Belem Tower, Guarding the Entrance to Portugal’s Global Empire

LISBON, Portugal — One of Portugal’s iconic landmarks, Belem Tower (Torre de Belém) was built in the early 16th century to guard the entrance to Portugal’s global empire.

Belem Tower in Lisbon at Dusk
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Standing on a small island just off the shore in the Tagos River, Belem Tower (Torre de Belém, in Portuguese) is a remnant from a bygone age when Portugal’s ships ruled the waves. It is one of Portugal’s iconic landmarks, and you’ll see it represented everywhere from t-shirts in the souvenir shops to the ornate stained glass windows at Pena Palace in Sintra.

The tower has surprising decorative flourish–it was, after all, the gateway to the vast Portuguese empire. But its thick limestone bricks are impressively solid, in keeping with its primary purpose. It was part of a defensive net to protect Lisbon Harbor, the hub of Portugal’s trading and naval empire. The tower, above all, served as a fort, lookout, and platform for dozens of heavy-duty cannons pointed out over the Tagus.

It was built during Portugal’s golden age of discovery, from 1514 to 1520. It was a period when Portuguese mariners like Vasco da Gama were mapping the coasts of Africa and India and establishing a decades-long Portuguese monopoly of those trade routes, often with brutal methods.

Photos of Belem Tower

Belem Tower in Lisbon at Dusk

Belem Tower in Lisbon at Dusk

Belem Tower in Lisbon at Night with Model
This 1:50 model sits on the shore nearby and is designed to aid the visually impaired.

Belem Tower in Lisbon at Night with Bridge

Belem Tower in Lisbon at Night with Bridge

Belem Tower in Lisbon at Twilight from Side

Belem Tower in Lisbon at Dusk

I have more photos of Belem Tower here.

What to Know Before You Go

Paired with the Jerónimos Monastery, Belem Tower was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1983. It’s very easy to see from the shore, and when it’s open during the day you can walk the short wooden bridge for a tour.

David Coleman / Photographer

David Coleman

I'm a freelance travel photographer based in Washington DC. Seven continents, up mountains, underwater, and a bunch of places in between. My images have appeared in numerous publications, and you can check out some of my gear reviews and tips here. More »