The Architecture of Portugal

It is as varied and captivating as the history of this amazing country…

After last week’s post on Pena Palace, I received a request from a friend who expressed a desire to know more about the architecture in Portugal (thanks, Taffy!). The timing was perfect because the weather this week has been mostly overcast and rainy – not the best for exploring. While it was a slightly intimidating project given the scope, I was happy to tackle it because I was curious to know more about it too. Coincidentally, I worked for an architectural firm in California for 12 years (Dahlin Group), but I am not an architect. My time there, however, did give me a deep appreciation for this fascinating, ever-evolving artform.

As I began my research, I quickly realized that I have taken images of many of the types of architecture I am covering so I’ll be including those as visual examples. If I don’t have a personal example to share, I have pulled images from the Internet and will note that.

Like all aspects of Portuguese culture, Portuguese architecture reflects the artistic influences of the various cultures that have inhabited Portugal or come in contact with the Portuguese people throughout its history. Various artistic styles or movements have dominated Portuguese architecture throughout the ages. It is a deep topic and I won’t be able to cover them all, but will focus on a few like Roman, Moorish, Romanesque, Gothic, Manueline, Baroque, Rococo, Pombaline, Neo-Manueline, Art Nouveau, and Contemporary which I hope will provide a good breadth.

One last note – architecture is inextricably linked to history so there is a bit of that sprinkled into the narrative, but I’ve tried to make it brief and interesting. So! Grab your beverage of choice, a little snack that makes you happy, curl up on the couch and let’s dive in!

Roman Ruins in Conimbriga, Portugal

I could have gone back even further (think Phoenicians!), but felt a good place to start would be with the Romans because they were known for their building prowess. The Romans arrived in Portugal in 219 B.C. and for the next 200 years left their mark on the country. The best-preserved remains of a Roman village are in Conimbriga (near Coimbra). Excavations revealed city walls, baths, a forum, an aqueduct, amphitheater, and houses for the middle classes, as well as luxurious mansions with central courtyards decorated with mosaics for the wealthy. Another important excavated Roman village is in Miróbriga (near Santiago do Cacém) where you can see the only Roman hippodrome known to be in Portugal. While we haven’t been to those places yet, we have been to Évora where a well-preserved Roman temple from the 1st century is located.

Let’s fast forward to the year 711 when the Moors put an end to Visigoth rule and took up residence in Portugal. Moorish architecture is a style within Islamic architecture which developed in the western Islamic world. This included al-Andalus (Muslim-ruled Spain and Portugal between 711 and 1492) and the Maghreb (now Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia). The influence of the Moors can still be felt in the south of the country where houses in many cities and villages have simple white façades that have a distinct Islamic look, similar to that of villages in Northern Africa. Moorish buildings were often constructed with rammed earth and adobe techniques followed by whitewashing. Many villages and city neighborhoods have retained the street layout from Islamic times, like the Alfama in Lisbon and the town of Olhão where were stayed last summer. Even our hotel in Olhão reflected this type of architecture (see below).

Other elements of Moorish architecture include horseshoe or “Moorish” arches, central courtyards (refer to the image above), and intricately carved wood and stucco as decoration. The Palacio de Monserrate in Sintra is a great example of these elements (see below). To learn more about the Palacio de Monserrate, click here.

Another important element of the Moorish influence is the decorative tile work known as zellij in Arabic or azulejo in Portuguese. Azulejo can be found everywhere you look in Portugal from street signs to fountains to exteriors and interiors of buildings.

The image immediately below was taken at the Sao Bento Railway Station in Porto. The upper parts of the frieze are lined with polychromatic (multicolored) azulejos depicting forms of transport used by people in various areas of Portugal. The lower and upper frame of the frieze consists of a line of tile in blue, browns and yellow in a stylized geometric pattern. Under that is a large composition that covers the entire wall, depicting the Battle of Valdevez (1140). This monochromatic composition, like the other significant azulejo scenes in the station are executed in blue on white tile. Keep in mind each tile is only about 13 to 15 cm square (5 to 6 inches).

Other examples of azulejo tile work…

Castle of the Moors, Sintra

Another big influence of Moorish architecture were the strong castles and fortifications the Moors built during the 500 years they were here. One of the most famous that can still be seen today is the Castle of the Moors in Sintra which was built between the 8th and 9th centuries. We were hoping to visit it last week since it is literally “next door” to Pena Palace, but our navigation efforts were abysmal that day and we ran out of time. Here is an image I pulled from the Internet. We will be going back at some point to see it for ourselves.

In addition to castles and fortifications, many mosques were built during Muslim domination, but virtually all have been turned into churches and cathedrals, and Islamic features cannot be identified anymore. The only exception is the Main Church (Matriz) of Mértola, in the Alentejo region. The Mértola Mosque was built in the second half of the 12th century and, even though it has suffered several modifications, it is still the best-preserved medieval mosque in Portugal. The church has an approximate square-shaped floorplan with four aisles and a total of 12 columns supporting 16th-century Manueline rib vaulting. Even though the roof has been modified, the labyrinthic interior with its “forest” of pillars clearly relates to other contemporary mosques in Spain and Maghreb. The inner wall still has a mihrab, a decorated niche that indicates the direction of Mecca. Here are images I pulled from the Internet.

Romanesque architecture was developed in Italy and various parts of western Europe between the periods of the Roman and the Gothic styles. Features include round arches and vaults with a narrowing and heightening of the nave, the decorative use of arcades and colonnettes, and profuse carved ornamentation especially on capitals and the moldings of doorways. Two beautiful examples are the cathedrals of Lisbon and Porto. While we have not been to the Cathedral of Lisbon, we have been to the Cathedral of Porto (see images below) which has a narrow Romanesque nave covered by barrel vaulting. To learn more about the cathedral, click here.

Let’s jump to Gothic! Gothic architecture was particularly popular in Europe from the late 12th century to the 16th century, during the High and Late Middle Ages, surviving into the 17th and 18th centuries in some areas. It evolved from Romanesque architecture. Gothic features include grand, tall designs that sweep upwards with height and grace, flying buttresses (structures that are used to spread the weight of tall walls and provide support by transferring force directly to the ground ), pointed arches, vaulted ceilings, light and airy interiors, gargoyles, and an emphasis on ornate decoration.

Gothic architecture was brought to Portugal by the Cistercian Order. The first fully Gothic building in Portugal is the church of the Monastery of Alcobaça, a magnificent example of the clear and simple architectural forms favored by the Cistercians. The church was built between 1178 and 1252 in three phases. We haven’t been there yet, but here are a few images I found online.

Other examples of Gothic architecture include Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Consolação in Guimarães (we didn’t go in when we were there, but I took a picture of it from the outside) and the ruins of the Carmo Cathedral in Lisbon where we saw the Lisbon Under the Stars light show.

Manueline architecture, occasionally referred to as Portuguese Late Gothic, is a sumptuous architectural style originating in the 16th century during the Portuguese Renaissance and Age of Discoveries. Manueline architecture incorporates maritime elements and representations of the discoveries brought from the voyages of Vasco da Gama and Pedro Álvares Cabral. The name manueline relates to King Manuel I, whose reign (1495–1521) coincided with its development. The style was influenced by the astonishing successes of the voyages of discovery of Portuguese navigators, from the coastal areas of Africa to the discovery of Brazil and the ocean routes to the Far East, drawing heavily on the style and decorations of East Indian temples.

Although the period of this style did not last long (from 1490 to 1520), it played an important part in the development of Portuguese art. The influence of the style outlived the king. Elements that appear regularly in this style include:

A carved detail on Vasco da Gama’s tomb
  • the armillary sphere (a navigational instrument and the personal emblem of Manuel I; also a symbol of the cosmos)
  • Caravels (the ship that Portuguese used during the Age of Discoveries)
  • anchors, anchor chains, ropes and cables
  • elements from the sea, such as shells, pearls and strings of seaweed
  • botanical motifs such as laurel branches, oak leaves, acorns, poppy capsules, corncobs, thistles
  • symbols of Christianity such as the cross of the Order of Christ (former Knights Templar), the military order that helped finance the first voyages of discovery; it is also the cross that decorated the sails of Portuguese ships
  • elements from newly discovered lands (Islamic filigree work and buildings in India)
  • columns carved like twisted strands of rope
  • semicircular arches (instead of Gothic pointed arches) of doors and windows
  • multiple pillars
  • eight-sided capitals
  • lack of symmetry
  • conical pinnacles
  • beveled crenellations
  • ornate portals with niches or canopies.

There are several exquisite examples of this style of architecture. I’ll share images of two that we have been to; the Jerónimos Monastery (exterior and interior cloister) and the Belém Tower. If you look closely at the Belém Tower immediately below, you can see the rope motif and Knights Templar crosses. Images of the monastery follow.

Baroque architecture is a highly decorative and theatrical style which appeared in Italy in the early 17th century and gradually spread across Europe. It was originally introduced by the Catholic Church, particularly by the Jesuits, as a means to combat the Reformation and the Protestant church with a new architecture that inspired surprise and awe. It reached its peak between 1625–1675.

However, Portugal enjoys a very special situation and a different timeline from the rest of Europe. Why? Because gold, gems, and later diamonds, were found in Brazil in 1697. Mining exploration was strongly controlled by the Portuguese Crown, which imposed heavy taxes on everything extracted (one fifth of all gold would go to the Crown). These enormous proceeds enabled Portugal to prosper and become the richest country of Europe in the 18th century.

Baroque architects took the basic elements of Renaissance architecture, including domes and colonnades, and made them higher, grander, more decorated, and more dramatic. Interior effects were often achieved through the use of trompe-l’œil painting combined with sculpture to draw the eye upward, giving the illusion that one is looking into the heavens. Clusters of sculpted angels and painted figures typically crowd the ceiling. Light was also used for dramatic effect; streaming down from cupolas and reflecting off an abundance of gilding. In Baroque palaces, grand stairways became a central element.

There are many examples of this style of architecture all over Portugal, but the Mafra National Palace is among the best. Here are some images I captured of this eye-popping palace when we were there. To learn more about Mafra Palace, click here. The aerial shot of the palace is the only one that is not mine of the images below.

Rococo architecture (sometimes referred to as Late Baroque) entered Portugal through the north, while Lisbon, due to the court pomp, remained in the Baroque. It began in France in the mid-1700s and is characterized by delicate but substantial ornamentation Interestingly, Rococo is a period rather than a specific style. Often this 18th-century era is called “the Rococo,” a time period roughly beginning with the 1715 death of France’s Sun King, Louis XIV, until the French Revolution in 1789. Characteristics of Rococo include the use of elaborate curves and scrolls, ornaments shaped like shells and plants, and entire rooms being oval in shape. Patterns were intricate and details delicate.

The best example of Rococo architecture that I can share are images of Queluz Palace. To learn more about Queluz, and see more images of this lovely place, please click here. This palace embodies the elements of Rococo architecture beautifully. Oval rooms, or the illusion of oval rooms like the King’s bed chamber and grand ballroom, can be seen in the images below as well as the use of curves and scrolls on nearly every surface.

Pombaline architecture is a Portuguese architectural style of the 18th century, named after Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, the first Marquês de Pombal, who was instrumental in reconstructing Lisbon after the great earthquake of 1755. The 8.5 magnitude quake was enormous and impacted most of the country. Eighty-five percent of Lisbon was leveled, first by the earthquake, and then by the tsunami and fires that followed. To learn more about this event, click here.

The new city (mostly the Baixa area now called Baixa Pombalina) was laid out on a grid plan with roads and pavements fixed at 12 meters wide (40 ft). The Pombaline architecture style is secular, utilitarian, and pragmatic in approach reflecting the military engineers who designed it. The buildings are a restrained Neoclassical style mixed with Rococo details, partly the result of limited funds and the urgency to rebuild, but also thanks to the enlightenment concept of architectural rationality adhered to by Pombal. In the reconstruction of the city, instead of ordering original azulejo works of art to add to the buildings, tiles with repetitive geometric patterns were used. This enabled the work to be done quickly and inexpensively. The Pombaline building is a structure of up to four floors with balconies and an attic, with arcades on the ground floor to allow for shops.

The Marquês de Pombal imposed strict conditions on the rebuilding process. Architectural models were tested by having troops march around them to simulate an earthquake, making the Pombaline one of the first examples of earthquake-resistant construction. They also employed the use of prefabrication, which was completely new at the time. Buildings were entirely manufactured outside the city, transported in pieces and then assembled on site. The construction, which lasted into the nineteenth century, lodged the city’s residents in safe new structures unheard-of before the quake. Lisbon was completely changed: medieval streets gave way to an orthogonal pattern (right angles) organizing the area into a modern design. Large spaces, gorgeous light and good ventilation, missing in the medieval city, became features of the new Lisbon.

The Praça do Comércio, Rua Augusta and Avenida da Liberdade are notable examples of this type of architecture. The Praça do Comércio has a regular, rational arrangement in line with the reconstruction of the new Pombaline downtown. Here is a map of the area with red tear drop markers to help you place these locations. You can also see how the streets of the Alfama neighborhood (near the water) were left unchanged compared to that of the grid pattern of the Baixa Pombalina neighborhood. You can expand and contract the map.

Here is an aerial shot I pulled from the Internet to help further orient you (I really need to get myself a drone). In this particular image, Parque Eduardo VII is closest to you and terminates at Praça Marquês de Pombal, a monument dedicated to Pombal (the large roundabout). Just beyond that is the tree-lined Avenida da Liberdade which terminates at the Praça dos Restauradores (Restorers Square). You can barely see Praça do Comércio at the water’s edge.

The aerial shot of Praça do Comércio immediately below is not mine, but I wanted to share it to give you an idea of the scale of this place.

Here are images I have taken of Praça do Comércio, a colonnade along the periphery of of the plaza, Arco da Rua Augusta (the massive arch), Rua Augusta (the pedestrian street that starts just beyond the arch), and some examples of the Pombaline architectural style in other buildings nearby.

Neo-Manueline is a revival style of late 16th century Portuguese Late Gothic Manueline. It was the primary architectural expression of Romanticism in Portugal due to its highly nationalistic characteristics and history, which flourished from the middle of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th in Portugal and Brazil.

The style features Portuguese national symbols, including the armillary sphere, the Cross of the Order of Christ (formerly Knights Templar), and elements of the Coat of arms of Portugal, as well as symbols of the Portuguese Discoveries, such as twisted ropes, exotic fruits and vegetables (like pineapples and artichokes), sea monsters, and sea plants (like coral and algae branches).

The first recognized Neo-Manueline architectural works were done between 1839 and 1849 with the building of Pena Palace by King Ferdinand II. A romanticist palace fusing Neo-Manueline, Neo-Mudéjar, and Portuguese Renaissance characteristics. Pena Palace was the focus of last week’s blog. To read that post and see pictures of the palace, click here.

Another example of this style is Quinta de Regaleira. A stunning, mysterious, highly symbolic, gorgeous palace. Here are some images of the main house (exterior and interior) and the chapel. To see more of Quinta de Regaleira click here.

Art Nouveau, known in Portugal as Arte Nova, arrived late and had a short duration in the history of Portugal, flourishing largely between 1905 and 1920. Portuguese Arte Nova is more in line with the school of French Art Nouveau than the Austrian schools of the time. Arte Nova was adopted mainly in port cities like Lisbon, Porto, and Aveiro. This style of architecture is characterized by intricate linear designs and flowing curves based on natural forms.

The concept defining Arte Nova in Portugal was ostentation. The style was embraced by a conservative bourgeoisie who wanted to express their might, influence and affluence through decorative façades. Some examples we have seen include the Café Majestic and Livraria Lello in Porto, and buildings in Aveiro.

To close things out, I am finishing up with Contemporary architecture, which is defined as the architecture of the 21st century. No single style is dominant; Contemporary architects work in several different styles, from postmodernism and high-tech to highly conceptual and expressive forms and designs resembling sculpture on an enormous scale. Here are some examples I think you would appreciate. All of the pictures are my own except the one immediately below of the train station.

Gare do Oriente (train station)
Museum of Art, Architecture, and Technology (MAAT)

While searching for examples of the types of architecture covered in this post I learned more about the places we have been, but it also expanded our list of places to see! This effort has deepened my appreciation, interest, and respect for this fascinating country.

Whew!! If you got this far, you get a gold star!! Thank you for hanging in there. I hope you found this post to be informative and interesting. I truly enjoyed writing it. So far, the topics suggested by friends and family (wine, architecture, modern Portugal) have challenged and inspired me so, don’t be shy – I encourage you to keep the suggestions coming!!

Until next time, please stay safe, stay healthy, and stay in touch.

From Portugal with love,


Published by Beth Thomas-Kim

After working in corporate America for companies like Mattel, Nestlé, and Johnson & Johnson, I retired and moved to Portugal in January of 2020 with my husband Won and our 12-year old wire fox terrier, Sweet Pea. We now live in Monte Estoril, a lovely seaside town just outside Lisbon. We spend our days happily exploring this beautiful country and learning about its fascinating history, engaging culture, warm and welcoming people, delicious food and wine, and stunning architecture. This blog was started primarily as a way to keep family and friends updated on our transition from the US to Portugal. Now, my subscribers include people from all over the world. Enjoy!

6 thoughts on “The Architecture of Portugal

  1. I wanted to read this when I had time to really enjoy the information, and what a lot of information you’ve provided! All very interesting too, BTW. Architecture is one of my favourite things when visiting a city, so I appreciate all this detail.


  2. A large part of the charm of Portugal (to me) is the various styles of architecture. We’re working on visits to as many of these sites as possible, so much to see! This is great; thanks for sharing.


  3. Beth, sorry, you answered my request and then I was missing in action! What a wonderful post…thank you for doing all that research, and again, your really very wonderful photos. I came back to this when I knew I would have adequate time to read and enjoy it. I thought I most preferred the Maueline architecture until I got to the art-deco. Wow, they really exquisitely expressed that period.

    Thank so much!!


    1. I’m so happy to know you enjoyed it! I truly liked researching this topic and learning about all the different styles. A good friend who was an architecture professor (😳) sent me such a positive and complimentary email telling me I did a great job. He gave me an A+. 😁👍 I was thrilled!


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