Lisbon is an outstanding destination for seeing both traditional and contemporary art and architecture in a chilled out, comfortable and very friendly environment
Art Travelling: Five Of The Best Art Destinations In Lisbon
When it comes to art travelling, people usually think of the great capital cities of Europe: Paris and the Louvre, Madrid’s Prado, Rome’s baroque churches and Vatican, Berlin’s Museum Island and its plethora of contemporary art. These are, of course, all fantastic and I recommend them all and will for sure be blogging about them. But for some reason the wonderful Portuguese capital city of Lisbon rarely makes it onto this list. Here I’m going to tell you about five of the best places associated with art in and around Lisbon, and how to enjoy them.
MAAT Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology
You are going to start your art tour of Lisbon with “something old, something new” and a blast of an architectural experience. MAAT (est. 2016) is the newest of Lisbon’s major museums and it can take up a full morning or afternoon if you visit both and enjoy the Tagus river location as well. One ticket covers both sections. When you arrive, you will easily spot a magnificent structure: a perfectly-preserved old power station (see pic below) housing fascinating exhibits on engineering as well as boasting the gorgeous architecture and interior atmosphere of early 20th century Portuguese industrial design. Inside, you will find many different things that manage to be both educational and informative and completely intriguing. This part of the museum is definitely child-friendly; in fact my five-year-old self had a brilliant time with all of the hands-on exhibits and climbing up the ladders.
The modern section (see top pic above) is a contemporary art museum with a changing program of exhibitions and events in a particularly beautiful architectural space. This section may or may not appeal to the kids but for fans of contemporary art, or even just mildly interested passersby, it’s most likely to be a hit. When I visited there was a fascinating exhibition on play and gaming, including artists such as Brad Downey, Gabriel Orozco and Ana Vieira. The works were expertly curated and combined the intriguing with the downright fun, yet in no way was the show dumbed-down or made shallowly popular. It was organized in an approachable and interactive way, without pretense and with very friendly staff, who understand that when you walk into a contemporary art museum you need people to greet you warmly. I also saw one of the best art movies I’ve seen in a very long time, M . A . G . N . E . T by Egyptian artist filmmaker Basim Magdy. (link to the film info is here)
Getting there: get train from town to Belem station, or take the tram 15E or 18E to Altinho (Maat). There is the National Coach Museum nearby, which is probably amazing but I haven’t been. And don’t forget to eat the Belem pastries
2. Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga / The National Museum of Art
From the newest of Lisbon’s great art spaces to what is (probably) the oldest you will move on to the National Museum of Art. It is possible to do both museums in one day, if you have the stamina; alternatively combine half-day visits to any of the museums with other sightseeing and a stroll around the local neighbourhood – not forgetting a lengthy coffee and nata break.
Actually, the museums in Lisbon have superb cafés. One of the best lunches I had was in the cafeteria of the National Museum of Art which has a beautiful garden and superb food. It’s not very fancy: it’s served up cafeteria style, but the quality is excellent and the garden is an absolute pleasure. Thus fortified, make your way into the museum proper.
I admit I had a very specific destination on my visit: Hieronymous Bosch’s painting Temptation of Saint Anthony. I’m a great fan of Bosch and had never seen this painting so was really excited about it. However, the museum contains a large number of fantastic artworks, including ones that I had no knowledge of whatsoever. The museum features a large collection of Portuguese Art through the ages, which was really revelatory, alongside a very good selection representing the whole of Western European art.
Temptation of Saint Anthony (c. 1500) depicts the great mystic and ascetic, who is said to have endured supernatural temptation during his sojourn in the Eastern Desert of Egypt. Bosch’s painting integrates the four elements of the Universe (sky, earth, water and fire) as a kind of set design for a hallucinogenic world populated by the most grotesque characters. Here we see the temptation and loneliness of the ‘just man’ in the presence of the evil which dominates the earthly world. It’s easy to see why people feel that Bosch is some kind of precursor to surrealism, although that’s not really true. Yet he does seem to have understood the workings of the unconscious mind in order to draw out the things which both fascinate and repulse us. His creatures delight in their intricacy and cleverness, but also sicken us by how fleshly grotesque they are.
The other major attraction of the museum, to me at least, is another Renaissance painting: the Portuguese Panels of São Vicente, attributed to Nuno Gonçalves (c. 1450-71). This enormous piece presents a grouping of 58 characters around St Vincent (in red; he appears twice in the picture). The figures in this painting are close to life-size and each of them is a separate, detailed character rendered almost photorealistic.
And a nasty Cranach of Salome – real horror-movie stuff – superb!
The museum publishes on its website an example one-hour visit, taking in the highlights and if you really only have an hour and you want a structured, guided tour I can’t recommend it highly enough. But do have lunch 😊
Getting there: it’s short walk from Santos train station, or take the famous 25E tram and get out at Rua Garcia da Orta and walk town toward the river.
3. Calouste Gulbenkian Museum Founder’s Collection
Calouste Gulbenkian Museum has two collections, the Founder’s Collection and the Modern Collection, and again one ticket covers both. They are located in two distinct buildings in a modern district a bit further away from the Old Town, near the São Sebastião Metro. (Attention shoppers: a large El Corte Ingles is nearby) The museums are connected by one of the most beautiful gardens in Lisbon, full of amazing birds and – wait for it – lots of adorable turtles! I brought some fruit with me and sat in the gardens to eat, and was besieged by greedy ducks who prepared to eat every single thing that I had. Trying to enjoy an orange and having ducks shove the faces right at you and go ‘quack quack’ until you give them some of the orange, is quite an experience.
Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian ((1869-1955) was the founder of the renowned Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, a private foundation created in 1956 by his bequest. It is now among the largest foundations in Europe and continues to promote arts, charity, education, and science throughout the world. They give grants to worthwhile projects that bring together art and social connection, among other things. I have always thought really highly of the foundation, so it was interesting to see his private collection which is now open to the public. It is one of the biggest private collections of art in the world, only a small part of which is on display at any one time. It covers everything from ancient Egyptian artefacts to 19th-century furniture. The criteria seems to be that the that the work must be exemplary fine handicraft and aesthetically beautiful. The list of artists collected here is absolutely dazzling; the painting collection alone includes Rubens, Van Dyck, Frans Hals, Rembrandt, Gainsborough and Monet. What’s fascinating about it isn’t just the pieces themselves, but how, by wandering through the galleries, you start to get a sense of Gulbenkian himself, his tastes, his thoughts, the kind of person he was, the kind of person who could be moved by this incredible art and the way in which he wanted his vast wealth to be used after his death.
The Founder’s Collection https://gulbenkian.pt/museu/colecao-do-fundador/sobre-a-colecao/
Nearest Metro: Praça de Espanha or São Sebastião
4. Calouste Gulbenkian Museum Modern Collection
Assuming you still have the energy to look at more art, you can proceed over to the modern collection. Since both collections have excellent cafés in the buildings, you can be suitably refreshed or you can bring your own, and eat it in the garden. Whatever you decide, I do recommend taking a break between collections because they’re both overwhelming in their own way. Because the Foundation is a living institution, it’s not just about preserving Gulbenkian’s classical collection. His huge collection of Portuguese Modernism is here, but the museum also reaches out to contemporary art, both supporting it and showcasing it in meaningful ways.
If, like me, you didn’t know much about Portugal or Portuguese Art, the modern collection is very helpful as a ‘crash course.’ I came away with a lot of enthusiasm for Portuguese art, and I look forward to my next visit to see what else the museum will present.
Nearest Metro: Praça de Espanha or São Sebastião
5. Paula Rego Museum, Cascais
Now it’s time to get out of the city. You’ve seen some of Lisbon’s biggest museums (there are plenty more; I have not even mentioned the smaller specialist museums nor the many private galleries.) By now you probably walked up and down the hills of Lisbon so many times you’ve already had to throw away one pair of shoes. You’ve eaten a lot of natas and maybe you had an evening of fado as well. Now it’s time to get out of town. You will want to take a pleasant 40-minute train journey to the seaside town of Cascais, to see the astonishing Paula Rego Museum. This is a museum of a living artist, the Portuguese British painter. Rego (b. 1935) established her own Museum in her birth country after becoming very successful in Britain in the 90s.
The museum is called the Casa das Histórias, or House of Stories, and it exhibits the work of Rego – which is quite narrative and figurative, often based on myths and folktales, with a strongly feminist bent. Like Bosch, Rego seems drawn to the grotesque and the black humour found there. When I last visited there was an exhibition of prints by Rego, particularly selections of illustrations from different books, including a large series of absolutely phenomenal illustrations to Mother Goose nursery rhymes. They are both terrifying and hilarious, and absolutely memorable. I’d never quite seen anything quite like it. Her Mother Goose is one of the most wonderful things that I’ve ever seen! I burst out laughing more than once as I perused the walls; at the same time I could feel unease and a delicious creepiness going up my spine at some of the imagery. Afterwards, I needed to spend a very decent amount of time in the museum’s delightful café garden, fortifying myself with a generous lunch and a superb glass of wine.*
Cascais is a delightful little seaside town so depending on your taste you might like to jump in the sea and swim a bit or do as I did and walk around soaking up the sun and enjoying the other attractions after spending time in Rego’s marvellous psychodrama. There are some other museums nearby I didn’t visit, like the Lighthouse Museum and the palace-museum of Castro Guimarães. But the Parque Marechal Carmona across the road from the House of Stories is beautiful and has feral chickens wandering around.
The town’s old citadel has been transformed into a fancy hotel, but it is worth visiting because it has within its walls some excellent private galleries. I really enjoyed wandering around looking at the art on display and chatting to the gallerists. As you wend your way back to the train station, you’ll find that Cascais town is really touristy and mostly sells beachy souvenirs, but don’t despair – you can get a decent coffee or drink, and some of the handmade stuff they sell is really worth a look. Like everything I found, ripping off tourists by selling them junk is not the Portuguese way.
Getting there: trains run frequently from Santos mainline station. There are also guided tours to the seaside towns.
So, fellow art traveller, those are the five best places in Lisbon for art, and every one of them is worth your time. Go, and enjoy!
*I noticed that – unlike virtually every museum else I’ve ever been to – the museum cafés in Portugal are neither expensive, nor average in terms of their food. Uniformly, they offer excellent value, with well-chosen menus and food of the highest quality.
Where I stayed: at the Goodnight Hostel, near the Elevador Castelo, downtown. Loved it.
What I did: a walking tour with the Lisbon Wild Walkers and a Fado tour ** with Discover Lisbon, both of which were excellent and worthwhile.
My biggest takeaway: a whole new perspective on Portuguese art and design and a massive appreciation for the nation’s culture. And I bought a book by Portugal’s greatest modern poet Fernando Pessoa from the oldest operating Bookstore in the World, Livraria Bertrand – founded in 1732.
** the Fado tour is great value for a solo traveller. You get plenty of food and drinks for a normal person 😊 and it’s way more fun than sitting in a restaurant on your tod. It’s NOT like a pub crawl; you just go to the one place and stay there, and the idea is to appreciate the art of fado – not to get loaded.