A History of Lisbon Through Its Architectural Landmarks

Conquest and exploration, told through bricks and mortar   |   August 2017

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From triumphal arches to neo-classical churches, the history of Lisbon is intricately tied to its landmarks. Read their story here  

Belem Tower | iStock © eloi omella

Perched on the western-most part of Mediterranean Europe, Portugal has adopted an eclectic array of architectural styles over the centuries. From the Moorish-inspired south to Gothic touches from the east, the glorious mishmash of influences is what makes Portugal such a charming destination. At the heart of it all is Portugal’s capital, and what better way to tell the history of Lisbon than through its landmarks and architectural styles.

São Jorge Castle

Nestled on a hilltop, central to the history of Lisbon and fortified since Celtic times, the entrance of São Jorge Castle (St George’s Castle) is dominated by a statue of Dom Alfonso Henriques – the man who drove the Moors from the city in 1147. You can see the majestic castle from just about anywhere in the city. Whilst the ramparts offer beautiful views of Lisbon below, there’s more magic within: a palace that once housed the Kings of Portugal is now a museum with a restaurant that offers sublime sunset views.

Belem Tower

After the country’s struggles against the Moors a new era of discovery, conquest and exploration dominated the history from the 15th Century. Built in Portugal’s quirky Manueline style, the Belem Tower was built in 1520 on an island in the middle of the River Tagus to defend the entrance to the city’s port. Now situated on the North Bank (thanks to the river’s changing course), the UNESCO World Heritage site is an iconic part of the history of Lisbon’s landscape, resembling a tiny castle complete with towers, turrets and adorned with decorative rope and shield motifs.

Gulbenkian | iStock © aamorim
Sao Jorge | iStock © gregobagel

São Roque Church

The Portuguese empire was one of the wealthiest in Europe thanks to its colonies that stretched from Brazil to Malaysia, which was the source of gold, gems, spices and sugar. The 18th Century was a time of plenty in the history of Lisbon. Symptomatic of the riches, this bejewelled Roman Catholic church was the most expensive in Europe at the time of construction, courtesy of precious stone inlays of lapis lazuli and amethyst. The elegant São Roque combines aspects of the Rococo style with clean Neo-Classical lines and is incredibly valuable in the history of Lisbon as it’s one of the few buildings to escape the 1755 earthquake unscathed. Designed by Italian architects Luigi Vanvitelli and Nicola Salvi, it was exported to Lisbon after being blessed by the Pope. Awe-inspiring is its intricately painted trompe l’oeil ceiling depicting Biblical events.

Praça do Comércio

The grand Praça do Comércio (Commerce Square) was part of the reconstruction of Lisbon following the earthquake and tsunami in which nearly a quarter of the city’s population perished. The design is dominated by a triumphal arch called Arco da Rua Augusta on its north side. Topped by statues of noblemen, the arch’s honey-yellow walls frame the vast plaza which is Lisbon’s main marketplace. The heartbeat of the city, Commerce Square overlooks Tagus River, where traders would bring in their goods to sell.

Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation

From the start of the 19th Century fortunes changed, political and monarchical instability, followed by a coup and the Salazar dictatorship from 1926 led Portugal to become a bit part player on the world stage. Designed to deliver a new era of modernity to the history of Lisbon, the architects Ruy Jervis d’Athouguia, Pedro Cid and Alberto Pessoa created the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. An oasis at the centre of Lisbon thanks to its juxtaposition of austere, smooth, monochrome concrete with the lush, green garden from which it rises. Completed in 1969, just before Salazar’s death, the Museum is the most important in Portugal and houses a truly impressive collection of art that ranges from Rembrandt to Renoir and is the cultural heart of the capital.


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