Travel notes: Once upon a tile in Porto

Aleksandra Smelianska
3 min readNov 21, 2020

In 2018, I chose sunny Portugal for remote work as it is affordable, has reliable WiFi throughout the country, friendly locals, and incredibly beautiful nature spots. It was also highly recommended on Nomadlist as being safe and welcoming for women traveling alone. As I’ve visited Lisbon before, this time I decided to start my trip from colorful and eclectic Porto, which fascinating history and ‘old-world’ vibe made it a wonderful place to combine remote work with a little adventure.

Porto is the second-largest city in Portugal and has been an important center for trade for centuries. During The Age of Discovery Porto was one of the most important shipbuilding centers in the world and later became one of the major ports for the wine trade in Europe — a distinction that it still holds today. The city is much quieter than Lisbon, full of cobbled streets and little restaurants. Among the delights of taking a stroll through the city are the tiles you see at every corner: on the walls of houses, restaurants, and churches.

In Porto, I had the pleasure to meet Marisa Ferreira and Alba Plaza, founders of a non-profit organization ‘Os Azulejos do Porto’ who introduced me to the art of Portugal’s historic azulejo tiles.

The telling of history through tiles in Porto

Tiles are not just a part of the city's visual landscape, azulejos shaped Portugal’s cultural and historical heritage. The term azulejo” comes from the Arabic word “al-zulaich”, which means small polished stone. This ceramic decoration was introduced in the Iberian Peninsula by the Arabs during the 13th century. In Portugal, the azulejo were introduced by king Manuel I after a visit to Seville in 1503.

Covering part of a building in tiles became a status symbol in the 19th century. Later, with mass production, the practice became more affordable and soon, azulejo-tiled buildings became a Portuguese trademark. The azulejo is one of the strongest cultural expressions in Portugal and one of the most original contributions of the creativity genius of the Portuguese in world culture.

The Art of Azulejos Porto

Marisa Ferreira and Alba Plaza created a nonprofit organization called Os Azulejos do Porto to preserve Porto’s historical tiles. They photograph the tiles and create a digital catalog aimed to preserve Porto’s cultural legacy. The team estimates that there are at least 1,000 unique tile patterns in Porto.

They were hand made in the many factories that existed in the country. But sadly and due to a drastic reduction in the demand for tiles, today almost all of them have ceased their activity. Their buildings have disappeared or are completely in ruins, so the preservation of these tiles is of great importance.

I met Marisa Ferreira and Alba Plaza through an Airbnb experience where you can learn how to create the tiles. During the workshop, Marisa and Alba explained the methods used to design and paint Azulejos tiles and helped to paint your own tiles.

My imperfect tile art

The hope of the founders of Os Azulejos do Porto is that bringing awareness to the issue and learning the artistry will make more people care about preserving them.

If you ever visit Porto, I highly recommend taking the class and meeting Marisa and Alba. Those experiences would make you feel connected to the heart of Porto and its culture like anything else.


Airbnb experience: