Belém Palace, Lisbon

A visit to the Belém Palace allows visitors to experience a broad expanse of Portuguese history. Once a retreat for the royal family, the palace is now the home of Portugal's president. From a spectacular locale on the Tejo River, this gracious structure features beautifully manicured gardens and a fascinating look at the country's history.

The land where Belém Palace now sits was purchased in the 16th century by D. Manuel. The nobleman oversaw the construction of buildings on the site, among them various salons and atriums. Eventually, the land and the buildings were turned over to the Duke of Aveiras.

In 1726, the land and structures passed into royal hands when King João V purchased them and ordered the reconstruction of the buildings. The king also purchased other adjacent plots of land in order to increase holdings around the palace.

An earthquake in 1755 caused little damage to the palace. Nonetheless, a few improvement projects were undertaken after this time, and then again beginning in the 1770s. Throughout the palace's many decades, it has been the scene of countless royal balls and has also served as the residence for visiting foreign dignitaries and royalty. At times, Portugal's own royal family has also lived in Belém Palace.

When a 1910 revolution changed Portugal's form of monarchy to a republic, the palace became the president's residence as well as his office space. This is still true today, and it's possible to know when the president is in residence by the ceremonial hoisting of a green flag that features the national coat of arms.

While Belém Palace is no longer the scene of royal pageantry, it is a nonetheless spectacular sight. Outside the palace, visitors may stroll through the well kept gardens and gaze upon the statue of Afonso de Albuquerque. It's placed atop an impressively tall pedestal, and makes for a stately photograph with the statue in the foreground and the palace in the back.

Today, the palace consists of five main buildings, all of which gaze upon the Tejo River below. The first stop for many who visit the site is the interesting Presidency Museum. In assorted galleries visitors will find oil paintings of each of Portugal's presidents as well as photographs describing their time in office. Displays also include state gifts which were given to the various presidents by visiting dignitaries.

The rest of the palace is open only on specified days, and it's well worth a visit for the opportunity it affords to explore how different modes of design and architecture helped to shape the character of the palace. The work of artisans from the 17th through the 19th centuries is on display, making for a fascinating trip through time.

Fortunate people will time their Belém Palace visit to coordinate with the third Sunday of the month when the ceremonial changing of the guards occurs. This stately ceremony involves mounted guards, a regiment of foot soldiers and a martial band.