A country regularly touted as one of the very best in Europe for castle-hunting is Portugal, as the southwestern European nation has no shortage of awe-inspiring structures that have earned their fame. From dreamlike Romantic-era palaces to an impressive collection of medieval fortresses scattered around the country, Portugal has enough fascinating sites to more than justify an extended stay of castle-hopping. Here are some of the most unforgettable castles and palaces worth the trip if you’re circling a once-in-a-lifetime adventure in Portugal.
When famed King John II decided he needed a staunch defender of the all-important Tagus River, the eventual result was Belém Tower. Finished in the early 16th century by John’s successor, Manuel I, the mysterious Belém Tower appears to rise right out of the river along with its beige-white limestone and ring of domed turrets, creating an undeniable mystique that would cement its status as a national landmark. Appearing like a ship eternally pulling into the harbor, the four-story tower makes up for its smaller size with the perfection of its design. It is an iconic example of the Manueline architecture that dominated Portugal’s past.
Although the Belém Tower didn’t have the most illustrious military history in the early going, years of upgrades and additions helped maintain its status as an important stronghold throughout a tumultuous few centuries of Portuguese history. Once occupied in the short-term by both the Spanish and French, the tower added a level of macabre to its reputation by being used as a military prison for many years. Today, visitors come for the rich history and astonishing architecture along with the panoramic views, which you can glimpse from the wide rooftop overlooking the Tagus River and Lisbon countryside.
For those who fall in love with the Manueline style of architecture, Jerónimos Monastery is another stunning and classic example, and it sits only a brisk walk down the river.
Almourol Castle and Convent of Christ (Tomar Castle)
Only a half-hour away from each other, both Almourol Castle and the Convent of Christ (Tomar Castle) are beautiful windows into Portugal’s medieval past. The more famous of the two, Almourol stoically looms over an islet overlooking the typically calm Tagus River, with its semi-circle battlements and tall square keep looking down over its granite outcropping and neighboring hillsides. Built on a site that dates back to antiquity, Almourol Castle was a Knights Templar stronghold in the 12th century and remains an intimidating force that dominates the surrounding landscape, ensuring its status as a timeless feature of the region.
Its picturesque qualities are also a collaboration of different eras, drawing predominately on its Romanesque, Moorish, and Gothic influences to create one of Portugal’s most renowned castles. Scaling the centuries-old stone staircases on the interior leads to stunning views of the Tagus River and the lower battlements, turning quickly snapped photos into images worthy of a postcard without a great deal of effort.
Not to be outdone, the Convent of Christ and Tomar Castle Complex represent another critical part of Portugal’s medieval history, complete with its own dazzlingly ornate displays of Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance traditions. Tomar Castle was also a critical defense point in the 12th century and was steadily expanded in the centuries after the Order of Christ uprooted the Knights Templar. The expansion included an array of Christian artwork and features, including the colorful Gothic nave within the convent that has been a fixture since the 1500s.
In addition to the UNESCO World Heritage Site, the area is most known for, the town of Tomar is an old-world masterpiece filled with beautiful courtyards, a variety of unique religious sites, and a collection of red-roofed buildings hovering over the Nabão River. The wondrous Pegoes Aqueduct is also a must-see for anyone interested in the historical roots of the area.
National Palace of Pena and Castle of the Moors
Colorful Pena Palace is arguably the most famous structure in Portugal, with a rich history, perfected 19th-century Romantic design, and its majestic perch atop a hill overlooking the town of Sintra. It all started with a simple chapel back in the 12th century, marking it as a holy site that drew monarchs to worship during its earliest era. Eventually, it was constructed into a full monastery in the early 1500s and remained a place of peace and solitude for centuries. That is until the devastating Earthquake of 1755 nearly leveled everything. Luckily enough, the original chapel survived along with some of its most important interior artworks, though the rest remained in ruins into the 1800s.
Realizing the potential, however, King Ferdinand II dramatically resurrected the site, building a sprawling complex that soon became the Romantic-era emblem it is today. Gothic, Renaissance, Manueline, and Islamic styles all combined to create a bold statement that outlines Portugal’s unique heritage. Repainted later on to restore the original colors, Pena Palace’s red, yellow, and blue stand out boldly along the approach, dazzling visitors along winding outdoor staircases that seem plucked from a dream.
As a perfect companion to a Pena Palace excursion, the Castle of the Moors is another reason that visitors tend to make their way to Sintra. Built in stages through the 8th and 9th centuries, the Castle of the Moors isn’t quite as breathtaking as Pena Palace but has plenty of charm of its own, with ancient stone walls curling around the hillsides toward the two stone towers at its center. Formerly a symbol of Muslim Iberia, ultimately it was Portuguese Christian forces that would take up the fort, leading to the Chapel of São Pedro becoming one of the complex’s main features. Like Pena Palace, the Castle of the Moors was eventually rehabbed by King Ferdinand II in the 19th century, restoring much of what can be seen today.
Travel tip: Incorporating both Pena Palace and the Castle of the Moors, the enormous Sintra-Cascais Natural Park leads all the way to the Atlantic Ocean and offers all kinds of daytrip possibilities. From extremely scenic walking trails and endless picnic spots to an iconic beach (Guincho Beach), taking some time to explore Sintra-Cascais Natural Park is a must if you’re headed to Sintra’s most famous landmarks.
Other castles in Portugal to consider
Another outstanding early-medieval castle, the Castle of Marvão is remarkably well-preserved for being originally built in the 9th century. Complete with twirling stone walls that lead up the hillside and a lush green maze outside the central keep, Marvão Castle is an easy add-on to Pena Palace thanks to being just a 15 to 20-minute drive down the road. Also worth considering is the Guimarães Castle, a 10th-century fort built initially to ward off the Norsemen as they came down from central and northern Europe. With its Romanesque towers and shades of Gothic styles as well, Guimarães Castle is another of Portugal’s masterful architectural blends of different eras.
Thanks to Portugal’s excellent variety of castles that shows off a range of different styles, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a country that has more to offer those searching for remarkable castles and palaces. Though you’ll likely have a hard time narrowing it down to a manageable number of excursions, Portugal’s greatest architectural icons are guaranteed to inspire.