The castle of Lisbon, locally named Castelo de São Jorge is located right on top of the tallest of Lisbon´s seven hills of the historic centre of the capital city, above the old Moorish quarter. The castle is clearly visible from a long way off and it is famous for its panoramic views of the city and surrounding countryside. The Atlantic can be seen behind the 25 de Abril Bridge, Ponte 25 de Abril and on clear days the Padrão dos Descobrimentos and the Tower of Belem, Torre de Belém are visible in the distance.
The initial period of the military stronghold’s construction is relatively unknown. The oldest parts date from the 6th century when it was fortified by the Romans, Visigoths and the Moors, respectively, before the final conquest by D. Afonso Henriques. The castle was classified as national monument in 1910 and reflects values of the memory and antiquity which attested the importance of the unique history, archaeology and architecture in the context of the national cultural heritage.
The castle’s name originated as a tribute to Saint George, who’s most popular legend revolves around his bravery to save a virgin from the claws of a dragon. The devotion to this patron saint of England was passed by crusader knights from the British Isles who accompanied D. Afonso Henriques, first King of Portugal, in the reconquest of the Lisbon city in 1147 from the Moors, during the Reconquista. A bronze statue of Portugal´s first king was added to the esplanade in 1947. It is a copy of a romantic work by Soares dos Reis (1887). The original can be found in Guimaraes Castle where Afonso Henriques was born.
Another legend tells us about Martim Moniz, a Portuguese knight of noble birth to whom the entrance of the castle was honoured by Afonso Henriques with the name Gate of Martim Moniz, Porta de Martim Moniz. He participated in the Christian invasion lead by King Afonso Henriques in the reconquest of Lisbon and became a famous figure in the Siege of Lisbon. He adduced an attack at one point of the siege of São Jorge’s Castle and sacrificed himself by pinching his own body in the doorway. This avoided the full closing of the door and thus allowed the possible capture of the castle. He was killed in this occurrence and the entrance Porta de Martim Moniz is meant to remember his heroic act.
In the inside of the castle we find the Interpretation Centre of Olisipónia, a multimedia system showing the history of Lisbon. A real journey from the earliest time till the 20th century. Lisbon, before Olisipo, which means City of Ulysses according to a famous legend in which the presence of the Greek navigator gave the city its name, tells the story of the Phoenicians, Romans and Muslims, of achievements and discoveries.
In the Tower of Ulysses, Torre de Ulisses, is the Periscope or Dark Room installed where the Royal Treasure used to be. The Periscope, an optical mechanism invented by Leonardo da Vinci in the 16th century, allows the visitor to have a 360-degree view of the city in real time. It is the only existing Periscope in Portugal.
The Castle Gallery stands as well in the castle. The cells of the old prison were in the 19th century a factory where the traditional Portuguese paving was developed. Today the Gallery of the Castle receives different exhibitions related to the Portuguese history and culture.
Still inside the walls are a lot of beautiful promenades, gardens, houses, a church and many viewpoints, which deserve a closer and more careful look. As well, the surrounding neighbourhoods, born on the slopes of the castle, and which still to these days breathe history in their picturesque architecture, still carrying the sounds that probably inspired Lisbon’s Fado style, which is said to have some of its origins in these quarters, still showing its deep attachment to this musical style and its unique culture.