A Virtual Walking Tour of Lisbon’s Hand-Painted Tiles

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting Portugal, especially Lisbon, images of the country’s exquisite hand-painted tiles may float into your mind at the mere mention of it. I for one absolutely love the artwork and history behind Portugal’s tiles and each time I’ve gone back to visit (half a dozen times now!), I find a new pattern that I fall head-over-heels in love with. And coincidentally, I also come back with a better camera which really helps me crisply capture all the gorgeous tile patterns that I sadly cannot take back home with me. This is where the idea of doing a virtual tour comes in!

One of the main preserved tile walls at the Museu do Azulejo, a former convent which now houses an absolute treasure trove of hand-painted ceramics and tiles.

I would definitely recommend making a visit whenever you can to the Museu do Azulejo (Lisbon’s Tile Museum) so you can take the intricacy and painstaking details of the tiles in with your own two eyes.

(Or go on a virtual tour there with the Museum’s app)

Photos don’t do them justice but that’s all I have to look back on at the moment. Last year, when I re-visited the museum with my then-fiancé, a woman on the bus we were on -and she was headed to the tile museum as well-asked me which was the closest stop to the museum. I didn’t have a map or anything on me but I was speaking English to my aforementioned travel companion so I must’ve seemed like a reliable source to her. I told her the name of the bus stop and added that the tile museum was one of the best museums in Lisbon (and that I was going there again). Needless to say I was excited. I can’t help share about something I love and if that passion helps other people get excited then the more the merrier!

The word azulejo (ah-zoo-lay-zoo) originates from the Arabic word alzulaich, which means “small polished stone.” The very earliest tiles can be found on the sidewalks all around Portugal and they consist of black and white patterns of geometric shapes. This technique was adopted from the Moors when they occupied the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century, whom the Portuguese battled and traded with for several hundred years.

Black and white patterned sidewalks are a unique to Portugal characteristic.

It wasn’t until the 16th century that this specific tile and design spread across Portugal and moved off of the streets and onto the façades of Portuguese buildings and houses. You can see numerous buildings today with the main façade full of tiles all around cities like Lisbon and Porto. Some countries use decorative tiles as a way to compliment a building or stairway’s design but in Portugal, it became a construction material. A vital material as well as a decoration – what a combination!

Today, dozens upon dozens of tile designs and trends can be found all around Lisbon’s streets, buildings and metro stations. As much as the city boasts about its street art, its amazing tiles are really what complement and enhance the beauty that is Lisboa.

Are you ready to get to traveling around Lisbon on this virtual tile tour?

Let’s go!

Baixa

This is Lisbon’s oldest neighborhood and where most of the major sights and attractions can be found. While a lot of these streets have already been scoured for their secrets and treasures, there are still some stones that have not yet been overturned.

These tiles are so dynamic and eye catching that you don’t even notice the blase-looking drain pipe attached to the side.
I’m only allowing one picture with my shiny, delicate ring but it’s just because he last time I was in Lisbon I was engaged.
The walls and doorway in a hallway at my fiancé’s hotel. Right then I wished I had been able to get a room there!

Bairro Alto y Chiado

Bairro Alto and nearby Chiado have seen numerous changes over the span of multiple decades. Set up on a hill, this curvy and elevated neighborhood is the starting point for a night out on the streets of Lisbon. During the day, it’s full of cozy restaurants, terraces and historical sights. Plus, before the bar hoppers occupy it after sunset, there are plenty of hidden gems around every corner.

If you take Tram No. 28, you can bypass a lot of walking in the center but still take in beautiful buildings with lush blue tiles like these! (A perk of being stuck in a traffic jam while on a tram back in April 2019)
This tram no longer takes loops around the city but it does serve as an elevator so people can go up and down this hill.

Alfama

Most popularly known as the birthplace of Portugal’s traditional, folklore music called fado, the Alfama is a neighborhood that’s brimming with treasures at every turn. Oddly enough, it’s also an easy place in the city to get lost in. (Similar to the streets of Barrio de Santa Cruz in Sevilla) However, once sunset hits, you will be able to hear gentle, melodic notes of fado echoing off the buildings. And did I mention all the great miradoures (lookout points) and rare, striking colored tiles?

(And sometimes together!)

Excuse the jet lag but I couldn’t help but snap a picture of the tiles that adorned this lookout point in the Alfama overlooking the sea. (Taken in April 2013 on self-timer!)
With this gorgeously designed façade, who wouldn’t want to live here?
And last but not least, this absolute gem of a mural that lies at the edge of the Baixa and Alfama neighborhoods. It depicts Lisbon in its glory days when sailing was the main form of transportation and is one of many façadesin the Alfama that survived the Lisbon earthquake in 1755.

Lisbon’s Metro Stations

The subway in Lisbon is known as an “underground museum” and with dozens of hand-painted tiles and multi-colored panels, this phrase rings true. A metro system was first proposed in 1888 but it was postponed for decades until the Second World War. Since Portugal maintained a neutral position in the war, the funds the country received from the Marshall Act in 1948 helped to industrialize and modernize the city’s transportation systems.

Construction did not begin until some years later under Francisco Keil do Aramal, who built the Lisbon airport, designed several public parks, and more. Problems began to arise with the budget not too long after construction began and the architect was notified that there was no money allocated for decoration. He threatened to leave the project but ironically his wife, Maria Keil, came up with a brilliant solution. A respected artist herself, Keil began to use small mosaic tiles often used in swimming pool designs to add a splash of color and design to the metro station’s walls.

One discovery led to another and while Keil was discouraged from using azulejos, she persevered and tackled the delicate artwork anyway. Using more attractive designs was something she found irresistible. She is quoted for her work retrospectively in 2013 for saying:

O Metropolitano não podia ficar com as paredes de cimento. Não sei se fiz bem, se fiz mal. Olhe, fiz.

The Metro could not just have cement walls. I don’t know if I did a good job or not. But hey, at least I did something.

The following part of the virtual tour will now take us underground into the Metropolitano de Lisboa. These are just a few of dozens of stations with amazing artwork and stories but I hope you enjoy all the quirks and peculiarities that I do.

Cais do Sodré

A partially hidden giant bunny rabbit running with a pocket watch in the Cais do Sodré metro (Linha Verde). The “A” is part of the phrase “Estou atrasado” or “I’m late” and it alludes to the classic tale Alice in Wonderland.

Baixa-Chiado

Whether you are entering or exiting the Baixa-Chiado metro station (Linha Verde), look up or else you’ll miss the gold, geometric shapes etched just above you on the ceiling.

Rossio

In Rossio metro (Linha Verde), you can find an original design by Maria Keil (1963) featuring two of her favorites: stars and geometric patterns.
Also featured in Rossio is what is classified as “public transportation art,” which was a growing trend back in the late 90s. This design by Helena Almeida emphasized motion with a walking woman on her way out of the station.

Martim Moniz

The artist of this particular wall, Gracinda Candeiras, refers to this part Lisbon as the meeting point of three people groups (Arab, Indian and African) and these icons represent different elements of those cultures.

Restauradores

One of the most unique metro stations, Restauradores (Linha Azul) houses Kinetic Art by Nadir Afonso, a former architect.
The featured paintings of a few major European and North and South American cities inside one of Lisbon’s busiest stations showcases his vibrant, energetic style.

Near As Docas

Not the best photo I’ll admit but if you’re on your way back from Belém, keep your eyes peeled along the tram’s route and you’ll be rewarded with more intricate almost incognito tiles!
Full tiled-façades rang from a giant portion of the wall covered in decoration to small, individual tiles with a single pattern lining the entire building like stones or bricks. (It’s hard not to reach out and touch them!)

Belém (a district west of Lisbon)

Originally known as Lisbon’s main location for shipyards and docks in the 15th century, today the district of Belém is where a few major sights and museums lie. It’s one of several day trip options with many attractions included on the Lisbon Card, which is a 3-in-1 transport, attraction, and discount card for tourists. I’ve used it twice now and really found it to be a great deal. It can really help you pack in a lot of the sights at once in places like Belém or other surrounding towns and double as your transportation card to use to get there.

Take the tram out to Belém where you will be able to visit the Torre de Belém and a very famous bakery!
At the Pastéis de Belém sit-down bakery and café you cannot only enjoy their famous pastéis de nata (custard tarts) but also keep your eye out for lots of beautiful tile work.
This design is way more majestic than the designs you’ll see on the street.
And some even include whole portraits of important people from the time period in which they were painted!
Others also include animals, boats and flowers which were distinct period images and some included pottery like this peculiar fish above.

Sintra

Sintra, while not a coastal town per se, boasts stunning views of the Atlantic Ocean from its many castles and hilltop palaces. Everyone says it’s a real-life fairy tale and you will instantly discover why as soon as you set foot off the train.

Whimsical, picturesque and breathtaking, it’s the perfect town for a day trip with your friends, family or romantic partner. There’s something enchanting for everyone! You will find the air amazingly fresh since it is situated in the Serra de Sintra mountain range with nice breezes and spectacular views. (Bring a jacket and a warm scarf, though, if you’re visiting in the months of March or April as it does get cold and blustery up atop those castles!)

Welcome to Sintra – a lovely town that’s perfect for a day trip and exploring its numerous castles and palaces.
The tiles scattered around the small yet incredibly picturesque town of Sintra aren’t few and far between. The first ones you’ll see will be when you step off the train at the station.
Notice that all these windows have a detailed tiled painting around the tops? Talk about impressive!

Fim da excursão!

I hope you enjoyed the tour and plan to go on another one with me again soon! Chao e obrigada!

Are you a fan of Lisbon and its famed hand-painted tiles? Did I miss any areas with stunning tiles? Let me know in the comments!

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