In August this year, more than 500 young people from Melbourne will arrive in Lisbon, Portugal, for World Youth Day. This will be the first time the event has been held in Portugal, a country with a rich and multilayered history.

With its history of exploration and empire-building, Catholic devotion and Muslim occupation, Portugal has been shaped by both distinctively Arabic and distinctively European influences. It is also a region that has suffered several earthquakes, the worst of which was the famous 1755 Lisbon earthquake, meaning that much of the city has been rebuilt over and over again.

For many of our pilgrims, this will be their first time overseas. Lisbon offers them a wealth of memorable sights and experiences. As the weeks count down to their departure, we take the opportunity to explore just a few of them.

São Jorge Castle (Saint George’s Castle)

To say this castle is ‘historical’ doesn’t quite capture the age and significance of this landmark. While the oldest fortifications on the site date back to the second century, human presence on the hill can been traced back to the eighth century BC. The castle hill has been conquered and occupied by ancient Celtic tribes, Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, several Germanic tribes, Moors and finally—with the 1147 Siege of Lisbon—the Portuguese.

This siege has been recognised as one of the only European victories of the Second Crusade, when, after failing to take the Holy Land, a combined force of some 13,000 men from across Europe helped a smaller Portuguese force drive the Moors from Lisbon.

The castle is also the centrepiece of the Alfama neighbourhood, the oldest district in Lisbon.

Lisbon Castle
São Jorge Castle.

Jerónimos Monastery

Housing the tombs of 15th- and 16th-century Portuguese kings, the Jerónimos Monastery is a breathtaking example of Manueline architecture, Portugal’s own distinctive melding of the Gothic, Renaissance and Moorish styles. Originally the monastery of the Order of St Jerome (named after the fourth-century saint but without any historical connection to him), its construction began in 1501 and took a hundred years to complete.

While the 1755 Lisbon earthquake caused significant damage to the rest of the city, the monastery was left mostly unscathed.

Its striking and intricate design isn’t the monastery’s only gift to the world though; we can also thank the monks of Jerónimos for a custard-filled baked item beloved around the globe—the pastel de nata, or Portuguese tart!

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Jerónimos Monastery.

Lisbon Cathedral

Construction of the Cathedral of Saint Mary Major began in 1147, the very year of the Siege of Lisbon, making it the oldest church in the city. Excavations in the cathedral cloisters have revealed the presence of ruins dating back to the Romans. Archeologists discovered not only a Roman road with shops on either side, but also the Mosque over which which the cathedral had been built.

Interestingly, the cathedral looks somewhat like a fortress. This is because during the Reconquista period—extending from the eighth to the 15th century, when Christian kingdoms sought to reconquer lands lost to the Moors—cathedrals were expected to be used for defence in the event of a siege.

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The Cathedral of Saint Mary Major.

Belem Tower

Construction of the Belem Tower began in 1516 and lasted until 1519. Also named the Tower of St Vincent, after one of Portugal’s patron saints, it was a means of fortifying the city’s coastal defences.

The tower is located close to the Jerónimos Monastery and is constructed of the same stone. Inside, visitors can see the niches where cannons were housed and the chapel that was built as part of the structure.

One of the turrets of the tower has a sculpture of a rhinoceros at the base of it—possibly the first sculpted depiction of the animal in Western European art—memorialising the sad fate of a particular rhino named Ganda, who belonged to King Manuel I of Portugal.

According to historian Professor Giorgio Riello, the king hosted a large public event to test the ancient theory that rhinos were fiercer than elephants. When faced with the rhino, the elephant fled, settling that debate. But growing bored of the rhino, King Manuel then sent it on to Pope Leo X as a gift. Unfortunately, the ship that was transporting him was shipwrecked somewhere off the coast of northern Italy, and poor Ganda—shacked and unable to escape—drowned.

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Belem Tower.

Youth festivals

Of course, while in Portugal, pilgrims won’t only be visiting incredible historical sites. Through the week, the whole city will be alive with festivals, including opportunities to listen to music, see theatrical productions and even participate in soccer and beach volleyball tournaments. Even more significantly, they will have the chance to draw ever closer to Jesus through world-class catechesis and formation, and through worship and fellowship with young Catholics from around the world.

While the program for these festivals has yet to be finalised, they will no doubt take pilgrims all over the city, allowing them to discover its wonders and secrets for themselves.

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More fun facts

Lisbon World Youth Day may be the most eco-friendly WYD yet. In line with Pope Francis’ vision to care for our common home, waste and material packaging are already being cut out. On top of this, the WYD Lisbon 2023 Foundation launched a tree-planting initiative in 2022 to ‘offset the environment footprint’ of the event. Thousands of trees have already been planted around the world!

Portugal is a predominantly Catholic country, with 80 per cent of its citizens identifying themselves as such. In Portugal, there are 21 dioceses and 4380 parishes.

Although St Anthony of Padua is Lisbon’s most well-known saint, the city’s patron saint is St Vincent Saragossa. Although he was not a native of Lisbon, his relics were transferred there in 1173, after King Henriques conquered the city in 1147 and attributed the victory to St Vincent’s intercession. The Lisbon coat of arms includes a barge and two crows, because—so the story goes— while St Vincent was devoured alive by crows, they also protected his body and relics during their transfer to Lisbon.