Like most cities, Lisbon is steeped in history and even has an interactive museum dedicated to its story. While the Lisbon Story Centre certainly helps you understand the background to the enticing blend of old and new that shapes Portugal’s capital, it’s not one of the best Lisbon museums. There are many others that hold more appeal for me.
1. Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon
It’s hard to choose an absolute favourite from all of the many museums in Lisbon but if you forced me to, I’d probably go with the Gulbenkian Museum.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve visited and now have some firm favourites in the permanent collection. Highlights include the exquisite tiles, rugs and beautifully decorated books in the Eastern Islamic Art room, closely followed by the Japanese inlaid boxes and the gorgeous Art Nouveau Lalique jewellery.
Temporary exhibitions change on a regular basis and range from photography to indoor and outdoor sculptures and a focus on still life oil paintings. I’ve written more about its charms in this post: Why the Gulbenkian is One of Lisbon’s Highlights.
The museum website has more details about opening times, prices and current exhibitions. You can buy a combined ticket (or visit on Sunday mornings when it’s all free) and see the contemporary art exhibitions within the complex.
Give yourself a break from art and artefacts by looking for ducks and frogs in the streams and ponds in the gardens.
The rest of the best Lisbon museums are listed in no particular order. It’s too hard to rank them as they offer such different experiences.
2. Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga
Strangely, the National Museum of Ancient Art is one that I’d avoided for quite some time, thinking I had no interest in old oil paintings of kings and saints. I visited while doing research for a travel guide I was writing and quickly realised what a fool I’d been. Yes, there are oil paintings, some of them by incredibly talented great masters. But there’s so much more. Too much to fully appreciate in one visit.
There are collections of remarkable furniture including inlaid walnut desks, patterned marble tables and a wonderful collection of Indo-Portuguese chests of drawers decorated with bizarre animals. It seems that in the 18th and 19th centuries, no stately home was complete without its very own nativity scene (presépio). Gaudy and certainly not to current tastes, they are nevertheless fascinating pieces.
Glassware, silverware, gold and ceramics are also represented. In fact you’d be hard pushed to name a material that isn’t. Luckily, there’s an onsite restaurant with a terrace that overlooks the river where you can take a break.
The museum also has a programme of regularly changing temporary exhibitions with guest works of art on loan from international collections.
Tip: Try to see a peculiar picture of Hell by an unknown Portuguese artist from the 15th century where the demonic world is associated with the universe outside Europe. Quite something!
Website: Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga
3. Berardo Collection Museum
On the other end of the art spectrum, as well as the city, is the modern art collection in the Berardo Museum in Belém. One of the most exciting of the Lisbon art museums, it is housed in an impressive example of contemporary architecture, with exhibitions ranging from pop art to off-the-wall weird. Several famous names feature on the catalogue, such as Andy Warhol, Salvador Dalí and Pablo Picasso.
The permanent collection is divided into distinct periods, i.e. 1900-1960 and 1960-2010 while the temporary exhibitions may be retrospective or futuristic in style. Or anything in between.
Best of all, the permanent collection is free to enter, although you may need to buy a ticket for some of the temporary ones. Being based in Belém, which is dominated by medieval architecture and is one of Lisbon’s top spots for photography, the Berardo Museum offers a welcome step back into the modern world.
Website: Museu Coleção Berardo
4. Museu do Oriente, Lisbon
As the name implies, this relatively new museum, opened in 2008, is dedicated to the Orient and hosts a fascinating collection of Oriental art and cultural artifacts. Whether you’ve spent any time in Asia or not, it’s a fascinating place. When I visited, the temporary exhibition was all about Japanese contemporary culture with giant statues of cartoon characters and a mock up of a typical girl’s bedroom with floor to ceiling Hello Kitty paraphernalia.
More permanent exhibits include collections of masks, puppets, traditional toys, religious artifacts such as Hindu gods, silk screens and festival costumes. Portugal’s strong connections with China, Macau and India are also in evidence with the Portuguese Presence in Asia exhibition – if you go on Sunday afternoon, there’s a special guided tour of this section at 4 pm.
Unlike most museums, it’s not free on Sunday mornings. The time to enjoy all of this for nothing is Friday evening from 6 pm to 10 pm.
Website: Museu do Oriente
5. Lisbon Puppet Museum
I went to the Museu da Marioneta to humour Mike and his fascination for puppets and enjoyed it as much as he did. As well as a beautiful collection of shadow puppets from South East Asia, there are some wondrous African and Asian masks. I’d recently seen a water puppet show in Vietnam and was thrilled to see them represented here.
It’s not all about exotic countries and far flung cultures. The museum provides a fascinating history of puppetry in Portugal from glove and strings to animated films. Perhaps the most interesting part, for me, were the grotesque costumes used by the São Lourenço Theatre Company back in the 1970s.
Punch and Judy and their counterparts from other European countries also make an appearance and you can even step into the booth and put on your own show.
Website: Museu da Marioneta
This is one of my 33 ideas for what to do in Lisbon
6. Museu Nacional do Azulejo
I couldn’t possibly leave out the ceramics museum. As you probably know by now, Portugal is famous for its azulejos (hand-painted ceramic tiles). Perhaps the most iconic of these are the blue and white panels that depict scenes of gaiety, proud nobles, country folk or saints and legends.
There’s more to the history of Portuguese ceramics, of course, and the museum covers the different techniques, styles and influences from their first usage back in the 16th century to the present day.
The earliest ceramic tiles were based on the Islamic style with raised edges to mark the separation between colours. Later developments kept the geometric element but used different painting and glazing techniques. You can see these in the church and chapel that forms part of the museum. Look out for the beautiful painted panel of pre-earthquake Lisbon, too.
This museum is out of town so you might want to take advantage of the café/restaurant facilities at lunchtime. You’ll find information about how to get there on their Facebook page: Museu Nacional do Azulejo.
Where to find the best museums in Lisbon
To make your life a bit easier in terms of working out which museum to go to, I’ve plotted them on a map of Lisbon.
If you’d like to explore the patterns and colours traditionally used with azulejos check out this beautiful book.
Or check out the tile patterns in my online store.
If you’re planning on visiting several museums and monuments, it might be worth getting a Lisbon Card, which gives you discounts on museums and some of the many other things to do in Lisbon as well as free public transport around the city.