The pastel streetscapes of Lisbon are perpetually bathed in a soft, diffused light reflected off white cobblestones polished by hundreds of years of traffic. Fresh seafood is the staple of every menu, handsome beaches are on the city’s doorstep, and the historic Bairro Alto district buzzes with some of the best nightlife in Europe. But for all its blessings, the picturesque Portuguese capital has only just become fashionable.
The city’s fortunes have ebbed and flowed over the centuries. The heights of colonial wealth of the Age of Discovery were followed by the catastrophic devastation of an earthquake in 1755. More recently, a repressive fascist regime arose in the 20th century and fought an unsuccessful 13-year war to hold onto African colonies before democracy was restored in 1974. Then a flowering of the city triggered by its hosting of the World Expo in 1998 was cut short by a crippling recession that lasted from 2000 and 2014.
But there was a silver lining. The dive in property prices and rents drew artists and young entrepreneurs from around Europe. Then property prices soared as the glam crowd started to descend on the city. Madonna bought a seven-million-euro home here in September last year, and the number of foreign tourists visiting Portugal soared 13 per cent—the sixth straight record year for tourist arrivals.
Headlining Lisbon’s creative renaissance is the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (MAAT). The sweeping, organic structure was devised to revitalise the historic Belém riverfront and serve as a platform of encounter between the local and international art scenes. Creativity is firing at a grassroots level too. LX Factory in Alcântara is a hub of hipster eateries, book shops, fashion boutiques, theatre and music. This former industrial complex is the place for start-ups, freelance photographers, designers and artists.
Just a few years ago Lisbon’s culinary landscape was dominated by rustic, family-run restaurants serving farmers’ portions of bacalhau, grilled sardines and boiled vegetables. No longer. “Cooking in Lisbon right now is hot, it’s really novel,” says chef Henrique Sá Pessoa, who trained in the US before returning to Lisbon in 2002. “The cooking revolution in terms of haute cuisine is very recent. It’s really only happened in the last five years.” At Alma, his Michelin-starred restaurant in the fashionable Chiado district, he serves contemporary Portuguese food that incorporates flavours and techniques he has picked up from travelling the world. His signature dish is suckling pork belly, cooked for 24 hours at 64 degrees Centigrade, then roasted until the skin crackles, and served with sweet potato puree, bok choy and orange sauce.
“One of the things everyone needs to know when they come to Lisbon is that our seafood is amazing,” says Sá Pessoa—and one of the best places to find it is the Time Out market in trendy Cais do Sodré. Expect to fight for a seat as it’s extremely popular, but the excellent wine and wide range of cuisine from the city’s best chefs make it well worth a visit.
Don’t leave Lisbon without taking in the gardens, library and impressive collection of ancient and modern art at the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, centuries of tile work at the National Azulejo Museum, and the splendour of the Palace of the Marquesses of Fronteira. But perhaps the most memorable aspect is walking the streets of the city centre. Set out early to avoid the heat and crowds. Visit the skeletal Carmo Convent, a medieval relic, on your way down to the majestic Praça do Comércio. Climb the Rua Augusta Arch for breathtaking views of the city, before snaking your way up the maze-like streets of Alfama to the Moorish battlements of São Jorge Castle. Have a coffee and do some shopping in the upscale Príncipe Real and head in the evening to the picturesque neighbourhood of Bica, known for its small bars and funicular, or neighbouring Bairro Alto for some Fado, traditional Portuguese singing.
This travel feature has been adapted for ThailandTatler.com from the February 2018 print issue.
Where To Eat
For a star-studded night
Alma: Henrique Sá Pessoa serves up creative, contemporary Portuguese cuisine in a refined atmosphere. The restaurant recently earned a Michelin star.
Belcanto: Portuguese haute cuisine at its best. With two Michelin stars, it’s presided over by the city’s most fabled chef, José Avillez, and has only 10 tables, so be sure to make a booking well in advance.
For something a little more relaxed
Mini Bar: Molecular gastronomy meets pork sliders at this buzzing low-lit joint in the Chiado district. Excellent cocktails and surprisingly modest prices. Book well in advance.
Bairro do Avillez: Beautifully cooked meat and seafood in generous portions ideal for sharing. The decor is rustic but elegant, and the atmosphere is relaxed. Request a table in the Taberna section of the restaurant, which boasts a spectacular indoor garden.
For the best pastel de nata, or Portuguese tart
Manteigaria: This hole in the wall in Bairro Alto makes only one product, so it’s no surprise that its Portuguese tarts are the best in the city. Expect crisp, warm treats with perfect custard fillings, thanks to the use of whole eggs, butter instead of margarine, the absense of preservatives and painstaking hand-working of the pastry dough.
Pastéis de Belém: This establishment has been baking Portuguese tarts since 1837 using an ancient recipe from the neighbouring landmark monastery, Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. Beware the long queues.
Where To Stay
Santiago de Alfama: Located in the historic district of Alfama, just below São Jorge Castle, this recently renovated 15th-century palace offers all the modern amenities of a five-star hotel while retaining spades of character.
Bairro Alto Hotel: This charming boutique hotel boasts a fabulous location between the fashionable Chiado and Bairro Alto districts, but it’s closed for renovations until August this year. Its rooftop bar also offers one of the best views over Lisbon, so be sure to head upstairs for a pre-dinner cocktail once it has reopened.
Altis Belém Hotel & Spa: On the bank of the Tagus River, this modern hotel boasts views of the 16th-century Tower of Belém. Facilities are its strong suit and include an outdoor swimming pool, a spa with a hammam, and a Michelin-starred restaurant.
Olissippo Lapa Palace: If old-world opulence is your speed, this hilltop 19th-century palace won’t disappoint. The Tower Room in the Palace Wing features original azulejo tiling and two private balconies, one of which is the turret of the original palace. If that isn’t lavish enough for you, there’s always the 145-square-metre Royal Suite.