Lisbon doesn’t change, it evolves. More than 3.5 million tourists visited the Portuguese capital in 2015, in line with the 20% increase recorded across Portugal that same year. While Lisbon has been on the travel map for several years, the city is now setting its sights on mass tourism. Among the factors designed to make visitors feel more welcome is the ongoing revamping of the city’s accommodation options, with boutique hotels blessed with outdoor terraces popping up across central areas of the city, among them the H10 Duque de Loulé, Hotel Bairro Alto and Memmo Alfama, along with a proliferation of designer ‘hostels’, ranging from The Independente, in the fashionable Príncipe Real area, to Brickoven, based in a mansion that once housed a convent.
One of Lisbon's virtues is that it has known how to reuse its past
Lisbon has no shortage of things to see and do, thanks in no small part to its wealth of monuments, the character of its buildings decorated with tiles, and its delicious gastronomy. This, plus the fact that run-down industrial areas and the banks of the river Tagus have been given a major facelift have all combined to offer even more leisure and cultural options to tourists and locals alike. This includes the green esplanade along Ribeira das Naus, Plaza del Comerço, where sculptor Joana Vasconcelos has reinvented the Barcelos traditional cockerel in pop style, all the way to the recently opened MAAT – Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology – close to Belém, which looks like becoming Lisbon’s answer to the Guggenheim.
“The crisis has been good for creativity,” says Roger Mor as he shows us round LX Factory. It’s an old thread factory now converted into a small district where more than 1,000 people connected with the arts and liberal professions now work. Amongst the art galleries, shops, restaurants, ‘coworkshops’ and even an ‘escape room’ with a ‘burlesque’ atmosphere is Landeu, a café that only serves chocolate cake and the Ler Devagar bookstore (“Read slowly” in Portuguese). This old printing works is home to the kinetic sculptures of Pietro Proserpio, giving the place an atmosphere remeniscent of the films ‘Amélie’ and ‘Hugo’. Like many businesses, they have reclaimed and reused the old factory furniture. Restaurant and cocktail bar Río Maravilha has taken over the workers’ former dining area and common room to create a space for sharing experiences, especially at dusk from the terrace alongside the 25 de Abril suspension bridge.
Cataplana with river views
If you're looking to get stuck into traditional Portuguese cooking, you have to try the ‘cataplanas’. These are seafood stews based on potatoes and either fish or shellfish, although they can also be made with meat, and their name comes from the pot and lid in which they're made. If you can get to eat one of these stews on a terrace in Praça de Comerço, like the one at Populi, the only other requirement to achieve perfection is that the sun comes out.
Main Side, the real estate promoter that Mor works for, wants to put the soul back into these places. Just as the firm has brought art to LX Factory with graffiti works by Brazilian artist Derlon, it has respected the past while offering a new future. It has also turned a series of venues into essential hotspots on Lisbon’s nightlife scene, such as Pensâo Amor, an old brothel which is now a trendy bar with pole dancing shows included, and Casa de Pasto restaurant, with a wine bar on the ground floor and a dining area upstairs decorated like a traditional house, mixing kitsch features like flying pigs in the smoking room with some very interesting cuisine. Both are in the Cais do Sodré area, where you can also find the Time Out Market in the Mercado da Ribeira. This, together with the Mercado de Oubrique, is an example of how traditional markets coexist with small take away stalls, often with well-known chefs behind the scenes, inviting you to sit and eat at shared tables.
“A nation’s cuisine is its culture and is a better way of familiarising yourself with it than visiting monuments,” says José Avillez, a chef with two Michelin stars who has brought creativity and new techniques to Portuguese cooking without neglecting traditional flavours and ingredients. In addition to Belcanto restaurant, he has also recently opened multi-space premises in Lisbon like Bairro and Cantinho de Avillez, where you can buy cooked meats, cheese and preserves and try their more informal recipes. These recent initiatives, such as Palacio Chiado, which has turned some of the rooms in a palatial residence owned by the family of the Marquis of Pombal into bars and restaurants, are just a few of the new venues proving that the gastronomy scene in Lisbon has so much more to offer than just cod and sardines. “There’s still a lack of financial stability for restaurants just opening, and we need a greater presence of fusion cuisine and more international chefs coming to cook in Lisbon,” adds Avillez.
The gastronomy scene in Lisbon is more than just cod and sardines.
The food critic and director of the Peixe em Lisboa Duarte Calvâo festival agrees that, although Portugal has embraced influences from many cultures, the cuisines of its former colonies, like Angola, Cape Verde, Brazil and Goa, are still not sufficiently represented. One of the pioneers in brining international gastronomy to Lisbon is chef Kiko Martins. After touring 23 in a little over one year, he loaded his personal GPS with maps of flavours and brought the world to Portugal, to use his own words. “I don’t like calling it fusion cuisine, because cooking is already fusion in itself,” explains the chef, whose latest restaurant, O Asiático, has just joined his other ventures, A Cevicheria, serving Peruvian food, and O Talho, focusing on meat.
The Lisbon coast
Doca de Santo Amaro, the leisure area next door to the yachting marina, is a good place to stop for lunch or dinner before embarking on a trip down the river. Even better, hop aboard a sailing yacht like the ones run by river boating company and sailing school Terra Incógnita, to visit the coastal towns of Cascais, Estoril, Sesimbra and Comporta, where the international jet set flock to the endless beaches.
Even so, what’s currently available in Lisbon’s restaurants covers the demands of all kinds of customers. “It’s a good time; a more elaborate style of cuisine is being produced and initiatives are taking notice of people’s preferences,” adds Duarte Calvâo. You can find anything from restaurants based on a single good product, like the food by pioneering restaurant owner Olivier da Costa K.O.B and Yakuza, through to taverns where you can ‘petiscar’ (nibble) on several small dishes or portions with a glass of wine, in the style of the old ‘carboneria’ bars run by Galicians. La Taberna da Rua das Flores, which sources its organic ingredients directly from Portuguese producers, is a good example of how innovative initiatives featuring traditional Portuguese cooking are being blended with other cultures in a setting recreated with elements rescued from old barber’s shops, pharmacies and fire engine garages, outside whose doors customers wait to be seated.
And that’s not forgetting the sweet treats stocked in Lisbon’s numerous ‘pastelarias’ (cake shops), ranging from the famous ‘pasteis de nata’ (cream cakes) to Bettina and Niccolò Corallo chocolates. Here in Portugal, the coffee to wash it all down with is unfailingly strong, usually a robust torrefacto roast, mixed with Arabica. Finally, to round it all off, a ‘ginjinha’, the traditional cherry liquor that you can buy and drink in the bars and cafés around Rossio square.
Crafts and designer shopping
Like food and drink in Lisbon, designers also know how infuse their traditional crafts with a more contemporary touch. In the mansion and now shopping centre of Embaixada, in Praça do Príncipe Real, Portuguese designers, artists and antique dealers cluster round a Neo-Arab style courtyard. The notebooks and exercise books, cosmetics, textiles, cork and ceramic products on sale there, and in other shops like A Vida Portuguesa, More than Wine, Claus Porto and Cerámicas na Linha, have been made in the exactly the same way for decades, although they now seem to have been produced expressly for the craze for everything vintage. One of Lisbon’s qualities is that it has known how to reuse, but not recreate, its past.
Craft products are presented in an aura of grand design, something that needs to be promoted more, say Helena and Miguel Amante, the eighth generation of shoe designers and manufacturers for the Eleh brand. Speaking from the reclaimed workshop in the Bairro Azul district where they strive to preserve authenticity, they defend the difference between products made in Portugal and those from Lisbon, a city where “you don’t find the same as in other European cities”. Proof of this is when the best souvenir is a tin of sardines.