Exploring Lisbon's Architectural Heritage

The intriguing timeline of Lisbon has gifted the city a unique architectural showcase, spanning from the Romanesque monoliths of the 12th century to the classical palaces of the Age of Discovery. From Baixa to Alfama, Belém to Bairro Alto; a tour of Lisbon’s distinct bairros (neighbourhoods) promises architectural discoveries aplenty. To give you a taste for the incredible sights that await in Lisbon, here we explore the city’s heritage, touching on the history, styles and influences behind some of its most esteemed buildings.


Sao Jorge Castle
Portugal’s occupation by Moorish forces has had a lasting influence on the architecture of Lisbon. Arriving in the city on 6 August 711, Moors from North Africa and the Middle East occupied the city for over four centuries, building many mosques and houses and re-establishing the Roman-age city walls. Ultimately, the Moors created a formidable stronghold that was held until the mid-12th century, when King Afonso I of Portugal re-took the city.

While many of Lisbon’s original Moorish buildings were lost during the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, one of the city’s greatest architectural icons, São Jorge Castle, stands as a lasting monument to the city’s Moorish heritage. Indeed, the Moorish influence on Lisbon can be seen elsewhere, too, particularly in the charming Alfama district, whose ancient, winding streets contain many houses built by the Moors in the 10th century.

São Jorge Castle

Sao Jorge Castle skyline
Occupying a hilltop in the historic centre of Lisbon, São Jorge Castle is, in all senses, an unmissable highlight on Lisbon’s architectural map. Built on the site of a hilltop fortress, São Jorge began life as a small fort, but was later expanded, reinforced and redesigned by the Moorish forces during the 11th century. The castle was originally designed as a citadel, and it contains several defensive features. designed to safeguard the occupants in the event of a siege. Walls were fortified to withstand attacks, and the gradient of the hill leading to the main entrance was increased to make sieges nigh-on impossible.

Campo Pequeno

Campo Pequeno arena
While few exemplary Moorish buildings remain in Lisbon, contemporary architects remain inspired by the city’s heritage, and in more recent times, several buildings have been constructed to mimic the classic Moorish style. One such structure is the Campo Pequeno, Lisbon’s primary bullring, which was designed by António José Dias da Silva in the late 19th century. With its onion-domed towers and orange bricks, the building has a distinct Moorish influence, and is often likened to the old bullring of Madrid

Romanesque and Gothic

Tram in Lisbon by night
Some of Lisbon’s earliest remaining buildings are of the Romanesque and Gothic style, brought to Iberia from Burgundy in the 11th century. As an emerging independent state, Portugal imported the style from travelling monks and knights, and several churches and castles were built in Lisbon to replicate the strong buildings of destinations such as Avignon and Arles in southern France.

Romanesque proved a popular architectural style across Portugal because it gave a strong defensive foundation against invaders whilst also allowing architects to incorporate elements of Gothic craft and stonemasonry. The cathedrals of Lisbon, Coimbra, Porto and Braga are all built in the Romanesque-Gothic style, so that each could be used as both a place of worship or a fortress if required.

By the 12th century, Lisbon was home to several Romanesque structures, but now only a small handful remain, with the majority destroyed during the 1755 earthquake.

Lisbon Cathedral

Lisbon Cathedral
While Lisbon Cathedral has been reconstructed several times following damage from earthquakes and war, it’s still broadly considered one of the city’s finest remaining examples of Romanesque architecture. With construction starting in 1147, the cathedral features an imposing twin-spired façade with defensive ramparts as well as a beautiful rose window, which has been lovingly preserved for centuries. Over the years, new architectural styles have been incorporated into the cathedral’s design, but it remains a stunning example of early Romanesque architecture.

Church of Nossa Senhora de Conceição Velha

Church of Nossa Senhora de Conceição Velha

One of the great original Gothic churches of the early Middle Ages, the Church of Nossa Senhora de Conceição Velha is a real icon on Lisbon’s architectural map – showcasing the very finest 15th-century craftsmanship. The church was originally quite a humble building, but it later developed to become one of the most ornate religious sites in Portugal. Despite falling into a state of disrepair in the 15th and 16th centuries, the church was subsequently rebuilt in the 1700s, and managed to survive the earthquake of 1755 amazingly well


Cloister of Mosteiro dos Jernimos

Often regarded as the most influential architectural style in Portuguese history; the Manueline style was seen heavily throughout Lisbon during the 15th and 16th centuries. Named after the Portuguese king, Manuel I, the style introduced greater ornamentation to Lisbon’s architecture, and was used as a means of showcasing Portugal’s growing wealth and prosperity.

What’s perhaps most fascinating about the Manueline style is the incorporation of maritime elements, and depictions of great discoveries across the seas. The Manueline tradition emerged just as Portugal was entering its Age of Discovery, a time when Portugal was a world-leader in maritime exploration – discovering Madeira, the Azores and a sea route to India.

Architects were quick to embrace the country’s growing maritime influence and showcase this within their designs. Therefore, many grand buildings were built around nautical themes, though sadly only a few remain today.

Belém Tower

Cloister of Jeronimos Monastery Lisbon

Belém Tower is easily the most iconic example of Manueline architecture in Portugal. Standing on the brink of the Atlantic Ocean, this imposing coastal fort was built in the 16th century, at the height of Portugal’s Age of Discovery9. It’s a bold, magnificent architectural statement, celebrating the nation’s seafaring might while providing a key defence from would-be raiders. The tower itself stands 30 metres in height, and is built directly over the River Tagus, offering commanding views across the entire estuary.

Jerónimos Monastery

Belem Tower in Lisbon at sunset
Jerónimos Monastery is a strikingly vast and ornate monastery in the heart of the city’s ancient Belém district. While Jerónimos has always served as a monastery, the building has long been associated with Portugal’s maritime heritage, and its architectural style celebrates sailors as great discoverers and explorers. Indeed, today, a large portion of the monastery is given over to housing a maritime museum. One of the most beautiful religious monuments in Portugal, Jerónimos Monastery is a must-visit for those exploring Lisbon’s most prominent architectural feats.


Pantheon Lisbon
Like many cities in Europe, Lisbon was influenced heavily by the Baroque movement of the 17th and 18th centuries, and it was widely incorporated in the city’s rebuilding after the 1755 earthquake. Hundreds of new buildings emerged in Lisbon to replace those destroyed in the quake – and they were grander and more ornate than ever before. The Baroque movement had a great influence on the architecture of Lisbon for a number of reasons, but one of the most significant was due to Portugal’s seafaring dominance during the Age of Discovery. In settling countries such as Brazil, Portugal was able to import gold and woodcarving techniques which were used when constructing some of Lisbon’s most beautiful Baroque buildings, including the Church of Santa Egracia

Belém Palace

Belem Palace
One of the finest Baroque buildings in Europe, Belém Palace was built in the 15th century before being altered in the 18th century. The palace later became the official residence of the Portuguese royal family and then the home of the Presidents of the Portuguese Republic. Built close to the Targus waterfront in the historical centre of the Belém district, this grand building features all the trademark flourishes of classic Baroque architecture – from highly-ornate cornices which celebrate Greek mythology, to an interior brimming with marble and exotic dark hardwoods.

Church of Santa Engrácia

Symmetrical floor on Lisbon Pantheon

The Church of Santa Engrácia is a 16th-century monument in the Alfama district, revered for its complex architectural design which was the brainchild of the famous Baroque architect, João Antunes. He devised a highly-innovative design for the church, incorporating a centralised floorplan in a Greek cross configuration – a style never before seen in Portugal. Serving as a church from 1681 to 1916, the building was then converted into the National Pantheon of Portugal, and several new additions were made to its overall design.

Experience Portugal’s Legendary Architecture with Emerald Cruises

Lisbon street car

The architectural highlights of Lisbon are yours to discover during our signature Secrets of the Douro & Lisbon itinerary, which incorporates a wonderful luxury Douro river cruise with the enriching discoveries of a Lisbon city break.

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