Alfama is Lisbon’s Old Town. High on every traveler’s list, Alfama is best explored on foot. Here you can enjoy a rich culture and amazing architecture that offer plenty of wonderful photography opportunities. Take a pleasant stroll around the medieval alleyways and cobblestone streets as you lose yourself in this historic village within a city, complete with whitewashed houses and churches.
Mosteiro dos Jeronimos is a must-see monastery for its Moorish and Gothic influences, as well as the striking architecture in the Manueline style. This grand complex was built in the 16th century to commemorate the feats of Portuguese explorers. Constructed primarily out of gold-colored limestone, this monastery is a masterpiece of latticework ceilings, carved stone portals and ornamented windows.
The bohemian and cultural heart of Lisbon, Bairro Alto is perhaps best described as a nightlife and shopping Mecca. The Quarter offers calm and quiet streets by day, which transform into a vibrant, jostling party neighborhood by night. Explore with intensity Bairro Alto’s sleek bars, stylish fashion and multitude of colorful graffiti-sprayed facades as you unravel Lisbon’s alluring subcultures.
If you have a taste for golden-art, you can indulge in Baroque magnificence to your heart’s desire at Igreja de Sao Roque. Housed within Igreja de Sao Roque is the world’s most expensive chapel, the Chapel of St. John the Baptist. This Chapel is a European masterpiece with stunning mosaics that look like paintings.
Convento da Madre de Deus is a lavish former convent that today serves as a museum showcasing the ancient art form of decorative ceramic tiles. While the magnificent church is alone worth a visit, your tour will be enriched by the Museu Nacional do Azulejo or the National Tile Museum and the treasures it has on display.
Museu Calouste Gulbenkian is a sparkling gem in the cultural crown of Lisbon. One of Europe’s most celebrated museums, Museu Calouste Gulbenkian features a vast and astonishing collection of priceless artworks from all across the globe, spanning 4,000 years. Art lovers touring the Museum can feast their eyes on ancient Egyptian artifacts to modern day artworks.
The oldest city in Western Europe, Lisbon boasts a dazzling, unconventional beauty with a rich and varied history. A visit to Lisbon guarantees a fantastic vacation with a wide variety of options, from the ruins of ancient castles to sidewalk cafés snuggled amongst old city walls. With such wonderful food, history and architecture, Lisbon is a bucket-list city, a place you simply have to return to.
1. Convento da Madre de Deus
Convento da Madre de Deus is a magnificent 15th century former convent that houses a superb collection of ceramic tiles. Founded in 1509, the Convento was built in the Manueline style, a local form of Late Gothic, and later partly restored in the Renaissance style and decorated with notable elements of Baroque.
The Baroque elements are most notable in the Madre de Deus church which is rich in decoration, with numerous gilded ornaments offering a stark contrast to the blue azulejo tiles adorning the lower section of the walls. The barrel-vaulted ceiling and upper section of the walls are covered with big paintings.
Particularly impressive is the opulence and splendor of the chapel dedicated to St. Anthony and the chapterhouse. Notable works amid its rich interior décor are ceiling panels with gilt frames set with paintings that include portraits. A number of other beautiful paintings inside the church depict the life of the saints, while scenes from the Life of the Virgin fill the main vault.
The second floor’s choir features equally elaborate Baroque decorations, as well as an eerie collection of relics such as skulls and crossbones. Visitors can admire some of the original Manueline architecture on the side façade, on a beautiful portal and inside the small covered cloister.
Situated within Convento da Madre de Deus is the Museu Nacional do Azulejo, Portugal’s National Tile Museum which showcases the development of ceramic tiles known as “azulejo” in Portugal over the centuries. The Museum presents 5 centuries of decorative ceramic tiles, tracing the production and history of the art form.
The only one of its kind in the world, the azulejo collection features a beautiful array of tiles dating back as early as the 15th century, as well as displays on how they were made. The Museum is housed inside the Convento da Madre de Deus’ monastic buildings which, after undergoing renovation following the Great Earthquake, had its interiors transformed into one of the city’s most magnificent.
For centuries, azulejos have been the favorite decorative element in Lisbon, with examples being seen all over the city. The beautiful tiles are in homes, churches, palaces, shops and even the subway. The scenes on the tiles often reflect their location with churches featuring azulejos with religious themes, while restaurants feature tiles that show pigs, poultry and so on.
The history of azulejos can be traced to the Moors who first produced the tiles during the 14th century with geometric patterns. The tiles were initially imported from Spain into Portugal, with Seville serving as the main production center.
During the 16th century, the tiles increased in popularity in Portugal as new techniques were imported from Italy and factories built to produce the tiles locally. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the scenes on the tiles became increasingly elaborate.
The azulejo-making craft still exists today and the Museu Nacional do Azulejo hosts several modern tiles from the 20th century when the craft enjoyed a comeback.
The Museum was found in 1965 to house its impressive collection of azulejos which are displayed in chronological order around a cloister, beginning with the oldest on the ground floor of the Convento da Madre de Deus.
The oldest are 15th century tiles that display Moorish motifs, while others have various themes from religious to romantic and mythological. Also popular were simple decorative elements such as flowers and vases, as well as hunting scenes.
The most magnificent tiles were made during the 16th to 18th centuries when massive panels were created with shocking attention to detail and craftsmanship. One of the largest of such panels is a 16th century retable piece made out of 1,384 tiles.
The main highlight of this Museum is the white and blue composition of 1,300 tiles stretching 23 meters in length, of the cityscape of Lisbon, which was made in 1738 before the Great Earthquake. The large panoramic panel depicts the city of Lisbon before the 1755 earthquake and is reputed to be the country’s longest tile piece.
The Museum’s top floor showcases a broad spectrum of modern tiles with panels that have been created by contemporary artists. The Museum also showcases the evolution of tile-making techniques used in crafting azulejos over the centuries. On site are also a good café and gift shop.
2. Bairro Alto
A picturesque working class quarter that dates from the 16th century, Bairro Alto has traditionally served as the bohemian haunt of writers and artists in the city. The cultural heart of Lisbon, Bairro Alto is also the nightlife Mecca of the city. Throughout the week, and particularly on weekends, you will find many people bar-hopping through the cobbled lanes of the neighborhood.
Bairro Alto features a grid of streets that are quiet by day, only to be transformed into the vibrant nightlife quarter of the city by night. Behind colorful, graffiti-sprayed facades lies a variety of international and traditional Portuguese restaurants, Fado Houses and a multitude of bars and alternative shops that remain open well into the night.
The district is inhabited by young artsy hipsters and old ladies, which gives it a vibe that is at once avant-garde and old-fashioned, a place that is best described as shabby-chic. But it is simply the barrio, the place where everything happens at night. A dynamic district that truly changes from night to day, the neighborhood of Bairro Alto was laid out in 1513.
Bairro Alto is today a sleepy place hung-over from the night before, with not much going on except for the shops on the commercial streets. As the sun sets, a new life begins, with restaurants opening their door and crowds flocking for another night of bar-hopping. The small spaces inside the bars force everyone to spill out onto the streets, effectively creating a street party atmosphere.
Barrio Alto is also home to the romantic Gothic ruins of Igreja de Carmo which are worth a peek. The ruins of the Gothic church are evocative reminders of the devastation left behind by the Great Earthquake of 1755. At the time of the earthquake, Igreja de Carmo was the largest church in Lisbon.
Today, its roofless nave that lays open to the sky is all that remains of the arches and rubble that caved in on the congregation who were attending mass.
In what used to be the main altar you will find a small archaeological museum featuring an eclectic collection of tombs, statuary, mosaics and ceramics. Among the more ancient finds you will see a remnant of a Visigoth pillar and a Roman tomb that is carved with reliefs that depict the Muses.
Other pieces of note within the Igreja de Carmo include the shrunken heads, ancient tombstones, Visigoth artifacts, South American mummies, coins dating from the 13th century and a jasper sculpture of the Virgin.
Head over to Miradouro de Sao Pedro de Alcantara which features a garden-terrace that offers panoramic city views. The garden is Lisbon’s most romantic viewpoint that looks out to the St. George’s Castle and central Lisbon. A map made from tiles marks all the notable buildings, while a lower geometric garden features busts of gods and heroes from Greco-Roman mythology.
Next to the gardens is the Gloria Elevator that has been ferrying passengers up and down the hill between Bairro Alto and Restauradores Square since 1885. And across the street is the Solar do Vinho do Porto, an eighteenth century wine institute at which visitors can sample over 300 different Ports, including rare vintages dating from 1937.
Cross the Calcada do Combro Street and step right into the small neighborhood of Bica, which is famous for its funicular. The picturesque neighborhood goes down the hill, along past the neighboring Santa Catarina that is famous for its lookout terrace.
Boasting a medieval maze of alleyways and breathtaking views, Alfama is the proverbial village within a city, and Lisbon’s historical soul. The most emblematic quarter in the city, Alfama is also one of the most rewarding neighborhoods for photographers and walkers.
A walk through this old-fashioned residential neighborhood offers a step back in time. The area is characterized by tiny squares, narrow streets, old churches, whitewashed houses with tile panels and wrought-iron balconies that are adorned with drying laundry and flower pots.
Founded long ago, Alfama boasts a history that dates back to the time of the Moors, and is characterized by narrow, winding streets that go past restaurants, Fado Houses and shops, as well as popular attractions such as cathedrals and castles.
Although it was settled by the Romans and Visigoths, it was the Moors who gave the district its name and atmosphere. Alfama is derived for “alhama” which means bath or spring, in reference to the hot springs found in the area. The Moors were similarly responsible for the web of streets created as a defense system, while at the same time allowing their homes to stay cool during the summer.
Most of Alfama’s older residents have lived here all their lives and still retain a strong sense of community. Alfama has influenced novelists, poets and other artists. While Bairro Alto is the traditional Fado quarter of the city, it is Alfama that has always served as the inspiration behind Fado songs, and is becoming just as popular with its own Fado Houses.
The district boasts an intangible quality that you simply have to experience to truly appreciate it. And the best way to get to know it is by getting a little lost, which is something that’s almost impossible to avoid. Wander around admiring the picture-postcard views, visiting churches and walking up the castle for great sunsets and the most breathtaking city panorama.
Some tourists prefer to take the famous Tram 28 through Alfama district, seeing as the neighborhood is very hilly. Whether you take the Tram or walk, Alfama is a must for any visit to Lisbon.
4. Palacio Nacional da Pena
Palacio Nacional de Pena is situated in the town of Sintra, about 40kms away from Lisbon. An eccentric palace built during the 19th century, the Pena sits on the site of a chapel that once stood at the top of the hill in Sintra.
A monastery was first built on the site towards the end of the 15th century but ruined by the earthquake of 1755. In 1840, restoration of the ruins began to convert it into a new summer residence for the royal family. The palace was completed in 1885, but became a national museum in 1910 when the monarchy was overthrown.
The palace design is the result of the 19th century Romanticist movement in which artists portrayed history often with idyllic nostalgia. The architect created a fascinating mix of revival styles with Egyptian, Oriental, neo-Manueline and Renaissance motifs.
Despite its mish-mash of revival styles, the palace has a surprisingly harmonious feel to it. It is a fascinating structure with an amalgamation of strange-looking towers, turrets, oriental arches, onion domes and crenellated walls. The use of pastel colors in pink, purple and yellow completes the palace’s fairytale character.
Gothic cloisters decorated in ceramic tiles form the heart of the palace. A large clock tower stands close to the cloisters.
To the south of the tower is the big Triton Gate that is flanked by 2 domed towers. The gate is intensely decorated in Manueline style and features a mean-looking triton atop a large sea shell that supports a bay window. The palace has several other gates, all in different styles ranging from medieval to oriental.
Close to the Triton Gate are the main palace residences that include a ballroom with a large chandelier. Also notable is the splendid Arabic Room with its intricately decorated ceiling.
5. Basilica da Estrela
One of the most important churches in Lisbon, Basilica da Estrela is a domed basilica that was built during the late 18th century as one of the last masterpieces created by architects from the Mafra School. The Basilica was erected between the years 1779 and 1790 and consecrated to the Cult of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, hence its name the Basilica of the Sacred Heart.
Basilica da Estrela is Lisbon’s landmark basilica, a vast neo-Classical monument that is eye-catching from a distance. Modeled after the Basilica in Mafra, the church is characterized by a mix of Baroque and neo-Classical architecture. Its front façade features a central pediment supported by tall Corinthian columns and flanked by 2 clock towers.
Below this pediment are allegorical statues that depict Faith, Freedom, Adoration and Gratitude. The most impressive part in this building is the large dome which can be seen from afar, due to the positioning of the church at the top of a hill. Accessible to visitors, this dome offers fantastic views over Lisbon.
The floor plan of the church interiors features a Latin cross with central nave and barrel-vaulted ceiling that’s decorated in colorful Portuguese marble. Highlights include the altarpiece that was created in 1870, as well as the richly decorated marble tomb of Dona Maria I. The church also features an intriguing nativity scene that comprises over 500 statues made from terra cotta and cork.
Built during the second half of the 18th century, the Basilica features a big Rococo dome and a façade with twin bell towers decorated in an array of statues of allegorical figures and saints. The spacious black and pink marble interior boasts an elaborate Empire-style tomb, as well as an impressive manger that consists of over 500 figures.
6. Igreja de Sao Roque
Igreja de Sao Roque was built during the 16th century by Jesuits who followed the tradition of creating rich interiors. Construction of this church began in 1565 and was completed in 1588.
The exterior of Igreja de Sao Roque is deceptively sober as once you step inside its central portico, you will be met by the abundance of gilded and marble sculptures, gilded woodwork, large paintings, precious relics and azulejo or ceramic tiles. The flat wooden ceiling is painted richly in religious scenes, as well as trompe de l’oeil domes.
The church features a single nave with 8 side chapels that are lavishly decorated. The large altarpiece inside the chancel is also richly decorated in paintings, gilded ornaments and Corinthian columns.
Igreja de Sao Roque has Lisbon’s plainest façade but boasts one of the richest interiors in the city. While each of its chapels is a masterpiece of Baroque art, its showpiece is the fourth one on the left – the Chapel of St. John the Baptist, which has been dubbed “the most expensive chapel in the world.”
The Chapel of St. John the Baptist is the most opulent of the chapels which was built in Rome and thereafter transported via sea to Lisbon, arriving in 1749. Designed in Rome with the most expensive materials available including agate, ivory, gold, silver, porphyry and lapis lazuli, the chapel was blessed by the Pope before being shipped to Lisbon in 1747.
Most notable are the “paintings” of the chapel which are not in fact paintings but extraordinarily detailed mosaics. The ceiling is painted in scenes from the apocalypse. The chapel is today regarded as a masterpiece of European art.
Close to the entrance and adjoining the church is a small museum, the Museum of Sacred Art, which occupies part of the Jesuits’ former residences. The Museum features exhibits of religious objects dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, and which include vestments and treasures from the Chapel of St. John the Baptist.
The Museum of Sacred Art contains 16th century Portuguese paintings, a vestment display and an impressive Baroque silver collection. The highlight is a pair of silver and bronze torch holders that weigh approximately 840 pounds, and which are among Europe’s most elaborate. There is also a café and gift shop on the Museum grounds.
One of the oldest Jesuit churches in the world and the oldest in Portugal, Sao Roque was built for Jesuits, a very conservative religious order that enjoyed a firm grip on the education of the country. In 1759, the Jesuits were expelled from the country and Igreja de Sao Roque handed over to a Portuguese charity.
7. Palacio Nacional de Mafra
Vast, massive, colossal, gigantic and monumental are all words that fail in describing the scale of the Baroque royal palace of Mafra. Infamously known as the colossal palace that bankrupted the nation, Palacio Nacional de Mafra is a grandiose monument constructed in 1717 to celebrate the birth of a princess and includes a basilica and convent.
An extravagant King wanted the basilica and palace to compete in grandeur and magnificence with St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and Spain’s Escorial. At one point, over 45,000 workers were involved in the project, along with several foreign artists, while 7,000 soldiers oversaw the workforce.
The result was the creation of 5,200 doorways, 2,500 windows, 880 rooms and halls, 154 staircases, 29 courtyards, and 2 bell towers that boast the largest collection of bells in the world – 57 inside each – and which can be heard at a distance of 24 kilometers when they are played on Sundays.
In the center of the palace is the basilica’s Baroque façade which is flanked by 2 bell towers, while the sides feature 2 large square towers with onion domes.
A guided tour will take you from the king’s apartments on one end, through the splendid Baroque library and the domed basilica towards the queen’s apartments at the other end, some 820 feet away. The royal apartments are extravagant rooms furnished in exceptional pieces of 18th century paintings and furniture.
The library is arguably the most magnificent room of all, and one of Europe’s finest. Decorated in exotic wood and precious marble, the library holds 35,000 volumes including the earliest edition of Homer in Greek.
The royal basilica is also notably remarkable for the quality of its gray and pink marbles, and features one of the largest domes in the world, which is dwarfed only by the scale of the rest of the building. The basilica contains 11 chapels, 6 splendid Baroque organs and fine sculptures inside the atrium.
Other rooms open to the public include the chapterhouse, audience room and pharmacy with its collection of bizarre medical instruments. Behind the palace is the former royal hunting ground which is today a wildlife park that’s open for tours.
In the year 1720, the French ambassador reported to the king that all the money in Iberia would not be sufficient to pay for the palace’s construction. However, Portugal’s plunder of the rich gold mines of Brazil made this possible in 1735.
8. Museu Calouste Gulbenkian
Museu Calouste Gulbenkian is an outstanding museum that showcases artworks dating from 2,000 BC to the early 20th century. Situated northeast of the Eduardo VII Park, the Calouste Gulbenkian museum is one of the Europe’ unsung museum treasures. The museum houses one of the finest private art collections in the world which was gathered over a forty year period.
The large artwork collection was donated by Calouste Gulbenkian who collected over 6,000 art pieces throughout his life. The Gulbenkian collection of ancient artworks is housed inside a modern purpose-built museum building that dates from 1969.
The museum features an outstanding art collection from the East and the West. Most of the 3,000 plus art pieces collected by Gulbenkian range from jewelry, ceramics, tapestry, glassware, sculpture, paintings and furniture, displayed in 2 circuits.
The first circuit is devoted to Egyptian art, Classical art as well as objects from the Far East and Middle East. Highlights include Egyptian scarabs, a Greek Vase, Roman jewelry, Persian tapestries, Assyrian bas-reliefs, Japanese paintings and Chinese porcelain.
The second circuit showcases European art with emphasis on decorative French arts. Notable pieces include the medieval illuminated books, a painting collection by French, Italian and Flemish masters, as well as a collection of 18th century French furniture. The entire room is dedicated to Art Nouveau jewelry inlaid with precious stones and decorated in enamel and gold.
Of the numerous highlights in the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, most notable is the haunting Egyptian golden mummy mask, an exquisite 2,700 year old bowl in alabaster, a bronze cat series and a host of other priceless treasures found within the Egyptian section.
There is also an astonishing Hellenic coin collection and a 2,400 year old Attic vase in the Roman and Greek section. Visitors will also be impressed by the Japanese prints, the rare Chinese porcelain pieces, and the rich sixteenth and seventeenth century Persian tapestries.
Within the big section for European art are works by Rubens, Monet, Rembrandt, Van Dyck and Renoir among others, as well as a collection of French textiles and furniture. Visitors can also take a peek at the statue of Diana in white marble and silver once utilized by Catherine the Great, as well as jewelry regarded as unique in the entire world.
The Modern Art Center shares the pleasantly serene gardens of Museu Calouste Gulbenkian and features contemporary and modern Portuguese, as well as foreign art works which are displayed on 2 floors. Here you will find over 10,000 fascinating items to peruse at your pleasure.
9. Mosteiro dos Jeronimos
Mosteiro dos Jeronimos is a monastery that was built during the early 16th century using the Portuguese variant of the Gothic style. Regarded as one of Lisbon’s most magnificent buildings, the monastery was erected as a thank you token for Portugal’s good fortune in sea exploration. Specifically, it was built in commemoration of Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, and houses the Portuguese explorer’s remains.
The very first stone of the monastery was laid in 1501, with construction being finally completed in 1600. The finished building comprised a church and cloister to replace a previous smaller church that was dedicated to sailors. The monastery was originally inhabited by monks from the Saint Jerome Order whose spiritual duty was giving guidance to sailors and praying for the soul of the king.
Mosteiro dos Jeronimos is today one of the greatest triumphs of the Manueline architectural style, the Portuguese variant of the late Gothic style. This Manueline architectural style is characterized by stonework intricately carved with motifs commonly inspired by nautical themes like ropes, chains, anchors and spheres. Most of the monastery’s design features maritime motifs and elaborate sculptural details.
The cloisters are stunning, with each column carved differently with rope coils, coral, sea monsters and various other sea motifs, all designed to evoke a period of world exploration by sea. There is also the entrance to a former refectory which features a beautiful reticulated vaulting and wall tiled decorations that depict the biblical story of Joseph.
The interior of the church is spacious and features octagonal piers that are richly decorated in reliefs. Outside you will find a garden that was laid out in 1940, and consists of hedges cut out into the shapes of the different Portuguese municipal coats of arms. At the middle is a big fountain that is also decorated in coats of arms, which are illuminated often on special occasions.
One of Mosteiro dos Jeronimos most impressive sections is the southern portal leading into the church. This portal is decorated elaborately with ornaments, as well as statues of the 12 apostles, angels and prophets. The key figure here is that of St. Mary of Bethlehem, the church’s patroness.
A modern wing now partially obscures the main and western entrance. This portal is decorated intricately with coats of arms, emblems, niches and statues. The church interiors also feature tall octagonal pillars adorned with reliefs separating the central nave from its 2 aisles.
In 1578, the chancel was constructed to house the royal family’s tombs. The big tomb gets support from elephant statues. The choir features wooden stalls that have been skillfully sculpted. Also worth a peek is the pulpit that’s beautifully carved, as well as the big stained glass windows.
There’s a sacristy leading up to the spectacular cloister that is also worth taking a peek at. Finished in 1544, this 2-story cloister is decorated intensely in rich motifs in the Manueline style. Every column features unique decorations as no 2 columns are alike.
The refectory borders the west of the cloister and is decorated in 18th century azulejos. The chapter house sits opposite this refectory which houses the tomb of Belem’s first mayor.
Until 1850 the monastery’s west wing underwent renovations into the neo-Manueline architectural style. Since 1893, the wing has housed the Museum of Archaeology, the most important archeological museum in the country. The Museum features an impressive precious metalwork collection, as well as the Maritime Museum that highlights the maritime history of Portugal through displays of globes, model ships and more.
10. Igreja de Sao Vicente de Fora
One of Lisbon’s most important religious buildings, Igreja de Sao Vicente de Fora is a monastery and church completed during the early 17th century on top of a site that overlooks the historic Alfama quarter. The monastery was in dedication to St. Vincent, the Lisbon’s patron saint.
Construction of the monastery began in 1582, and the structure was located outside the city walls, hence its name “de Fora” which means “on the outside”. Inaugurated in 1629, the church was damaged severely during the 1755 earthquake, when its roof and main dome collapsed. Although construction was completed in 1629, it would take until the 18th century for the entire monastery to be finished.
The Italian Renaissance style influence is evident in the attractive limestone façade of the Igreja de Sao Vicente de Fora. There are saints’ statues held inside 7 niches, including that of St. Vincent. The façade’s central section is topped by a sophisticated balustrade and then flanked by 2 bell-towers.
The Igreja de Sao Vicente de Fora church features a layout of a Latin cross with its barrel-vaulted single nave. The altarpiece in Baroque style is the most notable highlight here, which was commissioned during the early 18th century. Also check out the big wooden angel statues and the altar that’s covered by a massive baldachin.
The cloisters are the highlights of the adjacent Augustine monastery, which are decorated in exceptional 18th century blue-colored azulejo. The azulejo or ceramic tile panels depict fables and historic scenes. Highlights in this series of panels are the illustrated scenes from Lafontaine’s Fables.
Following the Great Earthquake of 1755, the church was restored and in 1855 its old monastic refectory became the Braganza dynasty pantheon, as well as the place where the bodies of all the Portuguese kings from 1640 to 1910 lay.
The majority of Portuguese monarchs are buried inside here. Receiving special attention are the tombs of the assassinated King Carlos and Luis Filipe, the heir to the throne, which have a statue of a female depicted weeping over their tombs.
After religious orders were banned from Portugal in 1885, the refectory of the Igreja de Sao Vicente de Fora became the pantheon of the Braganza family, the last monarchs to rule Portugal.
A corridor connects the church with the former refectory of the Augustinian monks. Visitors can also go up to the roof where you will find a terrace that offers amazing views of Alfama, the Tagus River and the National Pantheon.