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Centro Cultural de Belém

Belém | Historical Context

Throughout the centuries Belém (christened the Estrela Guia, or ‘Guiding Star’) has played many different roles. It was a rural village during the Middle Ages, a seaport at the time of the discoveries, and the land of many aristocratic farms. It was here that the government headquarters were set up following the 1755 earthquake. It was also an industrial area during the nineteenth century, a beach for swimming during the summer, and the home of the Portuguese World Exhibition in 1940. Belém was the backdrop of Portugal’s accession to the EEC, and continues to be of the most important tourist hubs of Lisbon where visitors can find museums, monuments and historical gardens in a privileged location by the river.

The riverside settlement of Belém, formerly known as Restelo, was originally a small village that lived off its agricultural and fishing activities. 

Belém’s maritime presence was asserted after its ports were reactivated in the 13
th century. It became the seaport of Lisbon due to its vast and natural anchorage, and for this reason it was given a number of special benefits. It is known that in the fifteenth century it had a small hermitage dedicated to the ‘Nossa Senhora da Estrela’ (Our Lady of the Star), patroness of the sailors. Prince Henry the Navigator had it expanded and placed under the tutelage of the friars of the Order of Christ. It was in this hermitage that Vasco da Gama performed his vigil on the eve of his departure to India.

The construction of the Torre de S. Vicente de Belém (S. Vicent Tower of Belém) and the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (Jerónimos Monastery) at the start of the sixteenth century enhanced the importance of the area forever associating it with the epic age of the Discoveries.

Several noble families with commercial interests saw the commercial development of the port and the beauty of the landscape as reasons to purchase lands in Belém for their summer palaces. The first of many palaces to be built was the palace of the Praia (Beach) in the 1500s, which belonged to D. Manuel of Portugal. Its last remnants disappeared in the 1940s.

D. João V was also taken by the charms of Belém a few centuries later and his wish grew to own a large property there. He thus purchased several adjacent farms, where nowadays one can find the Paço de Belém.

It was in this palace that the royal family escaped the frightening 1755 earthquake unharmed. The fact that the Belém/Ajuda axis was spared this enormous tragedy meant that the possibility of building the new capital in Belém was taken into consideration. Although the idea was not followed through, the King had his wooden palace erected at the top of Ajuda, which would later become known as ‘Real Barraca’ - home of the royal family until the late eighteenth century when it burned down. The court then moved to Queluz, while a new palace was simultaneously erected in Ajuda, this time built out of stone.

The aristocratic nature of Belém was somewhat lost after the royal family and the court moved to Brazil during the French invasions. However, the establishment of several industrial sites with its adjacent neighbourhoods and worker compounds meant that it also became more gentrified. Still, this didn’t stop Belém from becoming a summer destination from the mid-nineteenth century onwards: it is well known that Queen D. Maria and the princes bathed in the Praia da Torre (Belém) and in Pedrouços.

D. Luis’s preference for Cascais meant that these beaches were free for the Lisbon bourgeoisie to enjoy. During the months of September and October they arrived in “Americanos” (carriages on tracks or pulled by animals), to spend their holidays. During the bathing season, Belém was filled with theatres, ‘quermesses’, balls and the famous Belém fair with its street restaurants, toy stalls, crockery and knick-knacks.

In 1862 the court returned at the time when King D. Luis and Queen D. Maria moved to Paço da Ajuda. Later, the future King D. Carlos inhabited the Belém Palace with his young wife, the princess Amélia de Orleães, until the time of his father’s death. Although the establishment of the Republic put an end to 800 years of monarchy, the new regime was also seduced by the charms of Belém. From 1911 onward it set up the official residency of the President of the Republic in the Belém Palace.

The Exhibition of the Portuguese World took place in 1940 on the grounds adjacent to the Jerónimos as part of the celebration of the Bicentennial. Its development led to an urban reconfiguration of the entire area beyond the exhibition with the construction of new neighbourhoods in Ajuda and Restelo.

The symbolic meaning of Belém is still present nowadays. It was no coincidence that Portugal’s entry into the EEC was formalised in the cloisters of the Jerónimos Monastery. In 1992, the Belém Cultural Centre was intentionally located in the same place Cottinelli Telmo had chosen for the Pavilion of the Portuguese at the Exhibition of the Portuguese World back in 1940. The western end of the Praça do Império (Imperial Square) would thus be closed off with a monumental building whose first function was to host the first Portuguese presidency of the European Union.


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