Lisbon’s most famous tourist attraction is also its most fascinating. The imposing edifice of Saint George Castle (Castelo de São Jorge) dominates the city’s skyline. Even better, the views from its ramparts are second to none. No visit to Lisbon could be considered complete without spending a few hours wandering through the cradle of the city.
Humans have inhabited the land where Saint George Castle now sits since the sixth century. Visigoths built the earliest fortifications here. The hilltop was strategically important for protecting a nearby settlement. By the 8th century, the Visigoth fortifications had fallen to the Saracens. The industrious Moors added considerably to the structure, including massive walls and several towers.
The Moors held the castle and Portugal until the 12th century when an uprising of the Portuguese people occurred. Known as the Reconquest, the Portuguese took Lisbon back by force. Afonso Henriques, who would become the country’s first king, led the people. They were assisted by northern European soldiers on their way to fight in the Crusades. During the battle, a Portuguese knight named Martim Moniz sacrificed his life when he blocked the castle gate with his body, allowing the Portuguese to take the castle and win back the right to self government.
The castle is named in honor of the British forces that helped the Portuguese take back control of Lisbon. Saint George, known principally for slaying a dragon, seemed a fitting patron for the fortification that would become Portugal’s royal palace.
The palace was abandoned in the 16th century when a new one was built elsewhere. Falling into disuse, the Saint George Castle was nearly destroyed in a massive earthquake in 1755. Despite natural disasters and neglect, the edifice survived. By the 1940s, a reconstruction program had begun, and the castle has been a major tourist attraction ever since.
Visitors flock from all corners of the globe to experience a site that is an enormous part of European history. Eighteen towers and thousands of meters of impressive fortifications are just the beginning of the attractions. A visit to the grounds affords stunning views of Lisbon and the opportunity to wander among the castle’s peacocks. The Tower of Ulysses, which once was the storehouse for the royal treasure, now contains a camera obscura through which a unique view of the city can be obtained.
Other important sights include the House of Lions where two lions lived many centuries ago and the Moniz Gate where the Portuguese knight sacrificed himself for the cause of independence. The Casa do Leão Museum offers a fascinating in depth look at the castle’s history.
Steeped in history and honor, a visit to the Saint George Castle is an indispensable part of any sojourn to Lisbon.