The Convento do Carmo is one of the only structures that survived Lisbon's Great Earthquake. Today, you can visit its skeletal remains and literally step into history.
Surviving Lisbon's Great Earthquake
On November 1, 1755, the Great Lisbon Earthquake shook the city of Lisbon and its surrounding areas. The estimated 8.5 - 9.0 earthquake is considered one of the top 25 most destructive earthquakes in history and caused a tsunami that reached heights of 5-15 meters, striking the coastline of Lisbon and southwest Portugal.
As if this wasn't disastrous enough, the earthquake occurred on All Saints' Day. On this day, Catholics traditionally attend mass and light candles in remembrance of loved ones passed. Since Portugal was (and still is) a predominantly Catholic country, the churches on All Saints' Day in 1755 were not only packed with people honoring the holiday, but were also filled with lit candles.
Consequentially, when the Great Lisbon Earthquake struck and turned buildings to rubble, it also ignited several fires throughout the city. Earthquake + Tsunami + Fires = a complete catastrophe. Much of the city was destroyed and the disasters killed between 10,000 and 100,000 people.
Reconstructing the Convento do Carmo
One of the few structures that survived the Great Lisbon Earthquake is the Convento do Carmo (Carmo Convent). Founded in 1389 by Constable D. Nuno Álvares Pereira, the convent and adjacent church were built in the Gothic architectural style between 1389 and 1423. It underwent several modifications over the years, which accounts for its various architectural styles. The Earthquake destroyed the structure of the building, while a fire ruined the interior.
Reconstruction began in 1756, but was abandoned by 1834. Thirty years later in 1864, the Convento do Carmo became an archaeological museum and the first of its kind, known as the Museu Arqueológico do Carmo. Already a building of historical importance, the Convento do Carmo cemented its place in national lore when it became the site where the Estado Novo dictatorship, led by António Salazar, surrendered its power during the 1974 Carnation Revolution.
A must-see Lisbon attraction
If you're visiting Lisbon, you have to make a quick stop at the Convento do Carmo. Located in the Chiado neighborhood of Lisbon, it's one of the very few standing relics of a Lisbon that existed before the Great Earthquake, and one that you can actually walk through.
From the outside, it looks like a nondescript European church, but as you enter its skeletal remains, you're immediately greeted by stunning blue skies — already not your typical church. The view is flanked by tall Gothic arches that compel your eyes to look up to the church's most striking feature, a missing ceiling.
The church's incomplete reconstruction left the open structure that exists today, adding a bit of whimsy to an otherwise traditional church — you would almost think that the Convento do Carmo was intentionally built this way to bathe it in natural light.
Eclectic artifacts at the Convento do Carmo
As you walk down to the end of the nave, you'll encounter a small, but impressive, archaeological museum featuring an eclectic collection including Roman epigraphs/writings and tombs, Pre-Columbian mummies and ceramics, Egyptian mummies, a sarcophagus, and artifacts from the excavation of the Castro de Vila Nova de São Pedro, a Chalcolithic (Copper Age) archaeological site in Azambuja, Portugal. You can skirt through everything in just a few minutes or spend half an hour to really explore some of the museum's treasures.
Leaving down the Elevador de Santa Justa
After you finish your visit to the Convento do Carmo, you'll exit back onto the square, Largo do Carmo. Before you leave, be sure take advantage of one more iconic site in Lisbon, the Elevador de Santa Justa (Santa Justa lift). It was built by Raoul Mesnier du Ponsard. Despite what his name suggests, he was a Portuguese engineer said to be a disciple of Gustave Eiffel — yes, that Eiffel, the one who built Paris' Eiffel Tower.
From the Largo do Carmo, follow signs to the bridge that leads you to the Elevador de Santa Justa. You'll arrive first at a viewing platform where you can take a moment — or several — to admire the incredible, panoramic views of Lisbon and her terra cotta rooftops. If the Elevador's ironwork of looks familiar, that's that Eiffel influence you're seeing.
To descend to the Baixa neighborhood, you can pay to ride down the elevator or take the stairs for free. From there, a whole new area of Lisbon awaits for you to explore.
Note: To access the viewing platform, you will have to pay a small fee. This fee is included in the ticket to ride the elevator if you purchased one. If you are using a public transportation daily pass to ride the elevator, the viewing platform ticket is not included.
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