A Tour of the Churches in Lisbon

A quick tour of the churches in Lisbon – there’s a roofless church, a burnt church, a church with an archaeological dig in its cloister…

Any world weary traveller in southern Europe will, at some point, have had their fill of churches. After a while, you’ll think, “if I’ve seen one, I’ve seen them all”. Having visited Rome, churches are a hard sell for me. However, a few of the churches in Lisbon have something truly special to offer.

Convento da Orden do Carmo

My personal favourite is the Carmo Convent, in the centre of Lisbon. It’s better known as the roofless church, having been destroyed in the 1755 earthquake. Since, it has had parts restored, but its nave remains exposed to this day. The Carmo Convent’s entrance opens up to a marble square in the Chiado neighbourhood. The entrance is decorated by an impressive archivolt, whose stature contrasts with the simplicity of its surroundings. From the outside, it doesn’t look like anything particularly special, but once you’ve stepped inside, it is breath-taking.

marble arches and saint statue against a blue sky roofless church - churches in Lisbon
A statue of a saint and the arches of the church framing a blue sky

We visited on a clear sunny day, and it was beautiful. But, I could also imagine it being mysterious and alluring under foggier conditions. The walls of the interior of the church, having been exposed to the elements for so long, had been stripped of all finishing and were rough and weather-worn. The arches that line the aisle stand without purpose, supporting only the sky above. It was odd, looking at this building which was destroyed, only to be partially rebuilt. A memory of one of the greatest natural disasters to have fallen upon Europe.

outdoor church nave, a tour of Lisbon's churches
The central nave of the Cathedral without a roof

Mostly, it reminded me of the hall of images, a room in the ruins of a palace in C.S. Lewis’s “The Magician’s Boy”. In the story, an English schoolboy accidentally finds himself in a palace of powerful magic on a dead world with a dying sun.  I supposed the odd lighting – harsh sunlight on what was designed to be an interior – added greatly to the convent’s enigma.

The arches of the cathedral and the blue sky reflected in a mirror, churches of Lisbon
The arches of the Cathedral and the blue sky reflected in a mirror

Carmo Archaeological Museum

The Museu Arqueológico is located inside the Carmo Convent, within its nave and apse. Today, this area is covered, but I could tell from the wear and tear of its walls and floors that the roof was a recent addition. Personally, I think it has a beautiful interior – I liked the contrast between the rich wooded casings that housed the museum’s exhibits and the weather beaten stone work.

peruvian mummy, lisbon church

peruvian mummy, lisbon church

peruvian mummy, lisbon church

I was pleasantly surprised to find out that there are a few really ancient finds in this small museum, including artefacts that date back 3,500 years and – their show stopper – two 16th century Peruvian mummies.

Igreja de São Domingos

The Igreja de São Domingos is colloquially known as the ‘burnt church’. It is one of Lisbon’s largest churches, and it stands at the bottom of where several hills meet, in the bustling heart of the city. Quite conveniently, it is located beside “A Ginginha”, the famous hole in the wall bar where Portugal’s signature booze is sold for around a euro a shot.

restored burnt cathedral with orange ceiling, churches in lisbon
The aisle leading to the altar of the ‘burnt’ church

The Igreja de São Domingos has been destroyed three times, in 1531 and 1755 by earthquakes, and in 1959, when a fire blazed through the church, gutting it completely. Although it has since been refurbished, its walls, columns and floors still bear the mark of its devastation. The marble columns are left unadorned, and blisters and cracks from the fire still scar the architecture in the central nave. The simple orange pink plaster covering its ceiling impart a sense that the roof is ablaze, while the gray walls and tiles remind one of ashes. The interior of this church is definitely unsettling.

A ginjinha traditional bar in Lisbon near burnt cathedral
A Ginjinha is the place to try the traditional Portuguese liquor – ginjinha

To add to the general sense of tragedy, right outside the church (and beside the ginginha bar) is a monument in memory to the thousands of Jews who were killed in the Lisbon massacre in 1506, with the first murder happening just outside the church.

Burnt church altar in Lisbon
Signs of the fire have intentionally been left uncovered in remembrance of the victims

Basilica da Estrela

The Basilica da Estrela was the first attraction on our Tram 28 tour.

Neoclassical Baroque Basilica da Estrela churches of lisbon
The shining white facade of the Basilica da Estrela

The church is built in the simple Neoclassical style with some Baroque elements and its facade, although impressive, is fairly simple, with only a few ornamentations. If you look down at the steps leading up to its entrance, you’ll notice they are made of marble, with little bits of fossils trapped in the polished stone.

coloured pink marble interior of the Basilica da Estrela - churches in lisbon
The interior of the Basilica da Estrela is made from beautifully naturally coloured marble

The interior of this church is truly beautiful. Unlike many other churches, whose now white interior is simply the result of having the original gaudy paint faded and stripped off, the Basilica da Estrela is coloured with the use of coloured marble. This limits its palette to a very tasteful pink, blue-grey and yellow ochre. Instead of flamboyant ornamentation, its architects have favoured simple, geometric panels using different coloured marble at intervals. Inside, you feel that Da Vinci’s principle of the golden ratio has been applied.

Cathedral entrance neoclassical, art deco style - churches in lisbon
An entrance in the Basilica da Estrela designed in the Neoclassical style

Jardim da Estrela

Across the street from the Basilica da Estrela is the Jardim da Estrela. I suppose this park is a sort of botanical garden, featuring exotic plants from all over the world. Many of the trees and plants were reminiscent of those we’d seen in the gardens of the Pena Palace in Sintra. Among the many strange and exotic plants we saw was the dragon blood tree from Yemen, which has a vivid red sap. There were also baobab trees from Madagascar, a huge banyan tree from the East-Indies and of course, many exotic species from Brazil.

Art nouveau art deco steam punk gazebo in the garden Jardim da Estrela churches in lisbon
An 18th Century gazebo in the Jardim da Estrela

Igreja de São Roque

Located in the central district of Bairro Alto, the Igreja de São Roque’s plain neo-renaissance facade belies its opulent interior. It is the richest cathedral in all of Lisbon, this much is obvious the moment you step into its glided interior. Its eight chapels on either side of the nave are all lavishly decorated with gold leaf and heavily ornamented with carvings and statues of saints.

lisbon church Igreja de São Roque body of jesus in a golden glass case kitschy church
One of the many gilded artefacts in the Igreja de São Roque

The chancel, the cathedral’s primary alter, is almost entirely covered in gold as well. On the upper level is a tempera painting representing Christ as the saviour of the world. Below is an alter piece which houses a 17th Century statue of Madonna and Child. The Igreja de São Roque is a very important Jesuit church, being the first one in Portugal and one of the earliest churches of the order in all of Europe. Personally the interior is a little too overdecorated for my taste, but because there’s so much of everything, this cathedral will certainly have something for every one to appreciate.

Painted ceiling of cathedral Igreja de São Roque - churches in Lisbon
The painted ceiling of the Igreja de São Roque

Jerónimos Monastery

In the parish of Belém, a few minutes’ drive from downtown Lisbon, is the Jerónimos Monastery. It’s right across the Belém Tower, and it’s definitely one of the main attractions in the area. The most noteworthy thing about this monastery is its beautiful architecture, designed and built in the late Gothic Manueline style.

Jerónimos Monastery panorama balem
Panorama of the Jerónimos Monastery

Its design reminded me strongly of what I had seen in the Quinta de Regaleira, in Sintra. My favourite example of this were the columns in the Church of Santa Maria, which were designed to look like the stems of plants reaching out from the ground to hold the roof above.

Manueline columns in Church of Santa Maria, Jerónimos Monastery - churches in Lisbon
Manueline columns support the arches inside the Church of Santa Maria

The other noteworthy artefact in this place is the tomb of Vasco da Gama, one of the most celebrated European explorers who was the first to link the continent to Asia via ocean routes. His tomb is engraved with beautiful vines that at times look like ship ropes – a subtle and clever nod to his achievements. The tomb is supported by six lions, an exotic motif, and one perfectly suited for a man who gave his life to exploring the unknown.

Church with bare stonework - Jerónimos Monastery - churches in Lisbon
The unadorned and unpainted interior of the Church of Santa Maria

Pastéis de Belém

This is clearly not a church, but I thought it would be worth mentioning here since we’re talking about Belém and this pastelleria is only a few minutes’ walk from the Jerónimos Monastery. This not so little pastry shop serves, according to our tour guide, the best Pastel de Nata in all of Lisbon – and therefore, in all of Portugal. I couldn’t agree more.

Dining area in Pastéis de Belém near the Jerónimos Monastery
Dining area in Pastéis de Belém

These Portuguese custard tarts were certainly a league above the others I’ve tried – I’m not sure what it is – I think the filling is eggier and fluffier and the crust flakier and more crispy. There was a large queue for takeaway tarts when we entered, but our guide suggested going all the way in. If you walk past the first dining room into the second, you’ll find space there and will be served quickly.

Lisbon Cathedral

The Se de Lisboa, or Lisbon Cathedral, is located at the beginning of the Moorish wall, overlooking the Alfama district. It is built where the main mosque in Lisbon once stood when the city was under the Moorish rule. It is a mixture of styles, with its facade a mixture of Romanesque and Gothic influences. I especially love the circular rose window above its entrance, framed by two massive towers – the arrangement reminds me of the Notre Dame, which also has similar features and proportions.

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

The interior of this church is beautiful in its mix of styles. The Gothic vaults in the ambulatory are particularly beautiful when lit by the light coming in from the glass windows high above. The main chapel and the tombs of King Afonso IV and this family are in the Neoclassical and Renaissance style.

The highlight of this cathedral however is the archaeological dig in the cloisters. Here, the ground has been excavated to reveal centuries of history, hidden beneath the ground under the Se de Lisboa. Archeologists have found not only the foundations of the mosque which the cathedral was built upon and other buildings from the Moorish times, but also remnants of Roman architecture buried deep underneath.

church arches with bright stained glass window against dark shadows - churches in Lisbon
Arches looking to the corridor that line the cloister of the Lisbon Cathedral