The Jewish presence in the Iberian Peninsula existed long before Portugal itself became a country. The contribution of Portuguese Jews to the arts, philosophy, commerce, and sciences helped create this nation’s rich cultural heritage. This beautiful journey shows a growing interest in Portugal’s Jewish legacy in places such as Lisbon, Porto, and many smaller villages and for its Jewish quarters across Portugal that was dormant for 500 years and are now being uncovered and revisited.
With nearly 20 percent of the population believed to have Jewish ancestry, many Portuguese are searching for their Jewish roots. With DNA testing, it is not at all unusual to meet a local who did the family research and became a “Jew by surprise.” For those interested in Jewish history and its communities in Portugal, there are several cities to explore: among them are Elvas, Evora, and Castelo de Vide. The Jewish presence in Portugal dates back to a time when the country did not even exist and some documents point out that the sixth century was a probable date that marks the arrival of the first Jews. This fascinating country is filled with places, stories, and traditions that keep the Jewish heritage alive, from the streets of historic Jewish quarters, or Judarias, to some of the oldest synagogues in the country, to the present-day synagogues and museums.
Jewish heritage in Lisbon can be traced beginning with the Alfama quarter, a large community that included the Judiaria Grande and included the Rua da Judiaria. These narrow streets still evoke the spirit of the generations of Portuguese Jews who lived and flourished there. As the community grew, more Jewish refugees came to Lisbon, and a new Judiaria Pequena was formed in the 13th century near what is today known as the central Praça do Comércio. This entire area was totally destroyed by the 1755 earthquake. The nearby Rossio square, before the earthquake, was the site of the court of the Inquisition. It was there where Jews and other accused heretics were burned at the stake. There is also the National Museum of Ancient Art, where you will find a primitive Portuguese masterpiece, including Jews wearing Stars of David on their clothing and a rabbi opening the Talmud, as well as other paintings with Jewish themes.
Praça do Rossio is the city’s liveliest area, where many locals and tourists meet up. The square and its surrounding streets are packed with some of the city’s most famous restaurants, bars, and shops; it’s also the site of the Jewish Lisbon Memorial. This memorial to the victims of the 1506 Jewish Massacre was erected on April 19, 2006 — the 500th anniversary is also known as the “Lisbon Massacre,” “Lisbon Pogrom,” or “The 1506 Easter Slaughter” and located at the historic square Largo de Sao Domingos, located by the Church Igreja de Sao Domingos. Explaining this Jewish massacre begins with the inception of the Spanish Inquisition in 1492 when 93,000 Sephardic Jews fled Spain and took refuge in Lisbon. In the early 1500s, drought and plague swept through Portugal. Jews preparing Passover feasts (using unleavened bread and bitter herbs) were thought to have caused the plague/drought, with Easter and Passover in close proximity in 1506. It is estimated that between 2,000 to 4,000 Jews who were forced to convert were killed.
The Jewish community of Portugal presented the simple memorial, a perfectly round travertine stone cut in half, on April 19, 2006. On the flat surface, there is a bronze Star of David monument, its plaque reading: In memory of the thousands of Jews who were victimized by intolerance and religious fanaticism, killed in the massacre that started on 19 April 1506, on this square. The base has a verse from the Book of Job 16:18 King James version etched into it. “O earth, cover not thou my blood, and let my cry have no place.” Take time to reflect on this memorial about all the death and destruction caused by intolerance. Also note that Commerce Square, or Praça do Comércio, a modern-day meeting place for locals and a great spot to bask in the sun along the riverfront, is also where thousands of Jews were forced to be baptized in the 15th century. Along the downtown streets of Lisbon, Baixa, Rossio, Chiado, and Bairro Alto, the amazing story of the Cristão-Novos, this Sephardic sub-group, survived over 400 years of persecution in secret.
Lisbon’s modern Jewish community:
Lisbon’s main synagogue called Shaare Tikva, or Gates of Hope, is a historic synagogue in Lisbon. It was built in the early 20th century as Jews, some but not all of Portuguese descent, returned to Portugal from Gibraltar and North Africa. The main facade of the synagogue faces an inner courtyard since Portuguese law at the time forbade non-Catholic religious institutions from facing the street. Inaugurated in 1904, the Lisbon Synagogue was the first synagogue to be built in Portugal since the late 15th century and was designed by one of the country’s best-known architects, Miguel Ventura Terra. The synagogue served as the center of Jewish life in Lisbon and was a sanctuary for the thousands of Jewish refugees who passed through Portugal during World War II. The marble Torah ark is inscribed with the Ten Commandments and encrusted with a gold leaf. It is also the home of a collection of documents dating from the 17th through the 20th centuries
The synagogue symbolizes the re-establishment of a Jewish community in Lisbon. Its president, Mr. Gabriel Steinhardt, estimated that “the Jewish community of Portugal in Lisbon accounts for more or less one thousand people, a very small community, out of which, about 500 are members or at least one of the heads of the family is a member of the community.” And those that are not affiliated are maybe another 500, so altogether the total is about 1,300, with 300 Jews in the northern city of Porto and 35 to 40 people in the small community of Belmonte. He added that “the community is half Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews: Moroccans who arrived at the end of the 19th century, Russians and Poles who escaped the pogroms in the first half of the 20th century. “So today, we have this very small Jewish community, certainly one of the smallest in Europe,” he said, adding that the synagogue does not offer formal Jewish education, such as Hebrew classes, yet. They have no Sunday school but have classes given by the rabbi. Steinhardt stressed that the population in Portugal today, in general, is not anti-Semitic, on the contrary, there is more of an air of philo-Semitism, that is, “friends of the Jews.” Steinhardt continued, “One of the reasons for this, besides the tolerance and the history and so on, is precise because people either are considered Jews or not Jews, they know about their history.” It is safe to wear a Kippah in Portugal unlike in other European cities.
Dr. Steinhardt told NYJTG, “We try to provide our members with the services and needs of our community; a synagogue, a very modern mikvah, a cemetery, a youth movement that meet every week, and a community center, tennis court, swimming pool and so on, so the kids can learn a little bit about our tradition and our religion and so on.” While kosher food is lacking, he added that “we’re going to find a solution, we have a brand-new and modern kitchen in the back which is operational but we have no one yet to operate it now and it is challenging.”
It is also important to note that the Portuguese Jews played an important role during World War II in support of refugees, first through the creation of the “Portuguese Commission for the Assistance of the Jewish Refugees in Portugal” directed by Augusto Esaguy. Jews cannot also forget the timeless legacy of Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese consul in Bordeaux, and Portugal’s own Oskar Schindler, a righteous gentile who saved 30,000 Jewish refugees from the horror of the Holocaust. Among those rescued were famous names like Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, and many others who contributed to the arts, sciences, and politics of the world stage. De Sousa Mendes was recognized in 1966 by Israel, which declared him to be a “Righteous Among the Nations.” In 1986, the United States Congress issued a proclamation honoring his heroic act.
Perhaps the best way to summarize this beautiful journey is through the words of Portugal’s Secretary of State for Tourism, Ana Mendes Godinho, who, in a meeting with Jewish journalists and travel professionals, highlighted the indispensable role of Portuguese Jews in her nation’s history and heritage. Determined to bring Jews to Portugal to experience it for themselves, Mendes Godinho said, “We want a Jewish presence in Portugal,” and called it “the third most peaceful country in the world, where all people can coexist happily and in peace.” She stressed “the importance of bringing Jews to visit to discover the beauty of this country on the Iberian Peninsula” and noted, “The Jews and Portuguese have a bond based on history and we are looking toward the future for Portugal to be seen as a country that is peaceful, a good place to live, and welcoming to all religions.”
Visitors will enjoy walking through the delightful sights of Lisbon. One could easily spend two full days of solid sightseeing here…if you have time, three or four days would be well spent there and will pass very quickly. Here are some other places to visit and things to do in Lisbon:
Belem- The tower of Belem
This civil parish got its name from the Portuguese word for Bethlehem. The Belem District houses many historic buildings that would satisfy anyone, particularly those with an interest in history, architecture, and photography. The Tower of Belem, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, stands along the Atlantic Coast. Built in the 15th century, the tower served as a gateway to Lisbon and defended the area against attacks by water.
Castelo de São Jorge
Towering dramatically above Lisbon, the mid-11th-century hilltop fortifications of Castelo de São Jorge sneak into almost every snapshot of the city. Roam its snaking ramparts and pine-shaded courtyards for superlative views over the city’s red rooftops to the river. Inside the Tower of Ulysses, a camera obscura offers a unique 360-degree view of Lisbon, with demos every 20 minutes. There are also a few galleries displaying relics from past centuries, including traces of the Moorish neighborhood dating from the 11th century at an active archaeological site. But the standout is the view and its feeling of traveling back in time amid fortified courtyards and towering walls.
With a history that dates back to the Moors, Alfama is characterized by narrow, cobblestone streets that wind past dozens of quaint shops, cozy little restaurants, and traditional Fado clubs, all of which are housed within historic yet well-preserved architecture. You can quickly feel like an intruder if you take a wrong turn into someone’s backyard. Early morning is the best time to catch a more traditional scene such as when women sell fresh fish from their doorways.
Sintra is a picturesque Portuguese town that is set amidst the pine-covered hills of the Serra de Sintra. This hilly and slightly cooler climate enticed the nobility and elite of Portugal, who constructed exquisite palaces, extravagant mansions, and decorative gardens. The variety of fascinating historic buildings and beautiful scenery has established Sintra as a fantastic tourist destination and has since become the most popular day trip from Lisbon. What’s more, the entire city is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its artistic, botanical, and historic richness. The Jewish Quarter of Sintra, where the Jews lived before the forced conversions of 1497, is still visible today.
Cascais is the finest resort town on the Lisbon coastline and makes for an enjoyable destination for a day trip. Cascais is set along a beautiful coastline of sandy beaches and rocky headlands, while within the town are grand mansions, fascinating museums, and attractive parks. There is a lot to see and do in Cascais and it is a highly recommended day trip.
Estoril is a stylish and fashionable Portuguese beach resort that is situated on the beautiful coastline that extends to the west of Lisbon. The town boasts fine restaurants, world-class hotels, and the largest casino on the Iberian Peninsula, all of which provide Estoril with a prosperous atmosphere and a reputation for exclusivity. Within the Estoril region, there is a diverse selection of sights and activities; these include glorious beaches, championship-grade golf courses, and historic towns to explore. During the Second World War, it was the refuge of writers, politicians, artists, businessmen, and many Jews persecuted by the Third Reich.
Bairro Alto and Chiado
Bairro Alto and Chiado are two closely related districts of Lisbon, with one being fashionable and stylish by day while the other is trendy and cool by night. Chiado is a popular shopping and theatre district of Lisbon, which has a selection of historic monuments, traditional shops, and interesting cafes and restaurants. Does Bairro Alto have the best nightlife in Lisbon? Simply put, yes. Bairro Alto is the nightlife hub of the city with countless small bars, trendy intimate venues, and restaurants where the haunting sounds of Fado can be heard wafting out. During the weekends, the revelers spill onto the streets and there is a carnival atmosphere along the narrow cobbled streets, filled with people enjoying the night.
Cabo da Roca
Cabo da Roca is a wild and rugged headland that marks the most westerly point of mainland Europe. The windswept cliffs of Cabo da Roca were believed to be the edge of the world until the late 14th century and the spectacular, desolate scenery adds to the allure of the location
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The author took part in a press trip sponsored by Visit Portugal.