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The Torre de Belem (Belem Tower), Lisbon The Torre de Belem is the iconic building of Lisbon, and the closest Portugal gets to an instantly recognisable monument.
This delightful little fort guarded the Tejo Estuary since the 16th century and was constructed at the height of the Manueline style of architecture. Decorating the fort are Arabic styled watchtowers, battlements adorned with the “Cross of Christ” and the earliest carving of a rhinoceros in Europe.
Being the icon of Lisbon, the Torre de Belem is always popular with tourists, and there can be very long queues to visit the rather empty and austere interior of the fort. The true beauty of the Torre de Belem is the highly ornate exterior, which is best seen from the landside or via a boat tour. This article will provide a tourist guide to the Torre de Belem.
Related articles: Guide to the Belem district – 2 days in Lisbon
The Torre de Belem is located within the Belem district of Lisbon, approximately 2.5km from central Lisbon, and is reached via the E15 tram. The adult entrance fee to the Belem Tower is €6.00, and children up to 14 are free to enter. Due to the size of the fort, only 150 people are allowed inside, which does mean there can be long queues to get in, especially during the peak season.
Unlike many of Lisbon’s tourist attractions, the opening hours of the Torre de Belem are limited, only open from 10:00 - 18.30 (summer) or 10:00 - 17.30 (winter). When planning your visit, try to arrive as early as possible, as the fort will stay busy until closing time. A typical visit is 30 minutes (extending to 40minutes if the fort is crowded).
Our opinion: The real attraction of the Torre de Belem is the exterior stone carving, inside is a little sparse. There are good views from the top floor of the fort, but the view from the Padrão dos Descobrimentos monument is much better.
Related articles: E15 and travel to Belem – The Padrão dos Descobrimentos
Within the fort, there are two bastion levels and four stories in the tower. The lower bastion level housed the 17 cannons and was later a prison, while the upper bastion is open, being shielded by a low wall. The lower bastion structure closely resembles that of a cloister, with courtyard area allowing light in and venting cannon smoke.
The floors in the tower are; the Sala do Governador (Governor's Room), the Sala dos Reis (King’s Hall), an audience hall, a chapel and a terrace. From the terrace are panoramic views over the Belem district and the Tejo Estuary. All the floors of the tower are connected by narrow spiral staircases, which can get crowded at peak times.
Historical curiosity: The Torre de Belem was constructed using Lioz limestone stone blocks, which were surplus and offcuts from the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos that was being constructed at the same time. The modern Belém Cultural Center (built in 1992) also used Lioz limestone, so it would aesthetically compliment the historic monuments of the district……
1490 – King João II proposed plans for a set of three fortifications to guard the mouth of the Tejo estuary
1514 – Construction started under the direction of Francisco de Arruda
1519 – Completion of the fort, and dedicated to Saint Vincent, the official name is the Torre de São Vicente
1580 – The tower was defeated by the Spanish navy, and led to Spanish rule of Portugal for 60 years s
1581 – The tower used as a prison
1782 –The Forte do Bom Sucesso was connected to the Torre de Belem
1807 – French (under Napoleon rule) destroyed upper two stories to create a wooden defensive structure
1831 - Battle of the Tejo (Tagus)
1845 – The upper stories were restored
1865 – The tower was used as a lighthouse
During the 16th century era of discovery and seafaring, the Portuguese encountered many new wonderous sights and treasures. One of the strangest events was held in 1517 at the beach close to the Torre de Belem (where the Praça do Império is today) and tried to determine, which of the newly “discovered” animals from Africa and Asia was the mightiest. This pitted an Asian Elephant against an African Rhinoceros, both gifts to King Manuel, from the Sultan of Gujarat.
The actual fight was a disappoint for the expecting crowd and King, as when the Elephant saw the Rhinoceros it turned and fled. The Rhino’s victory was commemorated with a carving on the Torre de Belem, but it sadly drowned in a shipwreck while being transported to Pope Leo X.
The small stone rhinoceros carving is on the exterior of the western tower, but the carving has been severely worn over the centuries.
The Belem Tower was constructed to protect the shipyards at Restelo, which during the late 15th and early 16th century were the centre of shipbuilding in Portugal. These shipyards were vulnerable to seaward attack, being close to the mouth of the Tejo estuary and 2.5km from Lisbon’s defences.
King João II proposed the construction of a line of defences of three forts; one on the north banks, one on the south and one on the rocky outcrop in the middle of the Tejo. The landside forts were the priority for King João and the construction of the Torre de Belem was delayed until the reign of his son Manuel I.
At the time of construction (1514), the rocky outcrop on which the Torre de Belem sits upon, was approximately 180m from the shoreline. The finished tower was installed with 17 canons, and was one for the first Portuguese defensive structures to be designed to withstand an artillery barrage.
These defences were not strong enough to withstand the attack by the Spanish navy in 1580, and surrender in only four hours. This defeat led to the Spanish claiming the Portuguese throne for over 60 years. The Spanish were not impressed by the Torre de Belem and used it only as a lowly political prison.
The lower level of the Torre de Belem was originally constructed for the cannons and as a store for weapons and food. As the priorities of the fort altered, this lower level was a convenient location to hold political prisoners.
This was an unfortunate location to be imprisoned, as the lower floor was susceptible to constant flooding either from high tides or storms. Routinely the prisons would be in water up to waist height…..