Europe’s New Culture Capital Is Here: And It’s Not Berlin, Barcelona, Or...

Europe’s New Culture Capital Is Here: And It’s Not Berlin, Barcelona, Or Paris

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I must begin this article with an apology, and a thank you. To the Portuguese, an apology- before I went to Lisbon, I had only the vaguest idea that Portugal even existed. It was a country I had heard of, but that was it- I had only seen it on a map. How wrong I was to have deprived myself of such a place for so long.

The thank you is to my friend Amilcar- a lifelong lisboeta (which is Portuguese for a Lisbon dweller) I befriended in college who has tirelessly invited me to visit for the past decade. The opportunity arose for me to visit, and I took it.

I don’t know what I expected. All I knew of Portugal was what I had heard on TV- what everyone hears on TV. The economy, the bailouts, the struggle of the Portuguese people daily as they plummeted into the spiraling abyss of insolvency and unemployment. I expected some sort of depression, a sad overhanging grimness like I felt in DC when the recession hit us.

But what met me was something completely, utterly different.

Amilcar met me at Lisbon-Portela airport, and we took the metro into the city to his apartment on Rua Joaquim Bonifacio, and even on the metro you can see the city’s culture shining through in a really amazing mural in the Oriente station (which I regrettably did not capture, though others have captured for me):

oriente

(Source: Flickr)

The mural is made up of something called azulejo, which is a very traditional Portuguese style of tilework- and Vasco Da Gama is of course one of Portugal’s most famous explorers. The art style is new, a fusion of modern Portuguese artistry with traditional styles that very neatly symbolizes the nascent cultural renaissance the city is experiencing.

And make no mistake- it is nothing short of a cultural renaissance. From the moment I rose out of the depths of the Saldanha station, I was struck by the movement and the vibrancy of the city. Everywhere there is art- from the statues in Saldanha and the Marques de Pombal to the graffiti that adorns the intricate tunnel-like streets of the Alfama, the city is thriving with it- and the recent economic downturn is what proved to be the catalyst.

And make no mistake- it is nothing short of a cultural renaissance. From the moment I rose out of the depths of the Saldanha station, I was struck by the movement and the vibrancy of the city.

Many artists and writers, unable to find work, have decided to move into the cultural economy- and the city is supporting it. Rather than cut back on culture as the first thing to do when depression hits, the city has defiantly supported its culture movers and shakers- to great results. 

And it’s not just artists and writers- music is flourishing as well, with DJs and fadistas alike plying their trades- or even merging together, forming new tapestries of sounds that weave across the majestic banks of the Tejo. Whether it’s the reclaimed docks of Alcantara or the windy tunnels of Alfama, one can hear new, organic sounds from some of the world’s best new musical talent, drawn together by a shared cultural tapestry.

It’s also attracting foreigners who can no longer afford Berlin, Barcelona, or Paris. It’s a fact: the city is cheap. Astoundingly cheap. It hasn’t experienced the insane rise in cost of living like its bigger cousins. It is possible to live very well in Lisbon on very little, which is attractive to writers and artists who are living in constrained budgets.

Additionally, the city is virtually unknown- it is not overrun with tourists like other European capitals. The heartbeat of the city is still strongly Portuguese, and the cafes and restaurants still thrum with authenticity and the traditional roots of Portugal. There are few expats here, and fewer signs even still of American corporate infestation.

You won’t be having a two-pump skim latte here. Not even remotely- you’ll be having a galao, a style of Portuguese long coffee drink, and a traditional pastel de nata– a pastry that comes from one of Lisbon’s most famous and revered bakeries, the Pasteis de Belem, near the monastery of Jeronimos.

You won’t be having a two-pump skim latte here. Not even remotely- you’ll be having a galao, a style of Portuguese long coffee drink, and a traditional pastel de nata

That bakery, in fact, is situated right near one of Lisbon’s only Starbucks cafes. And gratifyingly, when we went, the Starbucks was only half full- but the bakery’s line was stretching out the door.

Amilcar took me out to the Bairro Alto, an area known for the nightlife. And it was fantastic- an old windy maze of streets, with open-air bars and live music populating all of them. You could enter into any of them as you pleased- to dance to the music, or simply to sit and watch the massed crowd of people flowing through the streets.

bairroalto

We took the opportunity to do so- as we drank a glass of tawny port wine, sitting at a table near the entrance of one of the bars, I took in the sights and sounds and moving majesty of the throng of young people weaving around me. And I realized something.

If Hemingway were writing now, he wouldn’t be writing in Paris or Berlin or Madrid- they have been overrun by corporations, by soulless American machines that are doing their best to “monetize”. But not Lisbon- there is not a Burger King or a McDonald’s on every street corner, not a Hollister or an Abercrombie in sight, and it has stubbornly and proudly hung on to itself.

He would be writing in Lisbon.

Hemingway’s movable feast, his city of lights and sound- it’s still here. It’s just moved a bit south, that’s all. Forget the trendy Champs D’Elysees- he would have walked down the long, gloriously leafy promenade of the Avenida da Liberdade (which is, I am told, actually wider than the famous French boulevard), enjoying the sights and whirling sounds of the city of Lisbon.

There is a huge influx of art here, and it is growing at an unprecedented rate. Some of the next generation’s greatest artistic minds are meeting and mingling here, sharing inspiration and producing their own great works.

The next great American novel? Well… it just might be written in Portugal.

The next great American novel? Well… it just might be written in Portugal.

 

  • Carol Silva

    It is a beautiful city.
    About the living cost, I have visited Berlin last year and I feel that the cost of living is pretty much the same. What is more expensive is coffee and everything with coffee, and it’s not even that good (being a portuguese, it’s tough to find a great coffee in Europe, other than Italy maybe) 😉
    Looking at our minimum wage and considering the average wage in Germany, I think we have a high cost of living, considering.
    It’s great to see that people that never came to our beautiful country love it as much as we do.
    When you’ve got the time, I would recommend also visiting other parts of Portugal, as it is very diverse and as we call it “um jardim à beira mar plantado” (a garden planted by the sea).

    • Gaius Lusitanus

      Sorry but I can’t agree with this. I’ve been there too and you can’t compare both things. For the start, your primary error and a recurrent one is to compare minimum wages with average wages, anyway, our minimum wage is surely some 250€ below what should be its normal value. Also you must be comparing prices of young students neighborhoods in Berlin with normal family ones in Lisbon.

      People need to stick to this reality: In Europe there is a direct relationship between wages and prices (cost of living) as simple as that. If supermarket prices aren’t that different with the Portuguese ones being lower (some 20%) as they should be, in terms of housing that is where we find the biggest differences. Renting or buying same level housing in similar neighborhoods is in Lisbon, is at least, 3 times cheaper.

      • Rita Mateus

        I’ve lived in Lisbon and currently live in Berlin and although the rents here are getting more expensive (and are therefor more expensive than Lisbon) you can live with less money here that you can do in Lisbon, food is cheaper here, even in markets. As a student you dont survive in Lisbon as well as you do in Berlin.

      • Tiago

        I must say, that on my personal experience. I can live by myself and have a fairly good life in Germany. Impossible life if I was having the same job in Lisbon. I would not be able to afford to pay for an apartment alone, have pets (and their costs) and still put money together for a fairly good car, invest in furniture, pay for private classes (german and horse riding) and go out and do trips around Europe multiple times a year. Yes some things are more expensive than in Portugal (but not all), but even so they represent a smaller percentage of my salary here.

      • Carol Silva

        Why would you assume I went to a student neighborhood?
        I was staying close to Mitte, at about 10min walk from Alexanderplatz and the Cathedral. I was at a family-oriented neighbourhood. A studio there costs about €600/month. I don’t really think the housing is that costly there, comparing to Portugal and comparing the quality of the houses. In Lisbon, I live in the outskirts of the city, with half of that rent and I still find it very difficult to be able to stretch my wage until the end of the month.
        The difference between the economy in one country and the other is appalling.
        Everything else is cheaper in Berlin. You can live fairly comfortable with less money than in Lisbon.

  • reinaldo

    OBRIGADO

  • Mónica Mota

    It’s a beautiful text about my country. When you come back, I believe you do, you must visit Sintra, near Lisbon. It’s na enchanted town…

  • http://www.drinkportuguesewine.co.uk drinkportuguesewine.co.uk

    Lisbon is an amazing city, with so much to recommend it, but Carol is right, the whole country is worth exploring.

  • Nilredloh Atourlament

    Thank you very much. One of the best writers in the world is a Portugueses genius who lives precisely in Lisboa, he is called António Lobo Antunes. Please wiki him. All the best, Jorge

    • alua

      And another: Fernando Pessoa.

    • Filipe

      Lobo Antnues dont live in lisbon anymore, i think! 😀

    • mj s

      Absolutely!
      António Lobo Antunes. Novelist and medical doctor. He has been named as a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

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  • Raquel Fernandes

    Im HAPPY you love Lisbon as much as I do and I agree with most of your comments, except the cost of living and I especially disagree with the part about artists and culture being supported. As far as I know we don’t even have a ministry of culture in Portugal at the moment. Where did you get that information from? Where are these supporters? Please let me know! Cheers!

  • Pedro Esgueira

    Thanks for the article. Good to have an outsider’s perspective – especially a positive awe-inspiring one! I’m living happily in Amsterdam, but your text brought some emotion to my heart with regards to what is positive in Lisbon that I do love and miss. Keep enjoying your visits to the “city of the 7 hills”! 🙂

  • Domingos Silva

    You should also visit other parts of Portugal like Oporto, Braga, Algarve…!
    I love my country and love to read an article like this! Thanks!!

  • Pedro Batista

    Eric, thanks for the article. The recession still exist but is well cover in Lisbon.
    About the culture you seen, is maybe 1% of what is Portugal.
    There are others hidden treasures like the Moscatel of Setúbal, the Tentugal or the the “Ovos moles” of Aveiro and the almond sweet of the Algarve, and the Bread and wines of Alentejo. Also there are others surprising events to found out, depending on the season of the year.
    BTW if you like you can also see the places by bike, there are some good ecotrails.
    And there are way more better “Pasteis de Nata” to all Portugal then in Lisbon. But the “Pasteis de Belém” are special… special dellicious!

    The next time you come, you should see more.

  • Francisco Baranda

    PORTUGAL! MY BELOVED COUNTRY! WHAT AN AMAZING ARTICLE! SO PROUD TO LIVE HERE IN THESE MAGICAL COUNTRY! <3 <3 <3 EVEN THOUGHT I TINK WE SHOULD HAVE AN HOLLISTER AND AN ABERCROMBIE, I HAVE TO ORDEM THOSE ON-LINE 🙂 PORTUGAL! <3 <3 <3

  • winddriven

    Dude!? It may not yet be considered ‘high art’ by some, but the Harry Potter saga originated and was written mostly in the same cafe’s and and places you just visited – as they say “you can look it up”. In Lisbon you’re never too far from magic… or is it this beautiful city’s spell.

    • Cohen Sommer

      Actyally you’re wrong. Herry Potter is influence by Porto, not Lisbon. J.K Rowling lived, married a portuguese and had it’s first child in Porto!

    • Pedro Pacheco

      Say what? Dude, you just missed the city, some 300 Kms north. Back in the 90’s, Joanne Rowling was an English teacher in Porto (some of my friends were her students), and yes, she married and had her first daughter with a Portuguese journalist from Porto. Sadly, it is a time of her life she prefers to forget. But a simple virtual visit to the breathtaking Lello bookstore in downtown Porto will explain everything. Google it 😉

      • mj s

        J.K. Rowling lived in Porto while she wrote Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone. http://roamingkonos.com/post/48237397080/harrypotterandthecityofporto

        • Pedro Pacheco

          Nobody knows for sure exactly what she wrote while living in Porto. Some stories say she left Porto with a small baby girl, broken-hearted and broke, and started writing the first words of Harry Potter back in the UK. But the inspiration was born here, if you believe in people who knew her and use plain common-sense.

          • mj s

            No idea! I heard she used to write on the train on her way to work in the UK.
            Her ex- husband was a bad Portuguese and must be now really annoyed… hehehe, or maybe not. Don’t know don’t care. 😉
            Nice to know that her inspiration came from Portugal!

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  • Pedro

    Eric, I enjoyed your perspective but was very surprised you had not the slightest clue about Portugal before your trip. Despite its small size it has a lot of History to it and played a main part in oceans exploration. Not everyone needs to be interested in History but I find it hard to be able to hear about early explorers without mentioning the Portuguese or Portugal…

    • Dolcenea

      So what? We are not only about ocean exploration! It gets kind of redundant if we mention facts with half of a millennium every-single-freaking-time we talk about Portugal. That damn concern about the past! Geez…
      Rock on, Eric! Nice article!

    • mj s

      Be surprised! ,,, but there again we have many people in Portugal that also choose to be ignorant about other countries.

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  • Helena Ferreira

    Thank you for your article! Yes we are “poor” but we are merry by nature 😉 I’m glad you left our City with a “warmer” heart . Just a small note on you article and not an important one at all for the whole thing : ther are more Starbucks around… .. I was going to mention the pastéis de nata/ pastéis de Belém but it has been covered too 😉 cheers and swift return to us!

  • sonja

    You should apologize. Yes. But
    for writing this.

    • Maria Connie da Silva

      Really…and can you kindly let us know why he should apologize?

    • mj s

      No he shouldn’t!
      That’s is opinion and he is free to write it…
      Welcome to the Internet!
      If you don’t have nothing nice to say about an article, say nothing.

  • Gonçalo Valente

    Thanks for the article. Never understood why we need a forigner to tell us how beautifull is our country! And by the way, don´t go to Porto: You’ll stay there forever!

    • mj s

      What can we say… … Portugal is indeed amazing!
      Having a foreigner saying it, is even better. 😉
      We have beautiful villages too… just in a desperate need of
      better politicians.

  • Maria Connie da Silva

    Thank you for your article and for loving Lisbon, my city of birth. The older I get the more I love my city! It is spectacular and oh so special. I wish more Portuguese stopped talking only about politics and began loving more the wonderfully country we have and their wonderful city. Having said this, all Portugal is beautiful. but Lisbon hooks you with its special magic. Hope you get to go back soo

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  • Beto Gomez

    Come to South America: Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo (Brazil), Buenos Aires (Argentina), Santiago de Chile (Chile), Montevideo (Uruguay). All these cities are relatively close to one another (a 4h, 5h flight tops) and they’re amazing!!!! And you can get a taste of all these countries.

    • Wilfrid Manhente

      I live in Brazil and I don’t recommend São Paulo and Rio. When I visit a city I like to amuse myself, not living afraid of taking a lost bullet or looking over my shoulder all the time. Those 2 cities are way too violent.

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  • Daniel Isidro

    If you find Lisboa beautiful, just try to visit the rest of country, then you will see what is beautiful!!
    Just few hints, visit at north Porto, go up river Douro by boat, visit the Porto wine cellars. Visit Serra do Gerês, taste the regional food and wines.
    Going more south, visit Aveiro and Costa Brava, taste there the ovos moles, Leitão a Bairrada and the Bairrada wines. Go more inland and visit Serra da Estrela, taste the goat cheese, ham, mushrooms, etc… and if lucky, you can sky in the winter.
    Little more south on the coast line again you arrive to the Costa Oeste, you will find the excellent long white sand beaches and you can surf on Europe Surf Capital, Peniche, by the way taste the sardines and fresh fish.
    Going south of Lisboa on the coast line you will find Costa da Caparica, Setubal, Troia, Comporta, Meco, and a lot more beaches, don’t forget to taste once more the fresh fish, Setubal region wine, try the Moscatel one of the most famous.
    Going more inland, visit the profound Alentejo, long flat portions of land with their “montes” and old farms, some transformed in rural hotels, visit the those farms called herdades, where you can taste the local cuisine and wine types, taste the cheese, pão (bread) alentejano, chouriço, paio alentejano and the famous Pata Negra ham.
    If you like party arround all day and night, just travel south the Algarve and enjoy the discos, Casinos and bars during the summer time, Lagos, Portimão, Vilamoura, Albufeira, Faro, etc…, personally I don’t recommend it if you don’t like too much confusion and tourists… but if you go in the winter time, the weather is also not bad and the places are excellent to take a good rest and enjoy, a suggestion try the the traditional pastry!
    This was just a small glimpse of my beautiful country, Lisboa is only good to stay one or two days, make like a doctor visit, and depart and discover the real country that Portugal is!!
    A lot of regions were not mentioned on this description, but that is an extra bonus if you want to depart from Lisboa and find by yourself the other hidden wonders of the country.
    By the way, don’t publicity them too much, we don’t want to transform Portugal in a European Dominican Republic, we like it as it is, we like to receive good, with quality, not in quantity!! 🙂

  • Wilfrid Manhente

    Hi. I’ve read your article and there are some aspects that I wanted to talk about.

    1st – Thank you for your article and to share your experience in Portugal. I’m not surprised you didn’t know a thing about Portugal. Usually that’s the idea we have from your country´s citizens. Not your fault though, Portugal had a huge importance in History but many countries don’t teach it in schools. To be honest, I’m more concerned with my present and future than with the past;

    2nd – I believe a foreigner may think Lisbon as cheap because they don’t actually live in Portugal. Life in Portugal is miserable and that’s why me and many people had to leave it. I’m a telco engineer and engineers nowadays got ridiculed by companies. In Portugal you have to work several extra hours and receive a lousy salary comparing to other european countries. There is no respect and esteem for what you do. Usually the esteem you get for a good work is a a smile and a pat on the back. For me, esteem is a compensation in the salary not a pat on the back. I’m not saying that every company has that philosophy but the majority have. The cost of living is higher in other european countries but thanks to a lot better salary, you can actually save a lot more money than in Portugal. Portugal nowadays is the center of cheap labor in Europe and that’s why many multinationals are there, they get high qualified personnel receiving lousy salaries. But no surprise there either, when you visit any country as a tourist, you get more positive views than negative ones. If you return to that country and actually live there you’ll find the reality way too different;

    3rd – Portugal is beautiful indeed. Like some of us portuguese say, It’s a small country but with a big heart. Being small is actually an advantage since you have mountain, snow, countryside, beach all within short distances. Aside from the beautiful art, architecture, culture, night life, there are also other things very good in Portugal. One of the things I miss the most is the portuguese cuisine, very diverse and tasty, wich I don’t have here where I live nowadays. About american stuff you said you didn’t see in every corner, usually those you find in those hipermarkets like Colombo, each having Burger King, Mc Donalds, Starbucks, etc:

    4th – The portuguese people are usually very friendly for foreigners, it’s not hard to find people who speak english or other language making your stay more enjoyable, unlike other countries where If you don’t speak their mother language you’re screwed. They smile at you, even in a situation where the majority is angry, living in a country where the corrupts rule, the money makers play dirty and get away with it and the average people have to pay for their sins. I lived in the north and center of Portugal and by experience I can say that the nothern people are more friendlier, more open minded. The south I know little so I cannot say anything about it.

    In short, Portugal is a great country to visit, not only the beautiful Lisbon, but to live in it’s not. Although I left Portugal and don’t pretend to go back, It’s always in my heart and thoughts and it will always be. I read news about my country everyday, I watch my club team playing football (what you call soccer) on TV on weekly basis.
    Portugal has ups and downs just like any other country, some things I miss other I don’t miss a thing and just reinforce my decision to leave it.

  • Luis

    These areas exist in Lisbon just like in any other city in any civilized country. I know how to get there and how to avoid them. I guarantee they’re an extremely small part of the city. I only wonder what took you there, what were you looking for?

  • Wilfrid Manhente

    lol, good place u went to. Ordinary people visit nice places…

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  • mj s

    “Tourist traps” exist everywhere!
    But Luis… the Nuns recipe for the “Pasteis de Belem / Nata ” are the best….

  • mj s

    Hehehe… we do have our rough areas…
    Isn’t it like that in your city?

  • Julião Saeba

    Lisbon is safer than your city. Portugal is the 11th safest country in the world. What about your country ? You seem to have visited Amadora… Taxi drivers these days !

  • Tucancamumia

    Lisbon is awesome, yes, but don’t spoil the city with too much tourism. In each city the number of foreigners should never surpass those of pigeons.

  • Neuza Afonso

    i cant describe in words how proud i am now to be Portuguese….. thank you for your words.
    My small country has a beauty like no other, and yes i truly recommend to everyone out there who loves beauty. I recommend Setubal, the Europe City of Sports 2016, full of beauty, dolphins, Troia and Arrabida….

    Thank you once again

    Neuza