Once the centre of an empire, Lisbon has more recently endured seriously hard times. But it’s now enjoying a well-deserved renaissance fuelled by the creativity and self-reliance forged by those hard times,
The pastel streetscapes of Lisbon are perpetually bathed in a soft, diffused light reflected off white cobblestones polished by hundreds of years of traffic. Fresh seafood is the staple of every menu, handsome beaches are on the city’s doorstep, and the historic Bairro Alto district buzzes with some of the best nightlife in Europe.
But for all its blessings, the picturesque Portuguese capital has only just become fashionable. “Until very recently, Lisbon looked like it had been bombed,” says Bruno Gomes, founder of the ironically named We Hate Tourism, which runs tours of the city’s hidden corners. “When I was growing up, I saw Lisbon as an elegant older lady who would have been very pretty when she was young. Lisbon 20 years ago was an empty city.
Buildings were falling apart and young families would move to the suburbs.” Sculptor Fernanda Fragateiro remembers the waterfront district of Baixa as “very quiet, full of empty spaces and abandoned buildings,” when she moved into a studio there in 1999. “Sometimes it was scary to walk alone at night.” The city’s fortunes have ebbed and flowed over the centuries.
The heights of colonial wealth of the Age of Discovery were followed by the catastrophic devastation of an earthquake in 1755. More recently, a repressive fascist regime arose in the 20th century and fought an unsuccessful 13-year war to hold onto African colonies before democracy was restored in 1974.
Then a flowering of the city triggered by its hosting of the World Expo in 1998 was cut short by a crippling recession that lasted from 2000 and 2014. But there was a silver lining. The dive in property prices and rents drew artists and young entrepreneurs from around Europe.
And the hard times, Gomes says, forced locals to become resourceful, generating a kind of creative renaissance. “It was a really, really rough period, but for me it was amazing because we became conscious that there was no one to help us, no one was going to look after us, no one was going to give us a job, so what we really needed to do was create.
In many ways, this was the best time because we started to do what we really wanted.” Property prices are now beginning to soar as the glam crowd descends on the city. Madonna bought a seven-million-euro home here in September last year, and the number of foreign tourists visiting Portugal soared 13 per cent—the sixth straight record year for tourist arrivals.
Tourism has been instrumental in bolstering the fragile economy. “Sometimes we talk about the gentrification and touristification of Lisbon, and without a doubt there are negative aspects to this, but I would say tourism has brought a lot of good things because we have a city that is being renovated and renewed,” says Gomes.
“My grandfather is 90 years old and when I take him out now, he says he’s never seen it as pretty as it is today.” Headlining Lisbon’s creative renaissance is the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (MAAT).
The sweeping, organic structure was devised to revitalise the historic Belém riverfront and serve as a platform of encounter between the local and international art scenes.
Director Pedro Gadanho, previously curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, says its impact has been extraordinary. “Our first year was beyond my best expectations.
We had half a million visitors, which is quite amazing when you consider that the city itself is 700,000 people. I think it’s part of this excitement that’s happening with many foreigners discovering or rediscovering Lisbon.
This story appears in our February 2018 issue, go grab yours at the newsstands or subscribe here