National Coach Museum, Lisbon

The National Coach Museum is worthy of its status as Lisbon's most visited attraction. Appropriately housed in the former riding ring of the Belém Palace, this collection of royal equipages is the largest of its kind. A trip to this museum allows visitors to experience the grandeur and elegance of a bygone era.

It was Queen Amélia, wife of King Carlos I, who had the inspiration for the collection early in the 20th century. She knew that the Portuguese royal family possessed an extensive assortment of coaches, carriages and other horse drawn vehicles, many of them centuries old and highly ornate. They were scattered among the various royal residences and were rarely seen by the public. Perhaps sensing that the innovative new automobiles would soon supplant the horse drawn carriage, Queen Amélia decided it would be wise to protect this one-of-a-kind collection and put it on display to showcase the wealth and stature of Portuguese royalty.

The Belém Palace was selected as the ideal spot to host the collection. Its elegant Royal Riding Arena had been used for years for sport and exhibitions. Now, it would house a unique collection of vehicles and paraphernalia like harnesses, uniforms and instruments used by the royal band.

The structure dated back to 1786. It was built in the neo-classical style, and was designed by architect Giacomo Azzolini. Many years of construction and hundreds of artisans participated in construction of the palace. The efforts in the early 20th century to ready the building for the new collection were hardly less spectacular. Beginning in 1904, workmen under the direction of architect Rosendo Carvalheira transformed the arena into a museum, taking special pains to protect the building's three gorgeous ceiling murals which are still in evidence today.

In addition to housing the museum, the Belém Palace is now home to Portugal's president. However, most people come here to witness the visual spectacle that is created by the dozens of ornate carriages that are found in the former riding arena. The coaches and other vehicles on display date back to the 16th century. Within the hall, visitors will see King Filipe II's carriage from 1619, in which he traveled from Spain to Portugal. Pope Clement XI offers another of the coaches on display to King João V. With gilded figures, immense artistry and tremendous historical significance, each of the items in this collection is more spectacular than the last.

With an ideal location within the Belém Palace and a truly unique collection, the National Coach Museum is widely considered to be a can't miss attraction in Lisbon. Allow at least a couple of hours to appreciate this monument to the wealth and power of Portugal's ruling class