when to go
April - September
coolest design hotel
Santa Clara 1728
Lisbon went rogue with its approach to revitalization, and it is working. The city has always been unabashedly quirky, with its colorful ceramic tiled building facades and steep, rambling cobbled laneways. But after years of economic depression, Lisbon has come into its own as a thriving, yet persistently quaint, nexus of art and culture.
For decades, the city’s sweeping river views weren’t enough to distract from the dilapidated palaces formerly occupied by once wealthy residents. These ruined properties were a symbol of the broader economic troubles that had been plaguing the country for decades. When the Financial Crisis hit, it looked like things were really going to hell in a hand basket. But former Mayor, and now Prime Minister, Antonio Costa engineered a sweeping range of initiatives that continue to defy the norms everywhere else.
For starters, the government issued tax schemes to encourage people to buy and renovate old mansions, then convert them into apartments and hotels. It embraced Uber and Airbnb, working with the latter to help residents get refurbished apartments ready for listing. And they invested heavily in cultivating the arts, including commissioning local street artists to tag many of the buildings’ facades.
These initiatives added much needed fuel to the fire Lisbon already had on a slow burn. Friendly people with joie de vivre, a cuisine anchored by fresh seafood and Mediterranean flavors, and impressive nightlife have proven to be particularly persuasive elements in Lisbon. These factors, plus the cheap cost of living, has attracted creatives from all over the EU. In turn, the city is now home to an incredible slate of galleries owned by some of the world’s most revered collectors.
Exploding Art Scene
The MATT, a contemporary art gallery designed by Amanda Levete, definitively put Lisbon on the map as a global player in the arts. ARCO Lisboa further bolstered that reputation.
Don’t miss the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Europe’s most incredible private art collection. Donated to the city by the businessman and philanthropist, the collection features pieces dating back to ancient civilizations, as well as contemporary works. Portugal’s National Gallery also houses an impressive collection.
For more historical insights, head to the Museu do Aljube-Resistencia e Liberdade. Set in a former prison facility, it chronicles the rise of fascism and ensuing fight for freedom.
Plenty of hip culture hubs exist beyond the galleries. One of our favorites is the LX Factory, a former thread and fabrics company that’s been converted into a venue for galleries, studios, bars, and restaurants.
Street Art by Tuk Tuk
Lisbon’s globally celebrated street artist Vhils brings his visions to life not using paint, but rather jackhammers and drills. He chisels large-scale pieces, including one that spans several city blocks, into the facades of buildings all around the city. To say his collaborations with Shepard Fairey are a highlight would be a massive understatement.
The best way to explore the city’s street art is with a private guide. Hop in Ricard’s tuk tuk and cruise to different neighborhoods, admiring the standout pieces along the way. He will give you plenty of interesting insights into the works themselves, as well as Portuguese culture. Wrap up the experience with a visit to Underdogs. This waterfront art store and cafe, which also has a separate gallery, has been a key supporter in the development of Lisbon’s public art scene.
Just like everything else in the city, Lisbon’s culinary landscape is undergoing a renaissance. Many chefs who trained elsewhere in Europe and the US have returned to their now thriving city to open restaurants.
Marlene Vieira, Portugal’s most celebrated female chef, returned to Lisbon after a celebrated stint at Manhattan’s Alfama restaurant. Her latest project, Panoramico, makes good on the views implied in the name. Notably, she is the only female chef featured at the Time Out Market.
Pharmacia is set in the old apothecary museum and features a gorgeous grassy terrace, along with design savvy, pharmacy-inspired decor. Chef Susana Felicidade serves super fresh, inventive dishes ideal for sharing. Nearby, Taberna Da Rua Das Flores is a must-visit hole in the wall. Further north, Peixe na Avenida is a woman-owned gem that has worked hard for its reputation as the most creative seafood restaurant in the city.
The Mercado da Ribeira, Lisbon’s largest and oldest market, has been transformed into a buzz worthy destination where some of the city’s best chefs recreate their specialities. The city’s chosen collaborator to reinvent this space may seem like an odd choice, but it makes sense given the concept was to house the city’s best culinary experiences all under one roof. Wander from stall to stall with a glass of wine in hand. Trust us, you’ll just be glad that somebody, anybody at all, made this vision a reality.
For a traditional local market experience, head to the Arroios Market. Fresh seafood, meat, produce, and flowers are on display, plus a restaurant with a wonderful mission. Staffed by Syrian refugees, most of whom are female, Mezze serves fantastic Middle Eastern dishes in a friendly atmosphere.
The Portuguese seem to have a natural affinity for ceramic tiles. Or, maybe they’re just natural born exhibitionists. While the rest of the world was using tiles to decorate the interior walls of homes, they went for a bolder approach and used them to decorate the facades of buildings. In the 1950s, the transit authority began tiling the interior of metro stations in an effort to make them blend in more with life aboveground.
The National Tile Museum is a unique gem housed in a gorgeous 16th century convent. It’s the world’s only museum dedicated to chronicling the history and evolution of this art form. Both the convent and the tiles it holds are fascinating, but the highlight is Portugal’s longest tile composition. Depicting Lisbon before the earthquake of 1755, this magnificent work contains 1,300 tiles and measures 120 ft long.
You don’t see the locals getting their coffees to go and rushing off, so why would you? The Portuguese take cafe culture very seriously. There’s even more reason to linger given the growth of so many charming, colorful cafes.
Cafe Tati is our favorite spot for brunch, coffee, and live jazz. Flora & Fauna is a flower and foliage filled cafe that doesn’t see a 7pm closing time as a reason to forego a cocktail bar. The city’s best cup of coffee is likely had at Copenhagen Coffee Lab, a micro-roaster owned by three Dutch women. Sitio Valverde is a garden oasis where you can enjoy happy hour or Chef Carla Sousa’s brunch.
Restored Designer Digs
Alfama, Lisbon’s oldest neighborhood, is our top pick for more of a local, quaint vibe. Architecture and design enthusiasts will love Santa Clara 1728. Set in a restored 18th century palace in a romantic plaza, this immaculate 6 room boutique hotel was designed by famed local architect Manuel Aires Mateus.
Tucked away amid cobblestone laneways and residents going about their lives, Santiago de Alfama is a charming and stylish boutique hotel. The 15th century building includes Audrey’s Restaurant, owned by the daughter of the hotel owners.