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Tour de Belém

The Belém Tower in Lisbon

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The Belém Tower, over 500 years old, is undoubtedly one of the most iconic landmarks of the Portuguese capital.

All aboard, sailors: follow the guide to explore this architectural gem, a UNESCO World Heritage site!

⚠️: The Belém Tower is a victim of its own popularity, and the queue at the entrance can be truly endless… To avoid wasting time unnecessarily, consider booking your visit in advance: Entry tickets for Belém Tower.

In this article:
A Short History of the Belém Tower
Exploring the Belém Tower
Visitor Tips

💡 The Captain’s Tips 💡

🧐 Interested in delving into Lisbon’s history? Captain Ulysses highly recommends this free guided tour of the capital. The tip you leave is entirely up to you!

💤 Searching for a hotel or an apartment in Lisbon? Be sure to check out this selection of accommodations known for their great value for money.

A Brief History of the Belém Tower in Lisbon

The Origins of the Belém Tower

Rewind to the 15th century, Portugal’s golden age. This era marked the height of Portuguese exploration: navigators like Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan traversed the globe, discovering new lands. During this period, Portuguese trade flourished.

In this setting, King Manuel I commissioned the construction of the Belém Tower on the banks of the Tagus River to safeguard Lisbon and to act as the hub for sea voyages.

His predecessor, King John II, had already strengthened Lisbon’s defense system by erecting two fortresses: those of Cascais and São Sebastião da Caparica (still visible from across the Tagus at Belém Tower). Notably, he had positioned a large ship, the Grand Nau, at what is now the site of the Belém Tower, to defend the Tagus estuary.

The Construction of Belém Tower

King Manuel I commissioned Francisco de Arruda, a distinguished military architect renowned for his fortresses across North Africa, to build the tower. Additionally, it is rumored that Diogo de Boitaca, the architect behind the adjacent Jerónimos Monastery, also had a hand in its construction.

The tower was swiftly constructed over a span of five years, from 1514 to 1519, featuring a blend of Moorish and Manueline styles, which were in vogue during that era.

💡 Fun Fact 💡

Originally named the Saint Vincent Tower of Belém (Torre de São Vicente de Belém in Portuguese) in honor of Lisbon’s patron saint, the name was eventually abbreviated to what we now commonly call the “Belém Tower.”

Belém Tower - Lisbon

The Evolution of Belém Tower Over the Centuries

Throughout its history, Belém Tower has taken on many roles, transitioning from a customs house to a telegraph office and notably, a prison. Its underground cells, prone to frequent flooding much like those of Venice’s Doge’s Palace where Casanova once languished, presented a harrowing experience for its inmates.

Note: There’s a popular myth that Belém Tower was originally constructed in the middle of the Tagus River. While it’s true that the tower has edged progressively closer to the mainland, especially after being visibly affected by the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, such a claim is somewhat far-fetched. Originally erected on a small islet near the Tagus’ banks, the tower is now connected to the shore by just a slender drawbridge.

Belém Tower Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site

In 1983, Belém Tower, along with the adjacent Jerónimos Monastery, was officially recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Attracting more than 500,000 visitors annually, it stands as one of the most frequented landmarks in Lisbon. To ensure access and sidestep the infamous long lines, it’s wise to purchase your tickets in advance, especially since the tower can only accommodate a limited number of visitors at a time.

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Exploring Belém Tower in Lisbon

Spanning from the mainland via a connecting walkway, Belém Tower is architecturally designed to mirror the bow of a caravel—the type of sailing vessel used by explorers. The structure comprises a bastion and a towering four-story main building.

Echoing the nearby Jerónimos Monastery, the tower is adorned with distinctive Manueline decorative motifs, a variation of Gothic style that incorporates maritime elements reflecting the era of great explorations, such as ropes, seaweed, and shells.

Additionally, the tower features Moorish influences, a nod to its architect, Francisco de Arruda’s, experiences in North Africa. The first floor hosts a Renaissance-style loggia, reminiscent of Venetian architecture, providing a covered and enclosed balcony.

Belém Tower

🕵️ Can You Spot the Rhinoceros at Belém Tower? 🕵️

Nestled among the architectural details of Belém Tower is a curious decoration—a stone-carved rhinoceros, reputed to be the earliest portrayal of this rare animal in Western European art!

This sculpture is said to represent an Indian rhinoceros that was brought back by Portuguese explorers. Legend has it that King Manuel I gifted this rhinoceros to the Pope in 1515. Tragically, historical accounts suggest the rhinoceros drowned in a shipwreck and never reached the Vatican.

To discover this unique rhinoceros, make your way to the governor’s room on the first floor of Belém Tower.

The Bastion

The bastion is strategically designed as a defensive fortification, enabling armed forces to protect both the tower and the entrance to Lisbon’s harbor.

The structure is split into two main levels:

  • The lower floor features a vaulted chamber, known as a casemate, which accommodated 17 cannons. It boasts an open roof, facilitating the dispersion of cannon smoke, which lends the space a cloister-like ambiance.
  • The upper floor hosts the Baluarte Terrace, a fortified platform surrounded by a perimeter wall, serving ideally as a lookout or guard post.

The Tower

Adjacent to the bastion, the tower rises through four levels, each linked by narrow, winding spiral staircases:

  • The Governor’s Room (1st floor): This area includes a sizable central basin designed to collect rainwater, essential for sustaining the troops during sieges.
  • The King’s Room (2nd floor): Home to the exquisite Venetian loggia. Crafted in the Renaissance style, the King’s Room (or “sala dos reis” in Portuguese) was once the setting for lavish banquets and receptions. Notably, the superior acoustics of the room allowed the king to discreetly overhear conversations from across the space.
  • The Audience Room (3rd floor): This space served as the meeting point for officers to deliberate and deliver judgments.
  • The Chapel (4th floor): Currently, the chapel features a concise exhibition detailing the history of the Belém Tower.
  • Rooftop Terrace: Positioned at a height of 35 meters, the terrace atop Belém Tower offers an unparalleled view over the Belém district, including sights like the Jerónimos Monastery. From here, you can also glimpse the São Sebastião da Caparica fortress across the Tagus River.

⚠️ Useful Tip ⚠️

Belém Tower is relatively small and can only host a limited number of guests simultaneously. Therefore, the lines to enter can become exceedingly long.

To ensure a smooth visit, it’s advisable to book your tickets in advance to sidestep the lengthy waits: tickets for Belém Tower.

Visitor Tips

Getting to Belém Tower

Situated in the Belém district, approximately 6-7 kilometers west of central Lisbon, Belém Tower is readily accessible by public transport:

  • Tram: Line 15E, alight at Belém-Jeronimos stop.
  • Bus: Routes 728, 729, 714, and 727 stop at Belém.
  • Train: Take the Cascais line from Cais do Sodré station to Belém station, followed by a 10-minute walk.

👍 Insider Tip 👍

Hop-on hop-off tourist buses also stop near the Monastery. These are very convenient for exploring the capital and its iconic monuments, especially if you want to avoid walking long distances or if you are traveling with children.

Included in your ticket is an audio guide, available in several languages, which provides engaging narratives and interesting tidbits throughout your visit!

Belém Tower Operating Hours

Belém Tower is open every day except Monday:

  • From October to April: from 10 AM to 5 PM
  • From May to September: from 10 AM to 6:30 PM

The tower is closed on certain holidays, including January 1, Easter Sunday, May 1, and December 25.

Ticket Prices for Belém Tower

Admission is priced at €8 for adults. Children aged 0 to 12 enter free.

Tickets for Belém Tower

⚠️ Heads Up! Belém Tower is among the most popular attractions in Lisbon. Given its limited capacity, expect long waiting times at the entrance.

Captain Ulysses advises securing your tickets in advance to bypass the queues!

👉 Purchase Tickets for Belém Tower

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👍 Insider Tip 👍

The Lisboa Card also offers entry to the Jerónimos Monastery.

This pass grants unlimited use of Lisbon’s public transportation and includes admission to 39 attractions like the Jerónimos Monastery, Belém Tower, National Azulejo Museum, and the Santa Justa Lift.

👉 Purchase your Lisboa Card

👍 Save Time! Book Your Visits & Activities in Advance!

😴 Find Your Accommodation in Lisbon!

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