One of my favorite things to do in a new city is to visit art museums. I regret I didn’t do it more often in my early years in Lisbon. Maybe I wouldn’t have appreciated them back then like I do now (I was under the wrong impression that art was for experts and guided tours packed with middle-aged tourists). This list of art museums in Lisbon is far from complete (and others will argue there are places in this list that can barely be called art museums) but each one of these places is here for a reason, and that is a personal choice, nothing else.
I’ve visited them all, some of them more than once. There are museums missing from this list, some of them more recent, but you can easily find them in every other listicle or travel guide out there – no sweat. This isn’t a rank of the top art museums in Lisbon; therefore they are listed in no particular order.
Table of Contents
- Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga (MNAA)
- Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea do Chiado (MNAC)
- Museu Coleção Berardo
- Museu de Arte Popular
- Fundação Árpád Szenes-Vieira da Silva
- Atelier-Museu Júlio Pomar
- Coleção Moderna – Museu Calouste Gulbenkian
- Museu Nacional do Teatro e da Dança
- Museu Nacional do Azulejo (MNAz)
- Museu de São Roque
- Museu de Lisboa – Palácio Pimenta
Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga (MNAA)
Look for any listicle on the best museums to visit in Lisbon, and the MNAA is on it. Yes, it holds an impressive collection and, yes, it takes you at least two hours to visit it thoroughly. However, I hardly spend time on the floors without paintings. In recent years, I’ve lost interest in looking at any piece that was inspired by the so-called “Age of Discoveries.” I have even less interest in pieces that were “brought” to Portugal by these (alleged) “Discoverers.”
But this is a topic for another blog post. In due time.
When I visit, I like to split my time between the first floor (European paintings and decorative arts) and the third floor (Portuguese paintings and sculpture). I don’t look at art pieces as a connoisseur (nor I claim to be one) but for what message I see in them. Every time they’re different.
The piece known as “The Panels of Saint Vincent” (Nuno Gonçalves, c. 1460s, oil on oak) is the piece that attracts the most visitors here. The six panels were found in 1880 in the Monastery of Saint Vincent (hence the name), and different interpretations around its origin and meaning followed.
The most common interpretation of who is depicted in the panels is the one we hear on History classes in school. From left to right: Panel of the Friars, Panel of the Fishermen, Panel of the Prince (presumably featuring Prince Henry), Panel of the Knights, and Panel of the Relic.
Address: Rua das Janelas Verdes (Santos)
Public transportation: Bus 714 from Praça da Figueira – stop R. Janelas Verdes (Museu Nac. Arte Antiga)
Official website: www.museudearteantiga.pt
Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea do Chiado (MNAC)
I put off visiting this museum for years and the first time I did visit was on a work assignment. My goal was to go in, look around, take notes, and leave. I had to be somewhere else after this chore was cleared from my to-do list.
And then, I stayed for three hours.
The collection is mostly Portuguese art with pieces from the second half of the 19th century to contemporary artists. It’s a museum for someone with a very particular interest in these art periods and Portuguese artists of that time.
If you want an overview of the well-known (Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso, Columbano Bordalo Pinheiro, Almada Negreiros, Júlio Pomar, Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, Paula Rego), don’t skip this museum. For those looking for a more in-depth experience of Negreiros, Pomar, and Vieira da Silva, there are other options listed in this blog post.
Address: Rua Serpa Pinto, 4 (Chiado)
Public transportation: Metro Blue Line and Green Line – stop Baixa-Chiado
Official website: www.museuartecontemporanea.gov.pt
Museu Coleção Berardo
Before visiting cities like Barcelona and London, this museum was one of my favorites in Lisbon for a long time. Now that a few years have passed, I’m not dying to visit it any time soon, unless it’s required for work.
I don’t want to dismiss it as useless. It does hold an impressive private art collection with some of the greatest names of the 20th century — Picasso (1881-1973), Dalí (1904-1989), Warhol (1928-1987), Bacon (1909-1992). I think it’s curated well, albeit not mind-blowing anymore. And, because I don’t live under a rock, it Instagrams nicely.
I find it too “package-y,” in the sense that when in Belém, you have to see it because it’s part of the packaged experience of the neighborhood. Then again, so is the Museu dos Coches (Coach Museum).
Okay, let me back up a second. I’m not selling this art museum very well, am I? I think a lot of people went there because it was free but that changed in 2017. And who doesn’t like to be face to face with that Judy Garland pop-art portrait by Andy Warhol? I know I do (mostly because it’s Garland than it’s Warhol).
When in Belém, go for it. Would I honestly tell you to go all the way to the West side of Lisbon just to visit? Probably not.
Tickets: €5.00 (click here to buy in advance and skip the line*)
Address: Praça do Império – Centro Cultural de Belém (Belém)
Public transportation: Bus 714 or Tram 15E from Praça da Figueira – stop Belém / Mosteiro dos Jerónimos
Official website: www.museuberardo.pt
Museu de Arte Popular
Museu de Arte Popular was closed for a long time, to the point I no longer believed it would ever open as a museum again. But let me contextualize this first.
For Portuguese, and Lisboans in particular, talking about the Salazar-headed dictatorship (1933-1974) is tricky. Most people want to forget about it and move on with their lives, but the fact is it happened, and we have to acknowledge that it happened, so History doesn’t repeat itself. This museum is from “those days,” so for many years, and for other budget-related reasons too I assume, reopening it wasn’t a top priority.
When I visited it for the first time, and so far the only one, I was more excited to find out what was in it than about the collection itself. It was going through a sort of soft opening phase, without much uproar. Because, honestly, how do you sell this place? The chatty ladies at the ticket office are cheerful enough for small talk but, you know, so are any other chatty ladies at other ticket offices. They were, however, proud and happy that the museum was open again. They, too, lived in “those days.”
It is what it is, and it’s worth the visit for the Modernist murals depicting life as it was in “those days,” in each one of the 13 regions of Portugal (to not be confused with districts).
I agree that the building in itself probably has more historical interest than the art inside, alongside the Padrão dos Descobrimentos nearby. It was part of the 1940 Exposição do Mundo Português (Portuguese World Expo), a propagandist event showcasing the mightiness of the Portuguese dominance in the world. There’s a mockup in one of the rooms of how the expo grounds looked like that is worth seeing.
Address: Avenida de Brasília, near Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Belém)
Public transportation: Bus 714 or Tram 15E from Praça da Figueira – stop Belém / Mosteiro dos Jerónimos
Official website: museuartepopular.wordpress.com
Fundação Árpád Szenes-Vieira da Silva
I wasn’t a fan of museums entirely dedicated to only one artist (and that might be one of the reasons why I wasn’t that excited about Picasso’s and Miró’s in Barcelona). And, then, one day, I listed the Fundação Árpád Szenes-Vieira da Silva as one of my assigned tasks for the month.
Why? Only because it hadn’t been covered yet. I had zero knowledge (and curiosity) about the work of Lisbon-born, Paris-based Maria Helena Vieira da Silva (1908-1992). Having absolutely no expectations helps the work to flow; that has been my experience as a freelance writer so far.
The atmosphere of the place helped me rate this art museum as one of my favorites in Lisbon — bright and white, empty but not echoing, curated as an art gallery of sorts, the dark-wood beams on the high ceilings, the “Lisbon-ness” of the artist all around (born on the 13th of June, Lisbon Day). Two hours later, I would find out on the official website that the building was the former silk factory, the artist’s personal choice for the museum and a reflection of her work.
Alongside her pieces (from 1926 to 1986), you’ll find her husband Árpád Szenes’ (Budapest 1897-Paris 1985) work from 1911 to 1985 and art from friends and mentorees of the couple.
Address: Praça das Amoreiras, 56 (Amoreiras)
Public transportation: Metro Yellow Line – stop Rato + 5-min. walk or Tram 24E from Praça Luís de Camões – stop Jardim Amoreiras
Official website: fasvs.pt
Atelier-Museu Júlio Pomar
The first visit I made to Atelier-Museu Júlio Pomar was both intentional and work-related. My relationship with Pomar’s work goes all the way back to my teen years through a serigraphy of a woman he made for Amnesty International Portugal (an organization of which I was a member then, with the written permission of my parents as an under-18 citizen).
The year was 1993, and the work was part of a fundraising campaign to support Timor Leste’s fight for human rights and self-determination, following the Santa Cruz massacre in 1991. I had one of the 200 copies that were printed, a limited edition. I used to carry it around with me every time I moved, but it got lost somewhere between addresses.
I have no idea what struck me about the work of Júlio Pomar (1926-2018), and I have no idea if he indeed was one of the great Modernists of his time, like every critic claims. From the beginning, his work came across to me as down-to-earth, uncomplicated, ever-growing and ever-learning, never-ending. That is reflected all over at this museum/workshop, a beautifully restored warehouse by design of Portuguese architect Siza Vieira, across the street from his house.
Scattered all over the walls, in the same disorganized organization of the cosmos, his work shares the same space with younger artists who, up until his demise in May 2018, were selected by him.
Address: Rua do Vale, 7 (“The Triangle”)
Public transportation: Tram 28E – stop Cç. Combro
Official website: www.ateliermuseujuliopomar.pt
Coleção Moderna – Museu Calouste Gulbenkian
I always tell people to take a day to visit the Gulbenkian Foundation properly – morning at the museums, then lunch at the cafeteria, followed by a lazy afternoon in the modernist-styled gardens (if the weather permits and you don’t mind the company of overfed, wobbly ducks).
The foundation houses two museums in two separate buildings; one is frequently touted as a must-see, while the other is referred as one for visitors with a specific taste. Both are worth visiting, and the ticket includes both, although I visit more frequently the one listed here.
CAM (formerly known as Centro de Arte Moderna and now called Coleção Moderna, or Modern Collection), the building, is itself a piece of art, as is everything behind the walls of this one-block complex. Inside, is the more complete collection in the country of Modern Portuguese art. Mind you, the more complete; not the largest.
I have a thing for Almada Negreiros (1893-1970) since College (which, incidentally, is across the street from Gulbenkian). As much as I admire the unquestionable literary genius of his contemporary Fernando Pessoa, Almada dipped his toes into different art forms. I’ve heard some say this diluted his artistic identity. I think his signature was always there, regardless. If you’re curious, the Coleção Moderna has a great collection of Almada’s pieces (among other artists).
For those without, yet, a favorite but interested in the Portuguese Modernism, CAM is the place. Feel free to roam about the museum, but the suggested itinerary is to begin at the ground floor to follow the timeline of art in Portugal in the 20th century. Collections at the first and second floors rotate frequently but are always shown following the same chronological organization.
Tickets: €10.00 (click here to buy in advance and skip the line*)
Address: Rua Dr. Nicolau Bettencourt (São Sebastião)
Public transportation: Metro Blue Line – stops São Sebastião or Praça de Espanha
Official website: gulbenkian.pt/museu
Museu Nacional do Teatro e da Dança
Let me warn you that the National Museum of Theater and Dance is hard to reach and, definitely, not a priority in most itineraries. Then again, I lack a proper sense of orientation and trust Google maps blindly (when I probably shouldn’t).
So why do I include it in a blog post about art museums in Lisbon? For one particular section of the first floor – scenography. And, once again, the work of Almada Negreiros. That intersection between art and what was, until the 1920s, another technical aspect of creating an illusion on stage and setting the scene.
I don’t expect anyone who is visiting the city for a short period to hop on the Metro to see a handful of painted sets, but if you have the time, keep it in mind.
Address: Estrada do Lumiar, 10 (Lumiar)
Public transportation: Metro Yellow Line – stop Lumiar + 11 min. walk
Official website: www.museudoteatroedanca.gov.pt
Museu Nacional do Azulejo (MNAz)
Portuguese tile is as much a part of Lisbon’s cultural identity as pastel de nata. I’m assuming that’s what visitors to the capital city think of azulejo because shots of tiled façades often populate some of the city-specific hashtags I follow on Instagram.
The tiles, and using them all over the place, is an inheritance of our Arab past (711-868) and the technique has, since, grown. Not all tiles have historical importance. Despite some tour guides telling you otherwise, sometimes it’s just beautiful tiles on a building, some of them a reproduction of an older pattern.
The National Museum of Tile (Museu Nacional do Azulejo, or MNAz for short) is slightly off-track but, excuse the cliché, a must-see. To understand the History, to understand how the industry evolved in Lisbon (and why you still see some odd-looking, misplaced orange-brick chimneys here and there), and to buy tiles as souvenirs, responsibly, instead of getting sucked into one of the things you should never do in Lisbon.
Address: Rua da Madre de Deus, 4 (Xabregas)
Public transportation: Bus 794 from Terreiro do Paço – stop Xabregas + 3 min. walk or Bus 728 from Praça do Comércio – stop Av. Inf. D. Henrique (Ponte Xabregas) + 5 min. walk
Official website: www.museudoazulejo.gov.pt
Museu de São Roque
My fascination with religious art is mixed with terror. Growing up Catholic and being a frequent church-goer as a child, I was both scared of and attracted to a particular area of my town’s main church — a poorly-lit, always closed wing, with six-feet-tall religious statues on each side depicting different versions of Jesus and Virgin Mary. The dead silence of the room still scared me more than the lifelike figures.
A lengthy introduction to explain that it takes a particular taste or curiosity for religious art to enjoy Museu de São Roque, next to the Baroque masterpiece that is the church with the same name.
Not exactly unmissable but not dismissable either, again, if you’re spending more than three days in the city.
Address: Largo Trindade Coelho (Bairro Alto)
Public transportation: Bus 758 from Cais do Sodré – stop Lg. Trindade Coelho, or Glória Lift from Praça dos Restauradores, or Tram 24E from Praça Luis de Camões – stop Lg. Trindade Coelho
Official website: www.museu-saoroque.com
Museu de Lisboa – Palácio Pimenta
Honestly, I shouldn’t mention this museum but the gardens instead because, to me, the art attraction is there. Although inside the palace you can see a mockup of Lisbon before the 1755 earthquake that’s not a complete waste of time.
In the back of the museum, past the main garden where hand-fed peacocks roam (I once heard a lady call one of them Fred), there’s a smaller one populated by a different fauna.
Mind the giant ceramic animals designed by Bordallo Pinheiro on hedges, inside empty fountains, and on the walls of the museum. Probably not worth the admission ticket for a lot of people, but still worth a peek.
Address: Campo Grande, 245
Public transportation: Metro Green and Yellow Line – stop Campo Grande or Bus 736 from Rossio – stop Campo Grande Norte
Official website: www.museudelisboa.pt