothic- and Renaissance-style double cloister, also designed to stunning effect by Castilho.
Museu de Arte Antiga
On the route from the center of Lisbon to Belém is the Ancient Art Museum, the only institution in the city to approach the status of the Gulbenkian. Housed in a 17th-century palace once owned by the Counts of Alvor and vastly enlarged in 1940 when it took over the Convent of St. Albert, the museum has a beautifully displayed collection of Portuguese art—mainly from the 15th through 19th century. The religious works of the Flemish-influenced Portuguese school stand out, especially Nuno Gonçalves' masterpiece, the St. Vincent Panels. Painted between 1467 and 1470, the altarpiece has six panels believed to show the patron saint of Lisbon receiving the homage of king, court, and citizens (although there are other theories). Sixty figures have been identified, including Henry the Navigator; the archbishop of Lisbon; and sundry dukes, fishermen, knights, and religious figures. In the top left corner of the two central panels is a figure purported to be Gonçalves himself. The museum also boasts early Flemish works that influenced the Portuguese, and other European artists are well represented, such as Hieronymous Bosch, Hans Holbein, Brueghel the Younger, and Diego Velázquez. There are also extensive collections of French silver, Portuguese furniture and tapestries, Asian ceramics, and items fashioned from Goan ivory. Tram 15 from Praça do Comércio drops you at the foot of a steep flight of steps below the museum. Otherwise, Buses 27 and 49 from Praça Marquês de Pombal run straight to Rua das Janelas Verdes, via Rossio; coming from Belém, you can pick them up across from the Jerónimos monastery.
Torre de Belém
The openwork balconies and domed turrets of the fanciful
Belém Tower make it perhaps the country's purest Manueline structure. It was
built between 1514 and 1520 on what was an island in the middle of the Rio Tejo,
to defend the port entrance, and dedicated to St. Vincent, the patron saint of
Lisbon. Today the chalk-white tower stands near the north bank—evidence of the
river's changing course. Cross the wood gangway and walk inside, not so much to
see the plain interior but rather to climb the steps for a bird's-eye view of
river and city.
Padrão dos Descobrimentos
The white, monolithic Monument of the Discoveries was erected in 1960 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator. It was built on what was the departure point for many voyages of discovery, including those of Vasco da Gama for India and—during Spain's occupation of Portugal—of the Spanish Armada for England in 1588. Henry is at the prow of the monument, facing the water; lined up behind him are the Portuguese explorers of Brazil and Asia, as well as other national heroes. On the ground adjacent to the monument, an inlaid map shows the extent of the explorations undertaken by the 15th- and 16th-century Portuguese sailors. Walk inside and take the elevator to the top for river views.