Uncovering the Secret Side of Lisbon, Where Nothing Is as it Seems

Lisbon Portugal
Photo by Rrrainbow/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

by Chris Leadbeater, The Telegraph, January 11, 2019

The pale yellow cube in the north-west corner of Praca do Municipio is as clever a piece of dissembling as I have ever seen in connection with a car park. It is the entrance to the lift which descends to the cavernous garage that lies underneath the square’s grey-silver mosaic pavement. But it takes me a few seconds of staring to decipher the structure’s purpose, distracted as I am by the Art Deco reliefs on its side – one a rising sun, the other a Greek warrior in battle. For several moments, the drab functionality of it all escapes me.

The hotel half hidden behind the lift is also playing a charming game of artifice. The AlmaLusa Baixa/Chiado wants to convince me that it has been here forever. It is making a good job of the deception too. The trio of buildings in which it has sequestered itself were, at various times, offices, a bank and a barbershop – basic elements of 20th century Lisbon. The bare timbers and hard flagstones of the lobby – and the creaking dark-wood stairs, flanked by floral tiles, which climb to the comfortable rooms above – hint at something much older; that sea-faring Portugal which forged out to other worlds, ships at sail slipping away from the Tagus waterfront which still waits directly to the south of the hotel. Only the menu at Delfina, the in-house restaurant – from which staff scuttle to the tables on the square, bearing fluffy portions of bacalhau (salted cod) – offers the truth. There, in a classical script, mimicking a trading company which has been in business for centuries, is the tagline “fundada em 2015”. A knowing wink. All is not as it first appears.

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You might say the same of the Portuguese capital – for few major European cities are as defined in popular perception by their postcard staples. Lisbon is – in the general view, at least – the sturdy fortifications of the Castelo de Sao Jorge, guarding their hilltop; the 28 tram, all yellow-white antiquity, trundling up the gradient to meet them; pasteis de nata custard tarts and tiny cups of coffee in the riverbank district of Belém. It is not difficult to understand why this image persists. It is romantic and persuasive – and if you only visit the city for a long weekend, it is surely enough. But there is more, much more, to this hub of half a million souls, and over the course of my own few days away, I am keen to see it.

Which is why I find myself, on a cold Friday morning, loitering in a car park. Another one – not in the gilded Tagus-side confines of Baixa, but away to the north-east in rather scruffier Mouraria. Where the trend for one thing being another continues. The Chao do Loureiro multi-storey is, on initial glance, nothing more than a helpful facility for patrons of the attached shopping centre. But, at second look, it is something much more inspiring.

“It is a living gallery, and it’s free to enter,” enthuses Marisa Quinones, a guide with City Guru – a local tour company with which the AlmaLusa hotel works regularly – who specialises in Lisbon’s urban art scene. The car park has been in this enhanced condition since 2011, when, as part of its renovation, its newly unblemished walls were officially handed over to five established Portuguese street artists to use as a giant canvas. Their handiwork coats the concrete in brilliant colours and engaging motifs – not least a series of bubbles, blown across the levels by a giant pursed mouth; the signature of Angola-born muralist Nomen (aka Nuno Reis). But the shoppers who hurry past do not seem to notice. “Not even locals find this place,” Marisa explains. “They don’t know the art that’s inside.”

There are two obvious issues with a gallery which doubles as a car park. The first is enshrined in Marisa’s frequent pauses as yet another hatchback tyre-squeals through her discussion of a particular image. The second is that some of the works are, depending on time of day, blocked by delivery vans and four-wheel-drives. “Quick, quick!” she shouts, audibly thrilled, when we reach Level Four to find that bays 121-127 are all unoccupied – leaving an unhindered view of a broad Lisbon cityscape conjured by Porto artist Miguel Januario. “You don’t see the entire piece very often. There’s normally a truck in the way.”

This clash between the cultural and the commonplace takes a more confrontational form just metres north on Rua da Achada, where a mural by the Italian Andrea Tarli picks at the subjects of overtourism and generational divide. In it, a bearded hipster is interrupted by a grandmotherly figure squirting an aerosol of red spray-paint into his selfie-snapping reverie. But if Marisa is conflicted here – she states her concern at the effect of tourism and the short-term rental market on Lisbon housing costs – she is back on a surer footing in Cais do Sodre, where a fox’s vulpine visage, shaped using discarded plastics as well as paint by another talented local, Artur Bordalo, is smeared across the end of a building. “Of all the street artists in Portugal I would say he is the best,” she comments confidently.

Hers is the contemporary, creative side of a city renowned for heritage and history. And yet there is a less-seen version of the latter too – the domain of Joel Moedas-Miguel of Cosmopolitan Tours, who leads me to fragments of Lisbon that I would otherwise stroll by unaware. So it is that two anonymous glass doors on the Baixa thoroughfare of Rua de Sao Juliao give onto the Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Oliveira – a tiny chapel that, though it dates to 1262, has “only” existed at its current address since the 18th century, rebuilt and moved in the wake of the earthquake that devoured the city in 1755. And while the huge Igreja de Sao Domingos, just behind Rossio square, is rather trickier to miss, the story of its devastation bears some repeating. Its pitted walls still wear the scars of the blaze that ripped through the church in 1959, an era when restoration was too expensive to consider.

There are concealed jewels beyond the ecclesiastical too – the Nucleo Arqueologico da Rua dos Correeiros, a former bank at the heart of Baixa where excavations have revealed the remains of a third-century Roman baths; the Casa do Alentejo, a onetime aristocratic palace on Rua das Portas de Santo Antao, where an internal courtyard with a fountain dreams of Moorish Portugal. Then there is the Espaco Chiado, an Eighties shopping centre that would be unremarkable but for the fat chunk of Lisbon’s medieval walls which stands by the escalator. “People took bricks from it to build houses, and the earthquake took much of the rest – but this part survived somehow,” Joel beams, imparting his secret.

Not that you need a guide to stumble across unheralded elements of a city that, swarming in labyrinthine fashion across its hillsides, is awash with surprises. Random wanderings take me to Ceramicas Na Linha, a crockery store which revels, quirkily, in moulded pottery wellington boots as well as plates and bowls – and to Embaixada, a restored 19th century mansion in Principe Real where the rooms are now given over to boutique outlets of local fashion designers. Even Belém, eternally and famously devoted to Portugal’s golden yesterday – the Padrao dos Descobrimentos monument jutting out above the Tagus in tribute to the explorers of the 15th and 16th centuries; the Jeronimos Monastery exuding Renaissance grandeur just behind – is prepared to play the game. Its Museu Colecao Berardo, often overlooked by the tourists on the waterfront, embraces a more modern world in its masterpieces by Picasso, Pollock, De Kooning and Alexander Calder.

As the weekend passes, I find that my stomach also ferries me to unexpected places. Cais do Sodre may share the river with Belém, but, strafed by the tracks that guide trains west to the coast, it can steal none of its glamour. And yet, trapped between the currents and the shabby back-side of the railway terminus, Monte Mar carries on regardless, serving up octopus salads and sea-bass fillets on a terrace happy to pretend that it is in St Tropez.

Back in Chiado, Bairro do Avillez takes the act of equivocation to further pleasing lengths – offering a “secret” eatery, which lurks behind a false cupboard at the rear of what used to be a ruined building. Within, a colossal mural of burlesque singer Dita Von Teese gazes down at a cabaret stage and a cluster of tables where conversation crackles with a giddy excitement at the vaguely clandestine nature of it all – although those who have failed to book two weeks in advance, and are forced to dine in the main restaurant, should not feel they have missed out. The décor may (deliberately) suggest an unfussy neighbourhood food joint – but the menu, guided by lauded Portuguese chef Jose Avillez, is a fabulous celebration of fish soup, slabs of grilled tuna, and aged beef-loin steaks grilled over coals.

Returning from this feast, I find myself again outside the AlmaLusa Baixa/Chiado. Not, though, in front of the main entrance on Praca do Municipio, but at its own “secret” door, on the slanted street of Calcada de Sao Francisco, at the rear of the property. It is this all but unmarked access point, opening onto the top floor, which allows the hotel to claim two Lisbon districts in its name. Before I go in, I shoot a glance across the rooftops to the castle on its bluff – then with a grin, slip back into the city which tells its tale less readily.

Secret Lisbon | The hidden bits of the city's most visible landmark

Getting there

TAP Air Portugal (0345 601 0932; flytap.com) flies to Lisbon from Heathrow, Gatwick, London City and Manchester.

Staying there

Double rooms at the AlmaLusa Baixa/Chiado (Praca do Municipio 21; 00351 212 697 440; almalusahotels.com) cost from €165 a night, with breakfast. The hotelcan arrange tours with City Guru (thecityguru.com) and Cosmopolitan Tours (cosmopolitantours.pt).

Further information



This article was written by Chris Leadbeater from The Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to [email protected].

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