The finest of all castles in Portugal, Lisbon’s Castelo de Sao Jorge (St George Castle) dominates the capital city from its perch on top of the highest of Lisbon’s seven hills. Today, visitors flock to the Castelo de Sao Jorge for its panoramic views of the city and surrounding countryside.
The hilltop has been fortified at least since the time of the Romans. A Visigoth fortress on the site of St George Castle fell to the Muslim Saracens in the 8th century, as the Moorish invaders conquered the castles of Portugal and sought to dominate the entire Iberian Peninsula.
As with other castles in Portugal, the Moors built much
of the surviving structure of the Castelo de Sao Jorge.
In 1147, as part of the Second Crusade, Christian soldiers
led by Dom Afonso Henriques besieged the castle and expelled
the Moors from Lisbon. (A statue
of Henriques, the first king of Portugal, stands by the
main entrance of the Castelo de Sao Jorge). Soon, the
Christian Reconquista had retaken other castles of Portugal
and the Castelo de Sao Jorge helped defend the retaken
territories from Moorish counterattacks. In later years,
the fortress served to protect the Portuguese monarchy
from attacks by its stronger neighbors in Castile (the
ancestor kingdom of modern-day Spain).
St George Castle was used as a royal palace even before Lisbon became the capital of the new Portuguese kingdom in 1255. As the center of government, the Castelo de Sao Jorge became the most important of all castles in Portugal. King Denis I built a royal palace (now in ruins) in the castle grounds and the Portuguese national archive was stored in one of the guard towers.
Before 1371, the fortress was simply known as Lisbon
Castle. It was renamed St George Castle after King John
I of Portugal married an English princess. (St George
is the patron saint of England and his fabled slaying of a dragon also made him a popular
hero in Iberia.)
The Castelo de Sao Jorge lost some of its importance in the early 16th century, when King Manual I built a new royal residence elsewhere in Lisbon. It suffered heavy destruction in the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755 and was in a state of some disrepair when it became a national monument in 1910.
A major period of restoration in the 1940s restored St George Castle to its former splendor as the most imposing of all castles of Portugal. Most of the major walls and ramparts are still well preserved. A trek to the top of the one of these towers is a must for all visitors to Lisbon. The views of the city and the Tagus River from the towers are spectacular.
The gardens of the Castelo de Sao Jorge are also beautiful and well maintained, and many ducks and geese roam around the castle’s interior. Also impressive is the five-arched Ogival House, once part of the 17th century jail located within St George Castle. The recently opened museum complex, the Interpretation Center for the City of Lisbon, is well worth a visit. Scenes from Lisbon taken from a periscope at the top of the Tower of Ulysses are reflected in a dark room in the center.
The Castelo de San Jorge is open year-round from 9 am to 6 pm (9 pm in the summer). Admission for adults is about $5 each; the views of the bustling city below more than justify the price.