In 1495, in Lisbon, Manuel I was crowned king of Portugal. His reign would do much for Portugal’s economy, its expansion and its growing world stance as Europe entered its “golden” Age of Exploration.” But perhaps Manuel’s greatest legacy was the “Manueline” architectural style, whose baroque flavors and often nautical curlicues, are uniquely Portuguese. And it is Manueline architecture that makes the design of countless buildings in Lisbon and Porto, as well as cities and palaces throughout Portugal, so utterly unique. Perhaps the “stars” of the Manueline style are the Belem Tower and the Jeronimos Monastery in Lisbon, as well as the Mafra Convent and the Batalha Abbey, each about an hour’s drive north of the capital.
Visiting Portugal is a cultural feast for the eyes, the ears and the senses. Particularly the ears. Fado is a distinctive and complex musical genre unique to Portugal. Literally, fado means “fate” – but fado music is a profound expression of the Portuguese soul, of how the Portuguese see themselves and their country. It is complicated music, moody, full of anguish and passion – and experiencing fado music brings the traveler nearer to understanding the Portuguese spirit, or saudade, an untranslatable phenomenon meaning longing or an ache in the soul. Historically, fado was danced, but today it is voice with accompaniment, usually of two 12-string guitars. There are dozens of fado houses in Lisbon and elsewhere, offering dinner and fado entertainment, although the Portuguese will tell you that the best fado is at their local tasca restaurant. It’s best to be guided by your tour guide or hotel concierge as to where and when fado is best during your visit.
Portugal is a country resplendent with art treasures. Art lovers usually start at Lisbon’s National Museum of Historic Art (Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga), the Modern Art Center (Centro de Arte Moderna) and at the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum – each with extraordinary classic and modern collections. For strictly Portuguese art, travelers aim for Lisbon’s Chiado Museum and the Serralves Museum in Porto. Lisbon is a city of museums, and lovers of art, history and culture can spend days wandering through the all new National Coach Museum, the Maritime Museum, the Ethnological Museum, the Decorative Arts Museum, the Military Museum, the Municipal Museum (it chronicles the city’s history) and many more.
One of Portugal’s most distinctive art forms is its delicately painted tiles (azulejos). The Moors brought the art of tile-making to the Iberian Peninsula in the 13th century – and the first tile workshop opened in Portugal in 1550. The word “azulejo” derives from the Persian word, azul, meaning the blue semi-precious stone, lapis lazuli, and while Portuguese tiles were originally blue, the craft developed in subsequent centuries to encompass a variety of colors and styles. Today, wherever visitors travel in Portugal they see examples of the brilliance and delicacy of the tile-making craft…from wall panels, church friezes and historic dioramas, to the tiles visitors buy as souvenirs of their visit.
The performing arts are richly represented in Portugal, and, depending on the date of a visit, choices can range from a philharmonic concert, to jazz in a smoky corner bar, to a rock gala, to a first rate performance of “My Fair Lady” at a major Lisbon theater. The enormity and extent of Portugal’s cultural heritage is underscored by UNESCO having declared thirteen locations in Portugal as World Heritage Sites. These include many of the sites mentioned in this article, as well as the historic centers of the city of Porto as well as the towns of Evora and Guimarães, and the central zone of the town of Angra do Heroismo in the Azores.