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Azulejos – Get to know the famous Portuguese tiles

When speaking about Portugal, there are usually a few things that come to mind: beautiful beaches, codfish, Port wine, Fado, and… "azulejos", the traditional Portuguese ceramic tiles!

Traditional Portuguese tiles smiling young woman

Even if you think you haven’t heard about them, you’ve most definitely seen them by now, especially if you’ve visited Portugal. Azulejos are a specific type of tiles closely related to the Portuguese culture. You can easily find them since they’re incorporated into almost everything, from shops to private homes, palaces, churches, train stations and much more.

If you’re wondering about what makes Portuguese tiles stand out from the rest, you’ve come to the right place! Find out everything you need to know about these wonderful tiles and their intimate connection with Portugal’s history.

Portugal’s azulejos – how it all started

This first fact may come as a shock even to the Portuguese people: azulejos are not a Portuguese invention. The word "azulejo" is of Arabic origin, meaning “small polished stone”. The art of making azulejos started in the Iberian Peninsula with the Arabs, who brought mosaics to the conquered lands to decorate the walls of their palaces, providing them with a sense of ostentation through complex geometrical patterns. The unique style of these tiles fascinated the Spanish and Portuguese.

The Iberian craftsmen used this Moorish technique, simplified it and adapted the patterns to Western taste. The first examples in Portugal can be traced back to the end of the 15th century and were used to clad the walls of palaces and churches. About 70 years later, in 1560, the first pottery workshops began to appear in Lisbon.

Azulejos became an art form and, gradually, Portuguese painters started using them to portray scenes from important events of the country’s history. These tiny details are what make Portuguese architecture so unique, rich and appealing to foreign eyes.

Portuguese azulejos: how are they connected to the country’s history and culture?

The first Portuguese azulejos were often coloured in blue, yellow, green and white. However, during the 16th century, blue and white Portuguese tiles became the most common, as they were fashionable colours during the period known as the 'Portuguese Discoveries'.

The azulejos created during this time represented important moments of Portugal's history, mythological scenes or religious images. The drawings you see on the small square tiles usually tell a story and, if you look closely, you will find representations of wars and other important milestones of Portuguese history. The tiles were applied to walls, floors and ceilings of palaces, gardens, religious buildings (churches, convents, monasteries, ...), residential and public buildings, fountains, etc. In Portugal, you’ll most likely notice the presence of azulejos everywhere you visit!

Traditional Portuguese ceramic tiles were also used for their utilitarian function, such as in nameplates or house numbers.

The use of azulejos in modern times

In the last couple of centuries, the use of Portuguese azulejos has become even more popular, and they continue to be a dominant feature of Portuguese architecture.

One mandatory stop for those interested in getting to see up close major artworks created with Portuguese azulejos is the São Bento’s railway station, in Porto. Once there, it's impossible to look away. There are 20,000 tiles painted in more than 500 square meters, representing several important historical moments of the North of Portugal, in particular, the evolution of transportation systems in the region, as well as crucial marriages and conquests that defined Portugal’s history.

São Bento’s railway station, in Porto Portugal traditional hand painted Portuguese tiles
São Bento’s railway station, in Porto Portugal

In Lisbon, you can also visit Casa do Ferreira das Tabuletas, which is probably the most photographed tile façade in the city, due to its privileged location in Chiado. Fully decorated with yellow and orange tiles, it depicts mythological images representing Earth, Water, Science, Agriculture, Commerce and Industry. To finish, right at the top, you find a star with one eye symbolizing the creator of the universe.

Pedro J Pacheco, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons
Pedro J Pacheco, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Other famous must-visit spots to appreciate traditional Portuguese tiles include:

  • Capela das Almas, Porto;

  • Igreja de Nossa Senhora dos Remédios, Lamego;

  • Quinta da Bacalhoa, Lisbon;

  • Capela de São Roque, Lisbon;

  • Palácio da Mitra, Azeitão.

  • National Tile Museum, Lisbon.

The use of azulejos in modern interior decoration

Portuguese tiles are also part of many homes’ exterior and interior decoration.

Due to their immense versatility, they can be used in humid environments such as bathrooms, kitchens and service areas. Usually, the main purpose of tiles is to create an extra layer of protection on the walls of humid areas. However, this is not the only reason why azulejos are so popular in many Portuguese households. Traditional tiles create a cheerful environment and contribute with a retro touch. They are commonly used to personalize, refresh and colour different houses.

Portuguese ceramic tiles Portugal the Simple Life

More recently, azulejos have abandoned their traditional square format and are now available in hexagonal, triangular shapes, with circular edges.

This diversity provides homeowners with infinite options when it comes to decorating their homes in Portugal. Azulejos can also be used in a smaller scale, for example, in kitchen and bathroom utensils.

Whether you prefer traditional colours and patterns or more clean and modern style azulejos, there are several ceramic tile brands in Portugal that offer a huge variety to choose from!

If you need help with this, specialists in interior decoration and furniture, such as Portugal Interiors, can help you decide which style best suits your home. So let your imagination work its magic and be inspired by Portugal's colour and love of traditional art forms!


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