Belém Tower: a Unesco-listed Monument at the Side of the Tejo

Lisbon’s Belém Tower sits at the side of the River Tejo, not far from Jerónimos Monastery.

Built in the sixteenth century to guard the entrance to Lisbon’s harbour, it is a UNESCO-listed monument, and one of Lisbon’s main attractions.

Commissioned by King Dom Manuel I, it was built between 1514-20, in a time when many ships passed through Lisbon’s harbour on their way to Africa and the Orient.

It was the Age of Discoveries. The tower served as a fortress, and was part of the river defense system intended to provide crossfire on any enemy ship. Torre Velha (Old Tower), whose ruins can be seen on the opposite side of the river, was also part of that defense system.

However, Belém Tower fired only once in 1579, before becoming a State prison under the Spanish occupation. It maintained that function later during the reign of King Dom João I. Throughout the centuries, the tower underwent several renovations, especially to house military installations. The artificial lake that puts it inside the water dates from 1983.

Outside the Tower

Drawbridge of the Torre de Belém

Arriving at Belém Tower, you can get a general view of the building from the steps facing it. Notice the bartizan on the northwest corner (one of the six turrets), and just below it a stone rhinoceros. It is a mark of the taste for the exotic at the time of the tower’s construction. It is thought to depict a gift to King Manuel I from the Sultan of Cambay. Admire the stonework adorning the façade with royal and military motifs.

The south façade, the one facing the river, is actually the most impressive. Adorned with royal and military motifs, carved out of stone, it was intended to marvel travellers who arrived in Lisbon through the River Tejo’s mouth. It is also the façade that gives visitors access inside.

Note that there are usually long queues to visit Belém Tower as only a limited number of people are allowed inside the tower at any one time. If you are also visiting Jerónimos Monastery, buying a combined ticket gives you access to a speedy entrance lane and allows you to save money. Another option to beat the crowds is to go there early in the morning (it opens at 10am) or during lunchtime.

Inside the Tower

After the drawbridge and the main entrance, the interior of the bulwark houses the tower’s artillery made up of seventeen canons depicting how the entrance to Lisbon’s harbour used to be guarded. Prisoners were held at a flooded dungeon on the lower level. The floors have been raised to a non-flood level, making it impossible for most people to stand up.

The tower has four storeys connected by a narrow spiral staircase, visible from the outside. On the first floor, the Governor’s Room. Over it, the King’s Room, the richest area and one that leads to the balcony of Venetian inspiration. On the third floor, the Audience Room has conversadeiras (double chairs facing each other) by the window. The Chapel on the last floor opens into yet another balcony facing the river. The top terrace awards visitors with a fine panorama of the waterfront and the river.

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