Lisbon a city of ceramics An angel figure in azulejo tiles

Lisbon A City Of Ceramics: Historical, Colourful & Vibrant

By Ciara Enright

People often describe cities as being “vibrant,” but what does that mean to you? Colourful and bright? Energetic and full of life? Most people go to cities because they want to experience the exciting and diverse culture that cities tend to offer, and it is safe to say that Lisbon is no exception.

Lisbon azulejos

Lisbon: The “Goldilocks” of Cities

Arriving in Lisbon with a bad case of jet-lag, yet excitement in my bones for exploring a new city, I knew immediately that “vibrant” was the perfect word to describe Lisbon. A coastal city of Portugal, Lisbon has something to offer any type of tourist. Whether you’re a foodie, an adventure seeker, or cultural connoisseur, Lisbon is a friendly, affordable city with a perfect variety of attractions and activities to entertain any visitor.

Lisbon Alfama District

The welcoming and carefree nature of the Portuguese was a highlight of the trip and definitely helps to set Lisbon apart from other destinations. From the hostel staff to our tour guides and to the local shop owners, we were constantly greeted by people with warm smiles and a relaxed nature that made it easy to feel comfortable and at home in the big city.

Having travelled to my fair share of over-crowded or, alternatively, lifeless and dull cities, I found that Lisbon was the perfect combination of being bustling and busy, yet calm and breathable. Of course, January isn’t the height of tourist season, so I cannot speak for what the summer months might be like. However, January ended up being the perfect time for a holiday to Portugal. Despite a few showers and cloudy spells, the mild climate made it the perfect weather for exploring the city without getting too hot or freezing. It was the Goldilocks of cities, so to speak!

Lisbon tram on hill

While the various hills throughout the city can be challenging at first, there is so much to look at and take in just by walking around that it makes the hill trekking worth it. Of course, the sights themselves are not the only thing that Lisbon has to offer. It wouldn’t be a trip to Lisbon without tasting the amazing variety of food or enjoying the lively sounds of traditional, Portuguese Fado music. I don’t think I’ll forget biting into my fist Pasteis de Belem – famously delicious, there is nothing like biting into the flaky exterior of this custard tart and into the creamy, not “too” sweet, centre.

In addition to the delicious food, as someone with a background in art history and an interest in architecture, I immediately took notice of a key feature found throughout Lisbon. Known throughout Portugal as “Azulejos,” around every corner and on most buildings in Lisbon, you will find a beautiful and charming assortment of ceramic tiles adorning many of the facades. The tiles were a key aspect of creating the colourful, and “vibrant,” atmosphere throughout Lisbon, and I throughout our visit, I wondered about the importance of these tiles in Portuguese culture.

Here is everything you need to know about Lisbon’s Azulejos:
Historical Influences

While the tiles are a staple in modern Portuguese architecture, the famous ceramic tiles can actually be dated back all the way to the 13th century. The term “azulejo” has Arabic roots, translating to ‘polished stone.” Strongly influenced by Persian design, these azulejos tend to adorn geometric shapes, curves and lines, and floral motifs. Originally developed in Spain, the concept of Azulejos in Portugal were popularized by Kind Manuel I in the early 16th century.

Lisbon tile

Over time, the tiles have evolved from having simple, geometric shapes and neutral colours to being the colourful works of art that they are today. As Frescos were once used during the Renaissance to depict sacred stories, these Azulejos tiles have similarly been used to depict important moments in Portuguese history, becoming an important medium for storytelling throughout the city.

Interestingly, I learned that the Portuguese had lived by the Moorish tradition of horror vacui, meaning a “fear of empty spaces.” Because of this fear in their culture, the tiles had a functional purpose of covering otherwise blank or “empty” walls, thus helping them get over or deal with this strange fear.

Many of the antique azulejos used colours that were fashionable between the 15th and 18th centuries, including many rich blues, bright whites, and bits of yellow and green. While other colours have come into the mix since then, you’ll find that blue is still the dominant colour celebrated with these tiles. In fact, go into any souvenir shop in Lisbon and you will find an assortment of magnets, keychains, shirts, and other gifts that represent these Azulejos tiles.

Lisbon tiles balcony
Lisbon tiles on a balcony

One of the amazing things about art and art history is how symbols have been used in art to represent a higher meaning. How beautiful is it that you can visit Portugal and see stunning and meaningful works of art without having to step foot inside a museum? These tiles have become an important and unique way for the Portuguese to share their culture and share their history, and they’ve displayed it proudly and colourfully across the city.

Modern Protections

Not only have the azulejos become a staple for the Portuguese to decorate their buildings – from churches, to bars and restaurants, and to ordinary homes – they are also used extensively in interiors as well. If you want to purchase some Azulejos to decorate your own home, it’s easy to find tiles in shops across the city. However, it’s important to be aware of where you are purchasing your tiles from.

Unfortunately, these tiles have been the victim of vandalism throughout the years, and stolen tiles can sometimes be found across street fairs and the black market. Many tourists do not know any better, but it’s safer to buy from a reputable source. In an effort to protect the tiles, in 2013, Lisbon made it forbidden to demolish any buildings with tile-covered facades throughout the city.

Lisbon tiles ceramics

Being surrounded by these beautiful tiles was a unique and memorable experience, and it also reminded me of home. While Galway and Lisbon seem worlds away from each other and are both unique, there is something about the two cities that reminds me that we are not that different from each other after all. Just as Galway uses bright paint colours to liven up the city and its facades, Lisbon uses Azulejos. And while the climates of the two places may be very different from each other, the warmth, kindness, and vibrancy of the people is something that translates across both cultures.

This article is one of a series about Lisbon. To discover more and get excellent information about this city, head over to the Lisbon Portugal Travel Guide.

Also below you can check out the vlog from this trip to Lisbon.

This article is one of a series about Lisbon. To discover more and get excellent information about this city, head over to the Lisbon Portugal Travel Guide.

As the topic of sustainability is so important, you may be interested to learn more about Why Lisbon Is A Top Sustainable Destination by Eduardo Lera Latorre

If you are considering relocating or retiring to Portugal, you may find this article about relocation and retirement to Portugal of interest. It is written by a relocation expert. Doctor Valentino Coletto.
Other articles featured in this Lisbon series are:

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