Few cities straddle a line between cuteness and bombast the way Lisbon does. On one hand, a city of mazy mosaic-tiled pavements, centuries-old bookshops, thigh-sapping hills and orange-tiled rooftops. On the other, the former trading hub of the world, prone to celebratory monuments and chunky relics of a golden age. There are also grandstanding modern additions that have leant cultural heft. Crucially, though, somewhere in the middle of this it manages to be an awful lot of fun. Low-cost, freewheeling, sun-splashed and youthfully inclined fun that adds more than a touch of hedonism in a country with a relatively sober reputation.
The Praça do Comércio rather captures the feel of the Baixa district. The giant square connecting the Tagus River and the city oozes grandeur, with a combo of triumphal arch, symmetrical arcades, equestrian statue focal point and harmonious multi-balconied architecture. But there’s also a feeling of desolation, with the vast majority of the square empty where there could be cafe terrace chairs or market stalls.
The square — along with the rest of Baixa — was built after the 1755 earthquake that devastated the city. Under the guiding hand of the Marquês do Pombal, the reconstruction saw Baixa become Europe’s first modern city centre. A grid pattern was imposed, and architectural continuity replaced the uncoordinated jumble that had existed for centuries. Churches were incorporated in the grid rather than given pride of place on their own squares — a strong power grab by the state at the expense of religion.
But many of the handsome, red-roofed buildings lie empty, particularly above the ground floor — testament to the suburban flight of the mid-20th century that gutted Baixa, as it did so many other city centres.
However, Praça do Comércio is taking baby steps back to vitality. It’s now lined by genuinely interesting propositions. The Lisboa Story Centre traces the city’s history; Wines of Portugal tells the story of the country’s wine regions and offers tastings; the Museu da Cerveja dips into beer history and boasts some mighty fine tile art, but is essentially a giant bar.
Similar life is returning to Baixa’s streets, spurred largely by cheap rents. Several of what are now among the world’s top-rated hostels led the way, but a series of design-leaning hotels have recently followed in their wake.
A short stroll uncovers several newcomers, too. Giftware shops that go for the interesting and individual rather than mass-produced and tacky, wine stores that revel in the wide variety of options they offer, cafes that mix traditional pork sandwiches with a fine array of fresh juices.
But in among this burgeoning of new life, a few stalwart survivors remain. The cheap rents that are attracting newcomers have also helped those who braved out the exodus to achieve some sort of renaissance. Conserveira de Lisboa is just shelf after shelf of tinned fish — all wrapped in colourful packaging that borders on art. Chapelaria d’Aquino goes in for braces and hats, whether hipster-friendly flat caps or something a lady might wear if she had to go to the races then dance a Charleston in quick succession.
And, on Rua da Conceição, haberdasher after haberdasher line up, seemingly oblivious to how Baixa is morphing around them.
The striking bookends at either end are no preparation for what’s to come in the middle. Pavilhão Chinês, at the top end of Bairro Alto, is a mesmerising absurdity. Walls are lined by cabinets stuffed full of everything from dolls and teapots to model trains and ceramic dogs. Paintings of Lenin are accompanied by helmets and army hats hanging from hooks, while a scale model boat dangles from the ceiling. Waiters, in waistcoats and bow ties, exercise scarcely concealed contempt for patrons, very reluctantly bringing over humongous cocktail menus. It’s a bewildering one-off sealed in its own fantasy world.
At the bottom end, the Bairro Alto Hotel tops off its sumptuous yellow marble bathrooms, high ceilings and tastefully classic furniture with the most seductive of roof terraces. Wicker chairs and sofas look out high over the river under a white fabric awning, as port and Champagne are gently slurped.
Between the two, however, all hell breaks loose. Pity the long-suffering residents of Bairro Alto’s main streets, who have to put up with what’s essentially a giant party going on beneath them each night. Dozens of tiny bars fight for attention on top of the hill. Their names are largely irrelevant as hardly anyone stays inside after they’ve bought their drink. Five-euro mojitos are advertised on every sign, then sipped as groups amble along in the open air. Cars get used as tables, with Heineken bottles perched on their roofs in between sips.
The remarkable thing about this glorious shambles, though, is the atmosphere. There’s no hint of aggression and no peacocking image-consciousness. It’s just natural, go with the flow, joyful exuberance in no real need of policing. Anywhere else, this would be a free-for-all that quickly descends into brawling. But there’s something about Lisbon’s spirit that makes it work.
Amid the cavalcade of identikit bars tipping cheap cocktails into plastic glasses are a few more interesting novelties. A Capela is a prime example — a converted chapel that still has the old religious paintings all over the walls, but now puts DJ decks in front of them.
“When we opened, I thought people really didn’t know much about Portuguese wine,” Nelson Guerreiro, the sommelier at Enoteca de Belém, tells me. “So we ask what styles people like, then try to match the best wine for the dish.” He hands me the wine list. It’s a pair of binoculars for reading the labels on the shelves. This would once have felt odd in Belém, which is where Lisbon stores its museums. They cover everything from Portugal’s Age of Discovery to model ships, archaeology and royal carriages, and the neighbourhood teems with people dropping in for a few hours on a tour bus, then disappearing. Once a separate town to the west of Lisbon, Belém was barely touched by the 1755 earthquake. This left the now UNESCO World Heritage Site-listed Manueline twins, the Tower of Bélem and the Jerónimos Monastery, standing in all their sumptuous late-Gothic-with-flourishes glory.
But it started to morph from being an attractive, but dead, relic in 1992. The humongous Centro Cultural de Belém was built to host Portugal’s presidency of the EU, before being used to house art galleries and theatre spaces. Things stepped up a gear in 2007, when the Museu Colecção Berardo opened inside. Suddenly, Belém had a world-class art collection, with Hockneys, Dalís, Mondrians and Warhols rubbing shoulders. They’re made accessible too, broken down into artistic movements, and slotted around courtyards full of sculptures.
And since the Berardo opened, hotels like the waterside Altis Belém Hotel & Spa and Hotel Jeronimós 8 have opened. So has minimalist gallery-cum-cafe Espaço Espelho d’Água, with deckchairs outside, overlooking small pools and the Tagus. The area once defined by tour bus throngs in shorts and T-shirts is evolving, with the cultural blitz, creating room for a discerning social scene. And Nelson’s ‘wine list’ embodies that.
When in Lisbon
Half of the Mercado da Ribeira, in Cais Do Sodré, is a food court, showcasing Lisbon’s top chefs. The Feira da Ladra flea market, in Graça, and more craftsy LX Factory market, in Alcântara, are also worth popping into.
Ride the elevadores
A series of funiculars and lifts makes short work of Lisbon’s hills. Just €1.25 (£1) per journey with a prepaid Viva Viagem card.
Azulejo tile art can be found all over Lisbon. The Museu do Azulejo showcases impressive examples from around the country.
Find the fado
Portugal’s soulful fado singing is best experienced in the small clubs and restaurants of the Alfama and Graça districts.
On the Waterfront
Bairro Alto’s street-drinking scene winds down from 2-3am, after which ravers head to the riverside Cais do Sodré district for big clubs such as the raucous MusicBox and African-tinged former warehouse favourite B.Leza.
Canned fish have long been a key Portuguese export, but rarely seen as a delicacy. This is changing, with restaurants popping up seeking to make canned fish gourmet. Can the Can Lisboa, in Baixa, is a strong example.
Published in the March 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)