Belém Tower - History and Facts | History Hit

Belém Tower

Lisbon, Area Metropolitana de Lisboa, Portugal

Belem Tower is an imposing UNESCO-listed medieval tower on the bank of the River Tagus in Lisbon.

Amy Irvine

14 May 2021
Image Credit: Shutterstock

About Belém Tower

Belém Tower (Torre de Belém) is an imposing medieval defensive tower on the northern bank of the River Tagus in Lisbon and a symbol of Europe’s Age of Discovery.

History of Belém Tower

Built between 1514-1520 during the reign of King Manuel (and the height of the Portuguese Renaissance) by Portuguese architect and sculptor Francisco de Arruda, Belém Tower is sometimes known as The Tower of St Vincent as its construction celebrated the expedition to India of Vasco da Gama, the famous Portuguese explorer. It is considered one of the best examples of the architecture of its time, known as the Manuelino style, but it also includes distinctive Moorish features such as ornately decorated turrets.

The Tower served as a point of embarkation and disembarkation for Portuguese explorers and as a ceremonial gateway to Lisbon, as well as being used to defend the city. (Indeed a heavily armed 1,000 ton ship, the Grande Nau, guarded the estuary at the mouth of the Tagus until the fort’s completion).

The first suggestions of improving and strengthening the tower arose in 1571, when Francisco de Holanda advised the monarch that it was necessary to improve the coastal defences in order to protect the kingdom’s capital. Such suggestions continued throughout the tower’s history, and at various points over the centuries, the Belém Tower was fortified further to make it a stronger coastal artillery battery.

(Around 1655, the Tower also functioned as a customs control point and for navigation along the Tagus. Vessels were obliged to pay a tax as they entered the harbour, imposed incrementally).

The first moves to preserve the tower began in 1940, when the Ministry of Finance undertook small conservation works, followed by a project in 1953 to integrate the tower with the local shoreline. In 1983 the site hosted the 17th European Exhibition on Art, Science and Culture, and various projects involving the building were undertaken, before it received a full restoration from 1997-1998.

Belém Tower today

Now a UNESCO World Heritage site (since 1983) together with the nearby Jeronimos Monastery, Belém Tower is a beautiful mix of sturdy fortifications and intricate detail.

In 2007, the Belém Tower was included in the registry of the Seven Wonders of Portugal, and indeed features as one of our top ten tourist attractions in Portugal.

Getting to Belém Tower

Belém Tower is located about 6 miles from Lisbon. Tram 15 (or 15E) departs from Praça da Figueira, Belém (heading towards Algés – Jardim) runs every 10-15 minutes and takes about 25 minutes. Get out at Mosteiro dos Jerónimos stop, or two stops after at Largo da Princesa, closer to Belém Tower (then walk 5 minutes towards the River Tejo).

Alternatively, take the train heading to Cascais from Cais do Sodré station to Belém, which is 3 stops away, or bus lines 27, 28, 29, 43, 49, 51 and 112.

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