Lisbon in a nutshell – from azulejos to fado

The Sleeping Beauty on the Tagus, Lisbon is steeped in the irresistible charm of times past. Magnificent palaces and monasteries bear witness to colonial riches; picturesque alleyways and staircases, pretty corners and sleepy squares enchant visitors. That’s not all though: the melancholy capital on the southwestern edge of Europe has another side that is dynamic, modern and cosmopolitan. Discover the Portuguese capital with Marco Polo:


Azulejos (pronounced: azoolayshoosh) can bee seen everywhere in Lisbon. The colourful tiles adorn the walls of houses and benches, staircases and arches. The art of tiling is part of the city’s Moorish heritage, and the name is derived from the Arabic al zulaique (‘small polished stone’). Tiled landscapes and scenes of daily life tell a lot about Portugal’s history and culture. The Museu Nacional do Azulejo gives an excellent overview of the history of the tiled images. And a new generation of tile artists is treading new paths, choosing unusual motifs or employing the art in new ways – replicate a minimalist trend at home with a single tiny tile on its own on a big wall.


Manueline style is a Portuguese variant of Flamboyant Gothic. This decorative, playful style, named after King Manuel I (1495–1521), was introduced in the early 16th century. Inspired by the exotic adventures of the seafarers and maritime explorers of the time, the architects and stonemasons covered their buildings with delicate carvings of ropes and knots, exotic plants and animals, shells and fish. For particularly beautiful examples of this architectural style, don’t miss the Hieronymus Monastery in Belém.


‘Like a dagger working in the heart’ is how the Portuguese will sometimes explain the feeling of sheer boundless melancholy known as saudade – a word that cannot be translated as sorrow, fatalism, sentimentalism, nostalgia or melancholy, as it combines a little bit of all of them. The roots of this passionate feeling are considered to lie in the Islamic era, and it finds its artistic expression in the famous fado music. In conversation with Lisbon’s older generation, you’ll often find a general fatalism at work. When asked how things are going, they will often reply, ‘Eh, cá estou’ (well, here I am) or ‘Vai-se andando’ (things are going), comparable perhaps to the English expression ‘mustn’t grumble’.


Lisboetas have commemorated Fernando Pessoa (1888–1935), probably Portugal’s most famous poet, with a bronze monument in front of his favourite café, A Brasileira. Today, few of the countless tourists who have their picture taken alongside the statue have actually read Pessoa’s obsessive prose and poetry, tinged with nihilism. Pessoa’s name and his work are intimately connected with the city. As witty as he was eccentric, the intellectual wrote under different names – ‘heteronyms’, whose identity he would take on for a certain time – worked as a foreign languages correspondence clerk in the Baixa and moved house many times within the city. During his lifetime, Pessoa, whose name means ‘person’, published very little, but his work is currently experiencing a renaissance beyond the borders of Portugal. In the poet’s last residence, which has been converted into a small arts centre with a library, fans can follow in the footsteps of this genius of modernism (Casa Fernando Pessoa | Rua Coelho da Rocha 16 | Mon–Sat 10am– 6pm | free admission |, | Eléctrico 25, 28 to Rua Saraiva Carvalho). Still worth reading: Pessoa’s poetic city guide written in 1930, Lisbon – what the Tourist Should See.


Fado is the Portuguese blues. It was born in the poor neighbourhoods of Lisbon, Alfama and Mouraria in the second half of the 18th century, and for a long time had a somewhat notorious reputation. The word is derived from the Latin fatum (fate). While both men and women (fadistas) sing the fado, it is always accompanied by two men, usually with stoic expressions, working two string instruments, a twelve-string guitar and a kind of lute, the guitarra portuguesa.

In terms of subject matter, the fado revolves around love, Lisbon, hope and disappointment – and most of all the saudade, a distinctly Portuguese feeling. What fado means to the Portuguese was evident in 1999, when Amália Rodrigues, the ‘Queen of Fado’, died. A three-day period of state mourning was declared. Amália’s house in the Rua de São Bento (Nos. 191-193) has become a site of pilgrimage for her fans (Tue– Sun 10am–1pm and 2–6pm | admission 5 euros | Metro (yellow) Rato). To this day, nobody can compare with the goddess of fado, but there are many new names on the scene, such as Camané and the internationally successful Mariza.

Many visitors to the city hear fado for the first time as a canned version, emanating from a green fadomobile in Rua do Carmo. Lisbon’s only ambulant music vendor acquired the right to sell music on the street after losing his record store in the devastating fire that destroyed Chiado in 1988. When the area was re- built rents skyrocketed. Young stars such as the Sara Tavares, of Cape Verdean heritage, and the strong-voiced Cristina Branco and Ana Moura have breathed new life into the genre.

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Lisbon Marco Polo Guide

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