Smart Shopper: Lo and behold Lisbon
You can feel it in the air: Lisbon is getting hot. It’s just on the cusp, hovering between being slightly-off-the-radar as a European weekend or holiday destination and the place that everyone’s suddenly hungry, eager, positively desperate to see. As the capital of Portugal, a hard-working, once-conquering but now relatively poor city, Lisbon has never been an obvious choice like London, Paris, Venice or Rome. Now that those cities are so permanently rammed with tourists, however, the appeal of quieter, second-tier cities such as this is becoming more potent.
This beautiful, hilly little city on the edge of western Europe has a lot going for it. Renovation projects are taking place all across as foreign investors pile in to hollow out and renovate beautiful, old, tile-fronted buildings going for a relative song. As young entrepreneurs have taken the plunge, new shops, cafes and restaurants have opened, turning the once-staid Príncipe Real into the cool new hangout destination. Recently opened restaurants such as the elegant Eleven, the cosy Cantinho do Avillez and The Independent are heaving, taking bookings for two sittings a night, at 8pm or 10pm, to cope with demand. At the same time, Lisbon retains its old-world air. It’s still a place where every purchase is wrapped (painfully slowly) in paper and tied with ribbon. And hug-yourself bargains still exist here. Even with VAT now at an austerity-policy-driven 23 per cent, many prices are at a level that disappeared decades ago from the more prosperous parts of Europe, from the €2 (Dh10) that you pay for a cappuccino and the €1.50 (Dh8) for one of the delectable, cinnamon-dusted pasteis de nata – egg custard tarts that Portugal is famous for – to the room rates at the wonderful Four Seasons Hotel Ritz – almost half what you’d pay at the Four Seasons in Paris or Milan.
What to buy
Lisbon is a place to look for handmade Portuguese shoes and sandals, as well as fine porcelain, bed linen and the work of master craftsmen and jewellers, all the while picking up appealing bits and pieces in retro packaging.
Not to be missed are Antiga Barbearia de Bairro soaps for €6.40 (Dh33); Alecrim Aos Molhos tubes of cardamom, chocolate or kiwi jams; tins of sardines from A Vida Portuguesa on Rua Anchieta 11 in Chiado; and Portuguese delicacies such as dried orange dipped in chocolate at €8 (Dh41) per kilo, or sugared almonds, walnuts in honey and a large selection of coffees from the fragrant, fusty old Manuel Tavares, off the main square, Rossio.
Along the way, you might want to stop for a painstakingly thorough €10 (Dh50) manicure at Alfredo & Biquette 36 Rua Garrett, 213 427 611, alfredobiquette.com) or an even cheaper barbershop shave.
In the streets of Chiado, above the black-and-white, mosaic-paved flat Baixa, the centre of the city – which was entirely rebuilt after Lisbon was razed by its great fire of 1755 – dark little wood-panelled or tile-lined, old-fashioned shops flank international newcomers such as Zara, H&M and Muji. The tiny Luvaria Ulisses, for instance, a handmade-glove shop on Rua do Carmo, was set up in 1925 and is big enough only for two thinnish customers or one large one at a time; or Joalharia do Carmo for lovely antique silverware; Helio for handmade shoes at around €90 (Dh458); and, around the corner, Paris em Lisboa on Rua Garrett for fringed and embroidered hand towels from €9 (Dh46) and finely worked bed linen made in the north of Portugal.
This isn’t a city preserved in aspic. On the broad, tree-lined main shopping boulevard, Avenida da Liberdade, there are now more familiar luxury brands in evidence than ever: Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Prada, Cartier, Michael Kors, Loewe, MaxMara and Burberry all have stores popular with wealthy Brazilians and label-crazed Chinese shoppers trying to get around the two-items-per-customer quotas. In the past few years, they’ve been joined by a handful of Portuguese designers, such as Luis Onofre, whose elegant handmade shoes are bought by Michelle Obama.
In Príncipe Real, beyond the raffish Bairro Alto, heart of the nightlife in Lisbon, new shops set up by young entrepreneurs include Casa Da Praia, selling white-on-white embroidered Indian kaftans by Manvionline at €57 (Dh290) and sassy swimwear from the new Colombian label Maaji (€110 [Dh560] for a double-sided 1950s style). The block-long, three-storey, neo-Moorish Embaixada LX has become the main focus of the neighbourhood, full of cool little shops such as Moleskine, Paez and the Portuguese Vivienne Westwood, Storytailors.
Antiques and jewellery
The best buys are handmade luxury items. In Jorge Welsh, the leading antique store, items sourced from the treasure trove that is the north of Portugal can be half the price that they’re sold at in London. At Rosior – one of the 20 or so independent jewellers left in Europe, which has made collections for Cartier, produce just 60 or 70 one-off pieces a year and have a shop in the Four Seasons – a handmade silver Tree of Life table piece, with the names of grandfathers inscribed on the roots, parents on the branches, photographs of family members inserted into discs hanging from the branches, costs from €14,000 (Dh71,317). And might you be interested in the exquisite 420-carat gemstone-studded, antelope-skin-lined minaudière that took two years to make and was launched on Portuguese TV? It could be yours for €320,000 (Dh1,6 million). But, please, no bargaining. “We do not discuss discounts,” smiles José Rosas, the son of the owner.
It’s a thrill to discover that the dramatic dresses worn by Joan Collins in the seminal 1980s television series Dynasty were made by a Portuguese dressmaker, Maria Virginia Silveira. At 68, she still runs a made-to-measure, couture-quality dressmaking service from the boutique that she bought after moving back to Lisbon from London. The boutique, She, at Rua Castilho 75, parallel to Avenida da Liberdade, specialises in chic, ready-to-wear dresses at a bargain price – €110 (Dh558) – but the clutch-your-heart bargains are the ravishing handmade evening and wedding dresses that Maria Virginia (00351 917 60 77 82) makes for about €900 (Dh4,584; fabric and trimmings extra). Her most recent creation was a Valentino-worthy wedding dress in the palest oyster satin, made for the Dubai-born daughter of a senior official at the UAE Embassy in Lisbon, an incrediblefeat of Borrowers-tiny handstitching, pleating and embroidery.
Where to stop for coffee
On little squares across the city, the old, green, wrought-iron kiosks that used to sell newspapers have recently been converted into coffee stalls and bars with tables and chairs in the open air. Many have good views as well as excellent coffee, a nice mix of cakes, and chicken salad wraps for €3 (Dh15).
Must-try – or at least, must-see — cafes include the 19th-century wood-panelled Nacional next to the main Rossio square; A Brasileira, with its mahogany counter, brass fittings and decorative wall tiles on Rua Garrett, near La Perla and across the square from Hermès and the new branch of the cult American skincare brand Kiehl’s; and the main cafe in the Jardim da Estrela botanical gardens, where you can savour homemade cake – the carrot and tangerine is good – while watching ducks and geese on the shaded pond.
It’s worth getting a taxi here for a coffee before crossing the road to where the famous and ever-more-popular 28 tram starts its journey up to medieval Alfama.
For an ice cream, the best is at Santini, on Rua do Carmo, at €2 (Dh10) per delectable scoop. Milk caramel and coconut are especially recommended.
Few cities are as easy to get into, out of, and around as Lisbon. In one direction, the airport is a 20-minute, €20 (Dh102) cab ride from the centre; in the other, Estoril, once a favoured escape for Portugal’s royalty, and the broad, firm, sandy beaches of Cascais, are 20 minutes along the coast on a €2.60 (Dh13) train ride from the central waterfront Cais do Sodré station.
Small but often steep of street, Lisbon can be explored by clanking, 19th-century wooden trams if you get tired of walking up its little cobbled streets. The number 28 tram lurches up and down the seven hills on which the city is built, stopping at most of the places that you might want to visit. A one-day travel card for the trams, buses (useful for getting to the marvellous Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, on the waterfront on the outskirts of the city) and Metro costs €6 (Dh31), from any Metro station or tobacconist.
For a personalised, go-where-you-want guided tour in a six-seater motorised tuk-tuk imported from Thailand, there’s Eco Tuk Tours (00351 914 925 450, www.ecotuktours.com); a two-hour tour costs €90 (Dh458), whether two or six hire the customised vehicle.
Where to stay
Modernist, filled with large open-plan rooms flooded with natural light and adorned with some stupendous Portuguese artworks, the Four Seasons Hotel Ritz opened in 1959 – commissioned by Salazar, Portugal’s dictator until 1968 – to be a showcase for the best that the country could offer. Some of the best views of the city are seen from its rooftop running track and, because of the state of the Portuguese economy, it has the rather delicious additional appeal of being one of Europe’s least expensive Four Seasons. It’s a 10-minute walk from here through the Edward VII park to the must-see Calouste Gulbenkian Museum. And with large rooms, fast-running baths, perfect beds and linen, flawless service and a truly delectable breakfast served in the huge, light-filled restaurant, Varanda, the hotel is an undiluted pleasure to visit.
If you want to split your stay between city and beach, maybe throwing in some golf and a visit to the Casa Histórica museum to see the works of Portugal’s most famous living artist, Dame Paula Rego, the newest smart place to stay in Cascais is The Oitavos. This is a 141-room glass and steel structure in the middle of an award-winning golf course, with a vast, entirely open ground floor and big, airy, high-ceilinged and light-filled rooms looking out over heather, the golf course and the sea. You can fall asleep with the glass doors leading to the terrace wide open, listening to the sound of waves. Bliss. The food is outstanding, too.
Three nights’ bed and breakfast at the Four Seasons with return Emirates flights from Dubai cost from €1,518 (Dh7,731) per person, including taxes with DialAFlight (0044 844 811 4444; www.dialaflight.com). They can also arrange stays at The Oitavos. Direct return flights with Emirates (www.emirates.com) cost from Dh4,075, including taxes. The website www.visitlisboa.com has plenty of useful listings, and the Portuguese and English booklet Lisboa Bairro a Bairro is an invaluable shopping guide.