Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Fado
The definitive guide to Lisbon's nightlife. (Hint: Go late.)
At night, when its white cobblestone streets and tiled houses shine, Lisbon rivals that other city of light, Paris. But Lisbon is for players, not lovers. In the wee hours when most find sleep, Lisbon's filhos da noite ("children of the night") chase one another through the restaurants and bars along the river Tagus and in and out of the speakeasies and discotheques of the Bairro Alto ("high neighborhood"). In the downtown Baixa area, nocturnal revelers sally from bar to club to bar on walkways made of hand-cut stones. They drink, trade jokes, flirt, and even lapse into the Portuguese folk dance the vira.
The Lisboan night runs long. But why not start early and launch your evening at sunset, when Lisbon's sky becomes a celestial bouquet of lavender and rose?It's best to view this spectacle from a high elevation, and Lisbon— which straddles seven hills— affords many vantage points.
Esplanada da Graça Largo da Graça, Miradouro da Igreja. This café is little more than a few tables in a kiosk set atop a hill— but what a hill. Commanding views of São Jorge (the city's only castle), Ponte 25 de Abril (its version of the Golden Gate Bridge), and the ruins of a Carmelite nunnery may inspire a fantasy starring you as the king or queen of Lisbon. Sip a fruity vinho verde and munch on fish fritters or salada americana— the branches of pines creating a fragrant latticework overhead. As bells toll at the Church of Graça, the sun festoons the sky with color.
Chiadomel 105 Rua de Santa Justa (at the top of the Elevador Santa Justa); 351-1/347-4400. Ride the Elevador Santa Justa— one of Lisbon's many old elevators that ferry passengers up and down the city's slopes— to its only stop, this little-known café. Chiadomel's panoramic vistas of the city and the river Tagus are nothing short of splendid. The Elevador Santa Justa, whose form far transcends its function, is a Gothic-looking structure that bears a striking similarity to the Eiffel Tower (in fact, it was designed by a Portuguese engineer, Raoul Mésnier de Ponsard). This trip is not for those afflicted with vertigo.
Solar do Vinho do Porto 45 Rua de São Pedro de Alcântara; 351-1/347-5707. In an old palace built by the architect João Federico Ludovice is the Solar do Vinho do Porto, the Institute of Port Wine, established in 1947 to jump-start postwar port consumption. The interior has about as much charm as the militant-looking, pea green corduroy chairs. But don't let the stodgy furniture deter you from discovering the great multitude of ports in the institute's tasting room— 200 varieties to sample, most by the glass or half-carafe. Prices range from $1 to $12.50 a glass. Absinthe-colored bottles are lined up at the bar, like little liquor troops. So, pick your soldier.
Chapitô 1- 7 Costa do Castelo; 351-1/888-1834. Founded by Tété, Portugal's first female clown, Chapitô is a performing-arts school by day— and a circus by night. Not literally, but after 8 p.m., drinks are served at the school's patio and restaurant, which has a wide-angle view of Lisbon. Chapitô doesn't charge admission, because there's no guarantee of a show. But you never know when a posse of students will serve up a dance, a skit, some music, or even a pantomime of you sucking down your cocktail cherry. Show or no, the bar's hodgepodge of rooms is a delightful patchwork of colors and textures reminiscent of a circus tent.
Salsa Latina Gare MarÌtima de Alcântara; 351-1/395-0550. What does it matter if there's no such thing as Portuguese salsa when the band here has even the potted palms doing the lambada?Get in the mood for mambo, tango, or whatever makes your feet fleetest. Dress code: Chiquita Banana poster-girl attire with a Mod Squad twist (e.g., stretch bell-bottoms in flower-power prints with flouncy crop tops and platform clogs) or, for the men, sleek suits inspired by I Love Lucy's Ricky Ricardo. If there's no room on the white marble dance floor, link up to the line dance that's snaking onto the terrace. Or park under a canvas umbrella, fire up a Havana, and ask for the only drink that's in order: a cuba libre.
Tradicional Bar 4 Rua Afonso de Albuquerque; 351-1/886-6532. Remember summer camp, roasting hot dogs and singing around a roaring fire?That's the feeling at Tradicional Bar— without the blaze. Walk through a massive wood door into a room as small as a cockfighting pit, packed with 30-somethings who have come to hear the Portuguese revolutionary songs of the seventies. If you arrive before the show starts at 11 p.m., grab a plate of chouriço assado (sausages) and grill them yourself over an open Sterno stove. Once the guitarists start strumming the crowd's favorite ballads, it doesn't take long for the happy campers in the audience to join in. Some raise their hands; others stand up to dance. You won't understand a word, and it won't matter.
Os Três Pastorinhos 111- 113 Rua da Barroca; 351-1/342-1419. A Lisbon institution for years, beloved by designers, architects, and fashion people. Music covers the dance spectrum: reggae, soul, groove, house, disco, and funk. Eduardo, the deejay and one of the owners, threw together the place's look, which he calls "comic-book-inspired decor," though visitors may be hard-pressed to see why. There is nary a Reggie or even a Tin-Tin in sight, just an enigmatic inkblot design spanning one wall. For all its surface hipness, Os Três Pastorinhos is still just a friendly neighborhood hang. No pickup scene this. Dance, drink, and mingle with the locals in the club that's proud to compare itself to someone's living room.
Kapital 68 Avda. 24 de Julho; 351-1/395-5963. Democracy be damned. This club is a nightly paean to the dictatorship of the nouveau riche and the lovely. If you have the right "look" (recognizable only to a moody thug guarding the door), you may get in. It's said that foreigners and lanky blondes (who are almost always considered foreigners here) can also enter— if they're willing to pay a 5,000-escudo ($30) entry fee. Kapital is rumored to be the nocturnal nerve center of the smart set and their mistresses, as well as models and underworld kingpins, and getting dissed at its doors is a badge of honor among most ordinary Lisboans. Of course, the hottest club in Lisbon could be filled with sweater-knitting grandmas for all we know, since this sassy blond journalist didn't make the cut.
Kremlin 5 Escadinhas da Praia; 351-1/395-7101. If you can't get into Kapital, try Kremlin, just around the corner. A giant piece of twisted wood, like an overgrown bonsai cutting, greets you at the door. Next, a Buddha kneels before a tuft of palm fronds that looks as if it might have escaped from, say, a Palm Sunday mass. Throughout the room pedestals hold pony-size ebony elephants, while great ballooning swaths of fabric swoop from the ceiling. Is it grand or grotesque?You decide. But hurry— Kremlin's interiors change two or three times a year. The music, mostly pop, is loud enough to shake Moscow.
T-Club Edificio Espelho d'Água, Avda. BrasÌlia; 351-1/301-6652. Glossy black manes cascade over silks as bright as Chanel and Ricci make them. Nothing too racy, though, at this swank private club. Whereas Kapital panders to pretenders, the real jet set stables here— politicos, captains of industry, diplomats, bullfighters, and plastic surgeons. T-Club's members keep their own bottles of Cutty in cabinets by the door, tagged like kenneled pets awaiting their masters' return. Since wives and drinking-age teens are members, men don't dare bring mistresses. Flanking the disco there's a champagne room, a lecture room, a riverside terrace, and a restaurant, all done in "the colors of Rembrandt and Matisse," according to the manager. Well-dressed tourists are welcome. Just have your concierge call ahead to alert the door jockey.
Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation 45 Avda. de Berna; 351-1/793-5131. The most acclaimed arts institution in Lisbon (and perhaps the least known in Europe) is the Gulbenkian Museum, which was founded by an Armenian oil baron in the 1950's. The museum expands its namesake's cultural patronage through the foundation, which sponsors its own orchestra, choir, and ballet company. In the Gulbenkian's capacious concert halls, you can take delight in a concert of Andalusian-Moroccan music (performed by a Persian orchestra) one week, or Mozart as interpreted by the virtuoso violist Midori the next. And the Gulbenkian Ballet company is considered "spectacular" by connoisseurs at Dance Magazine.
Teatro Nacional de São Carlos 9 Rua Serpa Pinto; 351-1/346-8408. Lisbon's opera house, an 18th-century edifice modeled after the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, Italy, features conductors and performers from around the world. Recent operas have included Puccini's Il Trittico and Stravinsky's Persephone. The Teatro also presents concerts by the Portuguese Symphony and performances by the National Ballet Company.
In Portugal, fado singers are more famous than rock stars. Their ballads— tales of unrequited love, the death of a hero, or simply halcyon days— are like a spiritual medium. Now you are Maria Severa, a 13th-century gypsy lover anguishing over a nobleman she can never wed; now an old man who, at the sight of a bull goring his son, dashes into the ring to slay the beast. Fado houses typically charge an entrance fee of $40 to $60, which includes dinner. But after 1 a.m. or so you'll pay less, for drinks without dinner— and most of the tourists will have gone home. Here are three clubs for pure fado.
Parreirinha d'Alfama 1 Beco do EspÌrito Santo; 351-1/886-8209. Low ceilings, prim white tables, adobe walls dotted with hand-painted plates, and waitresses in matching frocks make you wonder if you've walked into a dollhouse. Then comes the guitar-thumping fado.
Lisboa á Noite 69 Rua das Gaveas; 351-1/346-8557. This 17th-century palace turned fado house makes use of what was a countess's kitchen— a cavernous room with much of its original tilework, fireplaces, and hand-cut Roman arches.
O Senhor Vinho 18 Rua do Meio à Lapa; 351-1/397-7456. As traditional as a fado house comes: whitewashed walls, wood-beamed ceilings, high leather-backed chairs.
LAUREL TOUBY is a freelance writer based in New York City.