Discover Portugal-National Azulejo Museum, Lisbon

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Cafe inside the National Azulejo Museum, Lisbon, Portugal
National Azulejo Museum
Museu Nacional do Azulejo
Courtyard of Tile Museum the former Convent of Madre de Deus
Beautiful tile work on buildings, Lisbon, Portugal

One of the high points of my trip to Lisbon, was the chance to tour the National Azulejo Museum and attend a Portuguese tile painting class.  I have always LOVED history of all sorts, and before my trip to Portugal, I researched as much as I could about the places of interest in the areas of Portugal I would get to visit, then narrowed down my list to “doable” within my budget.  I went to the Museum’s website to plan a visit to learn more how Portuguese tile making/painting got it’s start. .

The National Tile “Azulejo” Museum is housed in the striking 15th-century Madre de Deus Convent, which is a beautiful display of Baroque architecture in itself.  The grounds are lush, with gardens, gates, and water features, so enjoy the setting of the museum as much as you can with a glass of wine or cup of espresso in the outdoor cafe.  For about 20€ you can gain admittance and tour the main exhibits, “extra” exhibits throughout the year have an additional charge.   My tile painting class was scheduled under “workshops” on the website, but no particular schedule was given in advance, so a phone call to inquire about one was made.  The staff at the museum are very friendly, and even worked hard with me in communicating the necessary information, which I appreciated!   The museum is closed on Monday, open Tuesday-Sunday, 10-6, and despite what the website says about being “free” on Sundays, the “free” admission applies to locals and others, (see website list!).  It’s best to bring EXACT Euros or a credit card, which they prefer.  People from all over the world were visiting the day I arrived on a Sunday late morning, wanting to tour on my own before my Portuguese tile painting class started at 2 p.m. There are guided tours and audio tours to choose from, and I noticed wide spaces, elevators, and good accessibility for wheelchairs and those who can’t climb stairs, including the restroom. Parts of the museum were under restoration and unavailable for touring, an on-going process if your house is from the 15th-century!

I really enjoyed my self-tour of the museum’s extensive collection of tiles from the 15th-century up through present day, with works from famous Portuguese masters such as Boraldo Pinheiro, Raul Lino, and Maria Kiel.  This museum is filled to the brim with beautiful tiles of all shapes, sizes, and colors…some are simple geometric designs or designs of everyday things such as flowers, food, animals, and seafaring influences.  Many are pieced together to create grand murals of peoples, events, or stories steeped with history.  I took some notes so I could look for their works around Lisbon, tile is everywhere!  The area of Alfama in Lisbon, metro & train stations, buildings, windows, and personal and business building interiors, have many beautiful examples, but you really don’t have to look far to enjoy the beauty of Portuguese tiles.  Take some time to notice their beauty!

Traditional Portuguese tile
Look very closely at these tiles…they’re grasshoppers!







Our tile painting class was held right in a 15th-century hallway overlooking the courtyard of this beautiful tile museum.  The sun was streaming into the courtyard, we could hear birds singing, and the beautiful backdrop of Portuguese tiles was everywhere.  Our instructor, Joanna, spoke little English, so after dividing our group of about 12 into “Portuguese speaking” and “English speaking” work tables, she set about the task to instruct both groups.  I found I conversed with her easily, maybe because I had ten days of tuning my ears to the Portuguese language, and I’m sure the long-ago hobby of ceramics classes didn’t hurt my understanding either!  She was cheerful and friendly, and made the class most enjoyable.

Joanna showed us the steps:

  • Pick out a design from the stacks of stencils or choose to paint “free-hand”
  • Place design centered smooth side down onto pre-fired tile
  • Use “charcoal bag” to dab charcoal powder onto design which will be on tile
  • Lift carefully to check if design transferred
  • Paint design within the lines
  • Seems easy enough, right?

It was easy and a lot of fun, perfect for a “taste” of tile painting.  Our tiles dried overnight, and were “baked” in the kiln, embedding the paint into the tile…I returned Tuesday to pick up my “masterpiece”!  Portugal has a few Tile Masters left that adhere to the traditions of Portuguese tile making, and I’ve promised myself that the NEXT trip to Portugal will include one of these adventures.  For now, I chose a traditional Portuguese design of Sardines! I saw them everywhere, and even had my hands and tastebuds on the “real thing” for dinner at the Estrela Azul.

I knew that painting my tile with the traditional Sardines design would reinforce my saudade for the love of Portugal, and I was right!  Every day, in my Charleston home, I see my Sardines tile hanging to remind me of this experience.  It’s not in a prominent place on the wall, but rather, a bit of wall that you can see easily when you’re invited to sit inside the living room, when time can be taken with friends, sharing stories, wine, and probably food, making NEW saudade memories for the future by building on the saudade memories of the past….