A Quick Tour of Lisbon’s Architectural History

Lisbon’s Architectural History spans millennia. This city’s heritage has the markings of the Romans, the Moors, the Industrial Revolution and the modern age…

Lisbon is my idea of the quintessential European city, with its hilly, winding streets, centuries old architecture, monumental statues and charming bright yellow trams. The city has a deep, rich history going back to the Roman Empire, and this is reflected in its architecture. The story of Lisbon is written on the facades of its buildings and in the lay of its roads.

terracotta roofs of tightly packed medieval town in Lisbon, Alfama, part of Lisbon's Architectural History
Rooftops of Alfama with the white dome of the Church of Santa Engrácia in the skyline

The History of Lisbon’s Architectural Heritage

Along its narrow streets, decorated tiles can be seen covering the fronts of buildings, both the well appointed ones and those in disrepair. These tiles, or Azulejos, were a Moorish tradition the Portuguese had adopted and evolved into their own. On its waterfront, a large, open plaza is fronted by an impressive decorated arch and a wide boulevard, a testament to Portugal’s past dominance of oceanic trade routes. High up on the Miradouro das Portas do Sol, a look to the right reveals part of the Cerca Moura, a wall that has been restored multiple times – the Romans were the first to build this fortification, which was later reinforced and expanded by the Moors. To the left is Alfama, a neighbourhood of tightly packed medieval homes, the one area in Lisbon that was not brought to ruins by the 1755 earthquake. On this hill alone, the architecture seen spans over two thousand years.

tightly packed roofs of medieval Alfama, part of Lisbon's Architectural History, in contrast with modern cruise liner in the sea
A cruise liner in Alfama’s Portas do Sol, the oldest port in Lisbon

In fact, if you’d like to go further back in time, look down at the polished marble steps of the churches you visit. They are made of limestone that’s from the region, and in them, you can see the faint outlines of mollusks that have been fossilized. I think it’s rather wonderful that a man-made city features the imprints of nature so ubiquitously, as if it were carved out from the very stones it is built upon.

Wall painting made with blue tiles, a strong feature in Lisbon's Architectural History
Wall murals at the Miradouro de Santa Luzia viewpoint made with Portuguese Azulejos. Miradouro de Santa Luzia looks over the Alfama district

Praça do Comercio’s Colourful History

On a visit to Lisbon, you’ll end up at the Praça do Comercio, or Commerce Square, sooner or later. Situated by the Tagus river, on whose banks Lisbon is built, it is a large open space fronted by an impressive arch and a monumental statue of King Joseph I, the reigning monarch during the time of the Lisbon earthquake, after which the square and all the buildings in the vicinity were rebuilt.

Symmetrical view of the Rua Augusta Arch in front of the commerce square, part of a tour on Lisbon's Architectural History
The Rua Augusta Arch in Lisbon that stands in front of the Praça do Comércio

On the left side of the base of the statue, there is an elephant. I find this to be the most interesting thing on the entire square. The elephant’s presence is a testament to Portugal’s golden age, and the globalizing force the nation represented  during the Renaissance. Not since Roman times was such a great menagerie of animals seen in Europe as the ones that could be found on the Praça do Comercio in the 16th Century. There were lions, camels, elephants and even rhinoceroses.

view of Arco da Rua Augusta from the street looking towards Tagus river, Lisbon's Architectural History
The triumphal arch as seen from the Rua Augusta

Many people know the German artist Albrecht Dürer from the woodcut he did of a rhino – possibly his most popular, as Europeans at the time were fascinated with the exotic animals of the Orient. Now, we remember it as a quaint representation of an animal that is the poster child of all endangered species; the woodcut is famous today because it reminds us of a time when there was still so much of the world left to discover and people didn’t know how rhinos looked like. I was familiar with this woodcut, but I did not know from where Dürer got his inspiration. Our guide, Carlos, illuminated us as we stood on the square. Dürer based his rhino on a description of one such animal that arrived in Lisbon in 1515, having stood on the Praça do Comercio for the people to marvel at.

This very same rhino was also put to a test by the king of the time, King Manuel, who wanted to see if the reputed animosity between rhinos and elephants were true. Thankfully, the elephant was terrified by the sounds and the crowds on the square and bolted before the animals came to a confrontation.

Silhouette of Statue of King Joseph I framed by European buildings Lisbon's Architectural History
Statue of King Joseph I

The Legacy of the 1755 Earthquake

The Lisbon earthquake was a massive disaster for the city, however, the inhabitants were able to make the best of it, thanks to the leadership of the Marquis de Pompal. Under his direction, the devastated city centre was rebuilt under an urban plan that reflected the Marquis’s progressive thinking – the emphasis of the citizen and tradesman over the crown, church and nobility. The lay of its streets was so that trade arriving at the Praça do Comercio would funnel easily up the wide, ordered grid-like roads that went deeper into its belly.

Tightly packed french balconies at crazy angles to each other with criss-crossing wires, Lisbon's Architectural History
Tightly packed french balconies

Roman Ruins Unearthed in the Lisbon Earthquake

One unforeseen effect was also the revelation of centuries old Roman ruins hidden beneath the city, parts of which were thrown up in the rubble. My favourite secret find was the remains of the temple of Cybele (the Roman goddess equivalent of Gaia), plastered into the walls of a building on the Tv. Do Almada, a small street branching left from the Igreja de Madalena. This google street view will show you the facade of the building decorated with the ruins of the temple. Our guide Carlos told us that this type of ornamentation was popular with the citizens of Lisbon during the massive renovations that followed the earthquake. If you’re observant enough, you’ll see more like it throughout the city.

Roman ruins unearthed during 1755 Earthquake used as decorative items in building facade, Lisbon's Architectural History
Remains of the ruins of the Roman Temple of Cybele can be found plastered into the façade of a building in Lisbon

A discovery that’s better known is the ‘city’ beneath Lisbon, built and used between the 1st Century BC and 1st Century AD. People have theorised that the branching tunnels were Roman baths, mostly due to the bust of Asclepius, the god of medicine, found in them when they were unearthed in 1755. These days, historians think they are simply support structures for the building above.

Archaeological dig in the medieval cloisters of the Lisbon Cathedral Lisbon's Architectural History
Archaeological dig in the medieval cloisters of the Lisbon Cathedral

Medieval Alfama

If you walk around Alfama in the evening, you’ll surely hear the strains of fado music on its medieval streets. Having a drink and listening to fado is a popular tourist activity, and there are plenty of bars that cater to it in Lisbon, most of them in the winding streets of Alfama. Carlos told us the best way to find a bar was to simply walk around until we heard something we liked. I thought that was very good advice indeed. Who needs Trip Advisor when you can just use your ears!

Lisbon's electric tram 28 turning a corner down the city's narrow roads - Lisbon's Architectural Heritage
The famous Tram 28 turning a corner at the Travessa de Santa Luzia

The other interesting thing about Alfama is that it gives you an idea of how Lisbon was like before the devastating earthquake. Before the Marquis rebuilt most of Lisbon with straight, wide (for the time) roads, the city was a maze of twisting streets and tight corners. Alfama however, was a poor neighbourhood for most of the city’s history, home to minorities and the dock workers and sailors employed in the port, which skirts the district. Today, it is all cleaned up and very trendy, but you can still see this history in how simple the buildings here are, compared to those in the Baixa and the other neighbourhoods.

Yellow electric tram 28 climbing up a slope beside a narrow front garden - dynamic angles, European buildings, Lisbon's Architectural History
Tram 28 brightens any street view

Lisbon, Then and Now

Today, as we walk throughout the streets of the city, we experience Lisbon as an entire whole, from the Roman ruins underground to the medieval streets of Alfama, from the Moorish tiles on the buildings of the Chiado to the Santa Justa Elevator in all its Art Deco glory. Although the city has been built over millennia, sporting a huge variety of styles, it all arose organically, giving Lisbon a single, distinct character.

Silhouette of Christ the King overlooking the city of Lisbon at sunset - Lisbon's Architectural History
Silhouette of Christ the King overlooking the city of Lisbon