Lisbon Confidential is a new section in this blog, dedicated to the people who know Lisbon best: those that live and work here every day. We will be interviewing several distinguished personalities from the online and offline worlds of tourism, hostelry, the restaurant trade, and hopefully many others such as politicians, shop assistants, tram drivers and whoever we think might offer some helpful insider tips to those visiting the city. Should you wish to suggest somebody for this interview, please contact us.
We’ll be asking the same 10 questions to all these people, with the intention of hopefully stimulating some interesting replies stacked with useful information. To inaugurate this section, who better than Mario Rui Fernandes of GoLisbon.com fame, who not only knows Lisbon very well, but whose own travels around Portugal and the world place him in the unique position of being on both sides of the fence: both being a tourist and helping tourists. So, with no further ado, this is Mario’s version of Lisbon Confidential:
1. What’s your connection with Lisbon?
I have been living in Lisbon since 2003, and I first visited the city in 2000. I had been to Portugal several times before (I lived in the United States for most of my life), but that was always during the summer and as a teenager my days were spent at the beaches. So after a last-minute idea to spend my millennium 1999-2000 eve in Portugal, I actually spent a few days in the capital. That didn’t give me enough time to explore it, but it was love at first sight from the top of the hilltop viewpoints. So I returned later that summer, when I spent days photographing the city. When I returned to the United States, I posted my photos on a personal website, eventually created my own guide with Portugal travel information, and that led to the GoLisbon.com website which has become the most popular site about Lisbon on the web.
2. Why should a tourist visit Lisbon, in your opinion?
There are many unique cities, but in Lisbon’s case we can truly say it’s not like any other. It may have monuments similar to other world icons, and there is some fantastic architecture and museums, but Lisbon is a city that you visit not just to see man-made works, but mostly to experience an especially beautiful, atmospheric, and authentic place. It’s also a special destination because it’s still so underrated, little understood, and little known. It then becomes extra-special when you’re reminded that it was once a true world capital, the center of an empire with colonies on all corners of the globe, and from where the world’s great explorers learned about the seas and yet-unexplored worlds. That is part of the fascination with Lisbon, a place that you never really knew much about, but that the more you get to know, the more you want to know. And that happens every time you turn a corner, go down one of the legendary seven hills, see the river in the distance or a colorful tiled façade, take a look at the patterned pavements, see an old tram pass by… Lisbon is a surprise, decadent yet vibrant, old yet modern and exciting when you start exploring it.
3. Your favourite Lisbon museum, sight or attraction?
I love the Ancient Art Museum. I have gone there several times, and each time I like it more (there are famous European masters next to anonymous works, pieces mixing European and Asian art, and items related to the Age of Discovery). I especially like it on Sunday mornings, not just because that’s when it’s free, but because it has a great cafeteria in a garden looking out to the Tagus. I also love St. George’s Castle, which as a Lisbon resident, I can go at any time for free. When you hear that the view of Lisbon from the top is breathtaking you should take that literally — for its hilltop location and the feeling of standing above the entire city descending towards the river.
4. Do you have a favourite restaurant? If so, why?
It is very difficult to choose a favorite restaurant. When dining out, I more often look for what’s new than return to old favorites, but if I want a special yet informal dinner, I find myself going back to Viagem de Sabores in Alfama. You dine looking out to the floodlit cathedral, it’s on one of the city’s most peaceful and charming streets, the space has a great atmosphere, and the food is quite good, with flavors from all over the world, true to the name of the place “a voyage of flavors.”
5. A favourite bar or cafeteria?
Since the weather in Lisbon is almost always pleasant at any time of the year, I often choose to go by the river and stand in the sun (even in the colder winter days). So I enjoy “À Margem” in Belem which serves excellent light meals and drinks, and go for weekend brunch at “Deli Delux” also by the river but in Alfama, outside Santa Apolonia Station. At night I have always joined everyone up and down Bairro Alto, going from bar to bar (“Maria Caxuxa” is a guaranteed stop), although lately I am preferring chatting with friends with a cocktail at Cinco Lounge.
6. What is your favourite district of the city and why?
When meeting friends, the destination is always Chiado. It’s the city’s liveliest area, with something going on from day to night. I know I can grab a quick breakfast at Panificação do Chiado, get a light meal at Fabulas, Royale, or Kaffeehaus cafes, go for a drink and fantastic city views at the bars of Regency Chiado or Bairro Alto Hotel, see a show at one of the many theaters, or have dinner at one of its cool and relaxed restaurants such as New Wok or Cafe Buenos Aires nearby. And although I’m not much of a shopper, if I need something, I rarely go to the shopping malls away from the center because I know I’ll find everything I need in Chiado.
7. Recommend a good night out in Lisbon.
The perfect night out in Lisbon starts late because it ends late (or better yet, early in the morning). It starts with a drink at a cafe in Chiado before dinner at a Bairro Alto restaurant where you can stay for hours at a table, followed by a Bairro Alto bar-crawl. Those who still feel the night is young, move to one of the many former warehouses and now clubs by the river (“Lux” is still the top choice after more than a decade), while those who prefer calmer nights, can simply stay for cocktails at their favorite bar. As for tourists, they always end up falling for a night of Fado, the best of which are usually found at Clube de Fado or Senhor Vinho.
8. Tell us your favourite, interesting or unusual Portuguese saying or phrase, and its meaning.
It’s not exactly Portuguese, but I love to hear “Não deixes para amanhã o que podes fazer hoje” — it means “don’t leave for tomorrow what can be done today.” I love it because no one follows it. Lisbon would not be Lisbon if they did.
9. Given the chance, what would you do to improve Lisbon?
If I could improve Lisbon, I’d make myself dictator mayor of the city. Cars would be prohibited in all of downtown (Baixa) so pedestrians could better enjoy the city; landlords who can’t afford renovations of the buildings in the old residential neighborhoods such as Alfama would lose their properties which would then be rented at affordable prices to young people following renovation; there would be a Singapore-like attitude towards graffiti in private property; shops downtown would stay open until late at night and malls would be closed. Everything else could be left as it is — flawed but actually perfect.
10. Lastly, do you have any insider tips, a hidden gem or little known aspect of Lisbon you can let our readers know about? Or simply a last word of advice for visitors to Lisbon.
Take at least one day to simply walk around Lisbon, with no specific sightseeing in mind. Walk up to the castle, down Alfama, through Baixa, up Chiado and Bairro Alto. Stop at the viewpoints, sit at a pavement cafe, admire the view and enjoy the sun and a long meal with a good wine. That’s the only way to truly experience Lisbon, a place where life is meant to be enjoyed slowly, with some time to notice the little details, no rushing, just living. That’s true quality of life, and that’s the true quality and essence of Lisbon.
And that concludes our first Lisbon Confidential interview. Thanks Mario, for allowing us a sneak peak at your version of Lisbon, and bringing us a little closer to knowing the city as well as you do.