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.
A handful of newcomers have joined hotels like Lisbon’s classic Four Seasons Hotel Ritz (doubles from $541), adding new energy to the city. Tiny Vincci Baixa (doubles from $123) has a bull’s-eye central location in the historic hub and compact but sweet rooms papered in metallic Fortuny designs. The Manuel Salgado–designed Altis Belém Hotel & Spa (doubles from $274) combines 50 stylish, color-blocked rooms and suites with a prime riverfront setting and proximity to the Belém Cultural Center. Traditionalists can book at Heritage Av Liberdade (doubles from $270), a restored 18th-century town house with paned French doors and a subterranean pool and fitness center. It’s a 15-minute walk north from the central districts of Baixa and Alfama, but the recently opened Fontana Park Hotel (doubles from $132, including breakfast) has a blend of industrial-chic design (those massive steel beams in the entrance are part of the site’s original factory building) and unassailably gracious service that more than compensates for its slightly off-center location. Hotel Florida (doubles from $125, including breakfast), conveniently set just below Parque Eduardo VII, has a classic-cinema theme and retro-fabulous rooms with Eames chairs, funky graphic prints, and padded white-leather headboards.
At Bocca (dinner for two $130), chef Alexandre Silva polishes up rustic Portuguese classics; a fresh risotto layered with crayfish ceviche is a standout. The airy, two-story Ibo (lunch for two $85), on the water with views across the Tagus River, makes a nod to Mozambique—a former Portuguese colony—with piri-piri prawns and smoky Zambezi curries. On Rua da Moeda, choose Yasmin (dinner for two $83) for modern interiors (Saarinen chairs; graphic wallpaper) and whisper-thin carpaccios, or brand-new Sommer (dinner for two $77) for pan-Mediterranean fare, like linguine with local Serpa cheese and roasted walnuts. Stop at the elegant Verde Perto (lunch for two $33) en route from São Jorge castle; the savory crêpes are generously sized, the hummus is house-made, and the jewelry in the clever wall-mounted cases is for sale. It’s not just because John Malkovich is an owner that Bica do Sapato (dinner for two $98) remains Lisbon’s most talked-about restaurant. The multi-theme kitchen (which serves everything from sushi to Portuguese comfort food) is inventive, and the space is replete with vintage Midcentury furniture and low-lit corners.
The latest addition to Belém’s sprawling Cultural Center, the Museu Coleccão Berardo, opened in June 2007 and houses a 1,000-plus inventory of modern and contemporary paintings, sculpture, and videos dating from 1909 (Picasso) to 2005 (Luc Tuymans). Across the square, the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos offers a glimpse of early-16th-century Lisbon. Built in the ornate Manueline style to celebrate King Manuel I’s Avis-Beja dynasty, the monastery’s gabled limestone façade stretches the length of the square. Don’t let the seemingly shady surroundings of Fábrica Braço de Prata, in the docklands between Beato and the site of the 1998 Expo, deter you from an evening visit. The 1908 arms factory is home to a cultural center consisting of exposition rooms, a cinema, a bar and café, a bookstore, and a courtyard hosting concerts. The Saturday-at-midnight Fado is a must.
This city of hills has breathtaking vantage points all around. For some of the best, try Varanda Restaurant (cocktails for two $35), atop the Four Seasons Hotel Ritz—set above Parque Eduardo VII.
Pasteis de Belém
The city’s famous custard tart is sold in a lot of places, but the freshest come from Confitería de Belém, a small confectionery near the Jerónimos monastery.
The pungent morello-cherry liquor—a national icon—is best enjoyed at the venerable, peanut-size bar Ginja Sem Rival, near the National Theatre.
Be sure to take a ride on the Elevador da Bica, which plies the steep streets of the Bairro Alto.
The Local Take
Mariza, the iconoclastic diva of Portugal’s traditional Fado scene, moved from Mozambique to Lisbon at the age of three. Here, the singer shares her picks for going out after dark in the city. “I’ve performed at so many wonderful Lisbon venues—from the giant Pavilhão Atlântico arena to the intimate dinner club Clube de Fado, in Alfama—that it’s hard to choose a favorite. But one of the best places to listen to Fado is A Tasca do Chico, a small beer hall in Bairro Alto that hosts Fado Vadio [Street Fado] nights twice a week. My ideal night out with friends starts with watching the sunset from Baixa-Chiada’s Hotel do Chiado, followed by a traditional Portuguese dinner of grilled fish with fresh vegetables at the nearby XL (dinner for two $80), and then drinks and live music at either A Tasca do Chico or Xafarix, where some of the best local bands play.”
Lisbon Trip Essentials
Pack Like a Local
Lisbonites are almost unfailingly elegant. So wear your walking shoes by day, but bear in mind that Converse sneakers and the like might not make the cut at some of the city’s finer nightclubs. Also, though the afternoons are warm, evenings can occasionally turn quite cool; be sure to bring several layers.
Load Your iPod
Fado star Mariza’s latest album, Terra (4Q/World Connection, $16.98), was released stateside in February. Pair it with some classic songs from the late icon Amália Rodrigues (known as the Voice of Portugal) off Art of Amália (Blue Note, $15.98).
Portugal lays claim to two world-class and wildly different contemporary writers: the Nobel laureate José Saramago and his more earthy counterpart, António Lobo Antunes. Saramago’s Blindness (Harvest Books, $15) is a good introduction to his experimental style, while Lobo Antunes’s newly translated The Fat Man and Infinity (Norton, $26.95), a collection of essays and stories, grapples with Portugal’s sometimes tormented history.
Check the Calendar
Lisbon hosts events year-round, including saints’ days, feiras (fairs), and music, dance, and film festivals. For information visit atl-turismolisboa.pt.
At roughly 2,223 acres, Lisbon’s Parque Florestal Monsanto is one of the largest urban parks in Europe.
Much of Lisbon was rebuilt after 1755 when a powerful earthquake leveled nearly two-thirds of the city.
Early oil tycoon Calouste Gulbenkian amassed more than 6,000 artworks for his private collection, now on view in his namesake museum.
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