FOR ART & DESIGN LOVERS

Regal, pretty, but also low-key is how I describe Lisbon, Portugal. It’s unassuming in some ways, but still has traces of its Superpower past making it perfect for art & design lovers. Here is our Lisbon, Portugal City Guide for Art & Design Lovers.


By day Lisbon has a naive theatrical quality that enchants and captivates, but by night it is a fairy-tale city, descending over lighted terraces to the sea, like a woman in festive garments going down to meet her dark lover.”

Erich Maria Remarque, The Night in Lisbon

Beautiful architecture, fresh seafood, world class art and a small navigable city structure make Lisbon and the surrounding area a great design-related destination. Vestiges from the 16th century when Lisbon was the European commerce hub between Africa, India, the Far East and Brazil and ruled the world are still apparent, but this city has all of the modern conveniences, too making it a relaxed, waterside vacation.

LISBON, PORTUGAL CITY GUIDE

FOR ART & DESIGN LOVERS

ART & DESIGN

ADMIRE THE BEAUTIFUL AZULEJOS TILE

Azulejos are beautiful tiles that adorn many of the buildings in Lisbon. In the 15th century, King Manuel of Portugal had seen tiles used in Granada, Spain and loved them so much that he had them imported for his palace in Sintra. Portuguese artists started making them and soon added historical scenes (and tales from the Bible). Walk around the city and you will find many examples of the ornate tilework. There is even a museum devoted to this craft.

MUSEU CALOUSTE GULBENKIAN

This museum houses one of the largest private art collections in the world, and I think, one of the best. It has Greco-Roman art, Egyptian, Persian, European and Renaissance art, plus a beautiful collection of Rene Lalique jewelry, glasswork and ceramics. My favorites were the Rembrandt, Rubens and Fragonard paintings. The Museu Calouste Gulbenkian is a great way to spend a few hours.

MUSEU DE ARTES DECORATIVAS PORTUGUESAS

This stunning 17th century palace at one of the highest points in the city is filled with 15th & 16th century furniture and decorative arts from around Portugal. Textiles, painting, ceramics, jewelry and furniture. This is a beautiful way to understand the decorative art, and therefore the history, of Portugal.

CASTELO de S. JORGE

At the highest part of the city, this castle not only gives you a feel for living in ancient times, but gives you a nearly panoramic view of Lisbon. I walked onto the property and was stunned to see huge peacocks perched on a castle wall. Yes, they were real. This castle has served as a royal palace, military barracks, and is now a national monument and museum.

*The museum holds a permanent collection of relics found in the archaeological area and shows the various cultures that contributed to building modern-day Lisbon.

JERONIMOS MONASTERY IN BELEM

Just a short cab ride from Lisbon proper is a Monastery in the small town of Belem. The Monastery has a very insightful museum that gives a timeline of what has happened in Portugal in relation to historical world events. It is fascinating and really provides a contextual framework for global politics, economics and art. This monastery is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is worth a visit.

*A block or so away from the monastery is Pasteis de Belem, a café that has been serving the most delicious custard pastries since 1837. The recipe was developed at the monastery. It is a definite MUST.

PENA CASTLE (IN SINTRA)

A 30-minute train ride takes you a world away to the beautiful mountain town of Sintra. This is where the Portuguese Royal Family had their summer palace and escaped the heat. Now the palace is open to the public and gives you a first-hand look at how royalty lived during the Middle Ages and after.

*Stop at nearby Saudade Cafe for lunch or a snack or you can get a snack at the palace cafe.

BERARDO COLLECTION MUSEUM

900 modern and contemporary works are displayed in this museum near the monastery in Belem. Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Cindy Sherman plus 496 other artists are represented here.

*Once again, a good break from this museum is to stop at Pasteis de Belem (just a few blocks away) for one of their scrumptious custard desserts.

THINGS TO SEE & DO

PRACA DO COMERCIO

One of the most famous sites in Lisbon, this U-shaped square (plaza) opens up to the Tagus River. Cafes and shops now line the plaza’s buildings. This is a great place to stroll and people watch.

*We couldn’t find a restaurant here that didn’t seem touristy, so we walked a block away and had delicious meals at Taberna Moderna.

EMBAIXADA

This 19th-century palace turned shopping destination is a highlight in the Principe Real neighborhood. The ornate neo-Moorish building houses a very cool café in the center courtyard with Portuguese-owned shops surrounding it on several floors. You can find designer clothing, high quality leather goods, stationary stores, and other things you would find in a concept shop.

*The architecture and the cafe are worth the visit alone.

ESTRELA BASILICA

I saw a gleaming white dome from the city center and wanted to know what it was, so my daughter and I walked for miles and miles until we reached it. This beautiful church was built on one of seven hilltops in the late 1700s by Queen Mary I of Portugal. It is Rococo in style and is built with white, pink and black marble.

*Climb the stairs to the rooftop for a view of the city. Also, make sure to wander across the street to Jardim de Estrela Park for a peaceful stroll. The park has sculpture gardens, exotic plants, ponds, fountains and gazebos.

CATEDRAL SE

This cathedral is the oldest in Lisbon. It was built in 1147 and has survived many earthquakes, renovations, and modifications. The central courtyard was excavated in the 1990s and workers found ruins from the Roman, Medieval and Arab periods. It is a mix of various architectural styles.

*The cathedral is in the Alfama area, which for years was seedy and dangerous. Now this area is a hotbed for artists and other creatives and has become quite trendy.

OCEANARIO (AQUARIUM)

I have a love/hate relationship with aquariums and usually don’t like them unless there is a strong conservation ethos. Lisbon’s aquarium is committed to conserving dwindling populations and to ensuring their animals thrive. This small, but nice aquarium has just enough sea creatures to spend a few hours enjoying, but not so many that you are overwhelmed.

*This is a 15-20 minute taxi ride from Lisbon proper.

CARMO CONVENT

This old church was built in the late 1300s and fell victim to a sweeping earthquake that destroyed it in 1755. In the last century, archaeologists have repaired the façade and resurrected some of the crumbling arches. It is beautiful and haunting.

*For gamers (or those of us with kids who game), the church was featured in Assassin’s Creed Rogue.

PLACES TO EAT & DRINK

Lisbon City Guide.  Best food.  Time Out food hall, Pasteis de Belem.  Drinks at Taberna Moderna.

BREAKFAST/LUNCH

  • Tartine (in Chiado neighborhood)- breakfast, pastries, good coffee & tea.

  • Coffee Grill (in Baixa)- Although somewhat unassuming and with a strange name, Coffee Grill had a delicious fresh fish dish and Brigadeiro Cake (delicious, decadent chocolate that is famous in Portugal).

  • Mercado da Ribeira also called Time Out Market– This is a gourmet food hall in what used to be the city’s wholesale food market. Now it has more than 24 food stalls that are run by some of the best chefs in Lisbon (including a Michelin starred chef, Henrique Sa Pessoa). Some serve traditional Portuguese food, while others serve sushi, BBQ, hamburgers, pizza and ice cream. This is a great place for families or large parties.

DINNER & DRINKS

  • Memmo Alfama– This is a boutique hotel in the historic Alfama neighborhood. We stopped for a drink and appetizers on the terrace overlooking the Tagus River. It’s a nice place for a peaceful meal or drink.

  • Santa Rita– This is a neighborhood restaurant. A place where locals come and enjoy inexpensive, but delicious food. Despite the unappetizing name, you must try the “Camel Drool,” which is similar to a custard/flan-like dessert with grated cookies on top.

  • Taberna Moderna– A modern Portuguese tavern in a beautiful building near the central square. The interiors are different, but cool looking. The food was delicious… Regional specialties with a modern twist: octopus, gorgonzola steak, potatoes. The cocktails are excellent. Try the Brownie/Crema Catalana (a dessert & cocktail all in one).

  • Pao a Mesa- A bit more casual than Taberna Moderna, but the food is every bit as good. We loved the octopus so much, that we ate dinner there twice.

  • Independente– This is an Art Deco hostel within a renovated palace that overlooks the Tagus River. The ground floor restaurant was trendy (but in a good way) and the food was great. Make reservations. During summer and spring the rooftop bar is the perfect spot for river views.

  • A Cevicheria– The huge octopus that cascades from the ceiling in this ultra modern, minimalist restaurant gives the first hint of what’s to come; extremely fresh, seafood. The dishes are prepared by a famous Peruvian chef. The lines are long, so prepare for a wait.

FINAL THOUGHTS

There are many more things to do and see in Lisbon, but these are my favorites. Please let me know in the comments below if there is something outstanding that I should include in this guide.

If you want to explore another city nearby, check out our Venice, Italy Travel Guide.

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