The original, independent guide to Lisbon
Lisbon castle, the Castelo de Sao Jorge, stands majestically above central Lisbon and was the ancient seat of power for Portugal for over 400 years. Much of the present castle dates from the 1920s when a significant restoration project was undertaken but this does not detract from the allure of the castle.
The view from Lisbon castle over the Baixa district
The battlements of Castelo de Sao Jorge provides fantastic views of the Baixa district and the Rio Tejo (River Tagus) while the fortified citadel is steeped in history. The walk to the castle can be draining during the summer but Lisbon castle is one of the best tourist attractions of the capital.
The ticket price is €8.50 with children under 10 able to enter for free. Families should consider the family ticket which costs €20 and allows entry for two adults and two children (<18). The opening hours are 9:00- 21:00 (Mar-Oct) and 9:00-18:00 (Nov-Feb). Last admission is 30 minutes before closing time but a typical visits last between 60 - 90 minutes.
The battlements of Lisbon castle high above the capital
The Castelo de Sao Jorge is Lisbon’s most popular tourist attraction and there can be long ticket queues and crowds of tourists during the middle of the day. For a more leisurely visit consider arriving earlier or later in the day. Within the castle is a café and several kiosks where water, drinks or ice creams can be purchased and there are good toilet facilities.
The castle provides free and informative tours of the monument, and if your visit coincides with one of these tours it is highly recommended to join. There has been an attempt to provide disability access to the castle, with ramps and stair lifts, but the steep climb from the city centre along cobbled streets makes it challenging to get there.
There are two distinct sections of the castle; the Moorish Castle (pre 12th century) and the Royal Palace (13-14th century). Very little remains of the palace being converted into a military barracks and then destroyed by the 1755 earthquake. The castle was equally ruined but was extensively restored (basically rebuilt) during the early stages of the 1920s republic government.
Don’t miss the giant drawing of how Lisbon appeared before the 1755 earthquake, which is housed in the Nucleo Museologico in the old palace buildings. This faintly drawn picture is fascinating, as it shows the Se cathedral with a tower, the old Igreja Antonio church, the old Moorish city walls and that the castle was the only building on the hill.
The traitors gate in the inner courtyard, this small, non-descript door circumnavigated the extensive fortifications and allowed messengers in or deserters to escape. Also in this courtyard is the well which provided a constant water supply to the castle.
Tower of Saint Lawrence; this exterior tower half way down the hillside provided access to a secondary well and a means of reinforcing (or escaping the castle) and is a common addition to Moorish castles. For visitors, it provides alternative views over Lisbon and the castle but is a steep walk back to the castle!
The excellent vantage point of Castelo de Sao Jorge high above the River Tejo made it a prime defensive position and the site has been used since the Roman era. The reconstructed castle and battlements that can be viewed today are based on the layout from the 11th century and the introduction of Christianity to Portugal, as part of the second crusade. Before 1147 Lisbon was an important Moorish trading port with strong ties to North African heartland.
The fortified central keep of Lisbon castle
Afonso Henriques had answered the Popes call to “free the holy Lands” as part of the second crusade and with his army drove the Moors from Lisbon and surrounding lands. The victory is romantically remembered as the liberation of Lisbon but Alfonso’s mercenary army consisted of drunks and thieves, who once freed Lisbon from their slavery promptly sacked the city.
The Lisbon castle at the centre of the capital
Afonso Henriques claimed the crown of Portugal and sensing a counter attack from the Moors built the Castelo de Sao Jorge high on the defensive position. The fear of counter attack was incorporate into the design of the original castle, with the citadel the last line of defense. Successive kings of Portugal strengthened the defensive capabilities of Castelo de Sao Jorge to improve the survival chances of a frontal attack or extended siege.
The walls, cellars and wells were upgraded to withstand long sieges and defensive fortifications improved to make access difficult. The gradient leading to the main entrance was increased and a sharp 180 degree corner included preventing deployment of battering rams or cavalry charges. Other features which can still be found within the castle included; traitor gates, false doors and the entire surface stepped to provide maximum protection for defenders.