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Lisbon's Renaissance

Andrea Fazzari A view from Baixa of Praça Dom Pedro IV

Photo: Andrea Fazzari

When I first visited Macedo and his wife in their sunny central Lisbon apartment last year, I would have found it hard to believe that it would take a burgeoning nouvelle cuisine movement or new glut of day spas to remind natives and visitors alike of Lisbon's long-standing appeal—what Francisco Capelo, the 50-year-old owner of the Museu do Design in Belém, characterizes as "living in Santa Monica surrounded by 800 years of art." It's not as if the light from the Tagus, the river on the city's southern border, never showed off the 18th-century architecture before. Or that Lisbon suddenly grew some neighboring beaches and turned balmy nine months a year. The spectacular wine did not recently become cheap, the seven hills and their dramatic views did not just spring up. But then, living under a fascist dictatorship, as the Portuguese did until 1974, tends to dull one's appreciation of the motherland.

Even under ideal conditions, it takes a good many years to shake off the political and social gloom of fascism—single-party elections, aggressive secret police, and an unsettled economy usually overshadow the joys of piquant olive oil and cunning handicrafts. After the fall of Antonio da Oliveira Salazar's regime, it was a decade before the Portuguese government stabilized. Another few years had to pass before EU membership culturally fused the Portuguese to the rest of Europe—which, until then, tended to consider Portugal an unwashed backwater at the underside of the world—and rebuilt the country's pushcart of an economy into something combustible.

By the second half of the nineties, it was a different story. Portugal's qualification for the euro in 1998 provided a further financial boost, and the nation's infrastructure got a tremendous upgrade when the World Expo came to town that same year. (Says one expat friend, a German beauty editor who has lived in Lisbon for 22 years: "Before Expo, it was as if we didn't have roads.") Lisbon Expo '98 was also responsible for the rehabilitation of the once putrid docks that now house Manuel Reis's Lux, its painfully chic sister restaurant Bica do Sapato (co-owned by Reis and actor John Malkovich), mid-century Modernist furniture boutique Lojadatalaia, and a brand-new fine-foods emporium, Deli Delux. Since 2001, about one-third of the city's abandoned buildings have been renovated on the government's dime, with more lined up. And boutiques from independent fashion designers are popping up on every graffiti-etched corner of Bairro Alto. Even the prime minister, José Socrates, wears Prada.

A further infusion of capital and cleanup came with the Euro 2004 soccer championships. Not a total cleanup, mind you: this is no spit-shined capital like Copenhagen. Take, for example, the popular Cape Verdean dance party I attend at a former slave owner's mansion (no kidding) in the riverside district Santos. The overgrown, ramshackle garden courtyard and peeling, formerly grand frescoes in the main ballroom are more sensuous than sad—the tumbledown state of things certainly hasn't stopped the sixtysomething former head of the Portuguese Bar Association from visiting. And nobody seems to mind crunching through the hundreds of plastic drink cups left behind by all those fauxhawked hipsters partying in the streets of Bairro Alto. By 2:00 a.m. on any weekend, when the last packs of chatty photographers and DJ's and graphic designers and rowdy teenagers finally leave A Capela on Rua Atalaia, or Bicaense on Rua da Bica de Duarte Belo, or any other of the dozens of dimly lit techno-music bars they've flitted into and out of all night, the sight (and sound) of those cups is almost sweet. Besides, they'll be gone in the morning, when stray cats and old ladies resume their daytime dominion of the place.

Just as Lisboans have enjoyed their city's renaissance, so has the international party circuit. For reasons of geographical convenience, touring rock musicians have often ended their European legs in Lisbon, and for the past two years the glitzy Laureus Sports Awards, held in the suburb of Estoril, have brought their own celebrants. And last November, the MTV European Music Awards—the ultimate pop recognition—arrived. "You just have to hope Lisbon doesn't become like Barcelona and lose its traditional flavor," Leo-Andrieu says.

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