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Life on the Grid: The Tiles of Portugal

Once a construction necessity, Portuguese artisan tiles, covering buildings and walls throughout the city of Lisbon, are now beloved works of art.

It’s certain that a visit to the Museu Nacional do Azulejo in Lisbon will teach you the history of Portuguese tiles. A stop in one of the city’s many metro stations or churches will also deliver jaw-dropping views of tiles turned into mural-like collages. But if you want to fully understand the importance of these tiles, there is only one thing you need to do. Take a walk. 


Each street you turn down, every shortcut you take through an alleyway and every backyard you peek at over a privacy fence holds a building covered with handmade tiles. The layers boast everything from assertive colors and bold designs to delicate, wispy patterns that require a second look to see the full artistic detail.

Tiles captured while walking through the streets of Lisbon.

Azulejos is the proper name for these handcrafted tiles, and it can be a confusing one for those of us who know some Portuguese. It’s common to think the word comes from the word azul which is Portuguese for blue, especially since the color maintains prominence in so many tile designs. Azulejos more accurately comes from the Arabic word az-zulayi, which means polished stone. 

Tiles captured while walking through the streets of Lisbon.

You will encounter tiles throughout the popular neighborhoods of Bairro Alto and Alfama, but for a tile adventure that takes you to the heart of these artistic materials, take the metro out to Belém and then hit the pavement. 

Near the Lisbon Cathedral in the Alfama neighborhood.

Start by fueling yourself for the day at Pastéis de Belém, a spot well known for their traditional Portuguese egg custard tarts, pastéis de nata. The interior of the bakery and restaurant is full of traditional tiles. Then map out your walk through local neighborhoods to Fábrica Sant’Anna. This production facility for Sant’Anna tiles has been operating in the area since 1741, making azulejos through artisanal methods involving the clay preparation, glazing and hand painting. 


Around the buildings of Fábrica Sant’Anna.

It’s here where you learn that not long after the start of this company an earthquake devastated Lisbon in 1755. The city needed to be rebuilt quickly and affordably. At that time, tiles were much more affordable compared to other building coverings, such as stone. Soon tiles began to be seen lining the walls of new structures. 


Given the appreciation for the handcrafted nature of a Portuguese tile around the world now, it seems absurd to think that these tiles didn’t originate as art. They were more closely aligned with architecture as a construction material, much like we currently think of bricks or siding. 


Today, tiles have become masterpieces celebrating the talents of local artists. Visitors to Lisbon return home with numbers of tiles that range from a single souvenir to enough for covering the walls of kitchens and dining rooms. 


Around the buildings of Fábrica Sant’Anna.


Whether you bring home one or many, enjoy time soaking in the importance of the azulejo while viewing it on the most common of buildings throughout the city. It’s an adventure that is best appreciated by wandering throughout Lisbon and its many neighborhoods on foot. 

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