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Why the Gulbenkian is one of Lisbon’s highlights

I’m lured to Lisbon fairly regularly for a dose of culture, great restaurants and nightlife to balance out my peaceful village life in central Portugal.  I usually take the opportunity to make some new discoveries but there are some places I find myself going back to time and time again. The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation is one of them.

Art at the Gulbenkian

One of the things I love about the Gulbenkian is the contemporary art. As well as a rotating display of the Modern Art Centre’s permanent collection, there are always temporary exhibitions throughout the complex, which includes the art gallery, foundation building, museum and gardens.

Sometimes the temporary exhibitions are better than others and my most recent visit was one of those times. There were three exhibitions that I loved and you might enjoy too if you’re visiting Lisbon any time soon.

The entire ground floor of the Gulbenkian’s Modern Art Centre is currently devoted to Under the Sign of Amadeo: A Century of Art which includes pop art, videos and sculptures. My favourite section of this exhibition is the Amadeo de Sousa-Cardosa room. Amadeo died at the age of 30 but before his untimely demise in 1918, he produced a remarkable number of paintings and drawings and was clearly too busy making art to bother naming most of his pieces.

Dom Quixote, oil painting by Amadeo de Sousa-Cardosa
Dom Quixote, oil painting by Amadeo de Sousa-Cardosa

“Dom Quixote”, one of the few paintings with a name, must be part of the Gulbenkian’s permanent collection because I remember being taken with it when I visited the gallery several years ago. I was equally impressed on second viewing. Although Amadeo mastered several different styles and techniques of painting, the colours and forms from this period of his work really appeal to me, especially the exaggerated curves of the horses and people.

The Prince and his Pack, oil painting by Amadeo de Sousa-Cardosa, 1912
The Prince and his Pack, oil painting by Amadeo de Sousa-Cardosa, 1912

If you don’t manage to catch the exhibition before it ends on 19th January, 2014, you can see much of Amadeo’s work at the museum in his home town of Amarante.

Gulbenkian gardens 

The gardens of the Gulbenkian Foundation are always worthy of a wander and if you have time, this is a great place to bring a book or a picnic. With plenty of hidden benches and quirky sculptures there are quiet places to escape to and new discoveries to make. Even more so at the moment as the Proximo Futuro (Next Future) exhibition provides an outdoor art treasure hunt (on until 29th September, 2013).

Rulote, a caravan painted with flowers and butterflies by Fátima Mendonça as part of the Next Future exhibition at the Gulbenkian in Lisbon
Rulote by Fátima Mendonça as part of the Next Future exhibition at the Gulbenkian in Lisbon

Some of the pieces are easy enough to find, such as the caravan painted with flowers and butterflies and the printed patterned sunscreens by the duck pond.

Decorative awnings forem Desvio by Luís Nobre as part of the Next Future exhibition at the Gulbenkian in Lisbon
Decorative awnings from Desvio by Luís Nobre as part of the Next Future exhibition at the Gulbenkian in Lisbon

Others, like the series of Alminhas (Little Shrines) by Catarina Branco are scattered around the grounds. I also found a tribal tent made of eucalyptus sticks and sisal and an odd but fabulous sculpture made with broken ceramics. Well worth closer inspection.

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Art and ducks aside, the other main draw of the gardens is its amphitheatre. The stage is used by local Tai Chi groups and teenagers practicing their dance acts while the benches attract couples and Sunday newspaper readers.

Multipurpose amphitheatre, Gulbenkian gardens
Multipurpose amphitheatre, Gulbenkian gardens

Gulbenkian Foundation building 

I only had time to see one of the photography exhibitions that are currently on but the Bamako Photography Encounters made a lasting impression. Various collections of images by different photographers show the stark reality of life in underprivileged African countries.

One photograph of the granite mines in Angola was particularly powerful. All it shows is a woman’s chest wrapped in brightly coloured cloth. She’s holding a pickaxe across her chest and the tiny soles of her baby’s feet poke out from either side of her waist. Not all the images are bleak or depressing, though.

The Foundation building also has a great art shop and a theatre for concerts and presentations.

Calouste Gulbenkian Museum

I’ve visited the museum three times and still haven’t seen all it has to offer. Admittedly, there are some things that attract me more than others so I haven’t spent much time in the Egyptian room or the Greek coin collection. I prefer to spend my time admiring the Islamic art in the form of tiles and rugs, the collection of inlaid Japanese boxes and the gorgeous Lalique jewellery.

Turkish star tile
Turkish star tile

I didn’t have time to see what the current temporary exhibition is but in the past, I’ve enjoyed some magnificent still life oil paintings and the Aga Khan’s private collection of Islamic artefacts.

Odd patterns in an ancient rug
Odd patterns in an ancient rug

The museum space also hosts free classical music concerts at midday on the first Sunday of the month except July and August.

Eating at the Gulbenkian

If it isn’t picnic weather or you’d rather have someone else prepare your food, try one of the Gulbenkian’s eateries. At least one new café has opened up in the gardens since my last visit so if there are long queues for the café / restaurants in the art centre or museum buildings, take a short walk outside. Try to eat before 12.30 to avoid waiting for your food or a table as they get very busy at lunchtime.

Tip: Like many museums and art galleries in Portugal, entry is free on Sundays. Otherwise, expect to pay between 4 and 8 euros depending on what you want to see. The Lisbon Card gives you a 20% discount if you have one.

For more information about the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and its current activities and prices, check out the official website.

You might also like: 6 Of My Favourite Lisbon Museums

If you’re still searching for the best place to stay in Lisbon, read this post: Where To Stay In Lisbon


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  1. The museum is a tribute to Calouste Gulbenkian’s life and interests. It is funded mostly by a 100% shareholding in Oil company Partex which also is part of the group of companies that is to drill for oil and gas off the algarve’s coast. It is a shame the the Gulbenkian name is linked to both, quite separate and distinct, types of endeavor.

  2. Julie, thank you so much for the nice photos and slides. It was like being there and I appreciate it.

    1. Author

      Glad you liked them. I just hope you get the chance to go there in person some day.

  3. There are a number of reasons why I chose Portugal as the country to visit for my first trip to Europe. The Gulbenkian was one of the reasons.

    1. Author

      Happy to find a fellow fan, Keith. I trust it lived up to your expectations?

      1. The Gulbenkian lived up to my expectations. As for Portugal, it surpassed my expectations. I felt quite at home in Lisbon, I felt like I belonged there.

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