Lisbon’s Historical Movie Theaters

Written By Zé Eduardo Penedo

Fade In

Ah, the movies… Filled with glamour and thrillers, celebrities with auras brighter than the sun. They inspire us, touch us, and scare us. For me, a night out at the movies is and always will be, a special event. The smell of popcorn, the darkness of the room, the sound of the projector. There is something unique and unforgettable about that experience.

My first memory of the movies is still very vivid, even a decade and a half later. It was a Sunday afternoon and I was out with a friend from elementary school. I lived in a small town and we were out of trees to climb so we decided to stop by the movie theater to check what was playing that week. That’s right, there was only one movie a week.

I remember seeing the poster outside. It was an animated film and it had a cool warrior-girl with a massive wolf behind her. That’s all it took to convince us. And that experience is one that marked me for the rest of my life. The movie in question is, of course, Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, which – now I know – is nothing short of a masterpiece.

How much did that experience influence my life? Well, I studied film in college and nowadays I live in Tokyo. So, yeah, I would say that it was somewhat influential. And there was a time, before multiplexes and corporate consolidation trivialized it, when going to the movies was a truly magical experience.

Some of us still remember when people dressed up to go watch a movie. You would arrive at the theater and you would have someone escort you to your seat. And God forbid you were noisy while the movie was playing because a frowny lady with a flashlight would immediately show up to give you a shush and a stern look.

Lisbon used to be a city that breathed cinema. No matter where you went, you were bound to find a movie theater. From the dozens in Rossio and Baixa, along with the ones by the Avenida de Liberdade, all the way up to the Avenidas Novas and Saldanha area, the place was a dream for cinephiles.

But nowadays, only multiplexes survive – except for a few notable exceptions. All others have been shut down and turned into everything from churches to record stores. A majority of the dazzling buildings still survive, to serve as proof of what once were dream factories.

So join me through a journey, not only through the hilly streets of Lisbon but also through time, back to an area where mystery and adventure ruled our collective imaginations.

Cinema São Jorge

Inaugurated in 1950 by the Sociedade Anglo-Portuguesa de Cinemas, the Cinema São Jorge quickly became an icon of the Portuguese capital’s movie scene. Under the direction of architect Fernando Silva, the cinema’s bold design, with almost 2,000 seats, won the prestigious Municipal Architecture Prize that same year, unanimous recognition of its innovation and modern design, which broke with the nationalist standards that prevailed at the time.

Its striking construction stood out for its pioneering use of concrete and advanced construction techniques, allowing for innovative structural and decorative solutions. The grandiose cinema hall, originally designed with an audience, balcony, and second balcony, was a work of singular magnitude, reflecting the creative vigor of the time.

In the 1980s, it underwent renovations that resulted in the large room being subdivided into three smaller spaces. Despite the changes, the cinema maintained its status as one of the main destinations for lovers of the seventh art in Lisbon.

In 2001, the Lisbon City Council acquired it, initiating a series of interventions aimed at preserving its historical importance and revitalizing its cultural relevance. After a phase of work on the façade and interior, the cinema reopened its doors that same year.

Since 2006, the space has been the scene of intense cultural activity, hosting both national and international film festivals, as well as other high-profile events in the performing arts. Thus, Cinema São Jorge continues to play a key role in the city’s cultural scene, keeping alive the passion for cinema and the arts in Lisbon.

Cinema Sao Jorge. Photo by Miguel Teixeira

Cinema Condes

Cinema Condes, formerly known as Teatro Novo da Rua dos Condes, is an iconic cultural institution located on Avenida da Liberdade in Lisbon. Initially a theater owned by Francisco de Almeida Grandella, it was acquired by the Castello Lopes firm in 1915.

After being remodeled in 1919 to show films, the building was demolished in 1951 and replaced by a new structure designed by Raul Tojal. With a capacity for 907 spectators, it had a modern façade adorned with a bas-relief by Aristides Vaz interior decorations by José Espinho, and paintings by Fernando Santos.

The Cinema Condes was reopened in 1952, becoming an emblematic venue for the premiere of major film productions, concerts, and festivals. In 1967, due to the production of 70-millimeter films, new works were carried out, including the extension of the projection screen. However, a week after the work was completed, a fire damaged the audience area, resulting in the cinema being temporarily closed for 38 days.

Despite its rich history and being a cultural landmark in Lisbon, Cinema Condes was unable to withstand the competition from new cinemas in shopping centers and closed its doors in 1997. Nevertheless, its legacy endures as a symbol of the city’s passion for cinema and the arts.

Cinema Odéon

The Cinema Odéon, a Lisbon landmark located on Rua dos Condes, in the parish of São José, is an old cinema with a rich cultural history. Its importance is highlighted by the fact that it has been included in the Lisbon City Council’s Municipal Heritage Inventory and has been in the process of being classified by IGESPAR since 2008.

Inaugurated on September 21, 1927, Cinema Odéon is recognized as the city’s most emblematic cinema. It features distinctive elements of the Art Deco style, such as a pediment on the stage, a verbena wood ceiling, a neon chandelier, and a suspended side box, and is the only cinema in Lisbon to retain these features.

Currently closed, the cinema shows visible signs of deterioration over the years, reflecting its state of abandonment since the mid-1990s. However, it is about to be transformed into a luxury property, with plans to build ten apartments and a restaurant. The initiative aims to preserve the building’s history, keeping the most iconic elements intact, including balconies, marquees, and the Art Deco pediment.

This transformation will not only revitalize the space but also ensure that Cinema Odéon’s cultural and architectural legacy is preserved for future generations, standing out as an important symbol of Lisbon’s cultural heritage.

Cinema Império

The majestic Cinema Império, located at the intersection of Alameda Dom Afonso Henriques and Avenida Almirante Reis, in the parish of Arroios, Lisbon, Portugal, is an outstanding example of Estado Novo architecture. Inaugurated on May 24, 1952, and designed by Cassiano Branco, with completion by António Varela, Frederico George, and Raul Ramalho, the building established itself as one of the most prestigious cinemas in the Portuguese capital.

The Cinema Império stood out not only for its imposing architecture but also for its precise urban integration. With a capacity of 1,676 seats, distributed between the audience, 1st and 2nd balconies, the space was truly grandiose, reflecting the splendor of the “Cinema Cathedrals” of the 1950s.

Over the years, Cinema Império screened a wide variety of acclaimed films, from works by Ingmar Bergman to classics by Federico Fellini and Roman Polanski. In 1972, the Studio was inaugurated, a second room located on the top floor, which showed more daring and demanding films, further expanding the diversity of the program.

After decades as a cinematic icon, Cinema Império closed its doors in 1983. Today, the building houses a place of worship for the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, thus preserving its historical and cultural importance.

Classified as a building of public interest by IGESPAR in 1996, Cinema Império continues to be remembered as one of the greatest examples of Estado Novo architecture in Portugal, a true architectural gem that evokes the golden age of cinema in Lisbon.

Cinema Olympia

The Olympia Cinema, inaugurated on April 22, 1911, was a cultural landmark in Lisbon. Owned by Empreza do Olympia, Limitada, composed of Júlio Petra Viana, Victor Alves da Cunha Rosa, and the brothers Leopoldo and Henrique O’Donnell, the cinema offered a variety of entertainment, from children’s matinees to soirées for the intellectual elite. Directed by Sabino Correia, the Olympia stood out for its screenings of international films accompanied by live musical performances.

During the 1920s, the cinema underwent improvements, including the addition of a restaurant and the transformation of the Cabaret into the Olympia Club, a famous jazz concert venue until 1959. In the 1950s, films of various genres began to be shown, such as westerns, cops, and thrillers.

After 1974, the cinema faced significant changes, showing erotic and pornographic films to attract audiences. However, with the rise of video, television, and the internet, the Olympia closed in 2001.

In 2008, renowned director Filipe La Féria bought the building with plans to turn it into a theater space and a performing arts school, expanding the Politeama Theater. However, the project was abandoned due to the high costs involved, leaving behind a rich history of entertainment and culture in Lisbon.

Cineteatro Capitólio

The Cineteatro Capitólio, officially inaugurated on July 10, 1931, stands as an architectural landmark in Lisbon, embodying a period of transition and innovation in Portuguese architecture.

Designed by architect Luís Cristino da Silva in 1929, it represents a departure from conventional styles, integrating elements of simplified art deco with a purist and rationalist aesthetic. Its unassuming façades and incorporation of international modernist influences positioned it as a pioneering manifesto in Portuguese architecture, marked by a series of technical innovations.

Functioning as a pioneering theater, music hall, and cinema, the Capitólio boasted a spacious interior hall with stage and adjacent dressing rooms, along with an outdoor cinema located on the rooftop terrace. This versatile space quickly became one of Lisbon’s most popular venues, hosting a diverse range of events including concerts, theater productions, wrestling matches, boxing bouts, skating shows, and film screenings.

Notable performances included screenings of “A Severa” and “A Canção de Lisboa,” as well as the national premiere of “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans” by F.W. Murnau.

Following the April 25 Revolution, the Capitólio made headlines for its bold programming shift, featuring screenings of explicit films like “Garganta Funda,” which attracted large, sold-out crowds, symbolizing Lisbon’s embrace of newfound freedoms. Throughout the 1980s, the rooftop skating rink was repurposed as a discotheque known as “Roller Magic,” adding to the venue’s eclectic appeal. However, by the mid-1990s, the Capitólio closed its doors.

Designated as a Public Interest Property in 1983, efforts to revitalize the Capitólio began in 2007, aiming to restore its original purpose as a multi-purpose arts venue. Led by architect Alberto Souza Oliveira and financed by contributions from Casino Lisboa, the extensive reconstruction project culminated in November 2016.

The refurbished theater was named after renowned actor Raul Solnado, and in August 2017, the Aveiro-based promoter Sons em Trânsito won a five-year contract to manage the venue, pledging to focus on music, comedy, and cinema programming.

The Cineteatro Capitólio’s journey from architectural marvel to cultural hub reflects the evolving tastes and societal shifts in Lisbon, making it a cherished symbol of the city’s cultural heritage.

Cinema Monumental

The Cine-Teatro Monumental, which occupied Praça Duque de Saldanha between 1951 and 1984, remains a striking reminder of Lisbon’s cultural and architectural heritage. Erected amid the Estado Novo era, it was more than just a place of entertainment; it represented a historical and stylistic landmark, with an incomparable functionality that is still remembered with nostalgia by many.

The Monumental was designed to meet the diverse entertainment needs of the time, from cinema to theatrical and musical performances. Its design, conceived by architect Raúl Rodrigues Lima, inherited influences from the Portuguese modernism of the 1940s. With an imposing façade covered in stone and ornaments, such as a column topped by an armillary sphere, the Monumental stood out as an architectural symbol of Lisbon at the time.

Inside, the exquisite decoration created by José Espinho reflected an almost “Versaillian” luxury, with imposing chandeliers, majestic staircases, and gilded details. The screening rooms offered a unique experience, with a capacity for more than 1,900 spectators and equipped with state-of-the-art technology, guaranteeing high-quality projections.

As well as being an entertainment venue, the Monumental was also an important cultural center, with the theater hall attracting renowned shows and well-known artists, such as Laura Alves, who starred in some of the biggest hits of her career on this stage.

The building also housed the Café-Restaurant Monumental, a popular meeting place for artists and spectators, where you could often “sneak a peek” at the actors after the shows.

Despite its rich history and cultural importance, the Monumental was tragically closed recently, leaving a void in the heart of the city and in the memory of those who frequented it. However, its memory lives on through the stories told by those who had the privilege of witnessing its grandeur and contribution to Lisbon’s cultural life.

Cineteatro Éden

The Cineteatro Éden, located in Praça dos Restauradores in Lisbon, is an iconic landmark of art deco architecture in Portugal, designed by the renowned architect Cassiano Branco. Its history dates back to the 19th century when French engineer Albert Beauvalet rented the old stables of the Palácio da Foz to establish a car dealership and a makeshift music hall. The space was later transformed into the “Eden Theater”, which opened in 1914 with a capacity for more than 2,000 spectators.

In 1937, after a series of alterations and extensions, the Eden Theater was reopened as the Eden Cineteatro, designed to host both theatrical performances and film screenings. With its imposing façade and a theater that could hold up to 1,440 spectators, the Cineteatro Éden became a cultural institution in Lisbon, presenting a wide variety of productions, from plays to hit films.

During the 1940s and 1950s, Cineteatro Éden faced competition from other theaters in the area but remained a popular destination for entertainment. However, in the 1980s, the decline began, marked by episodes of violence and a change in cultural consumption patterns.

In 1989, the Amorim Group acquired the building and, after years of closure, carried out renovation work. The space was transformed into a hotel on the upper floors, while the first floor was given over to commercial stores. It later housed the Citizen’s Bureau, before being converted into a business-class apart-hotel on the upper floors.

Today, the Cineteatro Eden remains a historic landmark in Lisbon, preserving its original façade while adapting to modern times as a multifunctional space that combines history, culture, and commerce.

Cinema Ideal

Cinema Ideal, located in the heart of Lisbon, carries with it a rich history dating back to 1904, making it not only the oldest continuously operating cinema in Portugal but also one of the oldest in Europe and the world. Its trajectory is marked by a continuous devotion to independent cinema, Portuguese and European cinema, as well as an unwavering commitment to the local community.

In 2014, it underwent a complete revitalization, led by architect José Neves, which gave it a new lease of life and a modern structure, equipped with the most advanced digital image and sound projection systems. This renovation project received international recognition, including the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation’s Vasco Villalva Prize and the AICA Architecture Award.

Cinema Ideal has become a meeting place not only for movie lovers but also for the local community. Its diverse program attracts distributors, producers, film festivals, and personalities from Portuguese cultural life, who often animate and present special screenings. In addition, the cinema is an intergenerational meeting place, promoting events that attract both the young and older audiences of the parish.

In addition to the 190-seat cinema, Cinema Ideal houses a DVD store, offering an extensive collection of over 300 references, as well as a selection of movie posters and books on cinema.

The cinema has the support of the Lisbon City Council and the Cinema and Audiovisual Institute of the Ministry of Culture, as well as being part of the prestigious Europa Cinemas network, with support from the Creative Europe MEDIA program of the European Union. These partnerships solidify Cinema Ideal’s role as a vital pillar in promoting film culture and enriching the cultural experience in the Portuguese capital.

Cinema Avis

The Cinema Avis, located at 45 Avenida Duque de Ávila in Lisbon, Portugal, was a magnificent building designed by the renowned architect Raul Lino. In the 1930s, it was recognized as one of the grandest and most elegant cinemas in the Portuguese capital. However, over the following decades, it underwent significant transformations, especially in the 1950s, when the architect Maurício de Vasconcelos led new interventions in the space.

The history of the Avis Cinema dates back to the Trianon-Palace, inaugurated in 1930 by the Count of Vila da Praia da Vitória. With a capacity for 538 spectators, the Trianon-Palace hosted a memorable inaugural session, showing notable films and presenting a live orchestra concert. Two years later, the space was acquired by Vicente Alcântara and renamed Cinema Palácio, undergoing renovations that included enlarging the audience and adding luxurious decorative elements.

In 1956, the cinema underwent another phase of renovation under the management of Soprocine – Sociedade Proprietária de Cinemas, Lda. Under the direction of Maurício de Vasconcelos, the interior was remodeled, introducing a modern, minimalist aesthetic. Reopened as the Avis Cinema, the venue hosted a variety of films, from musical comedies to dramas, standing out as a stage for important premieres.

However, over the years, the Avis Cinema faced increasing challenges, including a change in programming to adult films after 1974. Finally, in 1988, the cinema closed down and was demolished to make way for residential buildings.

Thus, the Avis Cinema left its mark on Lisbon’s cultural history, remembered not only for its architectural grandeur, but also for its contribution to the city’s film scene.

Cinema Quarteto

The Cinema Quarteto, located at Rua Flores do Lima, nº16, in Lisbon, Portugal, was a remarkable architectural work designed by architect Nuno San-Payo and conceived by writer and filmmaker Pedro Bandeira Freire.

Its inauguration on November 21, 1975, marked a significant milestone in Portuguese cinematographic history, being the first multiplex cinema in the country, consisting of four cinemas spread over two floors, with a total capacity of 716 spectators. However, after more than three decades in operation, it closed its doors on November 16, 2007.

Cinema Quarteto quickly stood out for its proposal to show alternative cinema, attracting a diverse audience, made up mainly of university students and cinephiles. Its varied program included everything from European cinema classics to premieres of national productions, establishing itself as an important meeting point for lovers of the seventh art in Lisbon.

In addition to film screenings, the space hosted a variety of cultural activities, such as film exhibitions, film marathons, plays, and premieres of acclaimed Portuguese films. However, over the years, the cinema began to face financial and structural difficulties, resulting in its gradual decline during the 90s.

Following management changes and a safety inspection that revealed worrying structural deficiencies, Cinema Quarteto was forced to close its operations in 2007. The building was subsequently acquired by the Plenitude of Christ Church in 2013 but remained dormant until it was transformed into a coworking space for startups in 2019.

So, although Cinema Quarteto has closed down, its legacy as an icon of film culture in Portugal continues to echo in the memory of those who frequented its theaters and celebrated its cultural diversity.

Cinema Europa

The Cinema Europa, located at 28 Rua Francisco Metrass in Lisbon, Portugal, has been an architectural and cultural landmark since it opened as a movie theater in 1931. Initially designed by Raúl Martins, the building has undergone several transformations over the years, becoming one of the most emblematic symbols of the Campo de Ourique neighborhood.

Initially known as Cinema Astória, the Europa stood out for its fusion of Art Deco and modernist elements, featuring an austere façade and a formally theatrical projection room. With a capacity for 878 spectators, it quickly became a meeting place for movie lovers in Lisbon.

After undergoing renovations in 1936, the cinema continued to attract crowds until, in 1957, the original building was demolished to make way for a new structure under the same name. Designed by architect Carlos Antero Ferreira and adorned with a high-relief sculpture by renowned sculptor Euclides Vaz, the new Cinema Europa opened in 1966 with great pomp and circumstance, marking a new era for the venue.

During the 1970s, the cinema underwent another phase of renovation, led by architect Raúl Rodrigues Lima, who added an iconic tile panel to the entrance hall, further raising the venue’s prestige.

However, in 1981, after fifty years of operation, Cinema Europa closed its doors as a movie theater, although it continued to be used for recording television programs and live shows. In the following years, the building faced the risk of being turned into a luxury condominium, but thanks to the “SOS Cinema Europa” movement, led by local residents, the space was preserved and turned into a library and cultural space.

After years of renovation and revitalization, the space reopened its doors in March 2017, keeping the memory of the cinema alive and offering the community a place dedicated to culture and entertainment. In this way, Cinema Europa continues to play an important role in Lisbon’s cultural life, celebrating the past while looking to the future.

Fade Out

As the curtain falls on our exploration of Lisbon’s historic movie theaters, we find ourselves immersed in a nostalgic journey through the city’s cinematic past. From the grandeur of Cinema São Jorge to the art deco charm of Cinema Europa, each theater we visited has left an indelible mark on Lisbon’s cultural landscape.

In a world dominated by multiplexes and streaming services, these iconic theaters stand as monuments to a bygone era when going to the movies was a magical experience, a communal ritual filled with anticipation and wonder. They remind us of a time when each film screening felt like a special event, and the silver screen held the power to transport us to distant lands and ignite our imaginations.

Through our exploration, we’ve witnessed the architectural splendor of venues like Cinema Império and the innovative spirit of spaces like Cineteatro Capitólio. We’ve learned about the rich history and cultural significance of each theater, from their grand openings to their eventual transformations or closures.

But beyond their physical presence, these theaters are more than just buildings; they are repositories of memories, stories, and emotions. They are places where friendships were forged, romances blossomed, and dreams took flight. They are symbols of resilience, adapting to changing times while remaining steadfast in their commitment to preserving the magic of cinema.

As we bid farewell to Lisbon’s historical movie theaters, let us carry with us the spirit of nostalgia and appreciation for these cultural treasures. Let us remember the moments of joy, laughter, and tears that were shared within their walls. And let us honor their legacy by continuing to celebrate the magic of cinema, both in Lisbon and beyond.

Though the era of grand movie palaces may have faded into memory, their legacy lives on in the hearts and minds of cinephiles everywhere. And as long as there are stories to be told and audiences eager to listen, the magic of the movies will continue to captivate and inspire us, just as it did in the golden age of cinema.

So let us raise a toast to Lisbon’s historical movie theaters, where dreams were made on the silver screen, and where the magic of cinema lives on forever.

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