Located on the highest of Lisbon’s seven hills, the Castelo de São Jorge is the city’s most visited tourist site, and perhaps its most impressive one, if not for the building itself at least for its position offering the best views of Lisbon and the River Tejo.
The castle occupies the site of the former Moorish castle dating from the 10th century. After four centuries of Moorish occupation, it was conquered in 1147 by the crusaders led by Dom Afonso Henriques, the founder and first king to call himself “King of Portugal”.
In the following centuries, the Castelo de São Jorge grew in importance with the Portuguese kings taking up residence within the walls of the old Moorish palace known as Paço da Alcáçova.
By the 16th century, the royal residence moved to a new palace located at Terreiro do Paço. The castle was then used as a prison and later as an army barracks. This reconversion together with the earthquake of 1755 led to the growing degradation of the castle walls.
In the 1940s the walls were renovated and partly recreated by Salazar’s architects. Later, in the 1990s the castle was further restored for the Expo 98 event.
Inside the Walls
The site’s main attractions include:
- The viewpoint and a series of gardens filled with Portuguese forest species, such as cork oak, olive, carob, umbrella pine and fruit trees around the Paço da Alcáçova;
- The Castelejo (Upper Castle), built in the 11th century during the Moorish period, corresponding to the castle inner defensive part, strategically located at the top of the hill. It retains eleven towers, a cistern and the Door of Treason, used by secret messengers;
- The periscope inside the Ulysses Tower, a giant camera obscura offering a unique real-time 360-degree angle on Lisbon;
- The archaeological site (access restricted) uncovering three main periods in the history of Lisbon: the first settlements around the 7th century BC, the Moorish period till the 11th century, and the ruins of the Paço da Alcáçova;
- The buildings now housing the Permanent Exhibition and Restaurante Casa do Leão as well as the surrounding area offering some evidence of the former Paço da Alcáçova.
Getting to the castle
By foot: If you don’t mind walking and are prepared with comfy shoes for paved steep streets, then by foot is the best way to get from the Baixa to the Castelo de São Jorge – it gives you a chance to visit Lisbon’s ancient cathedral and explore the narrow streets of the Alfama neighbourhood.
By tram 28: If you think you cannot walk it but still want to get to know the neighbourhood, then take tram 28. Get off at Largo das Portas do Sol. Use the Viva Viagem Card to travel on public transport in Lisbon.
By tuk tuk: This a good choice if you want to cover other attractions and a few viewpoints in Lisbon. Read about tuk tuk tours in Lisbon.
By taxi: This is the most comfortable way to get there if you want to avoid walking up the Alfama steep hill.