Portugal and Porto in particular are famous for their typical white-blue tiles covering entire buildings both indoors and outside. They are called azulejos. When you visit Porto, one of the best things to do is spot those azulejos. But where to find those beautiful azulejos in Porto? Which buildings have the best azulejos facades? Or where to look inside? We will give you the ten best spots in Porto for azulejos!
What are Portugese azulejos?
The Portuguese word ‘azulejos’ comes from the Arabic ‘al zulaycha’, which means polished stone. The azulejos art of decorating facades with blue tiles comes from the Arab world, and it became popular in Portugal with the Moor invasion. In fact, we now associate it with Portugal rather than the Arab world because the Portuguese were so taken with tiling their facades. They have given it their own style.
The majority of the popular designs on facades are geometric or floral. You can easily identify Moorish influences in their design since Muslims are not supposed to portray people in their art. The Portuguese tiles do include human figures. In Porto, you will discover azulejos with human figures and full historical or religious tales. Churches and large monuments are the most common locations to find this sort of narrative azulejos. The geometric and flower motifs predominate on the streets.
Is it possible that the lovely blue-white ceramics on the Porto buildings evoke memories of the Delft Blue pottery in our home country the Netherlands? That’s quite possible. When azulejos became popular in Portugal, the people there had not yet perfected production on a large scale. The Dutch ceramic factories were already used for large-scale production for many years. So at first, many tiles from Delft were transported to Portugal at the end of the seventeenth century. It didn’t take long for the Portuguese to develop a facility of that scale as well.
Is there always a pattern and are all azulejos always blue and white? No, there actually is a great variety. That blue and white tile is probably the most well-known color scheme, but you’ll see those azulejos tiles in a variety of colors and patterns. Sometimes they’re even in one tone without any design – often green or yellow.
The best azulejos in Porto on the map
The 10 best places to see azulejos in Porto
#1 The historic center of Porto
All of Porto is full of tiled facades, you don’t need to look for them. All of Porto is crawling with buildings decorated with those famous azulejos. While touring the historic core, you’re unlikely to miss them. There probably aren’t any streets without the typical Portuguese tiles.
Tiles are frequently used on churches and cathedrals, but they may also be found on many other structures, such as memorials or simply regular homes. They may be seen in a variety of hues and forms, usually geometric or floral patterns that adorn common houses. Monuments, in particular churches, feature more narrative tiles.
Take a careful look at the tiles and you’ll notice that most of them are flat, although they may also have relief. You can hardly notice such details from a distance, so make sure to take a closer look at some of the buildings to really appreciate this Portuese tradition.
Or buildings, did you know there are even some modern street art azulejos in Porto?. Two massive boulders in Porto are adorned with gorgeous Portuguese azulejos near the famous Luis I bridge.
#2 São Bento Railway Station
The magnificent São Bento Station in Porto is home to the most breathtaking tile art. Inside the main station hall, you’ll find huge paintings chronicling Portugal’s history. The railway to Porto’s center was built as early as 1892, although the official opening of the train station connected to it did not occur until 1916.
The station is named after the monastery that stood on the site where it was built, the São Bento de Avé-Maria. The old convent was in terrible condition, but it was only after the last nun died in 1892 that it was demolished to make way for the enormous railway station plans. It then took several years to finish the station. Not least because the enormous azulejos works in the station hall took years to complete.
The São Bento Station was erected in the Beaux-Arts style, which was extremely fashionable at the time. This is reflected in the pretentious granite façade with a symmetrical design and classical elements. The railway station concourse, however, is more than just the exterior. Its main attraction is on the inside.
The main hall is as magnificent as you can expect from any other well-known historical monument, with spectacular azulejos covering every nook and cranny. It’s the most beautiful tableaus depicting important historical events that steal the show. There are around 20,000 tiles, so you can understand why it took several years to complete this artwork.
There are numerous tile murals depicting significant historical events in the main hall. Expect to see lots of great battles and prominent personalities from Portuguese history, such as the Battle of Valdevez, which concluded the First Portuguese War of Independence, and the arrival of King John I and his wife Philippa on horseback into Porto.
However, if you look more closely, you’ll notice that the art work isn’t limited to just those historical scenes and simply blue and white. There is a frieze with floral designs hiding beneath the ceiling, as well as multicolored tiles depicting the history of transport in Portugal. You can also see daily activities in Portugal from that time.
#3 The Gothic cloister at the cathedral Sé
The Porto Cathedral is located on a high location of the city, near to the famous Luis I Bridge. From the cathedral’s front square, you have a stunning perspective over the Douro River and city. But it’s not just about the view. You’ve come to see the cloister that is part of the cathedral. It features some of Portugal’s most stunning azulejos.
You can see both the cathedral and the monastery at once during your visit. The cloister entrance is the main entrance to both. You must pay €3 for a ticket that allows you to access the cloister and the cathedral.
You’ll first get to visit the best part of the monastery: the courtyard with Gothic arches and huge azulejos panels in blue and white. Many of the panels depict scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary. They were created y Valentim de Almeida. One floor up you can see azulejos from around the same period, but by another artist, António Vital.
The left side of the church, too, has beautiful azulejo panels. You can see them from the outside, where they are housed in a gated portico.
#4 Grocery Store A Pérola do Bolhão
This grocery store is a hidden gem in Porto that isn’t often included in lists of Porto’s most beautiful buildings and monuments, but it is a personal favorite of ours. The facade is made in a beautiful Art Nouveau style with the typical letters, decorations and images from that time.
Art Nouveau is a style that was extremely popular between 1900 and 1930, when this building was designed. The azulejos of A Pérola do Bolhão are also very Art Nouveau, creating a unique combination of an ancient tile tradition with the Art Nouveau design from around 1900. The azulejos at this location are also unlike anything you’ve seen before. Rather than floral decorations usually seen on houses, or the historical or biblical scenes as on monuments, the tiles include the name of the shop and show some female figures. The name of the grocery store is shown in Art Nouveau typeface above the entrance. Two female figures are depicted in that typical Art Nouveau style as well.
Porto tip: Do you enjoy art nouveau as much as we do? Then you’ve come to the correct place in Porto, since the city is packed with structures built in this period. Perhaps the most well-known are Majestic Café and the famous Harry Potter bookshop Livrario Lello.
#5 Igreja do Carmo and Igreja das Carmelitas
When you’re standing right in front of these two churches, you won’t see the azulejos marvel that makes this Porto sight worthy of inclusion in this blog. You will see an entrance to what is called ‘the secret house’.
What this secret house is? Between the big churches, there is a tiny 1.5-meter-wide ‘house’. It’s not an actual home between these two churches, that’s for sure. Locals will give you many reasons for this architectural curiosity. Most say that this small ‘secret house’ was built between the huge churches in order to keep nuns and monks apart, as was obligated according to local laws.
The Igrejo do Carmo and Igreja das Carmelitas are known for this secret house and its stunning azulejos. Where you can find those Portuguese tyles? To the right of the church, look for the magnificent tile display. The tiles are fairly recent and were installed in 1912.
Carlos Branco and Silvestre Silvestri created the scene, which was completed in Senhor do Além and Torrinha’s factories. They’re biblical scenes linked to the Carmelite Order’s history.
#6 Banco de Materiais
A tiny museum near the Igreja do Carmo and Igreja das Carmelitas is dedicated entirely to the azulejos of Porto. There are various kinds of tiles in cabinets, all of them are from Porto.
The tiles are from structures that were restored or demolished and have been relocated to the Banco de Materiais in order to preserve them. Owners of properties in Porto may come here to replace tiles on their facades if they are missing a tile. It is quite a collection, so there is a good chance that they will be able to find a matching tile at this depot.
Because the materials depot is open to the public and functions as a museum, you may also visit it as a tourist. While walking around, you can observe various designs and forms of azulejo tile. And not just tiles, because roof tiles, facade edges or other facade tableaus in glazed blue-white are also on display.
#7 Church of Santo Ildefonso
The baroque church of St Ildefonso is a must-see. Especially in that picturesque location on a hill, where the narrow high church stands lonely without rivals, creating a unique sight in a metropolis where many churches and chapels have been constructed between other structures and in narrow alleys.
The impressive amount of blue-white tiles that cover the entire façade are also beautiful. The church is as old as the eighteenth century, but the tiles were only put on a hundred years ago. There are about 11,000 Portuguese tiles. They were made by the same artist as those of the São Bento Train Station. To enter the church, you must pay one euro.
#8 Capela de Santa Catarina
The Capela de Santa Catarina – commonly known as Capela Das Almas – is the most modest of all structures, but it is also the most magnificent. The chapel is completely covered in blue-white tiles on all sides.
There are about 16,000 hand-painted tiles on the chapel. They’re only a hundred years old, so they were installed on the walls of the eighteen-century chapel much later than that, but they’re painted in an older style. As you can expect from a chapel, these tiles feature Biblical motifs. They show events from the lives of Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Catarina.
#9 Street art on the Steak ‘n Shake
With a huge wall covered in tiles, this restaurant has established itself as a must-visit Porto tourist attraction. It’s not your average blue and white. Instead, it’s bright with a variety of motifs and hues. In 2016, Joana Vasconcelos created this artwork at the opening of the steak restaurant’s branch in Porto.
Is it just as difficult to create an azulejos wall in the 21st century? Or did she use modern technology to help her? It’s a significant accomplishment. The artwork comprises 8000 tiles, all of which are hand-painted just like the historic artists used to do.
#10 The modern artwork of Júlio Resende
Near the Luis I Bridge, a recent azulejo artwork may be seen by artist Júlio Resende. It is located in the Ribeira tunnel and is called ‘Ribeira Negra’. You’ll see human and animal figures in a variety of colors as well as local life on the river, such as at Porto’s Douro. It was erected in Porto cityscape as far back as 1987, with a length of 40 meters.