Exploring Lisbon: 7 breath-taking remnants from the Portuguese Renaissance

400 years before Rome, where Portugal's Tagus River meets the Atlantic Ocean, a city was founded that would change the world. 
Given its ancient beginnings, it's no wonder that Lisbon has been at the forefront of some of Europe's most significant historical moments. From early Phoenician traders arriving along the Tagus to dreams of empires sending Portuguese sailors as far away as South America and China, nearly every stage of European history has been shared in some way by this great capital city.

Also remarkable is the significant role both Portugal and Lisbon played in the culturally transformative Renaissance period during the 15th and 16th centuries. While countries like Spain, France, and even more so Italy, are regarded as the nations from which this period of 'rebirth' emerged and thrived, Portugal came to develop its own unique and magnificent take—the Portuguese Renaissance. Portuguese art, culture and exploration flourished during this period, a fact which can be seen in the many stunning landmarks, monuments and artworks which still exist today—all bearing an incredibly special mark of Portuguese ingenuity.

Alongside the city's delicious cuisine, unique café life and inviting culture, the treasures of the Portuguese Renaissance are a must-see for the modern-day explorer. So, to help inspire your unforgettable journey to Portugal's most renowned city, we've handpicked seven remnants from the Portuguese Renaissance to put on your list of things to do in Lisbon. 

What was the Portuguese Renaissance?

After the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Ottoman Empire, a handful of Greek scholars managed to escape what is today Istanbul. Mostly fleeing to the Italian peninsula, they brought with them a wealth of ancient Greek and Arabic texts which covered a range of topics, from philosophy to math; theology to the natural sciences. This influx of knowledge, which for centuries had been more-or-less lost, added fuel to a pre-existing spark which would ultimately transition Europe's politics, culture and society from the Dark Ages into modernity. 

Much like the rest of Europe, the influence of the Renaissance first came to Portugal via Italy. However, Portugal's critical position at the edge of the continent along with its already expanding network of trade, led to a Renaissance culture which in many ways was a melting-pot of a wide array of cultures and ideas. For example, artistic influences from neighbouring Spain blended with ideas from Portuguese trading ports in Asia, and as result the distinctive Portuguese Renaissance was born. 

During this time, Lisbon was able to establish itself as one of Europe's leading centres for the arts and learning. It's position as a vital port, allowed the city to grow exponentially and adapt to the near constant influx of new ideas and innovations. This gave way to a particular kind of artistic and architectural expression unique to Portugal—the Manueline style.

Named after King Manuel I, but also referred to as Portuguese late Gothic, this architectural expression truly came to prominence in the 16th century, just as Portugal began asserting herself as an economic and cultural powerhouse. As such, the Manueline style combines traditional elements of late Gothic with maritime elements which give a nod to the country's reliance on overseas trade and expansion culminating in grand, opulent archways and columns with rich, intricate ornamentation.  

In many ways, the Manueline style embodies the Renaissance as it occurred in Portugal in that it expressively captures both the excesses and worldliness of this small nation's relationship with God, empire and the sea.


Our list: the flourishing of Portuguese architecture & art


Jerónimos Monastery

For those architecture lovers seeking a prime example of Manueline, Lisbon's Jerónimos Monastery is a must-see landmark. Constructed in 1495, not long after Columbus reached the Caribbean, the monastery bears several ornately sculpted nods to maritime life and the Age of Discovery which had just began.
Not far from the mouth of the Tagus and port of Restelo, the Jerónimos Monastery played a major role in offering Catholic sailors and explorers the spiritual guidance they required before a long arduous journey at sea in service of the King. 

Belém Tower 

After receiving a blessing at the Jerónimos Monastery, Portuguese seafarers during the Renaissance period disembarked from the Belém Tower. Originally built on an island just off Lisbon's shore, this 30-meter tall structure has long been considered the gateway to Lisbon, if not Portugal itself. Arguably Lisbon's most renowned Renaissance building, the tower actually served a military function up until the mid-19th century. Eventually, a beacon and telegraph service was installed in the limestone tower before being restored for cultural purposes. In 1983, along with the nearby monastery, the Belém Tower was given UNESCO World Heritage-listed Site status, and has since been listed as one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal.

Monastery of São Vicente de Fora

During the latter half of the Portuguese Renaissance, King Phillip II of Spain ordered the reconstruction of the Monastery of São Vicente de Fora which had stood in Lisbon since the 12th century. He was able to do so after a tumultuous crisis over succession ultimately resulted in the unification of the Spanish and Portuguese Crowns in what has come to be known as the Iberian Union. Embodying the late-Renaissance style known as Mannerism, this new monastery is known for housing many impressive statues, sculptures and religious artworks. This, along with its impressive, grand exterior, has made it one of the most recognizable monasteries in all of Portugal.

Casa dos Bicos 

A quick glance at this Art Nouveau Renaissance residence and it becomes very clear why Casa dos Bicos, when translated to English, means House of the Beaks. Inspired by both the architecture of the Italian Renaissance and Portugal's Manueline style, the exterior of the building is made up of a façade of protruding stone pyramids giving it a definitive spiky aesthetic. Remarkably, this landmark survived the devastating earthquake of 1775 which destroyed most of Lisbon along with many of the other similarly styled buildings in the Alfama neighbourhood where it resides. After falling into disrepair as a warehouse for salted cod, Casa dos Bicos was eventually restored in the 1980s and reopened to the public as part of the Museu de Lisboa network in what is today one of the best neighbourhoods in Lisbon.

Monastery of Jesus at Setúbal 

Just to the south of Portugal's capital, nestled along the Atlantic coast, is the stunning city of Setúbal. And this is where you can find the timeless Monastery of Jesus. Built between 1490 and 1495, this monastery is widely regarded as one of the oldest examples of the Manueline style. Gargoyles and beautifully designed buttresses adorn the church's exterior, while the building's interior showcases the spiraling columns made up of a course granite, typical of Portuguese architecture from this period. 

Igreja de São Roque 

With Lisbon being ravaged by a deadly plague in 1505, Portugal's King, Manuel I, had to resort to desperate measures. He asked the government in Venice to send the relics of St. Roch, the patron saint of plague victims, in order to save the city. Upon arrival, the relics were carried in procession to the cemetery where those who had died from the plague were buried. A simple shrine was erected by the people of Lisbon to house the relics in 1506, but over many years the site grew in size and is now home to a wealth of religious relics, ornaments and precious works of art. Of them, is the brilliant ceiling fresco painted in the style of trompe-l'œil, which creates for the onlooker an optical illusion. While this landmark has very humble beginnings, it is now easily one of the more beautiful and opulent places to visit in Lisbon.

The Saint Vincent Panels (Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga) 

Regarded as ushering in the Portuguese Renaissance in painting, Nuno Gonçalves was considered by many in his day to be Portugal's most important artist. Working during the mid to late 15th century, he was at one point the court painter for King Alfonso V, and, after being knighted by the King, was made the official painter of Lisbon in 1471. However, despite his reputation, all but one of Gonçalves' paintings, the Saint Vincent Panels, still survives with certainty. These panels, along with several other pieces from the Portuguese Renaissance can be found in Lisbon's Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga.
Not only displaying the unique techniques and stylings that would one day grow into the Portuguese School of Painting, the Saint Vincent Panels also sheds light on the life in Renaissance Portugal. With each section depicting a particular social class, this piece offers onlookers a glimpse into what was an extremely stratified society bound together by both King and God.

Explore Lisbon and the Douro River with Emerald Cruises

The magic of the Portuguese Renaissance is alive and well throughout Lisbon and the rest of Portugal—are you thinking of uncovering its secrets for yourself?

Join us on an Emerald Cruises river cruise taking you along the stunning Douro River in Portugal's north before enjoying an extended city stay in Lisbon. There is perhaps no better way to immerse yourself in the architectural landmarks, delicious flavours and cultural highlights throughout this incredible country.

Receive your complimentary Emerald Cruises brochure today and start looking forward to your very own escape to the timeless wonders of Portugal.