Portugal is a country known for many things; beautiful sunshine, delicious seafood, pastel de nata, and of course, port! But something else that wows visitors to Portugal are the colourful tiles that cover many buildings in the different cities across the country.
The tiles are better known as azulejos, and were first introduced to Portugal in 1503 after the king, Manuel I, visited Seville and saw the tradition of using tiles there. Not only are they decorative, but they’re also useful in controlling the temperature of a building. Soon, buildings everywhere were covered in tiles of different colours and patterns.
The tiles in Porto are just as attractive and widespread as in the rest of Portugal, but there are some notable pieces in the city that are worth checking out. Unlike the purely decorative patterns, these tiles tell a story.
São Bento train station
If you arrive in Porto by train, you’ll be greeted in São Bento station by an amazingly detailed lobby. 20,000 azulejos cover the walls of the interior and date from 1916 when the station building was completed, showing moments from Portugal’s history. Even if you’re not using the train, it’s worth popping in just to admire the lobby.
Porto Cathedral takes pride of place in the centre of the city. It was built on the highest point in the city, and from its hilltop position it offers amazing views from the courtyard out front. Inside, it’s just as impressive. However, for those wanting to check out the azulejos in the cathedral, it’s the courtyard that’s the real winner.
The cloister on the ground floor has scenes depicted in tiles in the archways, but the mural on the upper cloister is worthy of a wow. There’s so much to see in the detailed expanse of tiles, and it’s definitely worth a visit even if you’re not bothered about seeing the cathedral. If you’re just after a quick look at some of the tiles in the cathedral, there’s a smaller collection on the outer wall as you approach up the hill on Terreiro da Sé.
Entrance to the cathedral is free, but there’s a small fee of €3 to enter the cloister.
It wouldn’t be Portugal if you didn’t see the azulejos decorating buildings across the city. As well as the blue tiles that are found in the train station and cathedral, you’ll also spot them in seemingly random places such as staircases, rocks in the road or formal rooms. Throughout the city there are also buildings with the patterned tiles of varying colours.
Shops across the city sell tiles that you can take home as a souvenir. They’re often replica tiles or with a fun pattern on, but you may also find tiles that have come from buildings. Groups such as SOS Azulejo have been created to control and possibly stop the sale of the tiles that have come from buildings. In 2017 a law was passed that prevented buildings anywhere in Portugal from being demolished or renovated if it meant the tiles would be removed. These tiles are considered part of the cultural heritage of the country, and as such shouldn’t be taken from buildings or bought at markets. Replicas, though, are a fun souvenir to take home as a memory of the blue tiles of Porto.
Prices correct as of 2020.