I don’t think you can appreciate the beauty of Lisbon without considering its Portuguese tiles. They glitter on the facades of apartment blocks, dazzle in the public squares, bring colour to the interiors of churches, and even make a trip on the metro more entertaining.
But it hasn’t always been this way. In fact, it’s been less than 100 years since tiles made a comeback in Lisbon.
Tile Museum Lisbon (Museo do Azulejo Lisboa)
At the Tile Museum Lisbon (Museo do Azulejo Lisboa), you can trace the story of the decorative feature. Room by room, their styles develop and their uses change. From decorative, to artistic. From artistic, to practical.
The tiles are known in Portugal as ‘azulejo’. Although the word is derived from the Arabic ‘az-zulayj’ (meaning ‘polished stone’) it wasn’t actually the Moors who brought the tiles here, as many people think.
It wasn’t until the 15th century, after the Moors had retreated to North Africa, that the use of tiles was imported from neighbouring Spain – mainly because King Manuel I had seen them in Granada and wanted to decorate his palace at Sintra the same way.
These first designs, as you can see at the Tile Museum Lisbon, were simple. Still beautiful, no doubt, but the patterns were formed just with geometric patterns and a limited colour palette.
Over time, the Portuguese artists added their own touches – animals, plants, even humans. The simple patterns were replaced with vivid scenes of history and fiction, telling tales from the Age of Discoveries and from The Bible.
Lisbon’s Tile Museum is housed these days in the building of the former Madre de Deus convent. The site was chosen because the convent was famous for its stunning displays of azulejo.
Part of the museum is the convent’s church and on the walls inside you can see incredible examples of how Portuguese tiles were used to tell stories. The scenes here are vivid representation of famous Catholic stories.
You’ll notice that the tiles in the Madre de Deus church are blue and white. People often think that these are the standard colours of Portuguese tiles because they are so prevalent – but they are actually just the fashion of a certain period.
With trade increasing between Europe and Asia after the discovery of the sea route by Vasco da Gama, Asian art became very trendy in Portugal. These tile displays were influenced by one of the most popular types of this art – the Ming Dynasty porcelain from China.
Tiles in Lisbon
You only have to walk the streets to realise that there are many more hues in use with the tiles in Lisbon than just blue and white. So many of the residential buildings through the city are covered in patterned tiles, full of colour, a wall of art.
The use of azulejo on the outside of buildings was extremely popular in the 18th and into the 19th century and the production of tiles in Portugal reached a peak. It was partly about the art – the aesthetics were certainly appreciated by the general population – but it was also about practicalities.
When buildings were being constructed, people realised that tiles on the outside helped protect against damp, kept homes cooler in summer, and even reduced noise coming in from the street.
But, as is often the case, as soon as something became common, it lost its value. The elites of Lisbon became less interested in tile art because it was seen as lower class – no longer something that adorned churches but covered the homes of poor people.
From a civic perspective, azulejo had fallen out of favour by the beginning of the 20th century.
There was something in the 1950s that occurred that is credited with making Portuguese tiles in Lisbon cool again. Something that I have already written a bit about – the construction of the Lisbon Metro.
The azulejos tiles revival
When the first stations of the Lisbon Metro were being built, they authorities asked local artist Maria Keil to design artistic wall coverings for them. She chose to decorate them in tiles – and this began a tradition that would see every future metro station decorated with incredible tile art.
Not since King Manuel I was dazzled by the tiles at Granada and decorated his Sintra palace in that style has a single person had such an impact on the development of azulejo in Portugal. Maria Keil is credited with being the driving force of reviving traditional tile techniques and their incorporation into new artistic possibilities.
And that’s what you’ll also notice today in Lisbon – how the historic fits with the modern, traditional azulejo with cool cutting-edge tile art. It’s a truly Portuguese art form that has weathered the years, just as it helps the buildings it covers do the same.
I would recommend visiting the Tile Museum Lisbon (Museo do Azulejo Lisboa) and I have a few more details about that below. But there are also these Lisbon experiences that will give you a deeper insight into the story of azulejo.
Of course, in the meantime, just make sure you look around as you explore Lisbon. The city is a gallery and the art is everywhere you go.
Otherwise it is about a 20 minute walk from Santa Apolonia Station metro station.
It is closed on Mondays.
Entry is free with the Lisboa Card.
For cheap private accommodation, there are some lovely guesthouses run by local families. I would recommend either City Lofts Lisbon or the more centrally-located Great Stay Fanqueiros.
If you're interested in something with a bit more style, I would recommend either the Portugal Boutique Hotel or the Lx Boutique Hotel, which has such beautiful design.
And for some real luxury, two of the best hotels in Lisbon are Pousada de Lisboa or the incredible Memmo Príncipe Real.