The Belém Tower, a former defence bastion situated in the Lisbon fluvial entrance, was built on the north bank of the Tagus River between 1514 and 1520 on a rocky point in front of the former Belém beach. It is one of the most visited and iconic monuments of the city and was classified as a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1983 (it has been a national monument since 1907). It is a recommended spot where you can enjoy a 360 degrees view of the Tagus’ mouth and all the Belém area. It was built under the command of King Manuel I at the time where the Portuguese maritime expansion was at its best. The king appointed Francisco de Arruda to construct it with the supervision of Diogo Boitaca, the kingdom’s master of works. During the sixteenth century, the architect Francisco de Arruda had participated in the building of the Portuguese possessions in North Africa where he had been inspired to not only participate in the building of the nearby Jerónimos Monastery but also most probably the Casa dos Bicos.
A multi-functional cross of styles
Initially named as the tower of St. Vincent in honour of the patron saint of Lisbon or named as the fortress of Restelo, its architecture is a combination of military value (with 17 gunboats distributed around a polygonal base), of a medieval message (composed of four floors, a roof terrace and a fancy renaissance balcony) with a bastion facing the river. Within this fortress, there are large rooms with vaults from the sixteenth century, while in the basement one can admire the old Powder Magazine and the small compartments that once served as cells. There are many architectural and decorative elements in the Belém Tower that particularly stand out for their uniqueness:
- The wooden drawbridge that leads to the main door of the monument, decorated with the arms of the kingdom of Portugal;
- The domes in the shape of buds on the sentry guards placed at the corners of the rooftop and the fortress;
- The knots, ropes, armillary spheres (the personal symbol of King Manuel I) and crosses of Christ carved in stone, all distinctive elements of the Manueline style;
- The battlements, placed at small intervals on the parapets, in a shield form;
- A rhinoceros made of stone at the base of one of the watchtowers facing west, was one of the earliest representations of this mammal in Europe;
- A statue of Our Lady of Good Returns is facing the sea (on the terrace of the fortress), protecting sailors.
In addition to its military function, from the sixteenth century the Belém Tower was occasionally used as a prison, as well as a customs post, telegraphs station and lighthouse. At the end of each visit, tourists can buy souvenirs from a small table located inside the monument itself.
The Belém Tower is open from 10 am to 5:30 pm (October to April) and between 10 am to 6:30 pm (May to September). The last entry is permitted 30 minutes before the closing time. It is closed every Monday and on 1st January, Easter Sunday, 1st May and 25th December. The price of a single ticket is 5 euros (seniors over 65 and the disabled get a 50% discount). You can also purchase a set ticket for the entry into the Jerónimos Monastery for 10 euros. Children under 14 years enter for free and all entries are free every Sunday and bank holidays until to 2 pm. Located near to the monument there is the Belém river station where you can catch a boat across the Tagus River to Trafaria and Porto Brandão. It is a great way to complement a visit to the Tower of Belém. There is also an old bakery that has produced and sold the world-famous pastel de Belém since 1937 which is just walking distance from the monument.