Shaped by the diverse people who settled here over two millennia, Lisbon is home to an exceptionally varied cultural heritage that is reflected in over 50 museum sure to address just about every field of interest. Three of them, however, especially illustrate the uniqueness of the city.
The National Azulejo Museum
Originally introduced to Portugal in the Moorish era (circa 10th century A.D.), the distinctive glazed Azulejo tiles are Portugal’s most ubiquitous art form, adorning public buildings, grand palaces and humble homes alike.
Housed in the former Madre de Deus Convent, founded in 1509, the National Azulejo Museum’s collection of ceramics is one of the largest in the world. With more than 300 items on display, it traces the evolution of the azulejo from 16th century handicraft to modern-day decorative art.
The exhibits are aligned in chronological order, and many of the images are of a religious theme, but there are some notable exceptions, such as “The Chickens Wedding” or “The Cortege of Neptune and Amphitrite,” (circa 1670).
One of the museum’s highlights is “The Panorama of Lisbon”, a composition of 1300 tiles, 23 meters (75 feet) in length, of Lisbon’s cityscape in 1738 — before the devastating earthquake of 1755. The composition is especially fascinating as certain buildings are still recognizable (Se Cathedral, São Jorge Castle, Belem Tower) while other areas are completely different.
Also of note is the exceptional, 1498 tiles “Our Lady of Life” altarpiece, regarded as one of the key pieces of 16th century Portuguese production.
Besides its unique Azulejo showpieces, the collection includes ceramics, porcelain and earthenware from the 16th to the 21st century. In the conventual part, the Church of Madre de Deus, a brilliant example of Portuguese Baroque abundantly decorated with sculptures, paintings and tiles, is also included in the visit. The nave has been fully restored and is remarkable for its over-the-top gilt work.
The Gulbenkian Foundation
Assembled over a lifetime by Armenian oil tycoon and philanthropist Calouste Gulbenkian (1869-1955), his eclectic art collection is considered one of the most important private collections in the world. At the time of his death it totaled over 6,000 world-class artifacts, spanning 5000 years of history from Antiquity to the early 20th century, and covering virtually all phases of Eastern and Western Art.
In his will, he created the Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian Foundation, to preserve and display it in Lisbon, where he had spent the last 13 years of his life. Located at the northern edge of the city, and specifically designed as a showcase for the collection, the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum opened its doors to the public in 1969. Its galleries are distributed chronologically and in geographical order to create two independent circuits within the overall visit.
The Calouste Gulbenkian Museum
The galleries of the Eastern circuit include Egyptian and Greco-Roman art, Mesopotamia, the Islamic Orient, Armenia and the Far East. The display of Islamic and Oriental art is an impressive treasure trove of carpets, robes, tapestries, tiles and glassware, mainly from 16th and 17th century Persia, Turkey, Syria and India. It is followed by porcelain, jade, paintings and lacquered boxes from China and Japan.
The section on Western Art features a wide-ranging number of pieces reflecting various European artistic trends from the beginning of the 11th century to the mid-20th century, starting with illuminated medieval manuscripts, ivory and wood diptychs, and further on Italian Renaissance majolica ware and tapestries. Then comes a stunning art gallery featuring the works of some of the most important painters of all times, such as Domenico Ghirlandaio, Francesco Guardi, Rubens, Rembrandt, Gainsborough, Manet, Turner, and Monet.
French 18th century decorative arts have a special place in the museum, with outstanding gold and silver objects and furniture, as well as paintings and sculptures. The visit ends with a dazzling collection of Art Nouveau jewels and glass by René Lalique, displayed in its own room.
The National Coach Museum
Created by Queen Amélia of Portugal to preserve the important collection of vehicles belonging to the Royal House, the National Coach Museum opened in 1905 in the old riding ring of the Palace of Belém. However, since 2015, what is considered the richest collection of royal coaches in the world, can be appreciated nearby in a newly built museum close to the bank of the Tagus, within walking distance of the Jerónimos Monastery and the Monument of the Discoveries.
The museum gives a full picture of the development of vehicles from the late 16th through the 19th century, including coaches, carriages and sedan chairs. Each carriage is more extravagant than the next, illustrating the ostentatious wealth of the Portuguese elite of the time. The oldest, used by Spanish newcomer Philip II of Portugal (also Philip III of Spain) in 1619, is notable for its exterior austerity, so as not to stoke resentment among his new subjects, but still luxurious inside.
One of the most outlandish, used in an embassy to France’s Louis XIV, depicts cherubs with bats’ wings. There are also several Baroque 18th century carriages decorated with paintings and exuberant gilt woodwork, such as a ceremonial coach given by Pope Clement XI to King João V in 1715, and the three coaches of the Portuguese ambassador to Pope Clement XI, built in Rome in 1716, including one decorated with allegorical scenes representing Portuguese military and maritime triumphs.
The display primarily focuses on ceremonial carriages but also includes a few used for a broader purpose, such a mail coach from the 19th century and even a prisoners’ transport coach, as well as a few miniature carriages designed for children.
Good to Know
Visiting — National Azulejo Museum, R. Madre de Deus 4, 1900-312 Lisbon, is located 2.5 kilometers (1.5 mile) east of the city centre, an interesting walk through residential neighborhoods, or via the 759 bus. It is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm. Closed on Monday, January 1, Easter Sunday, May 1, June 13 and December 25. Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Avenida de Berna, 45A, 1067-001 Lisbon is located 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) north of the city center, close to Praça de Espanha. It can easily be reached by bus (lines number 713, 716, 726, 742 and 756), or metro (blue and red lines – station São Sebastião ). It is open Wednesday through Monday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Closed on Tuesday and January 1, Easter Sunday, May 1, December 24 and 25. The National Coach Museum Avenida. da Índia 136, 1300-300 Lisbon, is located in Belem, approximately a 30 minute drive west of the city center and easily accessible by tram number 15 (from the Cais do Sodré station, in the Praça do Comércio). It is open from Tuesday to Sunday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Closed on Monday, January 1 , Easter Sunday, May 1.June 13 and December 25
Getting Around — When getting around Lisbon outside of the city center or what you consider easy walking distance, you may want to consider using your favorite ride-hailing app. I used mine frequently throughout my recent week-long stay and found it both efficient and exceptionally cost-effective.