On the waterfront in Belem, near the mouth of the Tagus River, lies the Torre de Belém, perhaps Lisbon’s most iconic symbol. Originally conceived as a lighthouse, the tower was eventually built as a defensive fortress by order of King Manuel I. Architect Francisco de Arruda was commissioned to design the tower. Based in Évora and coming from a long and illustrious line of royal surveyors and builders, de Arruda had worked with his brother Diogo on the nearby Mosteiro dos Jerónimos and similarly wrapped his new creation in a wealth of Manueline symbolism – highly decorative, carved stone maritime motifs including twisted rope and the cross of the Order of Christ. North African and Italian architectural influences are also evident. When it was inaugurated in 1521, the tower would have been much further from the coast than it is now – the 1755 earthquake shifted the course of the river and land on the north bank was reclaimed in the 19th century, narrowing the river.
World Heritage status by UNESCO in 1983, the Belem Tower is today one of the most popular tourist attractions in Lisbon. Accessible by a narrow walkway from the wide esplanade of Belem, this quirky Manueline gem is a delight to explore. Children, in particular, will have endless fun playing hide and seek between the parapets, or running up and down the narrow spiral staircases. The rest of us, meanwhile, can contemplate the achievements of Portugal’s bravest navigators, who set out near this historic landmark nearly five hundred years ago to chart uncharted territories.
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One of Lisbon’s most iconic buildings, the Tower of Belém typifies it manueline style of architecture that symbolizes Portugal’s great expansion period. Built on a hexagonal ground plan, the four-storey tower was formed in the shape of a ship’s bow jutting out into the water. The front facade of the fortress faces the sea and offers a completely different impression of the tower than on the river bank. Built of ivory-white limestone, the structure’s real beauty lies in its exterior decoration. Omwels are built into the walls of the lower bastion and the distinctive battlements are formed in the form of shields embellished with the Cross of the Order of Christ. The same ornate filigree adorns the outer walls of the square tower, where carved stone armillary spheres and nautical rope – symbols of Portuguese maritime prowess – embellish the windows and arches. Dinky onion dome Sentry posts in Moorish style punctuate each corner of the terrace, while another four turrets surround the upper terrace. The striking feature of the tower, the beautiful arcades Renaissance loggiagraces the southern façade so that it cannot be seen from the beach – temptation enough to enter the walkway and visit this ornate Manueline sea fortress, a small masterpiece of military architecture.
2 Lower battery
Start your tour of the tower by examining the lower battery, also known as the stronghold. Set beneath an ornate web of vaulted ceilings, it houses the tower artillery – 17 guns aimed at the entrance to the mouth of the Tagus River. Below the nave of the stronghold, deep in the bowels of the building below the waterline, are a number of magazines. This remote area was a suitable place to store gunpowder and military equipment. It later served as one dungeonand was used as a prison until the 19th century. The arched portal leading to the chamber is so low you almost have to double down to enter. A skylight carved from the roof provides the only view of the outside world. And if you’re wondering, the marble tablet shown at the entrance explains the remission of taxes granted by the king to all Portuguese ships passing the fortress on entering and leaving the port, but reminds foreign ships of a port dues levied on departure from Lisbon. It is dated January 19, 1655.
3 From governorskamer
A dangerously steep and narrow spiral staircase leads to the first level of the tower and the governor’s room. The room served as the duty office for the Governor of Belém (his official residence was an onshore palace, now a nearby hotel). Between 1517 and 1834, nine successive governors lived and worked in these spartan quarters. Today, the room has no furniture except for the octagonal opening to a cistern that collects and stores rainwater. At the northeast and northwest corners of the room, you can penetrate the skinny tunnels that lead to the bartizans – the overhanging, wall-mounted turrets that protrude from the tower’s outer walls. From the northwest turret you can spy on the small stone Rhino visible under the braided belt of the turret. It is intended to commemorate a rhinoceros King Manuel I received as a gift from India – the first rhinoceros ever seen in Europe.
4 The King’s Chamber
The stairs continue up to the second level where you will be entertained with the king’s room. This is the most interesting room in the tower, as it opens onto a balcony, an elegant interior Renaissance loggia, inspired by Italian architecture. Here you can look out onto the tower’s lower terrace and enjoy the sweeping view of the river. Look out for the eight round holes in the floor, known as machicolations, that allowed the garrison’s defenders to drop stones or other objects to repel attacks. The room itself is unremarkable, except for an impressive stone fireplace with a mantel decorated with decorative armillary spheres in the northwest corner.
5 Public Chamber and Chapel
The audience chamber and chapel are located on the third and fourth levels of the tower, respectively. There is little in the room to distract you. However, the chapel has been converted into a small auditorium where a short video presentation broadcasts the history surrounding the monument and its discoveries. The illustrated information panels on the walls provide further illumination.
The claustrophobic climb to the top of Torre de Belém is rewarded with a wide open panorama from the Tagus River and the waterfront. Clearly visible to the east is the Monument to the Discoveries and in the distance, the Ponte 25 de Abril hangbrug. The vista north leads the eye all the way to the top of Belem Tower Avenue and, squeaking through the trees, the little one Hermitage of São Jerónimosa charming but rarely visited chapel built by Diogo de Boitaca in 1514, one of the architects responsible for the construction of the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos.
7 Top battery
After viewing the river, head back down to conclude your tour at the top battery. This area provided the tower with a second level for firing artillery and is where the drawbridge would have been raised and lowered. It is from the terrace that the south facade can best be admired. The royal coat of arms of Manuel I is clearly visible, placed in stone above the loggia. The decorative parapet around the open space of the patio is topped by a fine Gothic statue of the Virgin Mary and Child – Our Lady of Safe Homecoming, a symbol of protection for sailors on their voyages of discovery. Another set of watchtowers protruding from the walls usually prove irresistible to tourists looking for a definitive photo opportunity.
Where to stay near the Torre de Belém in Lisbon
We recommend these highly rated hotels near the famous Torre de Belem in Lisbon:
- Altis Belem Hotel & Spa: 5-star riverside luxury, Michelin-starred restaurant, floor-to-ceiling windows, lovely pools and Swiss-branded spa.
- Heritage Avenida Liberdade Hotel: mid-range boutique hotel, 18th-century mansion, stylish decor, free espresso and cookies, jet pool, and gym.
- A Casa das Janelas com Vista: affordable prices, home away from home, quiet street, fresh fruit, helpful staff.
- Ibis Lisboa Liberdade: budget hotel, modern decor, continental breakfast, clean rooms.
Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Torre de Belém
Much of Belem Tower’s allure is its beautiful exterior, but there’s still much to explore inside. Average self-guided tours last approximately 45 minutes.
- Skip-the-Line Tour: To save time while visiting the tower, consider signing up for the Belém Walking Tour in Lisbon. This 90-minute tour includes skip-the-line access to both the Torre de Belém and the Monastery of St. Jerome, as well as a visit to the Monument to the Discoveries.
- Avenida da Brasilia, Belem, Lisbon, Portugal 1400-038
More exploratory places to see, nearby
Torre de Belém is one of the top-rated tourist attractions in Portugal and a cultural treat for anyone interested in history and architecture. Another must-see for those drawn to the country’s heritage is the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos nearby and the Museu Nacional do Azulejo-Convento da Madre de Deus, located on the eastern edge of the city. North of the capital is Palácio Nacional de Sintra, also distinguished by UNESCO and located in a region that can be easily reached as part of a day trip from Lisbon.