Lisbon has been busy lately doing what it does best: embellishing its inimitable, gilded history with world-class venues for contemporary culture, art, and dining. Even as Baixa, the city’s cheerfully decrepit 18th-century downtown, applies for unesco World Heritage site status, a roster of starchitects—among them Renzo Piano, Santiago Calatrava, and local talent Álvaro Siza—are vying to leave their marks on Lisbon’s parks and residential developments. While independent fashion designers and antiquarians still reign in Principe Real and Bairro Alto, interior designers have established themselves in adjacent Santos, followed by adventurous restaurateurs who are looking beyond Portugal’s borders for inspiration. And as the Continent’s capital cities seem to move ever closer to a state of homogeneity, Lisbon remains delightfully free of the signs of global bleed. (There’s exactly one Starbucks downtown, and it opened just months ago). The resulting balance of old-world charm and edgy avant-garde creates a dynamic that’s full of surprises and definitely worth exploring.
It’s got wider lanes (and less graffiti) than Bairro Alto, its chicly scruffy neighbor, but that doesn’t mean Santos—Lisbon’s burgeoning design district—is lacking in street cred. Peppered with been-there-forever tapiscos joints and ultra-forward boutiques, the area is the city’s new epicenter of cool. At Paris: Sete, browse shelves lined with compulsory design reading or pick up vintage hand-carved cedar toy cars from TobeUs. O Epicurista is where to score rare fragrances from Saboaria Confiança, Miller et Bertaux, and Absolument Absinthe, as well as ceramics by Flemish artist Piet Stockmans. Galeria Reverso—at 11 years old, a Santos pioneer—is local Paula Crespo’s temple to contemporary jewelry design. For a taste of the past, step into Caza das Vellas Loreto, a shop that has been producing handmade beeswax candles in more or less the same fashion since 1789. From the tiny septuagenarian woman serving you to the hand-stamped paper bags you leave with, the experience is delightfully traditional. For lunch, join the art students and furniture designers who gather at Estado Líquido Fusion Sushi (lunch for two $97) for exquisitely fresh sashimi at tables set on an under-lit glass floor. Come dinner, hobnob with impeccably turned-out locals over thin-crust pizzas at Maritaca (dinner for two $23), which manages to feel intimate despite its warehouse-like dimensions.