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  • Writer's pictureFrancisca Gigante, MA

A Brief History of the Palácio Nacional da Ajuda in Lisbon

What is the Palácio Nacional da Ajuda?

The Palácio Nacional da Ajuda, or the Palace of Ajuda in English, is a historic house museum in Lisbon that was once the residence of the Portuguese royal family.

Palace of Ajuda

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Palácio Nacional da Ajuda History

During the first half of the 18th century, King John V planned to construct a new summer residence here on the Ajuda Hill. Although the project was then abandoned, it was eventually acted upon by John’s successor, Joseph I. Following the devastating 1755 earthquake that ruined much of Lisbon, Joseph developed a severe case of claustrophobia, meaning he was unable to live in a walled structure. Instead, the monarch decided to move the royal court to these spacious grounds. Since the Ribeira Palace had recently been destroyed in the earthquake, Joseph ordered that his new royal residence be built from wood, to limit the consequences of seismic tremors. The new palace, commonly known as the Real Barraca (or Royal Hut), since it was then just a small complex of wood-and-cloth structures, served as the primary residence of the court for nearly three decades.

Further misfortune struck during the reign of Queen Mary I, when a fire destroyed the dwelling. In 1796, the royal architect Manuel Caetano de Sousa, designed a new palace of limestone that drew inspiration from the Baroque style of architecture that had gradually spread throughout Europe in the preceding century. However, in 1802 Caetano de Sousa died, and the architects Francisco Xavier Fabri and José da Costa e Silva took up the project. They had both trained in Italy and were instructed to design the building in Neoclassical style, which emerged as the dominant European form around that time.

Following the Napoleonic invasions, the lack of financial resources and the departure of the royal court to Brazil (a Portuguese colony at the time), work on the new building was left unfinished. After the death of King John VI, with the east and south wings now habitable, Princess Isabel Maria and her sisters chose the palace as their home. Two years later, King Michael decided the palace was to be his official home and ordered the continuation of the building work. However, after six months he moved to the Necessidades Palace and never returned. In the political instability of the clashes between liberals and absolutists, the building works ceased. When the liberals won, King Peter IV took over the government and swore to uphold the Constitutional Charter in the Throne Room of the Ajuda Palace.

For much of the 19th century, the royal family took up residence in the Necessidades, relegating the Ajuda to the status of a secondary home. It was only when King Luís I chose the palace as his official residence that the works were finally completed, 60 years after their initiation. His marriage to Maria Pia, Princess of Savoy, ensured the completion of the sumptuous interior, with wall and ceiling paintings, carpets, textiles and furniture all ordered by the queen and architect Joaquim Possidónio Narciso da Silva from the finest Portuguese and foreign sources.

In the interests of the occupants’ comfort and privacy, new private quarters were introduced: the Dining Room for daily family meals; the Blue Room, a living area; and spaces for leisure pursuits, such as the Marble Room and Billiard Room. The bathrooms were equipped with hot and cold running water, a domestic feature that was particularly advanced for the time. The queen also had a chapel built, where you can admire altarpieces by José Veloso Salgado and the only work by El Greco in Portugal.

The founding of the Republic in 1910 and the subsequent exile of the royal family led to the permanent closure of the palace, which eventually became a museum in 1968. Today, the sober Neoclassical building, which often serves as a backdrop to state ceremonies, acts as an intriguing time capsule, offering an insight into the regal lifestyle of the 19th century. Its collections, on display throughout the building as if it were still occupied, comprise decorative arts, paintings, textiles, furniture and jewellery (including the Portuguese Crown Jewels).

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