Lisbon’s colourful Portuguese azulejos are beautiful insights into Portuguese life, past and present
Just as the Italians love to decorate their walls with painted frescos, the Portuguese tile surfaces with azulejos. Intricate and astoundingly beautiful, the traditional ceramic tiles often depict insightful scenes of Portuguese life. The craft was introduced by the Moors in the 8th century and grew in popularity until Portugal became the primary tile producer in Europe, and to this day, beautiful tiling can be still found all over Lisbon. From Museu Nacional Do Azulejo and Fronteira Palace to factories like Viúva Lamego, these are some of the best places to see (and buy) Portuguese azulejos in Lisbon.
While Portuguese azulejos are beautiful to look at, they’re even more captivating when you know about their history and symbolism. Visit the country’s national tile museum, Museu Nacional Do Azulejo, to discover the roots of tile making and explore a stunning exhibition of five centuries of azulejo trends, from Baroque to Art Nouveau. A highlight of the museum is a huge 23m cityscape of Lisbon, made up of 1,300 traditional blue and white tiles.
Continue your history lesson by watching tile-makers at work at Sant’Anna Factory, where craftspeople use traditional methods from the 18th century to handcraft stunning ceramic tiles in a variety of styles and designs. After touring the workshop, visitors can browse the shop and purchase souvenir tiles or commission reproductions from the 17th and 18th centuries.
Many of the most beautiful Portuguese azulejos in Lisbon can be found inside palaces such as Fronteira Palace, dubbed the ‘Sistine Chapel of Tilework’. The Room of Battles is particularly significant for its intricate scenes of wars and heroes – look up to see Venus, the God of love, standing with Minerva, the goddess of war. There’s also a large tiled deck, known as the Gallery of the Arts, which is covered in blue and white tiles depicting scenes from Greek mythology and decorated with statues of Greek Gods, such as Apollo.
As well as being one of the oldest and most beautiful palaces in Portugal, the National Palace of Sintra houses one of the most striking tiled rooms in Lisbon. The ‘Room of the Coats of Arms’ is an artistic masterpiece. The walls are covered in extraordinary blue and white azulejos depicting scenes of historical imperial life, while the gold dome ceiling displays the coast of arms of the country’s most influential noble families.
Another fine example of Baroque-style blue and white tiling can be found at the Monastery of São Vicente de Fora. An unbroken tiled pattern winds throughout the entire monastery, from the entranceway and across the gallery to the indoor hallways and atriums. A total of around 100,000 tiles were used, making it the world’s largest collection of Baroque tiles.
A former tile and ceramic factory that’s now a shop, Viúva Lamego is worth visiting for its exterior façade alone. The entire front of the building is covered in emblematic Portuguese azulejos depicting flowers, fruit trees and animals. At the top, a pair of angels hold up the phrase ‘Anno 1865’, marking the factory’s opening year, while figurative characters stand guard by the doorways. Inside, visitors can shop for tiles, order motifs reproduced from 16th – 18th century designs, or even commission custom orders for the ultimate souvenir.