LisbonWords Holly O'Neill
Photography Adrienne Pitts
It’s been called one of Europe’s last old fashioned cities, yet Lisbon also has a hip, edgy feel. Urban sits alongside urbane, just as buildings fronted with beautiful decorative tiles neighbour rundown facades covered in astonishing graffiti. Late-night revellers are almost as likely to see traditional folk music as go clubbing, and those same night owls are just as likely to be well-heeled retirees as scruffily hip youngsters.
While the central area of Lisbon boasts a department store and designer shopping, there are no sprawling superstores or malls – instead international boutiques sit side by side with tiny, specialist stores: just down the street from Hermès and the Nespresso store you’ll find a tiny sliver of a shop selling only gloves, or delis specialising in salt cod and cured ham.
Peculiar to Lisbon are the ginjinha shops that sell just one thing – cherry brandy. (Lisbon may be one of the only places in the world where it’s seemly to have a drop of something at 10 in the morning.) There are three of these hole-in-the-wall outlets near the Teatro Nacional Dona Maria II in Baixa. Old men loiter at the counters and businessmen stop by for a quick fortifier in between meetings, as, across the square, African immigrants catch up with friends and news from home. Tradional Lisbon meets new again.
Locals are reserved yet friendly, and things seem to happen according to some other, more relaxed pace. It’s not a town of early risers, but more than anywhere else, the district of Bairro Alto gets up late. The city’s nightlife hotspot is also one of the oldest residential neighbourhoods. In the morning, until about 2pm, all you’ll see are old women carrying groceries and a few baffled tourists wondering where everyone went and taking pictures of the stencil art. Slowly the shops start to open – contemporary and vintage clothing, sneakers, jeans and bags – and then the cafés and bars. At 5pm shops are at their busiest, 9pm sees locals head off to dinner and by 11pm the bairro heaves.
The cobbled streets are packed with groups of people chatting, drinking and listening to the crossfire of music – house music at one bar meeting 80s karaoke from across the way, intercut with the strains of Morrissey and jazz drifting down from up the street. Because the street acts as the main venue, and inside is just a place to buy beer, bars wisely serve drinks in plastic cups, meaning you can have a beer at one establishment and finish it at a club on another street.
Portuguese cuisine excels in strong flavours. Expect huge steaks, cooked simply; pork in all forms – nose to tail; salt cod cooked 40 ways; clams in a garlic and coriander sauce; and, of course, flat barbecued chicken with spicy piri-piri sauce. A heads-up: in restaurants you’ll be served unasked-for bread and butter, or other appetisers; if you eat it you’ll be charged for it (who knows what happens to the uneaten portions). The city’s many, many pastelarias are filled with meringues, walnut cakes, marzipan slices and the ubiquitous and famed pasteis de nata. These tarts combine flaky, buttery pastry with a creamy, eggy filling that’s baked at a high temperature to give the top a brûléed skin. You’d have to look hard to find a bad one and you’re failing in your duty as a tourist if you don’t eat at least one. A day.
Any weight gained by excessive tart consumption will be soon be burned off. Despite being set across seven hills, Lisbon is an easy and pleasant city to navigate by foot – just leave the heels at home. Wander the sophisticated but down at heel area of Principe Real and the wide tree-lined roads of Avenida da Liberdade, before getting lost in the labyrinthine streets of Alfama. Emerging at the waterfront, make your way to Santos, where designers, artists, gallery owners and restaurateurs have joined together to make the area a centre for creativity.
If you want to spare your legs, yellow trams cross the city, and for short but steep hills, such as the one leading from Santos to Bica, you can take a funicular. You’ll need to take a bus to Belém, ferries run across the river, and metro trains run to a slick station in the new area of the eastern waterfront – Parque des Nações.
This development was built for Expo 98 and though locals flock to the open spaces, modern shopping centre and new restaurants, it rather lacks the charm of old Lisbon. However if you’re travelling with kids it is a great space for them to run and play, and boasts the world’s second-largest aquarium.
Not only does it have unique sights, Lisbon also has its own a sound. Fado music is performed, usually, by women. They sing of traditional songs of love and longing – a feeling called saudade in Portguese. There’s no real English translation for the word, but it’s linked to the emotions of those left behind as the Portuguese set sail for lands unknown.
Fado fell out of favour last century but is back thanks to the international success of singers such as Mariza. Locals are definite: you mustn’t leave without experiencing this unique style of live music. Many of them head to the fado vadio clubs for so-called ‘vagabond’ singers. Scattered through the city, with notable clubs in Alfama, Graça and Bairro Alto, these are venues where anyone can get up and bang out a tune.
Alfama is the home of traditional fado, more frequented by tourists. Here’s the thing though – Lisboetas go too. After the package-deal customers clear out from the dinner show, locals start arriving for the late session. They sit, nursing a drink, and watch the beautiful young fadistas sing of things that were there but have now gone. You too will feel saudade, their songs echoing in your ears and heart until you return to Lisbon.
EAT & DRINK
Pap Açôrda Rua Atalaia 57/9, Bairro Alto; +351 21 346 4811. Service runs the gamut of charming to huffy but if you want açôrda, the thick bread stew enriched with egg yolk, locals agree you can’t go past the shrimp and lobster version here.
Fábulas Calcada Nova de São Francisco 14, Chiado; +351 21 347 6321. Fábulas is a large café, tiny art gallery and internet zone. Sandwiches and pastries baked on-site are consumed at old sewing tables, under pictures of Louise Brooks and Charlie Chaplin.
Pavilhão Chinês Rua Dom Pedro V 89–91, Principe Real; +351 21 342 4729. More like a museum than a bar, this series of connected rooms is filled with all manner of collectable and kitsch, from busts of Lenin to military hats, ceramic frogs, nouveau-esque women… The ultimate hoarder’s den.
Noobai Miradouro de Santa Catarina, Bica; +351 21 346 5014. Chilled, even by Lisbon standards. Good coffee, amazing views and the equally amazing-looking house dessert (berries, boozy sponge, lime whipped cream) prepare you for traipsing the cobbled streets of Bica and Bairro Alto.
Travessa Travessa do Conveto das Bernardas 12, Santos; +351 21 390 2034. Set in an old convent, billed as Belgian-Portuguese cuisine. What you’ll get is upmarket Euro dining (skate in black butter; venison and pear; dory in champagne sauce) with attentive service in the company of well-dressed locals.
Alma Calcada Marquês de Abrantes 92–94, Santos; +351 21 396 3527. Henrique Sá Pessoa is Portugal’s most famous chef, with a TV series and books flying off the shelves. He moved from high-end dining to open this small suburban restaurant with interiors that look like a Michel Gondry film set. His plan was to give locals modern cooking for less cash, and so far it’s been a success – you’ll have to book.
Tasca do Chico Rua Diário de Notícias 39, Bairro Alto; +351 21 343 1040. The walls crammed with portraits of famous fado singers should be a clue as to the kind of music at this tiny, friendly bar and fado vadio venue.
Confeitaria Nacional Praça da Figueira 18, Baixa; +351 21 342 4470. The city’s oldest cake shop sells a decent pastel de nata.
Mahjong Rua da Atalaia 3, Bairro Alto; +351 21 342 1039. With fake cabbages hanging from the ceilings and B-grade movies playing, this is a good place to kick off your Bairro Alto experience.
Charcutaria Rua do Alecrim 47A, Baixa-Chiado; +351 21 342 3845. Traditional country-style Portuguese cuisine, from steaks to salt-cod omelettes or unctuous pigs’ trotters.
Bonjardim Travessa de Santo Antao 12, Restauradores; +351 21 342 7424. The place to fuel up on flat chicken, chips and piri-piri sauce.
Confeitaria de Belém Rua de Belém 84-92, Belém; +351 21 363 7423. You haven’t eaten a custard tart, or pastel de nata, until you’ve eaten one in Portugal, and you can make a dessert pilgrimage to their spiritual home, six kilometres west of Lisbon. The flaky, sweet, eggy pastries with a burnt top were originally made in convents and monasteries. In 1837, Antiga , pasteisdebelem.pt) became the first pastelaria to sell them and still holds the original recipe, known in its entirety by only three people. Served just warm, with sugar and cinnamon for sprinkling, the tarts can be eaten in or taken away but be prepared to queue – this shop can sell up to 20,000 of them a day.
El Corte Inglés Avenida da Liberdade 13, São José; +351 21 324 0097. The supermarket in this basement of this department store stocks at least five kinds of on-the-leg jamón, complete with trotters, and 15 types of salt cod.
Alma Lusa Rua de São Bento 363, Baixa-Chiado B–C; +351 21 388 4094. Contemporary, clever design in jewellery, interiors and objets, drawing inspiration from both traditional and kitsch Portuguese motifs. If you run out of time, there are outlets at the airport (though prices are higher).
Vida Portuguesa Rua Anchieta 11, Chiado; +351 21 346 5073. For a dose of nostalgia, Portuguese-style. Soaps, sardines and chocolates are sold in packaging with the original designs, and there are vintage-style postcards and plastic toys.
Conserveira de Lisboa Rua dos Bacalhoeiros 34, Baixa; +351 21 886 4009. If you happen to wander into the Lisbon Cannery (its English name) but you’re not a fan of sardines, you’re really out of luck. Pretty much the only thing sold here is tinned fish. Pinch yourself to check you haven’t stumbled into a time warp – smart old women package the plain tins in brightly coloured paper, then quiet but charming counter staff wrap your purchases in brown paper and string.
Sociedade Lomográfica Rua da Atalaia 31, Bairro Alto; +351 21 342 1075. Fans of the iconic Russian camera make won’t believe their luck to find this tiny shop stuffed full of Lomos in the alleys of Bairro Alto. When we were there, they were running a Lomo tour/workshop.
The Wrong Shop Calçada do Sacramento 25, Chiado; +351 21 343 3197. The right shop for fun and hip, practical and useless souvenirs a world away from painted roosters.
Manteigaria Silva Rua Dom Antao de Almada 1C-D, Baixa; +351 21 342 4905. Whole fish to pieces, from tongues to livers, this is a one-stop salt cod shop.
Museum Calouste Gulbenkian Avenida de Berna 45 A, North Lisbon; +351 21 782 3000. It’s a short journey out of Lisbon central but one that must be made. Set in tranquil gardens, with an outdoor stage for summer concerts, the museum is a series of galleries. There’s a building dedicated to contemporary art, showcasing permanent and changing collections, and the main museum. Here you’ll find oil baron and philanthropist Gulbenkian’s collection of Ottoman tiles, ancient Egyptian and Greek artefacts, paintings, sculpture and astounding 18th-century French design and Lalique jewellery.
Carmo Ruins Museu Arqueológico do Carmo, Largo do Carmo, Chiado; +351 21 347 8629. This gothic church was destroyed in the 1755 earthquake and subsequent fire but its skeleton still frames the sky.
Club de Fado Rua s Joao da Praça 94, Alfama; +351 21 885 2704. Earlier in the evening you have to order a meal but turn up after 11.20pm, and you pay the cover charge, get a drink, and sit alongside Lisboetas who come to watch owner Mario Pacheco’s fingers dance nimbly across the 12 strings of his guitarra as he accompanies new and leading singers.
No 28 Tram Passes through all the major shopping and walking districts and is a great way to familiarise yourself with Lisbon. If you can’t get a window seat, stand at the back for the best view. Known as the tourist tram, it’s a bit of a target for pickpockets, so keep your belongings close. Get on at Campo Ourique, a traditional and quiet residential neighbourhood hosting a covered market and the so-called best chocolate cake in the world (Rua Coelho da Rocha 41) and catch it across town to the old neighbourhood of Graça.
Castlo de São Jorge Alfama. For the best views in Lisbon, climb the steep hill up to the walled castle, parts of which date from the 6th century.
Contact the tourist board on 0845 355 1212 or log on to visitportugal.com.