Here’s my visitor’s guide to Lisbon’s fascinating Museu Nacional do Azulejo or National Tile Museum. The museum is an underrated hidden gem in Lisbon. Not only is it beautiful in and of itself, the museum helps to explain Lisbon’s unique decorative appeal and architectural history.
Lisbon is affectionately nicknamed “Queen of the Sea.” I like to think it’s not just because of Lisbon’s seaside location or seafaring past, but because of its glistening tile bedecked buildings. Under the Portuguese sun, they almost resemble bejeweled crowns.
Walking through the Portuguese capital, you’ll find gorgeous tiled facades on nearly every corner. If you haven’t had enough of the street-side artistic decadence, head to the National Tile Museum.
Housed in a sublime 16th century convent, this unique museum covers the entire history of the azulejo (hand-painted tile). From a cultural perspective, it’s an unmissable Lisbon attraction. But many people skip it because it’s not in the historic center.
You have to work a bit to see the stunning azulejos. Take a bus or an Uber. You’ll say obrigada or obrigado afterward.
A Short History of Azulejos in Portugal
Few things are as distinctly Portuguese as azulejo tiles. The word “azulejo” derives from the Moorish word az-zulayj meaning “polished stone.”
The Moors ruled Lisbon and the Iberian Peninsula from 711 until 1179. They left a lasting influence on its art, architecture, and azulejos. The most striking examples are the palace and fortress complex of the Alhambra in Granada, and the mosque-cathedral the Mezquita in Cordoba.
Legend holds that when King Manuel I of Portugal visited the Spanish province of Seville in the 15th century, he was completely taken with the Royal Alcázar. He decided to have his own palace, Pena Palace in Sintra 30 minutes from Lisbon, decorated with the same style of ceramic azulejo tiles.
In the beginning, azulejo tiles were mostly blue, hewing to it namesake, “azul,” Portuguese for blue. It’s believed that the fascination with blue arose from the blue Ming Dynasty porcelain then popular in Europe.
As a result, most of the classic azulejos that are preserved in the Lisbon museum, and across other parts of Portugal like Porto, are blue and white. Only the later variations embrace shades of yellow and a bit of green.
Initially, azulejo tiles were made in simple geometric shapes. Then, slowly, they became more elaborate and sophisticated. In the 17th century, motifs involving flowers, birds, dolphins, and cherubs began to appear.
The 18th century is considered the “Golden Age of the Azulejo.” Some historians call the time period the “cycle of the masters.” Complex religious, historical, and cultural motifs emerged, sometimes covering entire walls.
Azulejos fell somewhat out of favor in the early 20th century. They were deemed “lower class” and outdated. The construction of the Lisbon Metro in the 1950s helped kickstart an azulejo revival. Local artist Maria Keil was hired to design the walls and she decorated them with tiles.
Now, contemporary artists keep the venerable azulejo tradition alive. In fact, azulejos are so popular and sought after that Lisbon has an azulejo theft problem.
Highlights of Lisbon’s Azulejo Museum, a Must See Site in Lisbon
The National Tile Museum has a stunning setting in a unique building, which is itself an exquisite piece of art. It’s housed in the Madre de Deus Convent, founded in 1509 by Queen D. Leonor. The museum was inaugurated in 1980. Its collection provides a journey through the history of tile, beginning in the 15th century.
Every inch of the museum is an ode to azulejo art, including the baroque chapel at its centre, dedicated to St Anthony. The collection is displayed chronologically in rooms set alongside the convent’s Renaissance cloister. After your visit, you may begin to recognize and identify the age of azulejos in your travels throughout Portugal.
There is good signage, a short film on the history of tile, brochures of the museum’s layout, and a museum app that functions as an audioguide. If you’re interested, you can sign up in advance for a class workshop where you learn how to make azulejo tiles.
There are three main areas to the museum: the church, the exhibition rooms, and the tile cafe.
What To See Inside Lisbon’s National Tile Museum
1. The Madre de Deus Church
The Baroque style church is a megalomaniacal riot of lavish gilt, fresco and tiles depicting the life of the Virgin and Christ. To call it “over the top” is an understatement. The church has an elaborate Rococco altarpiece. Its magnificent ceiling painting is The Coronation of the Virgin, painted by André Gonçalves in 1759. The lower walls feature shimmering 17th century blue and white tile decoration.
Not to be outdone is the chapel upstairs. It contains some peculiar shrines and a long terracotta rib with an ensemble of biblical characters.
As you can imagine, seeing all the gold and elaborate woodwork was quite a shock after wandering around the simple rooms of the convent.
2. Exhibition Rooms at Lisbon’s National Tile Museum
There’s room after room of colorful azulejos on two floors of the convent.
The lower rooms trace the Moorish influence in the 16th century and the Mannerist and early Baroque period of the 17th century. The upper floors continue with the Baroque and Neo-Classical periods and into the more modern and abstract designs of the 20th century.
The Hunting Room is especially eye catching
one of my favorites — Art Nouveau tiles by Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro
The piece de resistance comes right at the end on the upper story in Room G—a 75-feet long panel made of more than 1,300 tiles, created in 1738.
It shows Lisbon in all its glory as the city existed before the Great Earthquake of 1755. In it, you can see monuments that still exist today — the Cathedral, the Jeronimos Monastery of Belem, and the Tower of Belem.
3. Tile Cafe
Even the museum cafe is pretty, set in an 18th century kitchen of a local palace. It has food-themed tiles (think ducks, fish, ham, and grapes) from the 19th century. The atmosphere is amazing and the food is reasonably priced. There’s both indoor and outdoor seating.
From the Middle Ages through today, tile work has been the definitive Portuguese art form. Azulejos are Portuguese to the core, and the source of national pride and delight.
If you love beautiful tiles or have tired of churches, put this unusual museum on your itinerary for Lisbon. You’ll find joy in both the artistry and the museum itself. It’s a gem of a museum in the crown of Queen Lisbon.
Practical Information for the Museu Nacional do Azulejo:
How to get there: The museum slightly off center. Catch the 794 bus from the river side of Praça do Comércio. The nearest train station is Santa Apolonia, from which you then have an approximately 20 minute walk. You can also take an Uber, which is pretty inexpensive.
Entry fee: adults 5 euros, children free; free admission with Lisboa Card
Hours: 2:00 pm to 6:00 pm Tues,10:00 am to 6:00 pm Wed-Sun, closed Mon
Pro tip: The museum has a mobile app that works like an audio guide to explain the permanent collection and the history of the convent. You can download it from Google Play store or through the museum’s website.
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