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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. A relatively new addition to Lisbon’s cultural scene is the Museu do Aljube-Resistência e Liberdade. Housed in a former prison facility near the cathedral, the permanent exhibition 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 Lisbon’s Baixa (downtown) district, a tour of the quirky Hospital de Bonecas includes a visit to the doll’s museum, a display that numbers thousands of figurines, some very rare. 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. And for lovers of contemporary art, allow a good hour to explore the rare and wonderful works at the Museu Colecção Berardo, located in Belém.  

 


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Multi-millionaire Portuguese entrepreneur Jose Berardo has housed his astonishing collection of modern art in this contemporary space, a gallery tucked inside the Centro Cultural de Belem. The display which brings to together some of the most influential names in abstract, surrealist and pop art from the last 100 years – Picasso's Tete de Femme from 1909 is the earliest work in the collection, that also features pieces by Willem de Kooning, Many Ray, Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, Roy Lichenstein, David Hockney and Fernando Botero, as well as paintings and concept art by acclaimed Portuguese artists such as Paula Rego and Joanna Vasconcelos.

Recommended for Museums because: The Museu Colecção Berardo showcases the most comprehensive collection of modern and contemporary art in Portugal.

Paul's expert tip: Works can be removed at short notice to make room for temporary exhibitions, or can be withdrawn from public view.

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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 include 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 caf�s – will be more familiar to the eye.

Recommended for Museums because: Portugal's finest collection of tile work is exhibited here at the Museu Nacional do Azulejo.

Paul's expert tip: Free admission for children under 14, 50% discount for those aged 15--18 accompanied by parents.

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Best combined with a visit to the stunningly decorated adjoining church, which is free to enter, the São Roque museum houses an interesting collection of scared art that includes standout pieces from the orient – 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 and a useful shop set round 17th-century cloisters allow visitors to pause over drinks or light meals.

Recommended for Museums because: The Museu de São 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!

Read more about Museu de São Roque →


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One of the most unusual visitor attractions in Lisbon, the Hospital de Bonecas really is a hospital for toy dolls, where all kinds of damaged figurines made in all sorts of materials can be repaired or restored to their original condition. Customers include doll owners and collectors from Portugal and all over the world. The "hospital" also doubles up as a fascinating museum where thousands of antique dolls made from porcelain, plastic and – very rare – papier mâché are displayed. The private collection, one of the largest in the world, also includes more contemporary examples from the 1970s and '80s. During guided tours, visitors can observe various "patients" being operated on, to receive a new limb for example, or hair transplant.

Recommended for Museums because: One of largest private collection of toys dolls in the world is on display at the Hospital de Bonecas.

Paul's expert tip: If she's there, ask to meet Manuela Cutileira whose family have owned the hospital since 1830.

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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, span 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 an older museum that still houses a number of coaches, and 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. Information panels are currently only in Portuguese but will eventually feature additional English translation.

Recommended for Museums because: The Museu do Aljube-Resistência 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 café for light refreshments and wonderful views of the cathedral and downtown Lisbon.

Read more about Museu do Aljube-Resistência e Liberdade →


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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 Fundação 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 café-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 Gonçalves, 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.

Read more about Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga →




Showcasing one of the most surprising and remarkable exhibitions in the city, the Museu da Farmácia (Pharmacy Museum) chronicles Portuguese pharmaceutical history and the wider theme of global pharmacy and health. The result is multi-faceted display of rare and precious artefacts that chart the evolution of pharmacy over 5000 years. Exhibited over two floors, the collection includes the entire interior of the late 19th-century Farmácia 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 Farmácia 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.

Read more about Calouste Gulbenkian Museum →


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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

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