Discovering The Hidden Ruins Of Roman Lisbon

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There might not be as many Roman remains in Lisbon as elsewhere in Portugal. However Felicitas Iulia Olisipo, as it was known, was once one of the most important trading centres of the Roman empire. Fragments of the ancient civilisation can be discovered if you look hard enough, but it may take a bit of planning to visit all of the sites.

Roman Lisbon

According to legend, Lisbon was founded by the Greek hero Odysseus. It was certainly occupied by the Phoenicians and the Greeks before the Romans arrived, making it one of the oldest cities in Europe. The location on the Tagus river was ideal both as a port and as a centre for fish processing. For many centuries Lisbon’s economy was based upon garum (a fermented fish sauce that was popular in Roman times), which was manufactured here and exported around the empire.

Museum exhibit of pots from Roman Lisbon.
Roman artefacts at NARC

The area now known as Baixa (the lower lying land close to the river) was the industrial part of the city with several fish factories. The houses of the wealthy and the public buildings were further away: for instance, the amphitheatre was higher up the hill in the Alfama district. Although most of the Roman city was built over in subsequent centuries, particularly during the Moorish occupation, the earthquake of 1755 exposed many previously unknown Roman ruins.

Some sites are still hidden and only accessible to archaeologists, but others are open to visitors.

Teatro Romano

The Roman theatre was built in the 1st century CE. It was a large amphitheatre, accommodating around 4,000 people, and was built into the rocky hillside. Unfortunately not much of the theatre itself now remains, but a small part is visible from the street outside.

Underground remains of an amphitheatre, with bases of columns and a picture showing where the seats would have been.
You can see part of the amphitheatre from the road above

More impressive is the adjoining museum, where artefacts recovered during archaeological excavations are on display. The museum takes advantage of the original site, and you can see where houses were once built into the rocky outcrop.

There is an entry charge to the museum. It is closed on Mondays and bank holidays.

Casa Dos Bicos

The Casa dos Bicos is a small museum in a 16th century building built on Roman foundations, the site of an old fish processing unit. On the ground floor archaeological area you can see fragments of the old city walls, as well as some of the industrial structures, and fragments of the amphoras the fish sauce was stored in.

Fragment of Roman wall.
A part of the old city wall

Entrance to the museum is free. It is closed on Sundays and bank holidays.

Núcleo Arqueológico Da Rua Dos Correeiros

The Núcleo Arqueológico da Rua dos Correeiros (NARC) is an archaeological site in the premises of a bank. It was discovered by chance when the bank was digging to build a car park and, unusually for a find of this type, they decided to keep the site and turn it into a museum. Access to the archaeological remains is via a guided tour: this is strongly recommended because you will be taken round by an archaeologist with extensive knowledge of Roman Lisbon.

The site itself was another fish factory. However, it also includes a fragment of Roman road, remains of a necropolis, and part of a private dwelling (possibly that of the factory owner), including baths and a mosaic floor.

Base of walls from a Roman house and section of mosaic flooring.
Mosaic floor in a former Roman dwelling

Tours of the site are free, and take place every day except for Sunday and bank holidays. However, it is essential to book in advance (details are on the website).

Hotel Eurostars Museum

The Áurea Museum Hotel on Rua Cais de Santarém is actually built on top of a Roman site. Hotel residents can join in a tour of the remains each morning, and the tour is open to non-residents once a week. The site includes a paved road, water fountain and several structures from the Roman period.

Even if you don’t manage a tour you can go into the hotel lobby. Here you will find the remains of an old house with a mosaic floor and some wall painting.

Roman house with fragments of wall paintings and a mosaic floor.
Remains of a Roman house in the lobby of the Eurostars Hotel

Tours for non-residents take place on Sundays. To book a place contact the hotel reception or email [email protected].

Lisbon Cathedral

The cloister of the Lisbon Cathedral (Sé de Lisboa) contains archaeological remains from different parts of history. From the Roman period you will find a paved street with shops on either side.

Unfortunately the Cloister was temporarily closed when I visited in March 2024. Hopefully it will soon re-open to the public.

Roman Galleries Of Lisbon

If you happen to be in Lisbon at the right time, you can take a tour of the Roman Galleries (Galerias Romanas) beneath the Museum of Lisbon. This is a cryptoporticus, a series of vaulted underground galleries that would once have supported several large public buildings.

To preserve the humidity of the structure it is only open to the public twice a year. Check the website for visiting times, but make sure you book well in advance, because places are limited.

Carmo Convent

And, finally, there is the Carmo Convent. This is primarily of interest as a medieval Gothic building, but the museum area contains a sarcophagus and other artefacts from Roman Lisbon.

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How To Explore Roman Lisbon

Varying opening times mean that, unless you are very lucky, you may not be able to cover all the sites mentioned in a single visit. I would recommend starting at the Teatro Romano Museum where the knowledgeable attendants will be able to advise you on the best places to go. Alternatively you could take an organised tour of Roman Lisbon, covering some of the major sites.

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