For architecture lovers, there’s plenty to discover in Lisbon. The city is home to a wide variety of architectural styles, from ancient castles and Medieval cathedrals to a minimalist modern pavilion, with must-see buildings scattered in every corner of the Portuguese capital. This list highlights some of the most remarkable and dramatic of them all.
The striking plaza close to the River Tagus is the largest square in Lisbon. The bright yellow buildings that surround the Praça do Comércio make this landmark unique, and attract plenty of tourists and photographers. The area once held the royal palace after the Portuguese royalty left the Castelo de São Jorge, but it was destroyed in the Lisbon earthquake in 1755, with the square built in its wake. Today, it’s home to the Rua Augusta Arch, designed by the Portuguese architect Santos de Carvalho and completed in 1873. The buildings that circle the square hold a few government buildings, including the tourism office, as well as one of the hottest Lisbon nightclubs, several restaurants and a sophisticated winery. The square also goes by the name Terreiro do Paço and is known as “Commerce Square” in English.
The Castelo de São Jorge is one of the most emblematic landmarks in Lisbon, along with the sunshine yellow Praça do Comércio. Built in the 11th century, the castle was once a fortification used by the Moors when they ruled the Iberian Peninsula. It was converted into a palace after the Portuguese monarchy reconquered the land in the 13th century and served as the home and entertainment centre for the Portuguese royalty during the Age of Discovery. Towards the end of the 16th century, the castle became a military fort once again. Today, it is one of the city’s most loved ruins, where visitors can walk through a courtyard, enjoy views of the 25 de Abril Bridge and River Tagus, and experience a museum filled with ancient treasures such as dishes, pots, currency, tiles and more.
The bright white Oriente Station is the main entrance and exit for travellers heading in and out of Lisbon by train or bus and is known locally as the Gare do Oriente. The maritime theme of Expo ’98 is mirrored in the station’s wave-like beams at the entrance, and the building itself is an interesting mix of Gothic architecture and modernism. The juxtaposition between the Gothic concrete arches and the more futuristic latticework of the two-level station makes it worth the attention of architecture fans. At the ground level, you’ll find the bus station, as well as cafés, banks and shops, while the bottom level is the entrance of the metro and home to small markets. Meanwhile, the upper level is for trains.
The Convento do Carmo was left in ruins after Lisbon’s devastating 1755 earthquake, making it one of the most dramatic examples of the damage inflicted by the natural disaster. Monday through Saturday, the convent walls, Gothic arches and attached museum attract many tourists looking for breathtaking architecture and emotional history. Constructed in the late 14th century, the convent was once one of the most lavish, affluent and influential religious buildings in Lisbon. Located in Chiado, the street leading to the Convento do Carmo begins at the Rua Garret (which is filled with cafés, trendy boutiques and restaurants), and people can enjoy the outside of the convent from the top of the Santa Justa Lift, too.
Designed by architect José Luís Monteiro in the late 19th century, the Rossio train station reflects the typical Portuguese Neo-Manueline architecture, which was popular in the middle of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. The Estação do Rossio may not receive as many travellers as the Oriente Station, but it attracts plenty of design-interested visitors who come to gaze at the splendidly designed stone arches, beautiful clock tower and lofty ceiling inside. This station is also the one to leave from when travelling to Sintra, one of Europe’s loveliest cities.
Roman, Gothic and Baroque architecture all influence the structure known as the Sé de Lisboa (Lisbon Cathedral). It is the oldest cathedral in the city, built in the 12th century atop a spot that once held a Moorish Mosque. An excavation project on the eastern side of the cathedral towards the back unearthed some Moorish structures, which can be visited today. The most noteworthy parts of the Sé de Lisboa are the towers, rose windows, the altar and the small side chapels.
When you gaze at the exterior of the São Roque Church in Bairro Alto, it’s hard to imagine that the plain, white facade conceals the most beautiful cathedral in Lisbon. The church was constructed in intervals, and one chapel, Capela de São João Baptista, was designed in Rome and transported to Lisbon where it was assembled. The first Jesuit church built in Portugal, the São Roque Church features lots of giltwood, detailed mosaics and a stunning painted ceiling. Next door, you’ll find the Museum of São Roque, among the most complete museums of Portuguese religious art.
The Pavilhão de Portugal (Pavilion of Portugal) is a perfect vision of gravity-defying architecture. Designed by Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza Vieira, who also designed the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art in Porto, the pavilion was meant to look like a curved sheet of paper sitting between two pillars. The awe-inspiring roof, which architect lovers should take the chance to stand underneath when visiting, weighs an incredible 1,400 tonnes. The Pavilhão de Portugal was created for the 1998 World Expo that regenerated the Parque das Nações area and is connected to a museum belonging to the University of Lisbon.
Lisbon cityscapes depicting the Alfama district always show the National Pantheon, which is rather hard to miss in this part of the city. It is centrally located near the site of the famous open-air flea market Feira da Ladra and stands out with its massive white dome. Its Baroque architecture is paired with Greek-inspired decor, making the National Pantheon a unique building and an exciting place to visit for those interested in architecture. Also known by its original name, the Church of Santa Engrácia, the original church was built in the 16th century but was vandalised in 1630. The rebuilding of the church, which took over 300 years to complete, was said to be cursed by the man who was erroneously convicted and executed for the building’s desecration.
Sitting slightly uphill from the National Pantheon is the Igreja de São Vicente de Fora, another magnificent church in this Catholic city. Constructed in the 17th century, it also serves as a monastery and the final resting place of some of Portugal’s monarch families. The Mannerist exterior and interior are both stunning and include the pantheon, Baroque altarpieces, a collection of Baroque azulejos (tiles) and a few statues. The side and top exterior of the Igreja de São Vicente de Fora are easily visible from the Portas do Sol viewpoint, along with the National Pantheon, but nothing beats getting up close and personal.
If there’s only time to visit one museum while you’re in Lisbon, the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (MAAT) is a fantastic choice and represents the city in a unique way. The museum’s design symbolises local maritime history and doubles as a miradouro (viewpoint) over the River Tagus, from where the great Portuguese explorers once set off to discover new lands. Inaugurated in the fall of 2016, MAAT brings together entrepreneurs and forward thinkers from many backgrounds whose exhibits represent key elements in modern Portuguese culture, specifically architecture and technology. Designed by Amanda Levete Architects, a British architecture firm, the undulating building works beautifully in relation to the river and features approximately 7,000 square metres (75,347 square feet) of public space and 3,000sq m (32,292sq ft) of exhibition space.
North of the historic city centre lies the Campo Pequeno, a bull-fighting ring that also houses a shopping centre with food courts and one of Lisbon’s most decorative cinemas. During the bull-fighting off-season, the arena itself turns into an event and concert hall, hosting the city’s Chocolate Festival and other activities. It was built in the late 1800s and inspired by both Madrid’s bullring and Moorish designs.
Hop on one of Lisbon’s historic trams or city buses to reach Belém, a trip that takes about 30 minutes. Both forms of transportation stop in front of the Jerónimos Monastery, a landmark that has helped put Belém on the map. Once the home of Portuguese monks, the 16th-century monastery is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The first architect to work on the monastery was Diogo de Boitaca, the son-in-law of the leading architect responsible for the grand Batalha Monastery. One of the first things visitors may notice is the building’s length, which is impressive, and the hallways, church and courtyard are spellbinding. The Jerónimos Monastery is the final resting place of several prominent figures in Portugal’s history, including poets Luis Vaz de Camões and Fernando Pessoa and explorer Vasco da Gama.
Constructed in the 16th century, the Belém Tower is decorated with symbols of the house of King Manuel I. These include the carved rope that encircles the castle and terminates in elegant nodes and crosses at different angles. The tower is recognised as a masterpiece of 16th-century architecture and is inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Belém Tower originally provided protection for the Portuguese capital, which was vulnerable to attacks from pirates and neighbouring states. Today, it is a key symbol of Lisbon and serves as a reminder of the power the Portuguese had on land and at sea.
The Vasco da Gama Tower (Torre Vasco da Gama) is without a doubt among the more noteworthy landmarks in Parque das Nações, Lisbon, and not just for its eye-catching architecture but also because it is the tallest structure in the city. Named after the famous Portuguese explorer and standing at 145 metres (476 feet) tall, it is a striking building that was originally intended to be an observation deck but was later converted into a luxury hotel. Like many other famous Lisbon buildings, it was constructed for the World Expo 1998, and you’ll find it shining by the river behind Oriente Station. Unfortunately, only guests of the hotel are allowed into the observation deck at the top.