• Leslie

The Monastery of São Vicente de Fora, a Gorgeous Hidden Gem in Lisbon

Updated: Jan 17, 2020

Monastery of Sao Vicente de Fora with its distinctive two bellowers on the left

The Monastery of São Vicente de Fora is one of Lisbon's grand architectural sites and a secret hidden gem in Lisbon. In fact, it's hidden in plain sight, sitting atop one of Graca's highest points. But few tourists venture inside. That's a mistake.

The 16th century Monastery of São Vicente de Fora is jaw dropping. If you don't want to journey to the Jerónimos Monastery in the suburb of Belem or pay its rather hefty fee to see the cloisters, this monastery is a fantastic alternative. It's inexpensive, crowd free, and has a killer rooftop view. You can get a good view of the monastery itself from St. George's Castle in Alfama.

entry hall to the monastery, with a trompe-l'œil optical illusions to make it seem higher

The monastery was commissioned by King Phillip II of Spain (who then ruled Portugal) and designed by Filippo Terzi. It's dedicated to St. Vincent, who was proclaimed Lisbon's patron saint in 1173. It's the burial place of kings and many saints have passed through its doors. But the most compelling reason to visit the monastery is its richly decorated and sun-dappled cloisters.

What To See Inside the Monastery of São Vicente de Fora

Everywhere you look, the cloisters are covered in stunning azulejo mosaics telling historical stories. No flat surface is left untiled. Upstairs, an unbroken tiled pattern winds throughout the entire monastery. 100,000 tiles were used, making it the world’s largest collection of Baroque tiles.

Few things are as distinctly Portuguese as azulejo tiles. But the art form was originally Arabic. The word "azulejo" derives from the Moorish word az-zulayj meaning “polished stone.”

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. Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, right?

the Igreja São Vicente de Fora, rather dull compared to the cloisters next door

an unbroken azulejo panel winding around the cloisters

As well as the azulejo cloisters, there are scenes (historically inaccurate ones) of Afonso Henriques attacking Lisbon. 28 gorgeous panels also illustrate the stories of Jean de La Fontaine. He was a popular 17th century French fabulist and poet. His literature was both wise and satiric, pointing out the consequences of sin (vanity, idleness, and extravagance) and the rewards of kindness and hard work.

Some of the azulejo fables are pretty funny or poignant actually. In one fable, a lonely man and a lonely bear befriend each other. The bear kept flies off the man's face when he slept. But, one day, the bear threw a rock at a fly on the man's nose. The man dropped dead. The moral: don't be lazy and wear a sun hat to keep flies away.

There's another fable for cat lovers. In this one, a weasel stole a rabbit's warren. The weasel claimed title by seizure (a practice Portugal itself used during the Age of Discoveries), disavowing hereditary claims. The animals selected a cat to judge their dispute. The cat gobbled them both up. The moral: Don't trust cats and build your own home.

view from the monastery rooftop, one of the best views in Lisbon

Another view, this time of the Pantheon. The bannisters are quite lovely.

Aside from the azulejos, there are two other things not to miss, the sacristry and the Braganza Pantheon. The sacristy has vibrant polychrome marble walls. The Braganza Pantheon is under the sacristy. It houses the tombs of the Portuguese kings from the house of Braganza, who ruled from 1640 to 1910.

So if you're wondering whether the Monastery of São Vicente de Fora is worth visiting, the answer is a decided yes. You'll be dazzled by dreamy azulejos and a fantastic bell tower view -- the very essence of what makes Lisbon special.

the sacristy with polychrome marble walls

Practical Information and Tips for Visiting the Monastery of São Vicente de Fora :

Address: Largo de São Vicente, 1100-572 Lisboa

Hours: Open daily Tues to Sun from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm

Entry fee: Access to the rather dull church is free and is often open only during mass. It's 5 euros to see the real treasures -- the cloisters, crypt, cistern -- and have access to the rooftop.

Pro tip: You can take Tram 28 to the monastery. Get off at Largo da Graca and follow the signs. If you visit on a Tuesday or Saturday, you can also inspect the famous Feira da Ladra flea market, which is held behind the church.

If you'd like to visit one of Lisbon's hidden gems, pin it for later.

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