Discover the Rich History of the Belem Tower

The Belem Tower, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of Lisbon’s most remarkable monuments. It is a landmark of Portuguese identity and an icon of the country facing the sea and its discoveries. The long history of the Belem Tower is curated by several episodes marking 500 years of Portuguese history.

Built during the early 16th century, Belem Tower is a must-visit when in Lisbon. Keep scrolling to learn more about the history, architecture, and more of Belem Tower!

What is Belem Tower?

Belem Tower History

Built in the 16th century, the Belem Tower was built to defend Lisbon from enemy ships. Around 1515, architect Francisco de Arruda designed the iconic monument and it served the purpose of being a fort that protected Lisbon from incoming raids along the Tagus River. It also marked the beginning of voyages for sailors.

Today, the Belem Tower is one of the most famous tourist destinations in the world, and for a good reason. Constructed in a Manuelino style, the tower has a unique design with a modern and heavily armed bastion, protruding over the river. Years later, the tower was transformed into a lighthouse and then a customs center.

Where is the Belem Tower Located?

Belem Tower History

Address: Av. Brasília, 1400-038 Lisboa, Portugal | Find on maps

The iconic Belem Tower is located in Lisbon, Portugal in the south of Europe. This structure was built to serve both as a gateway to the city of Lisbon as well as a defense against possible invasions.

Detailed Timeline of the Belem Tower

1571: Francisco de Holanda suggested that the fort needed some improvement and had to be strengthened to improve the coastal defenses to protect the kingdom.

Late 15th century: King John II designed a defense system for the mouth of the river Tagus and decided to build a fort to protect Lisbon from incoming raids.

1655: The Belem Tower began to function as a customs control point and for navigation along the Tagus.

1865: The Belem Tower served as a lighthouse.

1940: Measures were put in place for preserving the Belem Tower, through conservation works.

1983: The Belem Tower was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

History of The Belem Tower

Belem Tower History

The Origin

The Belem Tower was built in the 16th century, by architect Francisco de Arruda, a fort that was built to protect Lisbon from the incoming raids along the River Tagus. This also marked the beginning of voyages for sailors and the last sight of land. The tower was used longer as a state prison than a defense port. Over the years and with evolution happening, the tower lost its function to defend and was used as a customs port in 1655, a telegraph station in 1810, and a lighthouse in 1865.

Belem Tower History

The Architect

Built by a military architect, Francisco de Arruda, the Belem Tower is considered to be one of the best examples of the Manuelino style architecture, during the time. It also includes distinctive Moorish features such as ornately decorated turrets. e also worked on several other notable projects, including the fortifications of Tangier and the Palace of Sintra.

Belem Tower History

Purpose of Belem Tower

The Belem Tower served as a point of embarkation and disembarkation for Portuguese explorers and was a ceremonial gateway to Lisbon. Belem Tower also provided a strategic point to defend the city. Suggestions were put forward to improve and strengthen the tower in 1571. Francisco de Holanda recommended it was necessary to improve the coastal defenses to protect the kingdom.

What Was Done to Preserve Belem Tower?

1940: Steps were taken to preserve the tower, and the Ministry of Finance did small conservation works. 

1953: A project was carried out to integrate the tower with the local shoreline.

1983: The Belem Tower underwent a major restoration to commemorate its 500th anniversary. This involved repairing the stonework, replacing damaged tiles, and reinforcing the structure's foundations.

1999-2000: Another significant restoration project was carried out to repair damage caused by centuries of exposure to the elements. The work included restoring the stonework, replacing damaged tiles, and repairing cracks and fissures in the walls.

2006: A conservation project was launched to address the problem of rising damp in the tower. This involved installing a new drainage system and applying a waterproofing treatment to the stonework.

2007-2008: The tower's roof and wooden elements were repaired and treated to prevent decay.

2014-2015: The tower underwent another restoration project to repair damage caused by weathering and erosion. This included repairing cracks in the walls, replacing damaged stonework, and restoring the tower's decorative elements.

2017-2018: The most recent restoration project focused on the exterior stonework, which had become discolored and stained due to pollution and weathering. The work involved cleaning and repointing the stonework and installing a new lighting system to highlight the tower's architectural features.

Belem Tower History

Construction of Belém Tower

The construction of Belém Tower began in 1514 under the direction of Francisco de Arruda. The tower was built on a small island in the Tagus River, which was later connected to the mainland as the river shifted its course. The tower is approximately 30 meters tall and is divided into five levels, including a terrace at the top. The tower was built in the Manueline style, which was popular during the reign of King Manuel I of Portugal.

Belem Tower History

The architect who designed and oversaw the construction of the Belém Tower was Francisco de Arruda, a Portuguese architect who was active during the reign of King Manuel I of Portugal. Arruda was a highly regarded architect and engineer who was known for his innovative and ornate style. He also worked on other notable buildings in Portugal, including the Jerónimos Monastery, which is located nearby the Belém Tower.

Belem Tower Architecture

Belem Tower History

The Belem Tower is a beautiful example of modern Renaissance architecture. It has a historic feel to it and is a testimony of the transitional nature of military architecture that features the defense of the Middle Ages.

The Belem Tower is known to be one of the major works of the Manueline style, due to its typical motifs and elaborate warheads. The Belem Tower is divided into two parts, the bastion, shaped like an irregular hexagon, and the tower of four floors, which stands on the north face of the bastion. The whole tower is designed with twisted cords carved in stone and forms a knot on the north façade of the building.

Belem Tower Today

Today, the Belem Tower is a wonderful mix of sturdy fortifications with intricate details. It is an imposing medieval defensive tower nested on the northern bank of the River Tagus in Lisbon and serves as a symbol of Europe’s Age of Discovery.

The UNESCO World Heritage site, in 2007, included Belem Tower in the registry of the Seven Wonders of Portugal and features as one of the top ten attractions to visit in Portugal. The tower is a marvelous architectural achievement and it annually welcomes visitors from across the world who come to admire the structure and acknowledge the glorious history the landmark beholds.

Frequently Asked Questions About Belem Tower History

Q. How old is the Belem Tower?

A. The Belem Tower was built between 1514 and 1520 and was classified as a World Heritage Site in 1983 by UNESCO.

Q. Why is the Belem Tower famous?

A. The Belem Tower is famous as it celebrates the expedition that was led by navigator Vasco da Gama, who had established a maritime trade route from Portugal to India.

Q. Where is the Belem Tower located?

A. The Belem Tower is located on the northern bank of the Tagus River in the city of Lisbon, Portugal, south of Europe.

Q. Who built the Belem Tower?

A. The Belem Tower was designed by the famous military architect Francisco de Arruda.

Q. What is the architectural style of Belem Tower?

A. The Belem Tower is known for being the best example of the Manueline style of architecture that was famous in early 16th century Portugal.

Q. How much does Belem Tower tickets cost?

A. The Belem Tower tickets start from 6 euros. If you wish to explore the Jeronimos Monastery along with the tower, go for the combination ticket for 12 euros.

Q. Are there guided tours that explain the Belem Tower’s history?

A. Yes, there are guided tours available, led by a local historian, you can explore the Belem Tower and get an insight into Portugal’s Age of Discovery.

Q. Is it worth visiting the Belem Tower?

A. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Belem Tower offers a story of the Portuguese Age of Discovery. Visit the attraction to check out the spiral staircase, and the rooftop terrace for great views and admire the architectural details and rooms.