Top 10 Interesting Facts About Belem Tower
Few people come to Lisbon and don’t make time to visit the Tower of Belem on the western coast, just outside of the city.
Even as you explore the city center, you’ll find every tuktuk driver offers a Belem Tower tour of some sort that they’ll take you to on a whim, in exchange for a few euros.
This tower was built between 1514 and 1520. It has seen the best and the worst of Portuguese history, having lived through some of the most tumultuous times to grace European soil.
1. The Belem Tower is Portugal’s Most Famous Landmark
You’ll find few Lisbon bucket lists that don’t feature ‘visit Belem Tower’ on them somewhere. This is undoubtably Lisbon’s most well known attraction, as well as the most famous landmark for the country of Portugal.
The site attracts an estimated 500,000 visitors per year. For Portugal, this is a lot; there are few other singular monuments that can contend with these numbers.
2. It was Originally Created as a Ship Replacement
During the reign of King John II, he ordered that a permanent ship be posted in the bay of Belem in order to protect the shoreline from impending threats and/or attack.
It remained here for the duration of his kingship, only for the concept to be revisited by his successor, King Manuel I.
Manuel figured that building of a permanent tower would be more economically viable than having a ship on the water at all times; and so construction on the Belem Tower commenced.
When construction began, it was done on a small island that floated just off of the shore, mid-river. If you visit today you will see that it no longer sits on an independent island — read on to find out why.
3. The Architect was a Man Named Francisco de Arruda
Francisco approached the tower in traditional Manueline style, which was immensely popular at the time. This can also be called Portuguese’s late Gothic architecture, and was the style of incorporating maritime symbols of discoveries into the building’s themselves.
Prior to the construction of the tower, Francisco was responsible for the creation of Portugal’s fortresses in Morocco.
4. The Belem Tower was Granted World Heritage Status by UNESCO
Lisbon holds a number of World Heritage Sites recognized by UNESCO. The Belem Tower was added to the list in 1983 after proving a long existence as one of the country’s most important attractions.
5. The Location of the Tower Shifted During the Great Earthquake
The reason why the tower no longer has an island of its own is all thanks to the great Earthquake that shook this city in 1755.
The course of the river shifted in the quake, moving the small tower island closer to the land and eventually merging the two over time.
Today, the Belem Tower appears as simply a tower on the bank of the river, looking out over the water ahead. It is difficult to picture it all those centuries ago as an independent island.
6. There are Several Levels to the Interior of the Belem Tower
While I do believe that seeing the Belem Tower from the outside is sufficient for travelers with time restraints, making time to go inside is worthwhile if you can!
The first level is the Governor’s Hall, the second level is the King’s Hall and the third level is the Audience Hall. The lower bastion is where the canons line up, facing outward over the sea ready for fire at any approaching danger.
7. The Belem Tower is One of the Seven Wonders of Portugal
The Belem Tower is one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal, something not a lot of people know is actually a thing.
The other six wonders are as follows: the Jerónimos Monastery (just across from Belem Tower and absolutely beautiful), Pena National Palace in Sintra (also incredible), the Castle of Óbidos, Alcobaça Monastery, Batalha Monastery and Guimarães Castle.
Try to visit them all while you’re traveling the country; the monasteries don’t require more than an hour or so each.
8. There are Beasts and Rhinoceros Sculpted Into the Facade of the Belem Tower
You’ll find these sculptors on the base of the external facing turrets. This is the first known representation of a rhinoceros in any Western European art form. It is thought that the architects were inspired by King Manuel I having gifted one of these animals to Pope Leo X in 1515.
The sculptors are small; look closely if you want to spot them.
9. The Dungeons of the Tower Were Actually Used as a Prison
Prior to 1580, Kind Manuel I used the dungeons of the Belem Tower as a place to hold his all of his liberal enemies captive.
In 1580 there was a battle in which the Portuguese monarch ended up surrendering to Spain’s Duke of Alba. After this, the city was in desperate need of more prison faculties, and the Belem Tower had extra space.
Using these dungeons for this purpose remained all the way through until 1830.
10. The Belem Tower is Part of the Belem Tourist Hub
The Belem Tower is but one of a network of attractions that form the district of Belem. Once you’ve made it to the tower, you are in walking distance to all of the neighborhood best attractions.
Just along the river bank, one can easily walk over to another important monument in Portuguese voyager history: the Padrão dos Descobrimentos.
The Cultural Center of Belem is here too, giving you easy access to the guided walking tours you might need to properly engage with the history of this area. The entrance into the famous Museu Coleção Berardo is here, too.
The Jerónimos Monastery, mentioned as one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal, is here as well. It’s right across the road; you can’t miss this monumental structure.
Further down the banks you’ll find the MAAT Museum, the Belem Harbor and even the Pastéis de Belém; the best pastel de nata shop in the country.
Feeling overwhelmed? Click here and read about how you can explore Belem in one full day.