Early retirement budget travel: Free museum info for Lisbon visitors

Some unusual late-winter rainy days in Lisbon, Portugal, had us searching for things to do indoors. We decided to visit museums that offer free admission on Sundays. I’m here to tell you — much of the information out there on travel blogs and travel sites is just plain wrong about free visits to many Lisbon museums.

Some are free for Portuguese residents only, or they’re free for only senior citizens, or only certain times on certain days, etc. In fact, almost all museums that have a free offer have conditions attached. Good thing I verified information by checking official websites, and didn’t go by bogus blog information.

Here are two museums we have visited that are truly free for Lisbon visitors, at specific times on Sundays. Both are fantastic places to see, and I’m about to explain why.

The Aljube Museum

The Aljube Museum is well-designed and kept my interest for a few hours, even though its content is somber. The museum is in a former prison used by the secret police in Portugal’s past dictatorship. Exposure to this part of this country’s past gave me a touch of insight into the people’s current collective peaceful psyche.

As of this writing, admission is free every Sunday for all people until 2:00 p.m. The official website is here.

The first floor featured pull-out books in English on the rise of the dictatorship before World War II, through the Carnation Revolution just four decades ago. This was helpful to arm us with knowledge as we went on to the second floor, where there is an immersive environment of what it was like to be a prisoner.

The second floor is creepy, and somewhat depressing. There is nothing good to celebrate by seeing what living conditions were like for prisoners, or the torture methods used on them, or the techniques used by the secret police to catch people opposed to the government regime.

As a former journalist, the section about how the resistance cobbled together uncensored newsletters interested to me. People used boxes over typewriters to conceal some of the noise of the keys, in case curious neighbors reported the sound of typing to the police (pictures are at end of this post). Businesses that sold paper and ink were heavily scrutinized. Often, citizen journalists were targets of the secret police, along with their families, and some of the officers got torture ideas from Nazis. Yea. Not good.

At one point, I looked out a window through authentic prison bars (covered in a million coats of paint). There was the main Catholic Cathedral – sign of god and grace and good – just outside the window. How cruel for the prisoners.

The third floor of the museum had exhibits about life in the colonies, and the resistance of the people in those African countries. This was another depressing historic reality. There’s also a wall of names honoring a fraction of the prisoners died in custody. Ugh.

Just as I thought, jeez, I don’t like feeling this low, the exhibit culminates in an uplifting video display from the day of the Carnation Revolution, on April 25, 1974. Liberation was brought to life in some old video, and it was just what I needed to feel better and have some hope about the world. Eventually, fascists and dictators and egos will go down — love and light and kindness always perseveres.

I’m glad we went to this excellent museum.

The Calouste Gulbenkian Museum

Another place I really wanted to visit during our Lisbon stay was the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum. This museum is a treasure! Go. Go to this museum when you visit Lisbon – whether you go for free on a Sunday afternoon, or not.

The Gulbenkian Museum features some amazing pieces in what was once one of the world’s largest private art collections. Calouste Gulbenkian made his fortune in oil in the early 20th Century (he wasn’t born in Portugal, but ended up here), and he went on a buying spree of fine art. The result is what you see in The Founder’s Collection. There is another building with a Modern Art collection.

The Founder’s Collection is in its own building and it showcases Gulbenkian’s taste in Egyptian, Greco-Roman coins and art and books, Islamic and Oriental art, European painting, sculpture and fine furniture. This is the only building we had time to visit, because we like to take our time. We will go back another day for the Modern Collection.

As of this writing, admission is free every Sunday for all people after 2:00 p.m. Closing time is 6:00 p.m. If you have only one Sunday in Lisbon, don’t linger too much in the Founder’s Collection (like we did), or you’ll never get through it and on to the Modern Collection. See the official English version of the website here.

A bonus to our visit at the Gulbenkian Museum was a free classical concert that lasted about an hour. It featured a violinist and a pianist. The musicians were young men and wow, could they ever play! Tedly was stunned by their appearances. He said you could see either of them at any cafe and never in a million years suspect they could play such excellent classical music.

Tedly asked a guard how often the museum holds the free concert, and the answer was only on the first Sunday of the month. So, don’t go on any Sunday and expect to hear beautiful music – in the gallery hall right next to Rembrandt! If you happen to be there on a first Sunday, be alert to the concert start time and try to get there as soon as the chairs are set up. In our case, museum staff set up the chairs a bit after 3:30 p.m., and the concert started at 4:00 p.m. I literally sat and gazed at a Rembrandt portrait in the adjacent room when Tedly urged me to get up and find a seat in the next room. (Seats are fold-up stools, because this is an impromptu set up in the gallery).

By the way, in addition to Rembrandt, there are several paintings by Francesco Guardi, beautiful works by Thomas Lawrence and Peter Paul Rubens – just to name a couple. There are so many other wonderful paintings and other art works by world-class artists. For example, there’s a famous marble sculpture of Goddess Diana by Jean-Antoine Houdon, some amazingly decorative furniture, including a gorgeous long-case clock from 1750 (still works!) and intricately designed large bookcases. There are bibles with stunning drawings, religious carvings and other works. The Founder’s Collection starts off with money — ancient coins carried by the more well-to-do and also some coins carried by more common folks, like us.

We will definitely go back while I’m here – raining or not. I still have to see the Modern Collection. And since we’d be on the grounds, I know I’ll likely go back to have another look in the Founder’s Collection.

I would be happy to pay admission to this museum – it’s only 10 Euros ($12.29 USD) for basic admission to both permanent collections. A guided tour is just two euros more. Go to the museum’s excellent website (English translation available) for more information (again, the link is here).

Oh — and there is strong, free wifi throughout the Founder’s Collection (and, I’m assuming, in the Modern Art Collection). If you’re contemplating a Rembrandt painting, and want to learn more about it or the artist – just hop online. How cool is that!?

Final thoughts

There are other museums that offer free admission for visitors in addition to these two. We either didn’t have much interest in them, or we simply haven’t gotten to them yet. Just make sure you visit the official site and don’t go by bad blogs and ‘travel sites’, because there is so much wrong information out there.

We’ll check out other free (or practically free) events in the coming days, such as an upcoming concert in an 18th Century Palace, and a cheap way to see fado music, so there will be (at least) one more blog post with budget travel ways to enjoy this fantastic city.

Gulbenkian Museum photos


Aljube Museum photos








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