Portugal’s Unusual Tourist Attractions


Portugal’s brilliantly colored azulejo tiles have attracted tourists from all over the world, especially photographers. Although the country is currently closed to visitors because of COVID-19, officials plan on re-opening tourism sites by mid-June.

Portugal’s shifting relationship to its tiles mirrors the ways that the very fabric of Portuguese society has been recreated over the years. Until recently, Portugal was a relatively unknown tourist destination. But a variety of factors—more cheap flights from the U.S. to Europe (before the pandemic) than ever before, millennials seeking out Instagram-worthy and wallet-friendly destinations, and a promotion campaign by the Portuguese government—have turned Portugal into one of the trendiest destinations in Europe.

Because of the COVID-19 crisis, Portugal, like most southern European countries, is currently closed to tourism. But COVID cases have been declining fairly steadily since mid-April, and officials plan to start re-opening the country to tourists—starting with its beaches, and then hotels—as early as June.

Portugal enjoys a variety of other advantages as well. The Euro goes significantly further there than in more “traditional” destinations like Rome or Paris.  And Portugal’s national airline, TAP Air, sweetened the deal for visitors by offering a “stopover” program, whereby people flying to other destinations in Europe or Northern Africa could tack on a few days in Portugal at no extra cost.

Budget airlines like Ryanair, Norwegian and EasyJet have certainly helped matters, allowing people to visit Europe who even ten years ago wouldn’t have been able to afford it. Although budget airlines have existed for decades, a few ultra-low cost airlines revolutionized European travel in 2017 when they began offering flights that were called “the lowest the industry had ever seen”, some as low as $69 one-way from the United States.

Visitors to Portugal are attracted to the country’s beautiful architecture, abundantly illustrated by this ornate chapel within the Museu Nacional de Azulejos.

In 2017, following its recovery from a severe drug-addiction crisis in the 1990s, the Portuguese government joined the party by launching a “Don’t Skip Portugal” campaign, a  20-million-euro video advertisement to encourage visitors to the country. It was resoundingly successful, and Portugal became a coveted destination seemingly overnight. Suddenly, the reputation it had gained as a dangerous and dysfunctional country, was replaced by a new identity: glittering Mediterranean paradise. Between January and August of 2019 alone,  the country had 11.5 million visitors, a 6.5% increase from 2018.

Once tourists arrive, the picturesque vistas and colorful tiles make Lisbon a photographer’s dream, for both hobbyists and professionals.  Business Insider called Lisbon “perfect for Instagram,” and it’s hard to argue with that assessment; some of Lisbon’s iconic azulejo tiles are even “millennial pink.” Combined with a mouth-watering food scene, great affordable wine, and relatively mild weather year-round, Portugal has become an easy sell.

Of course, Portugal’s increased tourism has negative impacts as well. There have been grumblings from locals about the country’s most iconic cities, like Lisbon, losing some of the identity that made them special, and becoming more expensive for the people who live there. Some of this can be blamed on the rise of Airbnb, which has been accused of increasing the cost of living in cities around the world. For now, Airbnb is legal in Portugal, but some European cities, like Barcelona, have gone so far as to shut down thousands of listings on the platform because of how drastically this service has pressured the lives of residents. It’s not difficult to imagine a day when Lisbon will do the same.

Azulejo tiles can be damaged by weather, salt from the ocean, and human hands. During Portugal’s drug crisis, many of the country’s tiles suffered; a team of scientists and restoration experts at the Museu is now working hard to bring them back to life.

In spite of the challenges that come from tourism, advocates do think it has been good news for the azulejos. As tourists have flocked to see the tiles, they’ve become more valuable. “Portuguese people are surrounded by azulejos. They they see all sorts of buildings, from the noblest ones, [such as] churches, to the most prosaic and banal ones… so people don’t see them anymore and they don’t value them.” Visitors, however, are “absolutely enchanted by the scenery,” says Leonor Sa, head of the city’s SOS Azulejo program, which works to “rescue” tiles that would otherwise be thrown away. And, as the tiles have become a symbol of Portugal abroad, they’ve become more important to cultural identity at home.

Casey O’Brien is a journalist, content creator and essayist based in Oakland, California.

© 2020 Casey O’Brien, all rights reserved. Under exclusive license to Craftsmanship, LLC. Unauthorized copying or republication of this article is prohibited by law.

Published: May 20, 2020