The Portuguese capital’s cobbled lanes and narrow streets are best explored on foot. And inevitably, all roads lead to the city’s starring attractions: its cathedrals, churches, monasteries and convents. Centuries-old and each with its own story to tell, our guide to Lisbon’s best churches is a historic and aesthetic journey through the city’s sacred sites.
The twin turrets of Lisbon Cathedral are iconic of both the city’s skyline and its history. Constructed around 1147, Lisbon’s oldest church marks Portugal’s switch from Islam to Christianity and houses the remains of the capital’s official patron saint, Vincent of Saragossa, who was martyred for refusing to worship pagan gods. While it’s certainly grand, those seeking extravagant stained glass and gilded chapels should look elsewhere – the cathedral’s interiors are austere compared to others. However, it’s infused with a palpable peace that provides a welcome retreat from Alfama’s bustle.
What Lisbon Cathedral lacks in illustrious interiors, the nearby Church of Santa Engrácia more than makes up for. This beautiful Baroque church, which took nearly three centuries to complete thanks to an insouciant king, finally found fame after its inauguration in 1966 as the National Pantheon. Beyond its grand domed façade, it’s all gilded marble and dazzling tiled floors. It’s here that some of the biggest characters in popular history are entombed, including the first president of the republic and singer Amália Rodrigues, who was instrumental in popularising Fado music across the world.
Officially the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, this beautiful Neoclassical cathedral, crowned with a rococo dome, towers over Lisbon from its lofty perch in the southwestern barrio of Estrela. Its façade is impressive, but its interiors are more so, awash with a kaleidoscope of pastel marbles arranged in beautiful geometric designs. The cathedral’s highlight lies beyond Queen Mary I’s tomb: a nativity scene of 500 cork and terracotta figurines carved by celebrated 18th-Century sculptor Joaquim Machado de Castro.
An eerie casualty of the earthquake that devastated the Portuguese capital in 1755, Carmo Convent’s grand nave lost its roof and is now open to Lisbon’s blistering blue skies. One of the best churches in Lisbon for budding photographers, the beautiful Gothic ruins house an archaeological museum. However, this intriguing collection of Palaeolithic relics and South American mummies plays a cursory supporting role to the starring sky-clad skelton of the building.
An immense, ornate sprawl dominating the historic district of Belém, Jerónimos Monastery’s UNESCO World Heritage status is well-earned. It’s steeped in history and carved with beautiful nautical details that nod to the country’s fascination with exploration and discovery in the 15th century. Vasco da Gama and his men spent the night here before embarking on their expedition to the East in 1497, and he was eventually laid to rest in the chapel.
Not much to look at from the street, Lisbon’s Church of São Roche earns its place on our list of Lisbon’s best churches as it’s among the very first Jesuit churches in the world. A step inside hikes up those visitor points significantly. Soak up at the lavish interiors swathed in gilt-edged frescoes, a dazzling gold-embellished chapel and one of Lisbon’s most beautiful painted ceilings. The sheer opulence pays due tribute to the wealth and power of the influential order.