One of the most iconic sights in Lisbon is Belem Tower. It sits just off a nice sandy beach on the outskirts of a now public park. Back in the day, however, it was a fearsome welcome to those who thought they could simply walk… or sail… into the heart of Portugal.
The tower was built between the years 1514 and 1520 and cozies up on the northern bank of the Tagus River, which flows through Lisbon. Upon entering the tower, you can see many stark reminders of its militaristic design: Long windows with cannons positioned facing outward, over a dozen in total, ready to blast and unwelcome visitors out of existence. Looking downstairs, you can also see iron bars of cells where they threw prisoners. Given the low level of the floor and the heights of the river, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch of the imagination to envision the room flooding, wary prisoners having to wade in a constant puddle that covered the floors of their cells. I mused about crabs getting in there and snapping at their feet, to which my wife shuddered. I shuddered a bit, too.
After it was a war fortress, it went through a bit of an identity crisis: First, a lighthouse and then a customs center, finally resting on a cultural heritage site in 1983. And what a site it is! If you want to go up or down the main spiral staircase, you have to wait. They have a system of red-light-green-light to signal guests when they can ascend or descend the stairs. You see, they are so narrow that you can’t really fit through it other than in a single-file line.
There are different plaques, information, and minor attractions at each of the floors: The Governor’s Hall (2F), The Kings’ Hall (3F), the Audience Hall (4F), the Chapel (5F) and Roof terrace. While nowadays, most of these floors are very austere and barren, a small movie playing on one of the upper floors, the roof terrace is really a magnificent experience. You can go into small turrets and take a seat on a rocky bench, stretch out, and look at the line waiting to get in or the gentle swell of the waves below. It’s spacious and peaceful, great for sunny days when the stones are warm to the touch. For us, it was a bit overcast and cold, but we still got some streaks of sunlight that really made the tower shine.
In the park by the tower, we ended up buying a lovely watercolor picture of the tower from a local artist. There are lots of vendors like that in this area, selling goods at Padrão dos Descobrimentos and even more outside of Jeronimos Monastery. It’s a wonderful atmosphere and a great way to spend an hour or so as you wait for your table at Pastéis de Belém!