Belém Tower or the Torre de Belém is one of Lisbon’s most important monuments. Opening hours, location, price and history – here’s what you need to know to plan your trip.
Standing on the banks of the Tagus, it’s hard to imagine that the Belém Tower or Torre de Belém has been guarding Lisbon since the 16th century.
Built to protect Lisbon from marauders and ne’er do wells, the Belém Tower stands as one of the lasting monuments from Portugal’s Age of Discoveries.
No visit to Lisbon, Portugal’s capital would be complete without a visit to Belém Tower – not only is it a UNESCO World Heritage site, it also offers some of the best views of Belém and across the Tagus.
About the Belém Tower
Though it’s only a short tram or bus ride away from Lisbon’s city centre, Belém feels like a world away.
Two of its three main attractions, the Belém Tower and the Jeronimos Monastery were built during Portugal’s Golden Age of Discovery and stand as reminders of Portugal’s nautical achievements.
First impressions count for a lot and Belém Tower makes a pretty good one…
Walking over the small bridge to the Lisbon tower’s entry, you can’t help but notice the tower’s intricate detailing and distinctive design.
Built in the Manueline style (the architectural style championed by King Manuel I), Belém Tower has a hexagonal floor plan – designed to represent the shape of a ship’s bow protruding into the water.
The pale stonework is embellished with nautical and religious symbols – the Cross of the Order of Christ, shields and nautical rope among them.
Once you’re inside, walk through to the Lower Battery – an open area containing the tower’s 17 cannons and viewpoints over the river to spy any boats approaching from the Atlantic.
Watching the late afternoon sun reflecting off the water as small boats make their way up and down the river is well worth doing if you can get your timing right.
Still, the Belém Tower is not just about the beautiful views (though, to be honest, it’s worth visiting for these alone).
Inside The Torre Belem
Once you’re done ogling the panorama from the Lower Battery, squeeze your way up the narrow spiral staircase and climb up the first floor. You’ll find yourself in the governor’s chamber – the office for the Governor of Belém.
The chamber also leads to the bartizans (corner turrets).
The bartizans offer more great views (surprise) and also the chance to peek at more of the work adorning the tower’s exterior, including a stone rhinoceros head built to commemorate a rhino sent to King Manuel from India.
Battle your way up one more floor (I’m not exaggerating when I say that the staircases are really narrow).
There’s supposedly a one-way system in place to make sure people aren’t trying to go up and down at the same time but some people don’t like to play by the rules – there were a couple of those knocking about when I visited.
The second floor then contains the king’s chamber, complete with an elegant balcony for you to catch the breeze.
On the third floor there are two large rooms decorated with tiles, painted in 1834 by António Tomás da Fonseca, one of the greatest Portuguese tile painters.
There is also a room called “Sala dos Capelos”, or “Hall of Caps”, where Vasco da Gama and his men stayed when they came back from India
In the upper part of the building there is a terrace with magnificent views over Lisbon and its surroundings.
In this spot you can see, in clear weather, about thirty kilometers to the west: Cascais, Estoril and Sintra; to the south: Almada, a suburb on the other side of the Tagus River; and to the east: Cacilhas and Seixal.
If the views from below caught your attention, the views of the waterfront, the Tagus and Belém from here will definitely impress.
It can be very busy, but keep an eye open for the eight holes in the floor – they were used to drop heavy items (stones, rocks, you know) on unwanted intruders.
History of the Tower of Belém
King Manuel I commissioned Belém Tower at the beginning of the 16th century.
He wanted a tower that would defend and forewarn the city against any intruders attempting to breach Lisbon through the Tagus.
Its name comes from a misspelling of “Bethlehem”. It’s thought the builders were the same who built the Monastery of Batalha in Leira, which is also built in the Manueline style.
The Tower of Belém was completed in 1519 two years before the king’s death and improved and expanded under the command of its first Captain-General, Gaspar de Paiva, who was commissioned to command the fortress in 1521.
During its early years, the second floor of the Torre Belem was used as a prison to hold those condemned for piracy, while the ground floor from 1424 onwards housed the royal gunpowder store and its guns.
In 1521, a large explosion followed a fire in which several prisoners were burned alive. It is said that it is still possible to hear the victims’ screams.
During the 16th, 17th and 18th century, the tower was constantly tweaked and modified until it was largely as it is today.
The Belém Tower was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 and underwent a huge restoration project in the 1990s before being named as one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal.
How to Visit Belém Tower Lisbon
Torre de Belém: Tickets and Admission
Tickets to the Belém Tower are €6. Children up to the age of 12 have free admission.
If you are visiting Lisbon and planning to visit quite a few attractions, I’d recommend buying a Lisbon Card. The card gives you free access to public transport and a number of the city’s best sights – including the Torre de Belém.
Belem Tower: Map
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