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Azulejos - Discover the Famous Portuguese Tiles

When we think of Portugal, a few things immediately come to mind: stunning beaches, codfish, Port wine, Fado music, and... "azulejos," the traditional ceramic Portuguese tiles!

Traditional Portuguese tiles smiling young woman

Even if you haven't heard of them, you've undoubtedly seen them if you've visited Portugal. Azulejos are a unique type of tiles deeply intertwined with Portuguese culture. You can find them everywhere, from shops to private homes, palaces, churches, train stations, and countless other places.

If you're curious about what sets Portuguese tiles apart from the rest, you've come to the right place! Learn all there is to know about these remarkable tiles and their profound connection to Portugal's history.

The Origins of Portuguese Tiles

Here's a surprising fact: azulejos are not originally Portuguese. The term "azulejo" has Arabic roots, meaning "small polished stone." The art of creating azulejos began on the Iberian Peninsula with the Arabs, who brought their mosaic techniques to decorate the walls of their palaces with intricate geometric patterns, symbolizing opulence.

The Spanish and Portuguese were captivated by this distinctive tile style and adapted the Moorish technique to suit Western tastes. The first examples of azulejos in Portugal date back to the late 15th-century when they were used to cover the walls of palaces and churches. Around 70 years later, in 1560, pottery workshops began to emerge in Lisbon.

Azulejos transformed into an art form, with Portuguese painters incorporating them to depict significant events from the country's history. These intricate details contribute to the unique, rich appeal of Portuguese architecture, capturing the attention of visitors from around the world.

Portuguese Tiles: History and Cultural Significance

Early Portuguese azulejos were often adorned with blue, yellow, green, and white colours. However, during the 16th century, blue and white tiles became the most prevalent, reflecting the fashion of the "Portuguese Discoveries" era.

These tiles showcased important moments in Portugal's history, mythological scenes, and religious imagery. The designs on these small square tiles often tell a story, with depictions of wars and other pivotal milestones in Portuguese history. Azulejos adorned the walls, floors and ceilings of palaces, gardens, religious buildings (churches, convents, monasteries), residential and public structures, fountains, and more. You'll encounter azulejos everywhere you go in Portugal!

Traditional Portuguese ceramic tiles also served practical purposes, such as nameplates and house numbers.

The Use of Azulejos in Modern Times

Over the past few centuries, the use of Portuguese azulejos has only grown, making them an enduring feature of Portuguese architecture.

One must-visit spot to witness the magnificent artworks crafted with Portuguese azulejos is the Sao Bento Railway Station in Porto. There, you'll be captivated by 20,000 tiles covering over 500 square meters, depicting important historical moments from the North of Portugal, including the region's transportation evolution, crucial marriages, and defining conquests in 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, another must-see is Casa do Ferreira das Tabuletas, the city's most photographed tiled façade, located in Chiado. Adorned with yellow and orange tiles, it depicts mythological images representing Earth, Water, Science, Agriculture, Commerce, and Industry. At the top, you'll find a star with a single 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 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.


Portugal The Simple Life Podcast: "History of Portugal - Azulejos"

Delve into the captivating world of Portuguese history, culture, and heritage as we explore Portugal’s amazing ‘azulejos' with Ines Feliciano, an expert in the restoration and conservation of these exquisite tiles…


Azulejos in Modern Interior Decoration

Portuguese tiles also play a significant role in the exterior and interior decoration of many homes in Portugal. Their versatility allows them to be used in humid environments like bathrooms, kitchens and service areas, providing an additional layer of protection for the walls. However, their popularity in Portuguese households extends beyond mere functionality.

Traditional Portuguese tiles create a cheerful atmosphere and add a touch of retro charm. They are commonly used to personalize, refresh and add colour to homes in Portugal.

Portuguese ceramic tiles Portugal the Simple Life

More recently, azulejos have expanded beyond their traditional square format and are now available in hexagonal, triangular, and circular shapes. This variety offers homeowners infinite options for decorating their homes in Portugal. Azulejos can also be used on a smaller scale, such as in kitchen and bathroom utensils.

Whether you prefer traditional colours and patterns or a cleaner, more modern style, numerous ceramic tile brands in Portugal offer a vast variety to choose from.

Let your imagination roam and draw inspiration from Portugal's vibrant colours and love for traditional art forms!


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