Portuguese Tiles: A Part of Portugal’s Colourful and Ancient History

When you think of Portugal, colorful tiles come to mind as quickly as the food, the beaches and, of course, surfing in Portugal.

So, if you want to know more about this beautiful tradition of Portuguese tiles, read on!

What are Portuguese tiles?

Tiles are a huge part of Portuguese history and the two are really are inseparable.

Portuguese tiles come in many forms and are made of ceramic and are painted and glazed to withstand weather and wear.

However, these are not just simple tiles, they are a huge part of Portuguese culture and traditions.

The technical aspect around the production of tiles is very specific and its main characteristic is the longevity it offers to the final product, which is why almost every building in Portugal is decorated with tiles.

And some date back centuries!

Design of Portuguese tiles

People who wanted to build their monuments with Portuguese tiles always tried to relate them to the building’s history.

For example, if a priest were to order some tiles for his chapel, he would ask that saints be featured on them. The “final product” would present various titles that basically formed a painting.

Visit Top 10 Monuments in Lisbon for some sights not to be missed.

tiles buildings Portugal

How and when did tiles appear in Portugal?

Even though tiles are originally from Egypt, they were first brought to Portugal by the Arabs, in the 13th century at the time of their invasion, which also helped shaped Portugal’s culture.

However, it was in the time of King D. Manuel I that tiles were first introduced to Portugal. They were, in fact, imported from Seville after the King’s visit to Spain.

It is said that he was so enchanted by these tiles’ brightness, that he had to bring some back to Portugal to decorate his palace walls – the National Palace of Sintra.

Going to Sintra? Here are some tips: Visit Sintra in Portugal, a Place of History, Royalty and Magic

How are they called in Portuguese?

“Azulejos” is the Portuguese word for tiles. Its origin is, of course, Arabic, and it means “small polished stone”. Initially, all these tiles would be cut into geometric shapes and painted with very neutral tones.

So you must be wondering where the “blue” comes in?

In Portugal, most of the tiles you find, combine the colours white and blue (mainly). And you honestly see them everywhere, from churches and monasteries to simple houses.

These predominant colours were considered very fashionable at the time of the Age of Discoveries (from the 15th to the 18th centuries).

They are also associated with oriental porcelain and have a Dutch influence (Delft blue). Plus, the blue colour was seen as a synonym of power and wealth, which is why you can easily find them on important monuments all over the country.

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Portuguese tiles
Portuguese tiles

How are Portuguese tiles made?

The first tiles’ factory dates the 18th century and was build in Lisbon, Portugal’s capital. Since then, the process has been conserved as much as possible, always preserving its tradition and the method associated with it.

Most of the Portuguese tiles are square and thin, in order to be used to decorate the walls of buildings.

The tiles are baked in an oven and its outer part is glazed afterwards so that they can be painted by the artists. This glazing makes them waterproof, in order to resist any environmental conditions.

Portuguese tiles are so important and a major part of Portugal’s culture that we have our own dedicated museum for them: The National Tile Museum, in Lisbon.

Check out Tiles in Lisbon for more information of where to see the best examples of tiles on buildings in Lisbon.

Use of Portuguese tiles

Initially, Portuguese tiles were used inside most buildings. As they were only bought by wealthy families, it is understandable that they didn’t use them outside as much.

Over time, the tendency was to use them in every building’s construction, so it is possible to see them almost everywhere. The decoration itself depends on the artist, or the architect and constructor of the building, since you can decorate a house with equal, coloured designs or pieces of art.

That being said (and seen!), most people build patterns and decorate their houses in a very geometrical design.

However, as you can also tell a story, it is very common to see detailed murals depicted on churches and monasteries.

For example, the image below shows a church in the centre of Porto (north of Portugal), known as “Igreja do Carmo”.

Igreja do Carmo Porto Portugal
A wall full of Portuguese tiles on the Igreja do Carmo in Porto. Portugal.

It is only one example of how much of a detailed story you can tell using Portuguese tiles. Some of them are even more detailed than this!

These type of paintings are very “church typical” as they depict Biblical passages and illustrate them as specifically as possible. Back in the day, only wealthy people would have access to the Bible, so painting tiles was the way the Church related to the masses.

I want some, how much do Portuguese tiles cost?

It depends on where you buy them, for what purpose you are going to use them and from what artist. You can buy one tile for €5 or €10 at a souvenir store, but other more antique tiles can cost €20 or more each! Remember, we are talking about relatively small square tiles.

tiles market Portugal

If you want to decorate a whole wall or even build a “painting” from these Portuguese tiles, expect to spend a large amount of money.

Where can I buy Portuguese tiles?

In Portugal, there are a lot of stores which you can visit and find Portuguese tiles to buy.

When in Lisbon, you can find tiles to buy in:

If you are in Porto, you have:

You can also find some stores online, such as Manuel Marques Antunes or Azulejos de Portugal.

If you are in the UK and prefer to have a look before buying anything, you can take a visit to the Porcelain Superstore where they have a few typical Portuguese tiles.

We hope you enjoyed learning about Portuguese tiles. Do you have any questions? Please feel free to ask in the comments below.