Lisbon lures the inquisitive with an extraordinary choice of museums. The Portuguese capital is home to some of the greatest art collections in Europe, countless rare and priceless exhibits of outstanding cultural and historical significance. Indeed, one of the most rewarding things to do in the city is to visit one of these hallowed institutions and slowly absorb the artistic heritage of civilisation throughout the ages.
Set in expansive landscaped gardens, the Gulbenkian’s contemporary veneer may not be to everyone’s architectural taste but once inside all is forgiven: the building houses one of the finest collections of art on the Continent! Over 4,000 years of Western and Eastern art is represented here, and the breadth and diversity of the display is staggering. Exhibited in chronological order, the vast collection showcases classical and oriental art, anything from 2,000-year-old Egyptian statuettes and 16th-century Persian tapestry, to 18th-century Armenian manuscripts and paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens and Van Dyck. Spend the day here and you’ll leave positively enlightened.
Anyone with an interest in the equestrian arts and antique carriage design will adore the National Coach Museum. Occupying the east wing of the Palácio de Belém – the palace’s former riding school – the collection of coaches, cabriolets and chaises is one of the finest in Europe. The coaches, many decorated with carved and gilded woodwork, with interiors embellished with crimson velvet and gold, exemplify extraordinary and skilled craftsmanship and evoke a refined, less hurried era of transportation. Most date from the mid-18th century and hail from Portugal, France, Italy, Spain and Austria. Incidentally, the collection is due to be re-housed in a brand new venue in 2012 so visit soon if you want to catch the exhibits in their original early 18th-century surroundings.
The largest collection of paintings in Portugal is exhibited in another grand palace, this one dating from the 17th century. Aficionados of 14the–19th-century Portuguese and European painting, sculpture and furnishings will be drawn to the ground floor gallery of this handsome, three-tiered building (its name translates as the Museum of Ancient Art). Must-sees include The Temptations of St Antony by Hieronymus Bosch. The first floor houses Oriental and African art as well as attractive displays of fantastic gold artefacts, silverware and jewellery – mini masterpieces crafted with incredible precision. The second floor is devoted to decorative arts. Temporary exhibitions are held regularly, many international in their scope. This sometimes means permanent exhibits are removed for the duration.
The National Tile Museum is one of the most original and enchanting of all Lisbon’s museums. Housed in and around the cloisters of the 16th-century Convento da Madre de Deus, the setting is absolutely charming and does justice to the most comprehensive collection of decorative panels and individual tiles (azulejos) in the country. The display spans over 600 years and traces the evolution of ceramic tile-making in Portugal and, to a lesser extent, throughout Europe. Of particular note are the stylised Moorish tiles and their animal motifs. A wonderful bonus for the visitor is the neighbouring Madre de Deus church replete with opulent gilded interior and sumptuous alterpiece.
Run under the auspices of the influential Fundação Oriente, this absolute stunner of a museum is one of Lisbon’s newest and as the name suggests, is all about the Orient. Portuguese influence in the Far East is thoroughly explored through a series of prize exhibits illustrating the country’s presence in Asia, anywhere from Japan and China to India and East Timor. The scope of the permanent exhibition is dazzling, and the colours and textures of some of the individual pieces are quite overwhelming. The museum is also known for its music and dance events, and highly original temporary exhibitions. The next one is ‘The Art of Chinese Ink’. Dec 2–31.