Lisbon is made of hills. Seven of them, all at a sharp 45-degree incline. A trip to the shops involves a quad-tightening blitz straight up, then straight down. Adorning the city’s terraced buildings are the azulejos, or traditional Portuguese tiles. It’s a purely decorative display, often stretching wall to wall. Combined with dramatic views down to the river at each corner, it turns a walk through town into quite a show.
Lisbon’s history is as dramatic as its topology. Once one of the wealthiest ports in the world, the city is dotted with palaces and castles. The azulejos, infuenced by Moorish architecture, soon became synonymous with Portugal, a tradition that continued through until the early 20th century. Displayed in the Lisbon Tile Museum is a tiled panorama of the city, 37m long, made in 1730. It depicts mostly monasteries, convents and churches. Some of these are now UNESCO treasures. This was Lisbon’s architectural pinnacle, just 25 years before the great earthquake of 1755, which wiped out half the city.
Luckily, some buildings stayed standing and these days Lisbon is a salty-faced town with an elegant charm. Rickety trams trundle away up the steep streets. Sun touches the white cobblestones polished smooth by billions of traipsing feet. Sugar hits are necessary when you’re Stairmastering your way around town. Cue the custard tart, or more correctly the pasteis de nata. The Holy Grail of pasteis de nata are found at Pasteis de Belém, a grand teahouse in the Belém district. Pastry pilgrims stretch around the block, while inside white-aproned patissiers shuttle towers of tarts to the fortunate few to have found a table.
In Lisbon, the small shop is king. Whatever you’re looking for – butter or buttons, hairbrushes or electrical tape – there’s a shop for that. This is a city that has, for now, mostly remained above the great global gentrification project, untouched by chain coffee shops, uber malls and loyalty cards. Here there are butchers and bakers and haberdashers and key cutters, each a community-focussed family business. People greet each other on the street. Doors are held open, thank yous are sincere, courtesy is upheld. This is life by the Slow Movement handbook, but not as a lifestyle choice; it just never changed.
In 2008 Portugal shook hard again. Around 500,000 young people left the country to find work. In a country of 10 million, that's a huge chunk of lost youth. Now Lisbon is on an upswing, enjoying a tourist boom and attention as a potential new home for the global creative class. Young Portuguese are returning to open new businesses. Michelin starred restaurants share pavements with modern ceramics studios. Crowds flock to Musicbox on the riverside for the latest from radical record label Principe. The city just opened the A_LA designed MAAT museum to great fanfare, and this autumn is host to both the Architecture Triennale and the 2016 Tech & Startup Web Summit.
Taking tea on a sunny afternoon under palm trees in the Jardim Estrela, the city feels vibrant and alive. Suddenly the air is filled with parrots. A host of peacocks strut by. Trees and plants here look more like Southern Asia than Southern Europe, nods perhaps to a tropical Empire, now faded.
Lisbon is a city that walks the line between old and new, neither destroying tradition nor rejecting innovation. The result is an upbeat, beautiful place that exudes possibility.
Words and images by Kate Friend