With their vibrant designs and wide variety of styles, azulejo tiles have been an important part of Portuguese culture and history for centuries. These ceramic tiles can be seen all over Lisbon, from churches and street corners in Bairro Alto to the 17th-century Fronteira Palace, located just outside of Lisbon’s city centre.
One of the most impressive collections of tiles in the Museu Nacional do Azulejo (the National Tile Museum), which was founded shortly after the Lisbon Metro was built, in 1980.
Housed in a small 16th-century convent, the Madre de Deus Convent, the National Tile Museum shows the evolution of tiles from the 15th century to today (you’ll be surprised by how contemporary some of the designs are!)
For anyone looking to learn about Portugal's rich culture and heritage, and who will be in Lisbon for a few days, the National Tile Museum is a must-see for visitors. Here’s what you need to know before you visit.
Azulejo tiles, integral to Portuguese aesthetic and cultural expression, trace their historical roots back to the 15th century. The term 'azulejo' derives from the Arabic az-zulayj, meaning 'polished stone', and reflects a deep connection to Moorish heritage.
King Manuel I, captivated by the grandeur of these tiles during his visit to the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, introduced azulejos to Portugal to adorn his palace at Sintra.
This marked the beginning of azulejo art in Portugal, initially featuring simple geometric patterns which evolved over time into vibrant scenes depicting historical and religious narratives, especially during the Age of Discoveries.
The creation of azulejo tiles peaked in the 18th-century, which was considered its Golden Age, before becoming less popular in the early 20th century during which they were considered old-fashioned.
It was not till the Lisbon Metro was built in the 1950s, and 19 Metro stations were decorated with azulejo by local artist Maria Keil, did interest in the tiles revive. Understanding more about these tiles is thus a great way to really understand Portugal and its history.
The National Tile Museum, housed in the Madre de Deus Convent, showcases the uniqueness of azulejo and the role it has played in Portuguese artistic expression.
The museum has a diverse collection dating back to the 15th century, including Moorish geometric patterns and Chinese-inspired blue-and-white porcelain designs. And where else can you see a 23-meter-long (75-foot) mosaic-mural created entirely from over 1300 tiles?
Believed to be by Spanish artist Gabriel del Barco, the mural (pictured in the header) shows 14 kilometres (9 miles) of historic Lisbon as it was before it was destroyed in the 1755 earthquake.
You can also spot several iconic Lisbon monuments that are still around today, such as the Jeronimos Monastery of Belem and the Cathedral.
The oldest tiles in the Museum were influenced by Arabic culture, as evidenced by their geometric, such as the Islamic knot work. As time passed, the tiles started featuring everything from flowers and birds to cherubs. There is also a large collection of blue and white tiles, which were influenced by Chinese and later Dutch porcelain.
The museum also features modern temporary exhibitions on the second floor, where contemporary artists display innovative tile installations, combining traditional techniques with modern aesthetics. Many of these would not look amiss in a contemporary art gallery!
Keep in mind that the written information in the Museum is quite sparse. You won’t learn much about the production of the tiles, or their history, from the information on the walls.
To get the full history of the tiles, you’ll need to download the Museum app and audio guide onto your phone. Or, for a more immersive experience, you can do a day tour, which includes visiting a tile workshop and a guided tour of the museum.
One reason why the National Tile Museum is so worth visiting - besides the assortment of tiles - is the beautiful historic architecture and lovely paintings.
The location of the museum itself, in the former Madre de Deus convent, was chosen for its association with azulejo art, ensuring the preservation and celebration of these historical artworks.
The two-storey musuem building itself is also quite interesting. Founded in 1509 by Queen D Leonor, it’s one of the oldest public buildings in Lisbon, as most of the older buildings were decimated by the 1755 earthquake.
However, one of my favourite things about the museum is actually not the tiles- it is the Madre de Deus Church.
The Baroque-style church has a Rococo altarpiece, blue-and-white azulejo tiles, magnificent gold-lined wooden interiors, and elaborate paintings by Cristóvão Lopes and André Gonçalves, all of which are remarkably well-preserved.
The church is almost hidden away and is very different from the rest of the building (which is quite austere in tone.)
Also, be sure to pop into the museum cafe when you visit. It's housed in the former refectory, and decorated with food-themed tiles dating back to the 1800s, so well-worth seeing in its own right. There’s also a garden terrace outside, which is a lovely place to relax over a drink when the weather is good.
Don’t be deterred by the National Tile Museum's location outside central Lisbon in an industrial neighbourhood. It’s really only a short bus or an inexpensive Uber ride away from the historic centre.
The closest train station is Santa Apolonia. However, I don’t recommend taking the Metro there, as you’ll have to walk about 20 minutes through a not-very-nice area, while the bus stops right outside!
The signage outside the Museum isn’t great so you can easily miss it. Pay attention to your Google map! Although Lisbon is notorious for its steep and slippery pavements, the Museum is thankfully located on a flatter part of the city.
Entrance fee: 8 Euros (Senior citizens over 65 years of age get a 50% discount and it’s free if you have the Lisboa card.)
Note: the Museum is closed on Mondays. some exhibitions are closed at lunch time.
Expect to spend a couple of hours in wandering around the museum. If you get tired, you can have a rest at the Museum’s cafe or browse the gift shop.