Portugal is a small country, so understandably it doesn’t have as many castles as other European countries. But what Portugal lacks in quantity, it makes up in quality. These medieval castles and fortresses seem made just to grace today’s picture postcards.
Crenellated walls and towers stand out in Portugal. These crenellations are holes at the top of walls and towers, where defenders of the castle could fight off invaders. Early soldiers used bows and arrows to defend the castles, while guns and cannons were used in later centuries. It is easy to imagine a soldier stepping quickly into the opening, firing a weapon, and then retreating quickly behind stone to reload.
And these soldiers would have done a lot of reloading. Many of the castles in Portugal were built by the Moors who conquered Portugal in the 8th century. A few centuries later, Christians, some of whom were on the Second Crusade, captured the castles. A few centuries later, the French, led by Napoleon, invaded Portugal.
Today, some of the castles have been restored to better-than-new condition, while others lie in ruins, overgrown with weeds, but still presenting a proud, majestic appearance to visitors.
Montemor-o-Velho Castle in central Portugal is one of the most strategic medieval fortresses in the country. The site was originally occupied by Romans, with the Moors, Christians and Catholics later fighting over it. Ruling families also fought over possession of the castle. Crenellated double oval walls and a few towers remain today. Some of the towers can be climbed, providing visitors with stunning views of rice fields and the Mondego Valley below.
Leiria Castle was once a medieval fortress, one whose ownership changed hands between the Moors and Christians a couple of times. Later one it was turned into a royal palace. The complex is known for its magnificent Gothic arches leading to a balcony with views of Leiria and the countryside below. Today it is a venue for cultural events in Leiria in central Portugal.
Sao Jorge Castle
Sao Jorge Castle, also known as St. George Castle, was built by the Moors in the 11th century to protect them from Christian invaders. In the 12th century, it was conquered by the man who became the first king of Portugal and turned it into a royal palace. The massive complex sits on a hill overlooking Lisbon and has become one of the most famous tourist attractions in Portugal. The castle has been restored, though the royal palace is still in ruins.
Castle of the Moors
Sitting atop a cliff in central Portugal’s Sintra, the Castle of the Moors dates back to the 10th century when the Muslims conquered the Iberian Peninsula, though it itself was later conquered by Portuguese rulers. The block walls encircling the castle and its towers are reminiscent of the Great Wall of China, with the same stunning views, which, in this case, extend to the Atlantic Ocean.
Guimarães Castle is the most important medieval castle in northern Portugal. According to legend, the first king of Portugal was born here. The town of Guimarães is considered the birthplace of Portuguese independence, making the castle even more important. This 10th century castle has eight 28-meter (92-foot) high crenellated towers.
Officially known as the Castle of Santa Maria da Feira, Feira Castle is another one of northern Portugal’s imposing castles. Built in the 11th century, Feira Castle is named after the Santa Maria Fair, one of the oldest fairs in Portugal. Legend has it this medieval castle was built on the site of a temple dedicated to a pagan god. Two bell towers feature 17th century glazed tiles.
Belem Tower sits on what once was an island in the Tagus River in Lisbon. Dating back to 1515, the imposing tower was built both to defend Lisbon from invaders and to welcome the city’s friends. Built in the Age of Discovery, the four-story limestone tower has a bastion connected to it; the bastion had space for 17 cannons that could fire long range shots.
The medieval sandstone Almourol Castle is nothing short of magnificent as it sits atop a hilly island in the Tagus River. Restored in the 19th century, the castle played an important defensive role in the reconquest of Portugal. Visitors to the castle, which is reached via boat, say it is one of Portugal’s most amazing and picturesque castles, best appreciated from the shore since it takes only a few minutes to tour.
Not much is left of Braga Castle that once consisted of a historical fortification and defensive line encircling the city of Braga. Today the sole survivor of the castle and its ramparts is the main keep. Named the Torre de Menagem, the keep is a little lost behind a cluster of cafés. One of the gates is also still standing but remodeled in a Rococo style and completely different from the original.
The Pena National Palace seems like a fairy tale castle as it stands above the clouds on overcast days. Yet, sitting atop a hill in Sintra, it can be seen from Lisbon on a clear day. Created by King Ferdinand II, it is an impressive example of 19th century Romanticism, as it combines Moorish and Manueline architectural styles.
Castle of Evoramonte
The Castle of Evoramonte is unique among Portuguese castles. It has round towers throughout, whereas towers at other castles are generally square or rectangular. This 13th century Gothic castle was built for defense purposes after the area was recaptured from the Moors. The castle, which offers panoramic views, overlooks the small village of Estremoz. Visitors like the castle, but say the village offers few tourist amenities.
Silves Castle is the first thing visitors see when they drive into Silves. The imposing structure, which features 11 towers, four of which feature Gothic doorways, is considered the best preserved castle in the Algarve. The Moorish lord of the city once lived in the castle, which sits on a river. Not much remains of the castle’s defense works today. One turret, however, does house the local library.
With both boxy and circular towers, Obidos Castle is known as the Wedding Present Town because a king gave the town, including the castle, to his bride on their wedding day. Built by the Moors in the 8th century and remodeled in the 12th, this picture postcard castle rewards visitors who scale the 14-meter (45-foot) high walls with spectacular views. Today, the castle houses a luxury pousada hotel.
Sabugal Castle dominates the landscape in Sabugal, as it stands high above town buildings and overlooks the Coa River. It is considered one of the best preserved castles in Portugal. For the best views, visitors should be prepared to climb a couple of ladders to reach the towers. Sabugal Castle was used for defense purposes as late as the early 19th century during the French invasion.