São Jorge Castle

São Jorge Castle (38)

On top of the historic centre’s highest hill, standing one hundred and ten metres tall, is the dominating and majestic silhouette of the “Sao Jorge” Castle.

A key symbol of Lisbon, this fortification, also known as “Castelo dos Mouros” or ´Castle of the Moors` in English, is an essential stop on any visit to the city.

It is believed to have begun life as a Celtic settlement while later the Romans, led by Julius Brutus, erected the first fort here in 137 A.C. They also built a circus whose remains were discovered in the 18th century.

After the fall of Rome, Visigoths and Muslims chose this privileged site to have their own forts.

Around the year 716 during Portugal’s Moorish period and with Abdelasis governing, the castle was made up of “la Alcazaba”, a quadrangular building defended by walls which surrounded its inhabitants.

After four centuries of Moorish presence, King Afonso Henriques, with the help of the crusaders, recaptured Lisbon in 1147 following a three month siege. Legend says that the knight Martim Moniz gave his life to keep the castle’s doors open while the king’s troops could enter. If you visit the castle, you will see that one of the wall’s gates bears his name in honour.

The new castle was baptised in the name of Saint Jorge the martyr, who many of the crusaders were devoted to. Starting with Afonso Henrique, the citadel became the royal residence until the start of the 16th century. It was also in this palace that a reception for the explorer Vasco de Gama was held, as well as the first Portuguese theatrical play, the ´Monologue of the Cowherd`, by Gil Vicente.

In 1511 King Manuel I built a luxurious royal residence in the square “Terreiro do Paço”, today called “Praça do Comerço”, and moved the entire royal court there.

The solid, elegant castle was rather forgotten after losing its defence purposes and came to be used as a theatre, prison, military barracks and arms deposit. 

The 1755 earthquake was the final blow for the castle and brought further ruin to what had once been such a great symbol of Lisbon. Nothing changed until the 20th century when it was classified a national monument.

The Salazar dictatorship initiated a restoration process in 1938 which attempted to restore the castle’s former medieval spirit. Gardens were created and the whole area was rejuvenated, making it today one of the city’s most visited sites.

What is left of Afonso Henriques’ original castle are several watch towers and a room of gothic arches. Other points of interest are the ‘Olispónia’ multi-media exhibition on 16th century Lisbon and the ‘Ulysees’ Tower which features a dark camera being projected onto its walls, depicting panoramic scenes of Lisbon.

What’s more, you can climb the towers and walk along the castle’s reconstructed walls.

Apart from revisiting past centuries while exploring the site and imagining the secrets its thick walls hold, the “Sao Jorge” Castle offers you an unforgettable view of the city from its esplanade and pathway.

Beneath the fresh, leafy wooded garden you will enjoy a splendid view of the city centre, river Tajo and its far bank on a fine day. A square tiled panel shows a map of the city and indicates the most renowned buildings, while also helping you find where everything is. The sensation looking out at the sea of red roofs and the towers and chapels of Lisbon’s many churches is unforgettable. 

Riding up Lisbon’s highest hill to the castle on the number twenty-eight tram is only the start of the experience. If you are of an adventurous nature you might dare to get there on foot, passing in front of the Sé Cathedral. You will also enter “Santa Cruz” neighbourhood, located inside the wall and stumble along alleyways dating back to medieval times, past flaking facades, hanging clothes and pots of blooming flowers.  

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