It’s inescapable. Capital cities = Museums.
Newcomers disembark on foreign soil to find countries proudly sitting astride layer upon layer of historic eminence with burgeoning assemblages of art cased throughout and all laying claims that their capital city is the TRUE epicenter of culture. This rings especially true for the competing European countries who at some point grew weary with their Game of Thrones and moved on to their Game of My Museum is Better Than Yours.
Madrid has the Prado; London has the British Museum; Paris has the Louvre.
All home to exquisitely rare art collections crafted by celebrated artists and representing a variety of artistic movements. Perhaps even more impressive than the art itself are the grandiose structures that house these masterpieces – each one more extravagant than the last.
The Prado has its imposing Neoclassical façade; The British Museum has its Norman Foster glass roof; The Louvre has its iconic pyramid.
And while these are considered amongst the finest in the world and steadfastly attract millions of patrons per year, the museum experience is often compromised by snaking queues – not just for entry but sometimes for the actual artwork itself.
Enter Lisbon – the remarkable European capital of the underrated country of Portugal and home to the unsung artistic gem – the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian.
Museu Calouste Gulbenkian
A defining mark of modern Portuguese architecture with its award winning design, this lesser-known museum offers an alternative to its over-inhabited counterparts found in other Western European capitals.
Constructed in the 1960’s to house the entirety of a 6,000 piece accumulation of objet d’art carefully selected by the late private collector Calouste Gulbenkian, the simple, mostly concrete structure reflects the nature of the collector himself and cunningly captures his creativity, simplicity, and dignity.
The lower level offers an Art Library, temporary exhibit space, cafeteria, museum store, and a small auditorium while natural light floods into the first floor lobby through the surrounding full length windows and allows glimpses into the picturesque gardens resting just outside the building. The interior corridors exhibit artifacts from all over the globe spanning from antiquity all the way up to the early 1900s.
Off-shooting from the entrance hall are the main exhibition galleries and unlike other overwhelmingly large European museums, the entire Gulbenkian collection can be viewed in an hour or two with zero hints of museum-burnout. Oft times while strolling through, I even found myself entirely alone in one of the wings – cheerfully never having to experience the rush of impending crowds.
Specific galleries include the Greco-Roman wing where my Classical Archaeology degree was put to the test as I tried to remember all those lessons on Hellenic coins and the red-figure pottery of ancient Greece. Next door lay the masks of Pharaohs, hieroglyphic stelae, and stiff statues in the Egyptian annex while Islamic, Armenian, and Far Eastern collections wait just around the corner.
The museum is also host to an exquisitely rare exposition of illuminated manuscripts covering periods ranging from the 1200’s through the 1900’s and its European Art room drapes canvases from master painters such as Rembrandt, Monet, Rubens, Turner, Manet, and Renoir.
Perhaps most impressive is its entire annex dedicated to the delicate and unique works of famed French artist Rene Lalique who was celebrated for his innovative use of glass, enamel, ivory, gold, and semi-precious stones to create exquisite Art Nouveau jewellery which became pieces of art in their own right.
The display includes various examples of his elegant pendants, broaches, diadems, and hair combs.
Desiring a seamless intermingling of art and nature, the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian was carefully fashioned in conjunction with skilled landscape architects whose vision for a serene backdrop resulted in the creation of an environment reminiscent of a placid lakeside.
Two lakes deliver streams and inlets that scenically wind through green spaces where paths and foot bridges dot its course along with natural vegetation that fashions a habitat for various water birds.
Mallards rearing tiny ducklings can be found sharing the spaces with local Portuguese families as they spread out on blankets beneath the shade of an oak tree to revel in the glorious summer weather.
Also adorning the park are various sculptures and rose gardens along with an open-air amphitheater used for numerous performances fluctuating from music to theatre to dance. This is part of the newer Modern Art Center, also located within the park grounds, which was built by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in the 1980’s to showcase a myriad of artworks produced by Portuguese artists.
While this cultural center and public park may lie in the shadow of its more established European neighbors, the peaceful setting combined with the feeling of solitude that comes with marveling at the masterpieces hanging in the uncrowded museum, make this veiled European gem something that is not to be missed.
1. Museu Calouste Gulbenkian
Hours: Tues thru Sun from 10am – 6pm
Admission: Euro 5 (Free on Sundays)
2. Centro de Arte Moderna
Hours: Tues thru Sun from 10am – 5:45pm
Admission: Euro 5 (Free on Sundays)
3. Open-air Amphitheater
Closest metro stop: S. Sebastião/Praça de Espanha
Check out this article on 8 Unforgettable Cultural Experiences in Lisbon for a comprehensive list of other things to do in and around Portugal’s capital city.
Do you know of any other hidden cultural gems that you think are not to be missed? Let me know in the comments below!
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