Portugal's national art collection is housed in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
Lisbon is a magnet for anyone interested in art, history and culture. The city is noted for several museums that are truly unique in their character and the exhibits therein. It’s possible to visit at least two of the capital’s most celebrated museums by following a half-day sightseeing itinerary that allows ample time to browse the collections of each. But by starting out early, you can probably add a third to your list.
Begin by hailing a taxi and heading east out of the city to the Museu Nacional do Azulejo (MNAz). This is one of Portugal’s most revered cultural institutions, which houses a magnificent collection of decorative panels and tiles (azulejos).
You might already be familiar with the blue and white tiles that adorn many of Lisbon’s churches, chapels and other historic monuments, but this museum has many more examples fired in sorts of different colors, some dating back to 600 years ago. The museum is in fact part of the 16th-century Convento da Madre de Deus. An added attraction for visitors is the neighboring Madre de Deus church, replete with its sumptuous gilded wood interior.
Again, it’s worth arranging for a taxi to take you onwards to another one of Lisbon’s landmark cultural foundations, the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum. It's located on Praça de Espanha, back in the city center.
The Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, surrounded by verdant gardens — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
Arguably the finest museum in the Portuguese capital, this has one of the most comprehensive collections of art in Europe. The collection was bequeathed to the state by wealthy Armenian oil magnate, Calouste Gulbenkian, and includes works by Rembrandt, Lalique and French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon.
The exhibits span over 4,000 years and their scope and rarity require a good couple of hours to absorb. If it’s a pleasant day, the verdant gardens surrounding the building are always worth exploring, too.
After touring this astonishingly varied and priceless display, you’d be forgiven in thinking whether anything could match it. Well, there is one other museum that comes pretty close: the Museu do Oriente.
One of the city’s newest cultural attractions, this collection celebrates Portugal’s presence in Asia and the Far East, and it is housed in a building near Alcântara. To reach it, you can catch the train from Cais do Sodré terminal and alight at Alcântara-Mar station. From here, it’s just a five-minute walk. Alternatively, the number 15 tram stops nearby.
West meets East at the Museu do Oriente — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
In many ways, the Orient Museum expands upon the Far Eastern art collection at the Gulbenkian. There’s a Macau gallery, a floor dedicated to Chinese artifacts, a Japanese and Korean room and exhibits from India, Nepal and the Holy Land.
Together, these three museums will astound even the most seasoned culture vulture. If you really want to squeeze the life out of your half-day excursion, there’s even a fourth museum to consider. The Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Santos isn’t too far from the Orient. This museum houses Portugal’s national art collection.