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  • Writer's pictureBen West

A Brief History of Praça do Império in Lisbon

What is Praça do Império?

Praça do Império (Empire Square in English) is a broad, manicured public square in Belém that was designed in 1940 for a World Fair.


Fountain at empire square in Lisbon

Praça do Império History

One of the delights of Lisbon is visiting its many magnificent squares. The Praça do Império (or Empire Square) is one of the finest of these, built for the 1940 Portuguese World Exhibition, which commemorated the 800th anniversary of Portugal’s foundation and the tercentenary of its independence from Spain. Although it’s by no means the oldest square in Lisbon, it’s certainly one of the most popular.


The Praça do Império is located in the riverside neighbourhood of Belém, home to many vibrant green spaces. It was designed by celebrated architect and film-maker José Ângelo Cottinelli Telmo, who belonged to the generation of pioneers who popularised Modernist Portuguese architecture. The square was intended to celebrate the greatness of the old Portuguese Empire (hence the name) and boasts of being both the largest public space in the Iberian Peninsula and indeed one of the largest in Europe.


Path through Empire Square gardens in Lisbon

An attractive formal garden with a maze and an impressive central fountain is the focal point of the space. It features 32 coats of arms representing the former provinces of the empire, and there are ponds decorated with sculptures of mythological figures. These fish-tailed seahorses, known as hippocamps, were ancient symbols of maritime power – ideal emblems for the Portuguese Empire, which dominated at sea in the 16th century.


The square is surrounded by some of Lisbon’s most distinctive architectural wonders, such as the beautiful 16th-century Jerónimos Monastery, recognised as embodying the essence of the Manueline style, a Portuguese variant of Late-Gothic. The riverfront square’s broad paths, framed by manicured shrubs, offer picturesque views in every direction.


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