Although Portuguese architecture is said to have officially commenced with the start of the monarchy, there was already a large scattering of ancient buildings in existence all over the country, most notably the Visigoth temple of Balsemão, the Mozarab church of Lourosa (built in 912), the basilica of Santo Amaro at Beja and the church of São Frutuoso near Braga, the purest specimen of Byzantine architecture in the Iberian Peninsula.
Fortunately, a lot is known of the Ibero-Celtic Portugal period from the 5th to the 1st centuries BC due to the excavation of hill towns known as citânias, of which Briteiros is one of the finest examples. Our knowledge of Roman Portugal, likewise, has been enhanced by the many continuing excavations happening at many key sites on both the Portuguese mainland, the most important being Conímbriga near Coimbra which was already a well established Iron Age settlement in the first century AD.
A few rare and well-preserved examples of Visigothic architecture can still be seen in Portugal, mostly in the form of small churches constructed prior to the eighth century AD when the Visigoths ruled the Iberian Peninsula. Embellished with exquisite cord motifs and striking rosettes, a precious example of Visigothic architecture in Portugal is the small Latin-type basilica of São Pedro de Balsemão near Lamego in the Douro region of northern Portugal, which dates from 7AD or perhaps even earlier.
The finest Roman building is without doubt the Roman Temple of Évora (pictured above and indicated on the map below), which is often affectionately referred to as the Temple of Diana). Built in 2-3 AD in honour of Augustus, the first Roman emperor, it is located in the centre of Évora, a historic city in Portugal’s picturesque Alentejo region.
The Romanesque style, which appeared in Portugal during the second half of the 11th century, was introduced by the Cluniac monks. Most evident in the cathedrals of Braga, Porto, Lamego and Coimbra (particularly Sé Velha), it remained en vogue until the early 13th century. The essence of Gothic architecture was introduced by the Cistercians later that century. Typified by a Latin cross, vast naves with high vaulting and side walls lit by large windows with precious stained glass, the best examples can be seen in the monasteries at Alcobaça and Batalha, in the heart of the Centro tourist region.
Appearing towards the end of the 15th century, the characteristic Manueline style coincided with Portugal‘s colonial discoveries and conquests during the Age of Discovery. The maritime influence was brought in by Francisco de Arruda – builder of the iconic fortified Tower of Belém situated beside the River Tagus in west Lisbon – who popularised the use of knotted cables, chains, anchors, sails and coral as a form of cathedral decoration. Some of the most striking examples of Manueline architecture are at Tomar, the Unfinished Chapels at Batalha and the great church and cloister of Jerónimos Monastery in Belém.
Renaissance flair was introduced to the country by French architects in 1517, coming from Italy. Good examples can be seen in the cathedrals of Leiria and Portalegre, the Jesuit college at Évora and the church of São Roque in the Bairro Alto district of Lisbon.
The Baroque style became predominant throughout Portugal from the 15th century onwards and the theatricality and illusionism of this striking style of architecture in Portugal is much admired by today’s visitors. The convent of Mafra is considered the best example of this, with its imposing Baroque dome and magnificent 88-metre-long library.
Need more sightseeing ideas for your next visit? Why not listen to or download the Portugal Travel Show, the podcast for people planning a trip to sunny Portugal…