A gigantic Muslim citadel stood on top of one of the hills in what is now Lisbon. Not just any one, in the one with the most difficult access and easiest defense, because one does not build a military fortress so that it is easy to attack it. That fortress has not ceased to be occupied, with various uses, for almost a thousand years. What would Muslim architects think if they knew that today it is the castle of Saint George ?

We are going to visit one of the icons of the Portuguese capital. Not in vain is it older than the city itself and has survived the worst natural disaster and the reforms of its different inhabitants. Today, restored to its splendor, the castle of São Jorge continues to watch over the tranquility of Lisbon and its inhabitants.

A little history

The castle of São Jorge was built by the Muslims in the middle of the 11th century, to protect the city of Al-Uxbuna , present-day Lisbon. Actually, more than a castle it was a citadel, a citadel. In it, in addition to the castle itself, were the royal palace – whose ruins can be visited today – and a residential area. On its slopes the houses of the oldest neighborhood in Lisbon were built: the Alfama neighborhood.São Jorge Castle Lisbon TowerThe conquest of Lisbon by Alfonso Enríquez, Alfonso I of Portugal, in the middle of the 12th century not only did not “spoil” the fortress, but also took it to its maximum splendor during the following almost five centuries. In those years the buildings were transformed to house the King of Portugal, his court and the bishop. From the 13th century it was a royal palace and it did not cease to be until the union of Spain and Portugal in 1580, when it was occupied by the army.

The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 affected the fortress and, in its renovation, new military buildings were included that hid the old remains. Its use as a barracks made Lisbon people forget the castle and it was the Alfama neighborhood that became popular – the castle is located there and there is no “castle neighborhood”–. 

The visit: the castle inside

Restoration in the mid-20th century has restored much of its splendor to São Jorge Castle , but what is left standing or has it been recovered? To begin with, the wall, the almost complete coastal path and eleven towers. As we commented in our article on Lisbon viewpoints , just for the view from those walls it is worth going up there.Note that the wall is not a “simple” wall. We are talking about a system of several levels of walls, with stairs and intermediate doors to ensure the protection of the citadel. Be sure to walk the coastal path to get an idea of ​​its size and “strength”.The viewpoint is one of the four essential points in the visit to the castle of San Jorge , in addition to the camera obscura, the permanent exhibition and the archaeological site.

The camera obscura of the castle of São Jorge, Lisbon on a screen

If you have never seen a camera obscura , you are going to hallucinate. With a system of lenses and mirrors, almost like a periscope, a perfect image of the city is projected onto a white surface. You can even zoom in, moving the lens closer or further away from the screen. The one of the castle of São Jorge is located in one of the towers, specifically the Torre do Haver , also called Torre do Tombo , del Archivo and de Ulises . Take a good look at the schedules because it is accessed at specific times and in small groups.

The permanent exhibition, the castle museum

With almost ten centuries of history, there is no doubt that the amount of pieces found in the castle is enough to fill several museums. As it is not about overwhelming tourists, they have selected the essentials and it is what is known as the permanent exhibition , next to the romantic garden.

The archaeological site, the history to discover

We leave the least “showy” area for the end. We are talking about the archaeological site divided into three periods: remains from the Iron Age –from the 8th to the 3rd century BC–, the Islamic quarter –11th and 12th centuries– and the Palace of the Counts of Santiago –15th to 18th centuries–. We are not going to deceive you, you will find little that raises more than half a meter from the ground and, as we have said, its uninterrupted use has been covering and destroying much of its history.

Is it worth entering the castle of São Jorge with everything in Lisbon?

In our opinion, you cannot visit Lisbon and not enter the castle of São Jorge. Be careful, we do not say that you visit it every time you travel to the Portuguese capital, but you should do it at least once. We are talking about the history in capital letters of the city, the oldest construction and the one that gave rise to one of the most famous neighborhoods in Lisbon, Alfama . As we said before, just for the view from its coastal path it is already worth getting there –which, moreover, with the elevators is not even an effort–.

Beyond the pieces of the museum and the archaeological site, the attraction of the camera obscura is also something that justifies the entrance.

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