May 17, 2017 / Property Spotlight

Spotlight on Lisbon, a City of Contrasts

Visually arresting art institutions, a celebrated gastronomic scene, and a perfect work-life balance make Lisbon a highly desirable place to live and explore


Bathed in a rare quality of light that has captured the imaginations of explorers, artists, and architects, Lisbon is a captivating urban composition in the midst of a seismic cultural shift. The Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (MAAT), its newest major architectural arrival, is just one of many reasons to visit.

The MAAT, and the renovated Tejo Power Station, seen here on the left, have revitalized Lisbon’s Belém district. Photograph: ©Fernando Guerra. Courtesy of the EDP Foundation. Banner image: The tiled façade of the MAAT evokes Portugal's ceramics heritage. ©Hufton+Crow. Courtesy of AL_A.The undulating magnificence of architect Amanda Levete’s MAAT has transformed the Portuguese capital's long-neglected waterfront Belém district and given birth to a new wave of creativity in the city. From contemporary new structures to the azulejos adorning the buildings in its historic center, and slick Michelin-starred restaurants to tiny tin-can eateries, Lisbon is a city of remarkable contrasts.

When I was living in Porto, I was dreaming of Lisbon’s light

A hub of art, architecture, and technology
While the Portuguese capital may be relatively small, the “City of Seven Hills” reveals a surprise at every turn of its colorful, cobbled streets.

Some of Lisbon’s hidden-away, authentic bars and cafés can be found among the narrow, cobbled streets in the Bairro Alto. Photograph: Alamy“When I was living in Porto, I was dreaming of Lisbon’s light, and when I was in New York, I craved the city’s more balanced pace of life,” says Pedro Gadanho, director of the MAAT, which opened in October 2016. “Good food, sunshine most days of the year, the beach on my lunch break, and close proximity to other European cultural centers mean that nothing is a hassle here,” says Gadanho, who formerly worked as the curator of contemporary architecture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The roof of the MAAT has become a popular spot to sit and watch the sun setting over the Tagus River. Photograph: ©Fernando Guerra. Courtesy of the EDP Foundation.After opening its doors—and roof—to the public, the MAAT was short-listed for the 2017 European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture–Mies van der Rohe Award. And Levete and her AL_A architecture firm won in the Exhibition Design: Spacial Design category of the 2017 Design Prize for their work on the MAAT. The building is the product of years of initiatives to regenerate the area, and has created a new artistic and architectural lifeline for the city.

The steps down from the MAAT flood during high tide, blurring the boundaries between building and landscape

“We wanted the building to be rooted in its place,” explains Levete, whose esteemed architecture practice recently completed work on a new extension to London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, set to open in June 2017. “Portugal has a spectacularly rich tradition of ceramics, and to build on that we created a bespoke tile that would pick up the changing light conditions throughout the day. The marble cobbles we used to surround the building are also very characteristic of Lisbon,” she says.

The MAAT’s four sunken galleries showcase a range of art and architecture exhibitions and installations. Photograph: ©Fernando Guerra. Courtesy of the EDP Foundation.The other aspect that immediately grabs you when you first see the building is its relationship to the landscape around it. “The steps down from the MAAT to the waterfront flood during high tide,” says Levete, “blurring the boundaries between building and landscape. And from the gently curving rooftop, visitors can take in views that span the River Tagus on one side, the Monument to the Discoveries to the west, and the old part of the city to the east,” a perspective that Levete says many in Lisbon have never experienced before.

Covered in 15,000 ceramic tiles that reflect the sun—transforming the color of the building throughout the day—the MAAT is designed to enhance its environment. Photograph: ©Fernando Guerra. Courtesy of the EDP Foundation.Art beyond the MAAT
Having spent a great deal of time in the city, Levete has a wealth of knowledge about its impressive art scene. She suggests seeking out the works of Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso, Cindy Sherman, and Joan Miró at the Museu Coleção Berardo. And the Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian—with its two collections encompassing art and artifacts both old and more modern—demands at least an afternoon. “It’s a very calm, scholarly place,” Levete says.

Armenian philanthropist Calouste Gulbenkian’s wide-ranging collection spans Egyptian, Greco-Roman, Islamic, and Oriental art, as well as old coins, and European paintings and decorative arts. Photograph: AlamyGadanho suggests Kunsthalle Lissabon, “the leading institute for contemporary arts in Lisbon” and Cristina Guerra. “Both are at the forefront of the artistic scene and work within an international context.”

Shopping and living in Lisbon
“The Chiado neighborhood and the area around Avenida da Liberdade are the most desirable places to live,” says Rafael Ascenso, General Manager at Porta da Frente, the exclusive affiliate for Christie’s International Real Estate in Lisbon. In Chiado, historic façades hide exquisitely renovated interiors, and the most authentic boutiques, such as A Vida Portuguesa, sell artisanal items such as soaps, textiles, and jewelry. Don’t miss Luvaria Ulisses, which has been crafting exceptional leather gloves for more than 100 years. 

Visitors to the upmarket Chiado will find luxury boutiques and azulejo-adorned buildings. Photograph: Getty Images“Fifteen years ago, it was a different story,” muses Ascenso. “This charming historic center was devoid of life, but now it’s our most dynamic market. Clients tell us they don’t feel like foreigners; rather, they feel they’re accepted as part of the community and are very comfortable living here. They can enjoy two lifestyles, with the beaches of Cascais only a short drive from the city center.” 

Having the beach practically on their doorsteps means that many Lisboans combine lunch breaks with surf breaks. Photograph: Getty ImagesEating and drinking
Amid the hum of gallery-goers, serial shoppers, and graffiti-covered trams lies Lisbon’s other labor of love: its food. A good day here starts by dipping into the city’s palatial past with a leisurely breakfast in the opulent Valle-Flôr restaurant within the 19th-century Pestana Palace Hotel. 

When talking chefs, José Avillez is the name to remember. The Lisbon native owns five of the city’s finest establishments, including the two-Michelin-starred Belcanto in Chiado, and Mini Bar, where Avillez’s culinary skills take center stage inside the storied, circa-1894 São Luiz Theatre.

With only 10 tables, Belcanto is a much sought after reservation in Lisbon. Three inventive tasting menus are designed as stories with several chapters, presenting Portuguese haute cuisine at its finest. Photograph: Paulo BarataLevete urges visitors to also seek out the city’s more traditional offerings. The architect so loved the petite Sol e Pesca in the Cais do Sodré district that, in 2014, she created a pop-up in London’s Soho dedicated to tinned seafood as part of the London Design Festival. “Sol e Pesca used to be a fishing tackle shop,” Levete says. “It’s absolutely miniature—just 20 or so seats—and all they sell is tinned fish. In summer it spills out onto the street and is incredibly charming.”

For fresh produce, as well as dishes from some of Lisbon’s top chefs, Mercado da Ribeira is the place to visit.Just around the corner, the Mercado da Ribeira, established in 1882, is the place to go for local produce, as well as to sample the dishes of renowned Lisboan chefs such as Marlene Vieira and the Michelin-starred Henrique Sá Pessoa, who serve up street-food snacks to crowds of locals.

Drinks with a view
Lisbon’s terra-cotta rooftops feature heavily in its skyline, and there are some truly mesmerizing drinking spots to be found on high. Gadanho recommends Entretanto Bar atop the Hotel do Chiado for an excellent “gin tonic,”or join the fashion-forward who frequent the Tivoli hotel’s new Sky Bar on the upscale Avenida da Liberdade.

The 'City of Seven Hills' reveals a surprise at every turn of its colorful, cobbled streets

If you’re out to party like a Lisboan, you could continue on to CINCO Lounge. Pull up a seat at the bar to choose from more than 60 cocktails: classic, inventive, or pleasingly retro.

From whichever hilltop miradouro (viewpoint) you take in this city, there’s something new or charming to be discovered. With strong architectural and historical connections, world-class cultural institutions, and a healthy appetite for life, Lisbon is a city ready to be explored.  

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Francesca Hool
is an art writer and regular contributor to Luxury Defined