Tales from the crypto porticos

By Scott Ross [email protected]

Since 2000, Scott Ross has lived in Quarteira, where he manages a restaurant. His background is in psychology and he holds a BA from the University of British Columbia. This special article is about the crypto porticos beneath the streets of downtown Lisbon. A visit is a must!

September is the perfect time to visit Lisbon. The sun is still ever-present, but the intense heat of summer has subsided.

It’s walking weather, and Lisbon is one of the best walking cities in Europe. September is also the only time that you can take a walk under Lisbon—in the ancient crypt beneath the city.

This series of arched passageways and galleries is often referred to as “the catacombs of Lisbon”.

However, no evidence has been found that this was used as a burial site and the proper designation is crypto porticos.

The ancient Romans built crypto portici as semi-subterranean constructions that

An adjacent gallery. You can see the pump, which is running constantly to prevent the crypts from flooding during the tours.
An adjacent gallery. You can see the pump, which is running constantly to prevent the crypts from flooding during the tours.

often served as entrance ways to, and foundations for superstructures, such as forums and temples.

The original purpose of the crypto porticos in Lisbon is unknown, apart from being necessary to provide stability on top of a very swampy ground. No evidence remains of what great structure it may have been supporting.

Built over 2,000 years ago when Lisbon was known as Olisipio, this crypt was slowly buried by urban development.

The word “crypt” is derived from the Greek word “krypte”, which means “hidden”. For several hundred years, this is exactly what it was.


Meanwhile, water from underground streams began to enter through large cracks in one of the main galleries. Eventually it became flooded.

It was only during the reconstruction of Lisbon after the 1755 earthquake that workers discovered what lay beneath their city.

The integrity of the ancient structure was so well preserved by the moisture that it was used as the foundation for several new buildings—which still stand.

A pedestal discovered inside one of the galleries bore a dedication, written in Latin, to Aesulpius, the god of medicine. It was therefore assumed that this was originally a Roman bath.

The entrance gallery.
The entrance gallery.

The water was considered medicinal, particularly for ailments of the eyes. As late as the 1980s, the galleries were still referred to as “The Roman Public Baths of Olisipo”.

As interest in this fascinating subterranean monument grew, the Museu da Cidade (City Museum of Lisbon) began the yearly tradition of opening the crypto porticos for public viewing. This is done towards the end of each September by emptying the galleries with huge water pumps.

If you plan to visit the crypts, they are easy to get to. Find the Rua de Augusta, which is the main pedestrian street—the one with the large arch at the end—in the heart of downtown Lisbon.

About half way down (walking towards the river) you will come across the Rua da Conceição. Turn left and walk one block.  In the middle of the road, next to the tram tracks, is the entrance to the crypto porticos.

Guided tours

Tours are guided by an archaeologist from the Museu da Cidade, as well as colleagues from the museum’s educational services. The duration of a typical tour is 15/20 minutes.

After descending a steep set of stairs, you will be guided through several galleries of various sizes. The most famous of these is the “Galeria das Nascentes”.

It is here that you can see the water bubbling in through the floor, walls and ceilings.

Certain details will be pointed out, such as the shape of some “ashlar-work” (ancient masonry).

This was used to determine the age of the galleries. You can also visit some “cellae” (small closed rooms) that are part of the infrastructure.

You will find the experience spooky, claustrophobic and utterly fascinating. Take a moment to consider the rareness of this opportunity.

This is one of the least visited, fully intact ancient Roman monuments in the world.

This year the monument will be open between September 23 and 25. Tours will run from 10am to 6pm and entrance is free.

Note: Get there early. Line-ups can get very long. Organisers recommend visiting on the 23rd, as this is a work day and fewer locals will be lining up for tours.