The Castelo de Sao Jorge is the largest and arguably the most magnificent castle in Portugal. Of all the urban castles in capital cities in Western Europe, Sao Jorge is probably second only to the Tower of London in England. Standing in the very heart of Lisbon, the castle and its predecessors have guarded the city since Roman times and perhaps earlier. One of the best surviving examples of Moorish military architecture, the castle was a regional ruling seat during the Muslim occupation of the peninsula, and later served as the residence of the royal family after the Reconquista. It is now one of the most popular tourist destinations in Portugal.
The site upon which St. George Castle now stands has been inhabited since prehistoric times. The earliest defenses date back at least to the Roman Empire, and a large fortress probably stood on the spot by the time Germanic invaders arrived in Iberia in the 5th century AD. After Lisbon was absorbed into the Kingdom of the Visigoths, the castle was rebuilt to protect the southwestern coasts of the peninsula.
The Moorish conquest of Iberia in 711 entered in a golden age for Lisbon. Over the next few centuries, Lisbon’s castle was completely rebuilt. Lisbon became one of the caliphate’s most important regional centers, and its castle the seat of powerful rulers. It remained the most powerful fortress in Muslim Spain for over four hundred years. Throughout this time, the castle was captured only once and very briefly in 1108, by Crusaders traveling from Scandinavia to the Holy Land.
In 1147, the forces of the Reconquista reached Lisbon. After a brief siege, the city and castle were returned at last to Christian control. According to legend, the castle was retaken when a knight realized that a door to the castle had accidentally been left open, and he hurled his body into the breach in order to keep it open long enough for the other Crusaders to enter. The castle was integral to holding the western coast of Iberia against Moorish counterattacks well into the 13th century.
In 1255 Lisbon was established as the new capital of the Kingdom of Portugal, and its ancient castle designated as the royal residence. During the 14th century both the castle and city fortifications were renovated and vastly expanded. Thus Lisbon was well defended during Portugal’s occasional clashes with Spain. Around this time the fortress was redesignated as the Castelo De Sao Jorge. St. George began to fade in importance after a new palace was built in the 16th century. The castle was badly damaged by two earthquakes, in 1531 and 1755. The entire site was completely renovated in the 1940s, turning it into an overnight tourist sensation.
St. George Castle is one of the largest castles on the Iberian Peninsula. From its perch on a hill near the center of Lisbon it absolutely dominates the skyline of the city. The brown brick walls are surrounded by a thick stand of lush green trees, and the entire hill stands out starkly from white-washed, red-roofed buildings below. Although the majority of the outer fortifications have been demolished, the surviving outer walls and towers offer a fairly good idea of how extensive the defenses of the castle once were. Most of the out-buildings as well as the old palace are now mostly ruins.
The original castle itself, however, is almost completely intact. Dating almost entirely from the Middle Ages, much of the original Moorish architecture survives. Most notably, the ten high square towers give St. George a distinctly non-European look. Part of the castle interior is accessible to visitors, including several of the towers. Although there is not much to see inside the castle, most of the ramparts and tower-tops can be visited, affording magnificent views of the city.
The Castelo de Sao Jorge is located about a quarter-mile west of downtown Lisbon in the city’s Alfama district. It is open from November to February from 9:00am-6:00pm; and March to October from 9:00am-9:00pm. Admission is E5.00 for adults. Children and senior citizens are free. Web:
Gravensteen Castle is located on the edge of Ghent’s Old City, about 30 miles west of Brussels. It is open daily except on December 24, 25, 31 and January 1. From April to September the castle is open from 9:00am-6:00pm; and from October to March from 9:00am-5:00pm. Admission is E6.00 for adults (discounts for students, senior citizens and handicapped). Children 12 and under are free. Web: http://castelodesaojorge.pt (official website).
In addition to the Castilo de Sao Jorge, Lisbon is home to Belem Tower, one of the most famous port fortifications in Europe. The tower, constructed in the 16th century, was a giant battery from which cannons could fire on enemy ships with relative impunity. Just outside of Lisbon is another one of Portugal’s best surviving Muslim fortresses, the Castelo dos Mouros in the town of Sintra.