Best Museums in Lisbon

Lisbon–s Top Museums: a collection of culture in the city


Museums in Lisbon number some of the city’s most popular cultural attractions. Among these is the celebrated Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, located near Praça de Espãnha, where over 6,000 individual exhibits are housed. The collection of valuable and historic artefacts related to the history of pharmacy and world health at the Museu da Farmácia, near Chiado, make this a particularly unusual Lisbon museum. Meanwhile, in Santos, you’ll find the stunning Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga. This is Portugal’s national gallery and houses the largest collection of Portuguese paintings in the country. In nearby Alcântara stands the excellent Museu do Oriente. Here, the exhibition highlights Portugal’s presence in the Far East. The Museu do Aljube-Resistência e Liberdade is housed in a former prison facility near the cathedral, the permanent exhibition of which chronicles the rise of fascism in Portugal and the subsequent struggle for freedom and democracy. The world’s most comprehensive collection of horse-drawn coaches and carriages can be appreciated at the Museu Nacional dos Coches in Belém. Back in Chiado the Museu de São Roque is certainly worth a look for its valuable sacred art. Similarly, the amazing assortment of ancient tiles and ceramics displayed at the Museu Nacional do Azulejo justifies the jaunt east out of the city centre towards Parque das Nações. If you're thinking of dining out at a fado restaurant be sure to visit the Museu do Fado beforehand for an idea of what this famous Portuguese musical expression is all about. And how about being able admire a solid gold bar up close and personal? You can look but you can't touch at the Museu do Dinheiro, located in the city's downtown area. 



Santa Apolonia

The Fado Museum introduces visitors to the history of fado, from its origins in the 19th century up to the present day. Fado is Portugal's unique musical genre characterised by mournful voice and lyrics that speak of loss and longing, an expression captured by the Portuguese word saudade. Music is provided by the guitarra portuguese and viola, another type of guitar. The exhibition traces fado's roots and its place in Portuguese society by way of a rare and valuable collection of artefacts and memorabilia. One of the most recognised pieces is the canvas 'O Fado,' painted in 1910 by Jose Malhoa. The matchboxes emblazoned with miniature illustrations featuring early fado singers are wonderful. So too are the vintage guitars on show, many having belonged to some of fado's most famous musicians. After browsing the museum, you can muse upon your visit in the on-site cafe/restaurant.

Recommended for Museums because: The Fado Museum serves as a perfect introduction to this Portuguese musical expression, and primes the senses for an evening out at a fado restaurant.

Paul's expert tip: The museum shop sells a wonderful array of fado-related products, items that make unique souvenirs of your stay in Lisbon.

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The Money Museum is worth its weight in gold. Quite literally! The star exhibit at this engaging cultural facility is a solid gold bar, which visitors can touch and admire, and no doubt wish they could take home with them. The bar, however, is firmly affixed within the mouth of a huge vault! It's a wonderfully tempting introduction to this unique museum, which chronicles the history of the minted coin and banknotes in Portugal and across the world. The museum provides visitors with an interactive experience drawing on multimedia technology to display a wealth a rare coins including those from the Roman era, and a early Chinese banknote made from mulberry bark during the Ming Dynasty. Elsewhere, look out for the highly unusual sarin, a fine silver currency shaped as a bent ingot that circulated throughout Persia during the 16th century, and the super rare US$2 dollar banknote from 1862.

Recommended for Museums because: The Money Museum houses some world-class currency artefacts, rarely found in any other collection. And a visit costs absolutely nothing. It's free to enter!

Paul's expert tip: Don't miss the subterranean exhibition that displays the King Dinis Wall, a remnant of Lisbon's medieval wall that runs under the floor of the museum.

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The National Tile Museum enjoys a beautiful setting within the cloisters of the 16th-century Convento da Madre de Deus in the eastern suburbs of the city. This is one of Portugal's most important cultural institutions and as such visitors often find themselves mingling with animated groups of school kids eager to learn more about this unique art form. The museum houses an outstanding collection of decorative panels and tiles (azulejos) including rare early 15th-century examples that borrow Moorish design influences for their pattern. Other pieces draw on Italian, Spanish and Flemish decorative techniques. The patterns and figurative compositions that define 17th-century Portuguese tilework, the blue and white azulejos that embellish many of Lisbon's religious buildings, historic monuments, some restaurants and even one or two cafes will be more familiar to the eye.

Recommended for Museums because: Portugal's (and one of the world's) finest collection of tile work is exhibited at the Museu Nacional do Azulejo.

Paul's expert tip: Audio guide handsets programmed in several different languages allow for a fully immersive visitor information experience.

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Best combined with a visit to the stunningly decorated adjoining church, which is free to enter, the Sao Roque museum houses an interesting collection of scared art that includes standout pieces from the the Middle East, India, Japan and China. Complementing the fine examples of Flemish tapestry is an exhibition of vestments and a series of Portuguese paintings from the 16th to 18th-centuries. Bold sculpture, filigree jewellery, and beautiful 16th- and 17th-century reliquaries number among a host of other church relics that have a permanent home in this well designed and subtly lit exhibition space. A small restaurant set round an 17th-century cloisters allow svisitors to pause over drinks or light meals. There's also a souvenir shop to browse.

Recommended for Museums because: The Museu de Sao Roque is a treasure trove of sacred art from Portugal and elsewhere, and complements the neighbouring church.

Paul's expert tip: Don't miss the museum's highlight, a pair of huge, elaborately carved bronze-and-silver torch holders regarded as one of the finest of their kind in Europe!

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The Museu Nacional dos Coches (National Coach Museum) holds the largest collection of historic coaches and carriages in the world, and is certainly the finest museum of its kind in Europe. The coaches, comprising state and promenade vehicles from Portugal, Italy, France, Austria and Spain, date from the 16th to the 19th centuries and provide an outstanding exhibit of the technical and artistic evolution of horse-drawn transportation used by the Church and the Courts of Europe. Many are simply sumptuous in design, with interiors lined with red velvet and exteriors of intricately carved and decorated gilded wood. Look out for the oldest coach in the collection, dating from 1619 and which once belonged to Filipe II of Spain. In addition to the carriages, there are related items on show such as harnesses, lamps, whips and riding crops and saddle chairs.

Recommended for Museums because: The collection of coaches and carriages connected to the equestrian arts housed in the Museu Nacional dos Coches is the most comprehensive in the world.

Paul's expert tip: The museum complements a nearby older museum that still houses a number of similarly historic coaches. You can purchase a combined ticket to visit both.

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The Aljube Museum of Resistance and Freedom stands as a grim reminder of Portugal's oppressive dictatorship under Salazar. Housed within the former Aljube political prison, the museum is as much a memorial to the victims of imprisonment and torture as an endeavour to highlight the values of democracy and freedom. Displayed chronologically over three floors is a permanent exhibition that vividly charts the rise of fascism in Portugal, beginning with the advent of military dictatorship in 1923 through the establishment in 1933 of the Estado Novo (New State). Resistance to the regime, the anti-colonial struggle and 1974's so-called "Carnation Revolution", which effectively ended 48 years of dictatorship, are also chronicled. A fascinating and often poignant collection of period artefacts, photographs, original newsreel and radio broadcasts bring this dark chapter in Portugal's history into stark focus. Detailed Information panels explain more about each exhibit.

Recommended for Museums because: The Museu do Aljube-Resistencia e Liberdade chronicles the poignant story of the victims of oppression and torture who fought for freedom and democracy.

Paul's expert tip: After browsing such an austere and brooding exhibition, nip up to the top-floor cafe for light refreshments and wonderful views of the cathedral and downtown Lisbon.

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24 de Julho & Docas/Alcantara

The Orient Museum's permanent collection, exhibited under the banner 'Portuguese Presence in Asia: Heritage. Memory. Collections' brings together a rare and priceless cache of artefacts from Eastern Europe, the Far East and Indian subcontinent. Arranged according to their country of origin, each piece effectively traces the cultural links forged by Portugal with the Orient. Indeed, the influential Fundacao Oriente is responsible for curating the exhibition. Visitors should seek out highlights such as the beautiful 17th-century Namban screen depicting Portuguese explorers arriving in Japan. Another standout exhibit is the enormous, intricately carved teak door found in India. Trimmed with bronze and iron, it's believed to date from the 18th century. Other singular pieces include an exquisite child's cradle from Macau shaped like a boat. And look out for the delicate silver alloy bracelets crafted in East Timor in the early part of the 20th century.

Recommended for Museums because: Showcasing art and applied arts from Eastern Europe, the Far East and Indian subcontinent, the museum's extensive collection exemplifies Portugal's cultural links with the Orient.

Paul's expert tip: The top floor hosts temporary exhibitions of oriental art, and there's also a good cafe-restaurant.

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Cais do Sodré/Santos

Portugal's national gallery houses the largest collection of Portuguese 15th- and 16th-century paintings in the country. But this revered museum is also home to a glittering array of European art from the Middle Ages to the late 19th century. It's also known for its rich display of applied art, much of it themed around Portugal's discoveries era and colonial explorations. The museum is suitably housed in a 17th-century palace, which was built over the site of the St Albert Carmelite monastery, destroyed in the 1755 earthquake. Fortunately the chapel survived and is now integrated into the building. You could spend half a day browsing the extensive collection, set over several floors. Must-sees include the stunning Panels of St Vincent, painted around 1470 and attributed to Nuno Goncalves, and Hieronymus Bosch's disturbing The Temptations of St Anthony.

Recommended for Museums because: The museum combines the largest collection of Portuguese paintings in the country with European, Oriental and African art, plus an absorbing display of applied arts.

Paul's expert tip: The museum issues a helpful top ten works of art guide, but look out, too, for less recognised pieces like the beautiful Reliquary Casket of Saint Francis Xavier from Goa, worked from pierced silver and gilt in 1686.

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Showcasing one of the most surprising and remarkable exhibitions in the city, the Museu da Farmacia (Pharmacy Museum) chronicles Portuguese pharmaceutical history and the wider theme of global pharmacy and health. The result is a multi-faceted display of rare and precious artefacts that chart the evolution of the pharmaceutical industry over 5000 years. Exhibited over two floors, the collection includes the entire interior of the late 19th-century Farmacia Liberal, which once stood on Lisbon's Avenida da Liberdade. Other outstanding exhibits include an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus - the oldest example in Portugal - and an extraordinary 17th-century hollow book concealing draws in which to hide poison. Elsewhere, visitors can ponder the pharmacist emergency kit used by Ernest Shackleton and a penicillin culture preserved in a tablet and inscribed on the reverse by the antibiotic's discoverer, Alexander Fleming.

Recommended for Museums because: The breadth and rarity of the collection exhibited at Museu da Farmacia places this museum at the very top of Lisbon's cultural "must sees".

Paul's expert tip: Time your visit for mid-morning and then enjoy lunch in the neighbouring Restaurante Pharmacia.

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The Museu Calouste Gulbenkian has one of the finest and most valuable collections of art in Europe. There are over 6,000 individual pieces displayed here, exhibits that span over 4,000 years, from Antiquity to the 19th century. Incredibly, they all used to belong to one man, Armenian oil magnate Calouste Gulbenkian. On his death in 1955 the multi-millionaire bequeathed his entire estate to the nation. A foundation was established in his name, and a museum inaugurated in 1960 to house the vast inventory of priceless artefacts. Allow a good two hours to marvel over items like the astonishing collection of Roman medallions found in Egypt, the set of exquisite 16th-century illustrated manuscripts from Armenia, silverware crafted by Thomas Germain and Turner's dramatic painting, The Wreck of a Transport Ship. And Lalique's Art Noveau jewellery is simply beguiling.

Recommended for Museums because: No other Lisbon museum has such an epic collection of art from so many different places in the world spanning such an extensive time frame.

Paul's expert tip: Ask for an audio guide and you'll learn more of the history behind the exhibits and the man who collected them.

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Meet Paul Bernhardt

Paul Bernhardt cut his teeth as a press photographer in England before leaving the UK to settle in Portugal, where he has lived for over a decade, and where he started to focus on more...  More About Paul