The ever cooler European capital of cool

(CNN) — Lisbon is undergoing a renaissance. Europe’s latest capital of affordable rents, vibrant nightlife and gorgeous streets – which wind high into the hills from the Tagus – have seen young travelers arrive in droves in recent years, enjoying extended stays thanks to “digital nomads “dedicated visas.

As a result, the city has taken on a youthful, multicultural and international vibe, helping to attract tourists from all over the world.

However, it is not just those looking to live and work here who are driving this change.

Walk through the streets of Portugal’s bustling capital and it’s impossible to escape the feeling of trust surrounding the place.

The locals have truly begun to embrace their Portuguese identity, shamelessly showcasing the best of traditional cuisine and culture, delicious pastel de nata pastry shop in the Belem district to the painful sounds of Fado singing in Alfama.

Lisbon has been a magnet for young travelers in recent years.

Alexander Spatari/Moment RF/Getty Images

It’s all part of what the citizens of Lisbon call “alma” or soul, something that is very unique to this wonderful place.

Visitors can see it on special nights such as Saint Anthony’s Day on June 13, perhaps the biggest night on Lisbon’s calendar, when locals celebrate their patron saint with long processions that stretch late into the night. into the night, preceded by epic meals of sardines and local wine in the streets.

But “alma” goes beyond a single night.

Come here any time of the year and you’ll feel like life should be lived in public. It could be in the bohemian streets of the Bairro Alto neighborhood, where restaurants spill out onto narrow alleys. Or at ultra-hip spots like Park, a bar atop a multi-story parking lot that’s become synonymous with hipster cool, not to mention incredible views. Everyone is welcome and the atmosphere remains vibrant until the early hours.

“The Intense People”

Young fado star Gisela João is shaking up traditional Portuguese music.

“Alma” isn’t just about hanging out with friends or enjoying languid meals outdoors. It is also found in traditional music, especially Fado.

Marrying poetry and song and born in the streets of the beautiful neighborhoods of Alfama and Mouraria in Lisbon, it is more than a simple expression of sadness and melancholy. Rather, says Fado singer Gisela João, it is an expression of Portuguese intensity and tradition.

“I think Fado is the most real…because we can express the personality of [the] Portuguese country, Portuguese people,” she says as she walks through the streets of Alfama.

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Gisela João – a Fado singer with a difference.


João is not the archetypal Fado singer of yesteryear. She doesn’t wear a black dress and she is also younger than most stereotypical Fado singers.

“Why should I dress like a girl who grew up in the 40s and 50s?” she asks. “It’s not who I am.”

However, it is deeply rooted in the history of music.

“I moved here because I was coming to sing in a fado restaurant,” she says. “In this street, for example, I remember that you were walking in the street and you were listening: the Fado was coming out of the windows like here, one was singing here, the other here… It was as if you were in the middle of Fado.”

She is also keen to demystify the idea that sadness is what defines Fado.

“For me, [Fado] talks about poetry and the poem for me, a very beautiful poem, is a poem that can talk about [the] everyone’s life… when I sing, it’s when I feel I can express myself.”

This is evident in João’s beautiful voice, which resonates throughout the neighborhood. It’s a typical Portuguese sound.

“We’re really intense people,” she laughs. “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 home, have dinner, be with friends and family and organize a big party just to get you… We’re dramatic!”

An age of discovery

The lone sailor, Ricardo Diniz, knows his way around the Tagus River. He explains why Lisbon is the “European capital of the oceans”.

Lisbon can feel like half land and half sea, with the vast Tagus River leading to the vast Atlantic. This, after all, is a country that remains fiercely proud of its 500 years of maritime history.

Lisbon’s famous Padrão dos Descobrimentos, Monument to the Discoveries, which stands in the Belem district on the banks of the Tagus, pays homage to the country’s great explorers.

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Ricardo Diniz: “We are very proud of our past.”


Henry the Navigator is depicted alongside historical figures such as 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 business coach, continues this long tradition by bringing the past into the present.

“We are very proud of our past. We achieved something incredible over 500 years ago, and we are reminded of it every day,” he says, pointing from the deck of his boat to the other side of the water.

“We are on the ocean. We have this amazing river.” When he returns after long sea voyages, he says his pride grows as Lisbon appears.

Diniz says that while water is key to Lisbon’s traditions as well as its present and future as a modern city, changes in recent years have been driven by outsiders talking about beauty from this place.

“In the last five years in particular, many people who come to Lisbon from abroad are surprised at what they find,” he says. “I think they are the true ambassadors of our city and our country, foreigners who speak beautifully of Portugal.”

A city of trust

Chef José Avillez preferred Portuguese cuisine to French cuisine for his gourmet restaurants. His gamble paid off and put Lisbon on the culinary map.

Talk to 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 say about his more modern past. Much of that has changed over the past 20 years, as that sense of confidence has been felt across the city with Lisbon’s resurgence as a tourist destination and a place to work and play.

This is particularly clear in Lisbon’s food scene.

Famous chef Jose Avillez has been championing Portuguese gastronomy for years. Fifteen years ago, he began introducing the humblest of local dishes, sardines, to his upscale restaurant.

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Jose Avillez: Guests expect “the soul of Portuguese cuisine”.


They are, he says, “…very, very special, because it’s something you only have three, four months, a year, tops.

“When the Portuguese [people] arrive at a contemporary Portuguese restaurant… it expects to have modern food, but to have the soul of Portuguese cuisine. So we have a lot of respect for sardines.”

You can’t avoid returning to that sense of soul in Lisbon. It is a question, explains Avillez, of respecting the tradition while developing the dishes towards the future.

“I would say that Portuguese cuisine, which is passed down from grandmothers to granddaughters, from mothers to daughters, is the art of bringing flavors with simplicity, with love. [That] that’s what we try to do, even if you do it in a very creative way with a lot of creativity – if it’s fine dining, it’s two Michelin stars, whatever, what you have to bring to your guests is something delicious. And, I’ll say 90% of the time, pretty straightforward.”

That’s certainly true of Avillez’s cuisine, from its simple sardine recipes to its delicious steak.

Pastel de Nata: A Portuguese classic.

Pastel de Nata: A Portuguese classic.

Alexander Spatari/Moment RF/Getty Images

And, of course, no meal in Lisbon would be complete without a famous pastel de nata, the cream pie that comes from Belém. These little treats have gone global in recent years, but they taste the best right here in this shiny city.

Lisbon’s renaissance is something to behold, especially with something so delicious at your fingertips. A place that has changed in many ways in the 21st century, but has remained true to its roots, its past and its fascinating history.

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