Updated: Dec 23, 2022
Lisboa, “City of Seven Hills,” land of ochre-colored trams, eye-popping summits, neighborhood walls festooned with Moroccan tiles, and seesawing streets renders all comers breathless. Lisbon wafts over you like a gentle breeze, it’s crystal-clear, aquamarine skies beam sun pellets of photonic warmth that dance on your skin, and the cobble stone roads massage your feet as you sashay uphill then downhill (do wear running shoes!). Like a saccharine appetizer before dinner, it whets your appetite, leaving you craving more at each hidden corner, local bakery, or boisterous bar. After a New York minute in Lisboa, you begin to smirk like the Lisboetas whose spritely grins disarm even the broodiest of busy-bodied Americans.
Lisbon is alluring, entertaining, and laid back. For most magical cities in Europe, it’s the visuals that strike first, the art and architecture, cathedrals and statues, or the luxurious neighborhoods and beautified restaurant awnings. Not so in Lisbon, nor Portugal for that matter. First impressions come from the Portuguese themselves, some of the nicest, most welcoming, and charming people you will meet. One late night, I stumbled into an antique store where the proprietor regaled me with tales of Portuguese prestige, local politics, and shortly thereafter invited me to dinner. It is for this reason that so many expats swarm to Lisbon.
The sheer volume of tourists, hipsters, expats, and digital nomads is the second thing I noticed. (More on this in Part 2) While there are Americans here, there are far more Germans (mostly college students), Frenchmen, Brits, Irish plus a sampling of other Euros too. Let’s not forget the Brazilians (Brazil was a former colony) who are here in droves as well. They come for sunny skies, perennial warmth, entrepreneurial perks, and of course, Lisbon leisure. Added to that is affordability. Relatively speaking, Lisbon is cheaper, certainly compared to other international Euro hubs like London, Paris, and Berlin. Expenses are rising here because of Lisbon’s international popularity but for the moment it remains livable, for most.
The layout of the city is shaped by rolling hills, walkable waterfronts, and picturesque plateaus. There are historic neighborhoods like Alfama, trendy scenes like Cais do Sodre, and party spots in Bairro Alto. It is well known that Lisbon’s modern features were inspired by San Francisco and upon seeing the Ponte 25 Bridge (both built by the same American company) across the the Tagus River immediately brings The Bay Area to mind. And yet Lisbon's Praça do Comércio, Belém Tower, and the Castelo de S. Jorge peer downward with more majesty, more imperial verve than the Golden City. Did you know that Lisbon is one of the oldest cities in Europe, four centuries older than Rome? The weather is sublime like SoCal, maybe a few degrees cooler than San Diego so Brits and Germans understandably descend from the frigid North to escape the dreary and dank “winter of discontent” back home.
Cuisine and Camaraderie
Portugal is known for food and there are indeed profuse options to choose from: corner bakeries, co-working cafes, and Michelin star restaurants. Want smooth-tasting Port wine, yummy cheese, and delectable desserts? They are here in abundance and at bargain prices. The most famous of Portuguese confections is Pastel de nata, a gooey mishmash of egg custard wrapped in a sugary pastry pictured below. Looking for some lunch? Try a Bifana, slices of pork marinated in white wine, garlic and paprika served on mustard coated soft rolls and piri piri sauce. Delicious!
Like its cousin España, Tapas plates are common in Portugal. For some fine dining and innovative gastronomic artistry, I recommend Tapisca. Here you will be serenaded with culinary delight courtesy of Michelin star Chef Henrique, a native of Barcelona and wizard in the kitchen (see the dessert above!). If you forget to make a reservation, you can carouse outside with a glass of wine served from a street-side window. The perfect place to impress your date, planning be damned.
If you can, try to go deeper into the city because the cuisine only gets better, as does the hospitality. A hidden place I recommend is Clube de Jornalistas, a layered-fine-dining spot with a charming outdoor courtyard perfect for summer nights out (try the gnocchi shown above left). For something low key, just follow the crowds to an outside eatery, pasteleria (small café), any place fitted with a TV so you can watch the World Cup and enjoy Portuguese revelry. For more insight, here is a good list to check out.
Cafés, Co-working, and Work-Life Balance
Working in Lisbon is a pleasure. It possesses all the bells and whistles needed to lure the hipsters and hippies, the techies and entrepreneurs, the laid-back and Libertine. There are numerous hostels and co-working spots and some that are combined like Selina Secret Garden. Selina is a Neverneverland for digital nomads, Yoga junkies and wellness buffs, a good snapshot of the Nouveau riche that has flocked to Portugal. For the more traditional café camaraderie look no further than Copenhagen Coffee Lab. Here you will dive into the remote work milieu done euro style. A better spot to work is Hello Kristof.
A consequence of this bizarre integration is friction between old and new worlds, between locals and newcomers, between traditional and modern modalities.
Lisbon is ground-zero for digital Davos-men, retired loungers, even crypto-heads. A consequence of this bizarre integration is friction between old and new worlds, between locals and newcomers, between traditional and modern modalities. The weapon of choice for the newcomer is the laptop. Lisbon cafés try to straddle the line through compromise; sometimes laptops are allowed, sometimes not. Either way, most cafés close around 5 PM; work-life balance enforced Portuguese style. For many locals, the Young Turks who travel incessantly (as I do), seemingly unattached and independent is unfathomable. I suppose the reverse is also true. I cannot imagine being static for more than a fortnight. (More on this tension in Part 2)
Cantado and Cantinas
Community is important among the Portuguese who splendor in nights out singing and dancing. One night at Tiles Bar, the boisterous mulheres jovens spontaneously broke into song, it was Abba's "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)." Apparently, Abba, Celine Dion, Red Hot Chill Peppers, and the Beatles - icons all - are evergreen hits in Portugal. Certainly, American music and entertainment are big in Europe like anywhere else, but what sticks for locals tends to vary and often surprises.
Singing, dancing, and fun nights out are staples for the Portuguese. Indeed, togetherness is strong in Lisbon and throughout Portugal. This brings us to Lisbon's addition to the music-cultural-scene - Fado or "fate." Rick Steve's describes it as a "traditional lament." Like many ancient societies across the world, memories of past triumphs, historic downfalls, and human suffering are wrapped in oral or poetic traditions that carry old tales to new generations. Portugal's daring sea-faring epics transform via guitar plucks into a rhapsodic blues that aches for lost loved ones, distant Asian tropics, and the days of old, when the high seas were still an open range for Portuguese crews navigating by the stars.
Past is Prologue
The world’s greatest cities are always layered; they wear many faces across time. During a festive night out, a younger Portuguese fella expressed disbelief that Americans coming to Lisbon knew virtually nothing about Portugal’s past. At their peak, he said, Portugal and Spain divided up the world. He is right. Vasco da Gama sailed around the southern tip of Africa – “The Cape of Good Hope” and landed in Goa, India on the other side of the world. In 1499, Nicolau Coelho – a representative of da Gama landed in Lisbon and traveled to Sintra (worth a visit) where he told King Manuel I of da Gama’s successful journey. What a legacy indeed!
During the Age of Discovery, it was far more likely that it would be Portuguese than English that dominated global communication. Yes - the Portuguese were the first Europeans to land in Japan, and to this day there are Japanese words of Portuguese origin. Even said, Portuguese is still widely spoken throughout the world: in India, Asia, South America, and Africa. The new face of Lisbon lives on in the spirit of that tradition. Even if newcomers are unaware of it, the Portuguese remember, and if you are open, they will remind you, gently. For more on Lisbon’s days of future-present, stay tuned for Part 2!