St. George's Castle: Lisbon's Fetching But Fake Castle
Updated: Jan 24, 2020
Here's my complete guide to visiting Castelo de São Jorge, St. George's Castle, in Lisbon. A truthful guide. St. George's Castle is Lisbon's most recognizable landmark. But it's a fake. Yes, it's a fake. You read that right.
St. George's Castle, is the most popular tourist attraction in the beautiful Alfama district of Lisbon Portugal. But it's mostly a fake, a mid 20th century recreation. It's a Lisbon tourist trap you should skip. Here's my guide to some other Lisbon spots that you should also give a pass.
St. George's Castle isn't an "ancient castle," a "medieval citadel," "Lisbon's oldest castle," a "Moorish castle," "Moorish ruins," or even a "historic castle," as I've read almost everywhere. Not even remotely. People seem either misinformed or misled.
What kind of blathering disinformation is this? And why is anyone, including travel "experts," perpetuating this myth? To attract more unsuspecting tourists? History nerds must be rolling over in their graves at this state of affairs.
Even the castle brochure that you're given upon entry isn't exactly honest about the castle's recreation. On line one, it claims to be a "mid-11th century" fortification. If you read more closely, it cops to "substantial renovation" and "many new buildings." Buried on the last line of the last page, it notes that the castle is a product of "restoration work from 1938-40."
I'm assuming most people don't read the fine print.
St. George's: a Fake Castle in Lisbon
In fact, St. George Castle is a 1940s replica, a modern recreation of a medieval landmark. The crenelated castle looks quite authentic, as it was intended to, but it's not. The hilltop that it sits on is important, having been occupied by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, and Moors.
But this isn't like visiting actual UNESCO sites, like the Moorish Castle in Sintra or the Tower of London, that date from the 11th century. Let's keep it real. I'm happy that it was rebuilt; it's very photogenic. But don't pretend it's something it's not. That's so aggravating, like nails on a chalkboard for me.
Now that I've gotten that off my chest, I can move on. I felt a bit like the Incredible Hulk for a moment with my huffing and puffing over this tourist bait and switch. I just don't like being conned. Or even a whiff of a con, or a careful evasion of the truth, or a "pulling the wool over the eyes" kind of situation.
Though St. George's Castle is fairly new, the one thing that it does have in spades is classic panoramic views. I give it that. With the most prominent location on Lisbon's highest hill, it's essentially a miradouro (viewpoint). It should really be called St. George's Miradouro. For that, it's worth making the trek.
And for the peacocks. They're cute and friendly.
And for the W.C. There are so few public ones.
How To Get To St. George's Castle in Alfama
Assuming you still want to see St. George's Castle after my rant, you have several options for getting there. You can climb up the steep hill from Rossio Square and look for signposts. In the heat, it could be rather exhausting. Or, you can take Tram 28 to Miradouro de Santa Luzia and walk a bit. Or take bus 737, which takes you from Praça da Figueira to the castle entrance.
It could be a long wait for any public transportation. Alternatively, take an Uber or Tuk Tuk. Ubers are dirt cheap in Lisbon and are now legal. Once inside, the castle grounds are mercifully flat. And it's much easier to walk down when you're done with your visit.
The History of St. George's Castle in Lisbon
So why is St. George's Castle a fake? Well, because Lisbon's deadly 1755 earthquake, which decimated much of the city, also took down the old castle.
Before being demolished, the castle could be traced back to the 6th century, where its hilltop was a strategic location. It was initially a Moorish royal residence. Then it was encircled by walls, making it a citadel. The purpose of the castle was to house military troops or protect the royal residents in case of a siege.
But then, in 1147, along came Portugal’s first king, D. Afonso Henriques. He captured the castle with some help from British crusader knights. The castle was re-christianed St. George, after England’s patron saint who famously saved a virgin from the claws of a dragon. It became the seat of Portuguese royalty until the early 1500s.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the castle was re-purposed from a royal residence to a military barracks. In 1755, it was demolished by the Lisbon earthquake, the worst day in Lisbon history.
The Modern Medieval Castle
Today, what you see is a major restoration project, not a medieval castle. It reminds me of Knossos Palace in Crete, another 20th century recreation masquerading as an authentic Minoan palace.
In 1938, the dictator António Salazar began to uncover and rebuild the dilapidated ruin. (Yes, he is the Salazar that served as the namesake for J. K. Rowling's Salazar Slytherin.) He rebuilt the castle from scratch in an 11th century medieval style, which is quite fetching. But it was largely a cynical choice. Salazar used the symbolism of Christian conquest to promote his patriotic program.
But none of this magically make the castle "real" or "ancient." To the contrary. It just makes it atmospheric and somewhat alluring, in a Disney-esque kind of way, to attract tourists. Despite not being exactly historical, it seems almost like a stage setting, something that could be splashed across a glossy travel magazine. Oh right, it has been. (Sorry, Hulk again.)
For weapons enthusiasts, there are canons dotted along the ramparts just inside the entrance. And a 1947 bronze statue of the conquering King Afonso Henriques. The original statue is in the authentic Guimarães Castle, where the king was born.
The reconstructed castle has an extensive network of walls connecting its towers and outer buildings. You can promenade and climb along the perimeter and on top of the walls. Some walls have sweeping views of the city from different vantage points. But be forewarned. The battlements are narrow and the stairs steep. Definitely not for anyone who suffers from fear of heights or vertigo.
The modern castle has 11 towers. The central one, the Tower of Ulysses, is home to the royal archives and the Camera Obscura Persicope. Leonardo Da Vinci invented this optical device in the 16th century. It projects live, 360-degree images of Lisbon in real time onto the tower’s walls. There are demos every 20 minutes.
The periscope is, in fact, authentic and there will be a long queue ... We didn't wait. Here's a photo from the castle website. And here are more castle photos:
There are some remnants of the original castle ruins. They're in an enclosed archaeological site. They include remants of the Alcáçova royal palace, a Moorish quarter, and some iron age trinkets.
There's also a small archaeological museum on the grounds with information on Lisbon’s long history. Here, you can compare how the city and castle looked before and after 1755 earthquake.
At bottom, what the castle really has to offer is the visceral thrill you get from the views over red roofed Lisbon and the Tagus River. They're splendid and we happily sat down and admired them for quite a while.
We also enjoyed the magnificent peacocks that inhabit the place. And enjoyed the street Fado music outside the ticket office of the castle (video below).
St. George's Castle is a little bit historical, a lot fake, and full of tourists. Just so you know before you go and fork over 8.50 euros. There are other free miradouros, of course. In Alfama, you have Largo das Portas do Sol and Miradouro da Graça.
Our favorite was taking the colorful rickety Elevator de Gloria, past the wondrous street art on Calcada da Gloria, up to the São Pedro de Alcântara Miradouro in Bairro Alto.
The cruel wheel of time demolishes many grand sites. And that's unfortunate for modern day history lovers. But there's a difference between a real heritage site and a facsimile of the original.
At St. George's Castle, you're not walking on the castle walls of the Moors or former Portuguese royalty. You have a reconstituted glimpse of how the castle formerly appeared. And the great views, which have always existed.