With breathtaking views and plenty of historical charm, Castelo de Sao Jorge was a must-stop for us while in Lisbon. Dating back to the mid-11th century, the castle is a throwback to the Moorish architecture and days gone by. Typical of the military fortifications of that time, the Castelo was built on top of a hill, making it inaccessible. Today you can still see its 11 towers and imagine how intimidating they must have been back in those days.
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Moorish Castelo de Sao Jorge
The Castelo goes back to the days of the crusades before Lisbon became a Christian stronghold. The archeological excavations show an even older presence, and it dates back to 48 BC when this was a Roman province. I don’t know about you, but this is pretty cool. But then again, I am a history junkie.
The castle’s position on top of the hill provided a prime vantage point overlooking the River Tejo. The Moors fortified the walls during the 11th century to defend their territory. This was also a key trading route with ties to North Africa, which made it very valuable.
Castelo During The Crusades
The Crusades were truly interesting times in Medieval history. Passed off as a religious quest to free the Holy Land from the Muslims, these military campaigns were bloody, violent and brought tremendous riches to the Christian church. In total, there were eight crusades between 1096 ad 1291.
The next part of the Castelo de Sao Jorge story dates to the Second Crusade. This crusade wasn’t the most successful campaign for the Christians. However, the major highlight of importance was the Siege of Lisbon. This point marked the end of Moorish rule, and Lisbon officially came under Portuguese control.
The Royal Palace
Once the Portuguese took over, they upgraded the defensive fortification to make it more challenging to take over. While today the castle is easy to stroll around in, it wasn’t so in those days. Unlike other castles, Castelo de Sao Jorge had a military purpose, and its primary function was to house the troops.
After Dom Alfonso Henriques conquered Lisbon and became the first king of Portugal, the castle took on a different function. For the next 400 years, Castelo de Sao Jorge remained the seat of Portugal’s power, and it also held an important military role.
Today, not much remains of the Royal Palace was destroyed during the 1755 earthquake, forcing the royal family to build a new home. However, once inside the museum, you can see what the palace looked like before the damage. After extensive restorations during the 1920s, the castle was opened to the public, which you see today.
Getting to Castelo de Sao Jorge
It is quite the trek to get to the castle from the city centre. Steep, cobbled streets and alleyways can be difficult to navigate but are very interesting to see. You can also take a couple of trams to get there or a cab. We opted to take the scenic route.
Like any other tourist attraction, the Castelo can get quite busy with visitors. We got there in the afternoon and managed to avoid huge crowds. As the views are pretty spectacular, I imagine there would be high demand for visiting closer to the sunset.
Inside Castelo de Sao Jorge
Within the castle walls are few spots to stop for a drink, and there are many areas to relax and enjoy the views. It was sweltering when we were there, and I couldn’t imagine what life was like for those that had to sit there as a lookout. Then again, that is the kind of thing I think about when I visit places like that.
Once you get your ticket, you will find yourself in a very peaceful green space. I think it’s easy to overlook it as your eye is automatically drawn to the stunning views of the city. Leaning against the thick walls surrounding the castle gives you an idea of how important this location was for defending the port. You can see far and wide. It would be easy to spot an enemy ship in the distance and sound alert before they reached the shore.
The castle walls
I was super excited to realize that you can walk along the defensive walls that surround the castle. Not much else really remains other than the walls, but it’s still a very incredible experience. The experience reminded me of walking along the fortified walls of Old Town in Dubrovnik.
There are many lookout points, towers and stairs along the castle walls. The journey doesn’t take that long, depending on how often you stop. There are safety railings everywhere, which makes it safer to get around. The views are truly spectacular, especially on a sunny day. Although Lisbon is a busy city, it’s easy to forget that here. The castle is high enough that it stands apart from the rest of the city.
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What is known as the traitor’s gate in the inner courtyard sounds more exciting than it is. This opening was used by messengers and deserters alike. There is also the well that once provided water to the castle. It’s not that much to see today, but you can appreciate the critical role it played.
Look into the past
I thought this was an interesting if somewhat limiting experience. It was great to see evidence of the past cultures and see how significant this site was. I thought there would be more to see, but I don’t believe all of it was open when we visited. As the display of archeological discoveries is included in the admission price, it’s worth stopping by to check it out.
This interesting mix of glass and drawing gives you an idea of what Lisbon looked like in those days, before the earthquake. The 1755 earthquake destroyed a fair bit of the city, altering how Lisbon looks today.
final thoughts on Castelo de Sao Jorge
After the earthquake, the royal family needed a new place to live, so they built a new residence in Palacio Nacional da Ajuda. This is also a spectacular place to visit while in Lisbon.
Have you been to the Castelo de Sao Jorge? Or have you visited another spectacular castle? Let me know!