Superbly sited on a hilltop with the city and river laid out below, the Castelo de São Jorge is rightly Lisbon’s most popular attraction. Part of its appeal lies in the fact that much of it is little more than a shell whose restored walls enclose grassy areas where peacocks shelter and cats doze beneath trees. A series of gardens, walkways and viewpoints hidden within the old Moorish walls make this an enjoyable place in which to wander for a couple of hours, with spectacular views over the city from its ramparts and towers.
There was probably a castle here in the Iron Age and by the time the city was under Moorish rule, the building was sufficiently robust to repel the invading Christians for several months until Lisbon finally fell to Afonso Henriques in 1147. Initially, Portugal’s monarchs lived in the castle, but they moved out when Manuel I built a new palace down by the river. After that, the castle served as a barracks, prison and children’s home until the late twentieth century, when it was substantially renovated to become the tourist attraction you see today.
The castle museum is in the old Alcáçova (the former palace where the kings lived), with a small multimedia exhibition that details the history of the city together with archeological finds. Inside the Tower of Ulysses, a Câmara Escura periscope focuses on sights around the city with English commentary – though the views are almost as good from the neighbouring towers. Better is to explore the archeological remains, an excavation site next to the castle that includes the scant remains of an Iron Age house, an eleventh-century Moorish quarter and the ruins of the fifteenth-century Palácio dos Condes de Santiago, built for the Bishops of Lisbon.
Take time to explore the areas immediately around the Castelo de São Jorge. Turn left from the castle exit and you are in the tiny Santa Cruz quarter, a village in its own right with a school, church and bathhouse. To the north and west of the castle is Mouraria, named because this was where the Moors were forced to live when expelled from the castle – today, it’s an atmospheric area with some good local cafés.