A Visit to Lisbon’s São Roque Church

Beautiful churches in Lisbon are easy to come by. Many of them date back to times when the clergy ruled the cities, so their interiors needed to reflect immense wealth on par with royalty.

If you’re walking through the Bairro Alto district in Lisbon you’ll eventually pass the Church of São Roque. This was the first Jesuit church to be constructed in Portugal and among the earliest in the world.

São Roque Church – by Andreas Manessinger – Wikimedia Commons

The irony of the São Roque Church is that the exterior is so unbelievably plain that many people, locals and tourists, pass right by never peeping inside for a closer look. The exterior resembles somewhat of a children’s Catholic school building.

Once inside, you bask in one of the richest church interiors in all of Lisbon, perhaps even Portugal. How did this monumental space land up here? And what function does it serve today? Take a visit to Lisbon’s São Roque Church and find out.

Location of Lisbon’s São Roque Church

Situated to the west of the Alfama district, Bairro Alto is a hillside region in Lisbon that is made up of cobblestone streets and beautiful city views.

This neighborhood is as loved by day as it is by night. The nightlife is comprised of weird and wonderful bars & traditional Portuguese restaurants that showcase live music each night of the week.

A free guided walking tour is the best way to fully immerse oneself in all that Bairro Alto has to offer. There is a lot of street art to be seen, much of which will go unnoticed without a familiar guide.

São Roque Church exterior – by Rowanwindwhistler – Wikimedia Commons

The Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara is the go-to viewpoint in this part of town. If you walk directly south down this street you’ll eventually come to the São Roque Church on your left hand side.

You’ll begin to understand the importance of nightlife to this district once you arrive. All of the adjacent roads and side streets are filled to the brim with cafes, restaurants and cocktail bars.

The church is open from 9am to 5pm daily and entrance is absolutely free. There is a €2.50 cover to explore the museum section, however if you visit on Sundays this is free as well.

History of Lisbon’s São Roque Church

The church space was originally a shrine that housed artifacts in memory of Saint Rocco, which translates to São Roque. He became a saint thanks to his work in healing victims of the plague that raged through Europe.

The Jesuits made up a large sector of the Roman Catholic church and the São Roque Church eventually became their official home in the 16th century. Their presence here lasted roughly 200 years before they were permanently expelled from Portugal.

São Roque Church – by Julien Chatelain – Wikimedia Commons

Before the Jesuits, the church remained an understated and humble shrine dedicated to the saint in question. The Jesuits brought with them a large amount of disposable income that saw the transformation of the church into one of the most opulent places in all of Lisbon.

Incredibly, the São Roque Church survived the earthquake of 1755 that ripped most of Lisbon apart. It was one of very few buildings in the west of the city that weren’t completely destroyed by the natural phenomenon.

Architecture at Lisbon’s São Roque Church

Inside the church you’ll find nine chapels and four alters. You’ll be able to make your way around each individual chapel, some holding tombs inside of them such as the Main Chapel which is the resting place of João de Borja.

The Italian and Baroque influence inside of this church is undeniable. Many of the alters and carved panels were shipped in from Italy during the 18th century.

Each of the nine chapels are virtually dripping in gold, right from the ceilings down to the floor.

Nine chapels at São Roque Church – by scalleja – Wikimedia Commons

The ceiling of the church is painted in traditional Mannerist style making up a succession of three panels that bare a series of events indicative to the church.

The main alter is an architectural marvel of its own. It is made from a combination of Amethyst and Lapis Lazuli crystals combine with Carrara marble. It is thought to be the only alter of its kind in the world. 

Museum at Lisbon’s São Roque Church

The fine work of the goldsmiths and remnants of the art collections that once hung in the space desperately needed a place to call home by the time the 1900s rolled around.

In 1905 the Museum of the Treasure was erected to join the São Roque Church. It is one of the first museums ever to be opened in Lisbon.

The museum intended to show the public a curated timeline of events that lead up to the existence of the church in the present day. It also sought to educate the public on the work of Santa Casa da Misericórdia, the Portuguese religious charity.

São Roque Church Museum- by Vitor Oliveira – Wikimedia Commons

The Jesuits left behind a lot of exceptional paintings as well as some valuable objects that were once part of the Chapel of St. John the Baptist. These were collected and placed in the museum.

The museum at São Roque Church offers a small cafe to visitors where once can refuel between exploration of this landmark in Lisbon.

Nearby Attractions at Lisbon’s São Roque Church

While you’re in this part of town you absolutely must take a short walk from São Roque Church through to the ruins of Carmo Convent a few roads away.

As I said, very few buildings in Lisbon survived the great earthquake; Carmo Convent was amongst the less fortunate vicinities.

The ruins of this gothic style church are still open for public visitation. For the most part, the church appears well preserved and unaffected by the tragedy — aside from there being no roof!

Carmo Convent – by Aleksandr Zykov – Wikimedia Commons

The sight is beyond comprehension; an exquisite gothic cathedral with just the Lisbon sky looming overhead.

From the church you can make your way to the Praça Luís de Camões, the main public square in this area (Read more about Discover walking tours). Enjoy the little restaurants and pastry shops that fill the square before finally making you way down to the Tagus for a beautiful sunset view over Lisbon.

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