Lisbon Delivers Design Inspirations from Top to Bottom
I had a hunch that decorative ceramic tiles were a big thing in Portugal the moment I visited Lisbon’s National Tile Museum, the only museum in the world that chronicles the art of tile back to the 15th century. There’s also a mural made of 1,300 tiles that shows Lisbon in 1738. Housed in a 16th-century convent, it’s just one of many quirky discoveries I came across in this seaside city. Wherever you go here, you’ll see how the Portuguese respect their history and intertwine it in everyday life, yet push creative boundaries in restaurants, hotels, design and fashion boutiques with zero attitude.
Lisbon, like Rome, was built on seven hills. Atop one, the postmodern Four Seasons Hotel Ritz offers a bird’s- eye view of the city and its glorious historic sites, like the citadel called St. George’s Castle. Check out the historical artwork and murals on display in its public areas. Walk down the tree-lined Avenida da Liberdade toward the city center to explore the old section called Alfama with its steep medieval staircases, fado folk music houses and the fashionable shopping district called Chiado, where a visit to home décor store Vista Alegre Atlantis is a must. Stop for a snack of the country’s famous rich custard egg tart (pasteis da nata), or try an artisan gelato at the vibrantly decorated Gelato Therapy.
Stroll over to the Arabesque-styled Embaixada, in the up-and-coming Principe Real district, to shop in a restored 200-year-old palace filled with clothes and interior design finds from the country’s best brand ambassadors. Farther up the street is Alma Lusa with a curated selection of funky souvenirs. Arte da Terra is in a restored horse barn with dozens of items—handbags, belts, even umbrellas—made locally out of cork, a versatile and eco-friendly material. Flower Power is a cutting-edge florist and interior design shop with an organic food café decorated with a fully set table mounted horizontally on the wall. It’s easy to fall in love with everything at Arquitectamus from home design to fashion in a concept store with a waterfall in the garden cafe. One of the oldest stores in Lisbon is the Caza das Vellas Loreto, which has been selling candles since 1789 from the same location.
If you’re old enough to remember drinking Mateus, you’ll be in for a surprise when you taste how grown up Portuguese wines are now. Mercearia do Vinho is a delightful, tiny wine shop with a big selection of wines from all 14 of Portugal’s wine regions. Don’t leave the city without eating in one of Michelin-star chef José Avillez’s restaurants, especially Belcanto, all conveniently located around the opera house, which dates from 1793 and is truly a unique finale to a visit to Lisbon.
Reachable within an hour’s train ride from Lisbon are Sintra and Cascais. Sintra, located in a national park, features a 14th-century castle and Moorish palace completed in the late 1800s. It will delight you with a vividly colored façade and yards of tiles. Walk up to the castle past poet Lord Byron’s favorite hotel, Lawrence’s, a good lunch spot. Not to be missed is the picturesque fishing village of Cascais, with its quaint maze of streets and fashionable shops.
A longer day trip is to Porto, the jewelry-making capital of Portugal and home to the famous fortified wine. The streets are steep, but the effort is rewarding. Visit Lello, a fantastic bookstore rumored to be J.K. Rowling’s inspiration for Hogwarts library. Then wander through rows of townhouses in the World Heritage section. Journey across the river by foot, take the cable car, which lets you off in the heart of the Port wine cellars. Vinum Restaurant at Graham’s Port Lodge has stunning panoramic views.
A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2015 issue of Connecticut Cottages & Gardens with the headline: Lisbon's Uplifting Allure.