Tiles – Lisbon’s Signature “Thing”


One of the unique things about Lisbon, Portugal are its tiles.

You’ll see houses in every neighborhood fronted with colorful ceramic tiles. I could barely walk down a block without stopping to photograph another tile design. There is even a museum (Museu Nacional do Azulejo) dedicated to the history of tiles in Portugal, with examples dating back to the Roman era. 

I heard many different stories about how tiles became associated with Lisbon. Each person seemed to have a different explanation.

It was Roman influence from the 3rd century B.C., back when Portugal was known as Lusitania.

Certainly, others said, it was the Moorish influence. Portugal, like southern Spain, having been part of the Moorish kingdom known as Al-Andalus from the 7th to 12th century.

Another story attributed the tile proliferation to the wealth of the Catholic Church who commissioned biblical scenes in tiles.

Portugal’s “Age of Discovery” in the 14th-15th centuries played a big part according to another. Investors and merchants showed off the wealth garnered from the colony of Brazil by encasing their homes in tiles to outwardly display their new success.

Others cited practical reasons. Tiles are more expensive up front but last longer and in the long run require less maintenance than having to frequently paint.

Tiles reflect the heat of summer and keep the house cooler, since many of the older homes lack air conditioning.

Finally, an Uber driver, born in Lisbon, gave the simplest explanation It’s what we do. It’s a mark of our tradition and culture.” 

Whatever the real reason or reasons, tiles are a signature mark of Lisbon. Not just on government or decorative buildings. Tiles adorn normal homes squirreled away on steep windy streets in working class neighborhoods. 


Every place – and every organization — has its signature “thing.” What about your organization?

What are the stories that are “signature” about its culture?  

Are they positive and uplifting or make you go “hummm…”?


Photos: JMaliszewski, 2018. Tiles from houses in Lisbon.



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