Lisbon is in the midst of a renaissance. The latest European capital of cool’s affordable rents, great nightlife and gorgeous streets – which wind high into the hills from the River Tagus – have seen younger travelers arrive in their droves in recent years, enjoying extended stays thanks to dedicated “digital nomad” visas.
As a result, the city has taken on a youthful, multicultural and international vibe, helping to pull in tourists from around the globe in the process.
It isn’t just those looking to live and work here that are driving this change, though.
Walk the streets of Portugal’s buzzing capital and it’s impossible to escape the sense of confidence around the place.
Locals have truly begun embracing their Portuguese identity, unashamedly showcasing the best of traditional food and culture, from delicious pastel de nata pastry in the Belem district to the aching sounds of Fado singing in Alfama.
It all goes to make up what Lisbon citizens call “alma” or soul, something that’s utterly unique to this wonderful place.
Visitors can see this on special nights such as June 13’s The Feast of St Anthony, perhaps the biggest night in the Lisbon calendar, when locals celebrate their patron saint with long processions that go on late into the night, preceded by epic meals of sardines and local wine in the streets.
But “alma” goes beyond just one night.
Come here at any time of the year and there’s a feeling that life is to be lived in public. That might be on the bohemian streets of the Bairro Alto neighborhood, where restaurants spill out onto narrow lanes. Or at ultra hip spots like Park, a bar atop a multi-story parking lot that has become a byword for hipster cool, not to mention incredible views. Everyone is welcome and the atmosphere remains vibrant well into the early hours.
Discovering another side to Portuguese Fado
“Alma” isn’t just about hanging out with friends or enjoying languid meals outdoors, however. It’s also found in traditional music, especially Fado.
Marrying poetry and singing and born on the streets of Lisbon’s beautiful Alfama and Mouraria neighborhoods, it is more than simply an expression of sadness and melancholy. It is rather, explains Fado singer Gisela João, an expression of Portuguese intensity and tradition.
“I think Fado, it’s the most true… as we can be expressing the personality of [the] Portuguese country, Portuguese people,” she says while walking Alfama’s streets.
João is not the archetypal Fado singer of old. She does not wear a black dress and she is also younger than most stereotypical Fado singers too.
“Why should I dress as a girl that grew up in the ’40s and ‘50s?” she asks. “It’s not who I am.”
She is, though, very much steeped in the music’s history.
“I moved here because I came to sing in a Fado restaurant,” she says. “In this street, for example, I remember that you would walk on the street and you would listen: Fado going out of the windows like here, one singing here, another one here… It was like you were in the middle of Fado.”
She is also keen to debunk the idea that sadness is what defines Fado.
“For me, [Fado] is about poetry and the poem for me, a really nice poem, is a poem that can talk about [the] life of everyone… when I sing it is when I feel that I can express myself.”
This is evident in João’s beautiful voice, which echoes around the neighborhood. It is a sound that is quintessentially Portuguese.
“We are really intense people,” she says, laughing. “We care a lot. You come to Portugal and it’s really normal that you meet someone and that person immediately invites you to go to the house, to have dinner, to be with the friends and the family and organize a big party just to receive you… We are dramatic!”
Exploring Lisbon’s connection to the sea
Lisbon can feel as if it’s half on land and half at sea, with the wide sweep of the River Tagus leading out to the vast Atlantic. This, after all, is a country that remains fiercely proud of its 500 years of seafaring history.
Lisbon’s famous Padrão dos Descobrimentos, Monument of the Discoveries, which stands in the Belem neighborhood on the banks of the Tagus, pays tribute to the country’s great explorers.
Henry the Navigator is depicted alongside historic figures including Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan, a tribute to Lisbon’s place at the heart of maritime discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Ricardo Diniz, an intrepid solo sailor turned corporate coach, is continuing this long tradition, bringing the past into the present day.
“We’re very proud of our past. We achieved something incredible over 500 years ago, and we are reminded about this every single day,” he says, pointing from the deck of his boat out across the water.
“We are on the ocean. We have this incredible river.” When he returns after long journeys out to sea, he says his pride swells as Lisbon comes into view.
Diniz says that while the water is key to Lisbon’s traditions as well as its present and future as a modern city, the changes in recent years have been driven by people from outside talking about just how great this place is.
“In the last five years, especially, many people who come from abroad to Lisbon are surprised at what they find,” he says. “I think they are the true ambassadors of our city and our country, people from abroad talking beautifully about Portugal.”
The chef who championed Portuguese fine dining
Speak with the locals here and it won’t be long before they remind you of the great explorers and the Age of Discovery some 500 years ago. However, there wasn’t always much to be said about its more modern past. Much of that has changed in the last 20 years, though, as that sense of confidence has come to be felt across the city with Lisbon’s resurgence as a tourist destination and a place to work and play.
That’s particularly clear in Lisbon’s food scene.
Acclaimed chef Jose Avillez has championed Portuguese fine dining for years. Fifteen years ago he began introducing that most humble of local dishes, the sardine, to his high end restaurant.
They are, he says, “… very, very special, because it’s something that we have only three, four months, a year, maximum.
“When Portuguese [people] arrive at a contemporary Portuguese restaurant… he expects to have modern food, but to have the soul of Portuguese food. So we have a lot of respect for the sardines.”
You can’t avoid coming back to that sense of soul when in Lisbon. It is, explains Avillez, all about a respect for tradition while bringing dishes into the future.
“I would say that Portuguese cuisine that is transmitted from grandmothers to granddaughters, from mothers to daughters is the art of bringing the flavors with simplicity, with love. [That] is what we try to do, even if you do it very creatively with a lot of creativity – if it’s fine dining, it’s a two-Michelin star, whatever, what you need to bring to your guests is something delicious. And, I will say 90% of the time, quite simple.”
That’s certainly true of Avillez’s cuisine, from his simple sardine recipes to his delicious steak.
And, of course, no meal in Lisbon would be complete without a famous pastel de nata, the custard tart which comes from Belem. These small treats have gone global in recent years, but they taste at their very best right here in this brilliant city.
Lisbon’s renaissance is something to behold, especially with something so delicious to hand. A place that has changed in so many ways in the 21st century, but has managed to stay true to its roots, its past and its fascinating history.