Spend a day exploring Chiado and Bairro Alto and you’ll discover both old and new Lisbon. The neighbouring downtown areas are playgrounds of fashion and creativity, where historical buildings and art nouveau shops mix effortlessly with cutting-edge boutiques and modern architecture.
Chiado remains the more traditional of the two areas and traces of Portugal’s elegant past are found on every corner. Step back to the 20s at Luvaria Ulisses (Rua do Carmo 87A), the smallest shop in Lisbon, where just one customer at a time can fit into the tiny space filled with beautifully tailored leather gloves. Each pair comes with a personal fitting, complete with massage, talcum powder and a tiny cushion on which to rest your elbow.
Lisbonites rarely miss their mid-morning bica, the Portuguese espresso. Experience the city’s café culture by ordering one with a pastel de nata, a traditional custard tart, at Café A Brasileira (Rua Garrett 120-122), one of Lisbon’s oldest establishments. Its name is a reminder of Portugal’s past as the building began life as a shop selling the latest coffee beans imported from Brazil, with a free cup for every buyer. The café became a magnet for Lisbon’s artists and writers, including Portugal’s most famous poet, Fernando Pessoa, whose statue stands among the coffee-drinkers on the terrace outside.
In 1988, a fire swept through Chiado, almost destroying the neighbourhood. Architect Álvaro Siza Vieira took 10 years to restore the bairro to its former glory, with the famous shopping centre Armazéns do Chiado (Rua do Carmo 2) as its centrepiece. High-street brands including Zara and Mango can be found on the intersecting Rua Garrett and Rua do Carmo. Chiado is also home to international designers including Marc Jacobs (Largo de San Carlos 1-7) and Hermès (Largo do Chiado 9).
Chiado has always had a rebellious spirit, so it’s fitting that Ana Salazar, the original maverick of Portuguese fashion, still has a store in the area (Rua do Carmo 87). In the late 70s, she imported clothes from London to sell in her first shop A Maçã, which became the centre of cool, revolutionary fashion.
The old working-class district of Bairro Alto, with its narrow, winding streets and cheaper rents, is now the starting place for most up-and-coming fashion labels. Its vibrant cultural life makes it a magnet for the young creative crowd and the ideal place to pick up some new designs.
Shopping in Bairro Alto is an experience in itself. Flamboyant Madeiran designer Fátima Lopes has her store here (Rua da Atalaia 36), and the Storytailors concept shop (Calçada do Ferragial 8) is another must-see. Since launching their label in 1996, João Branco and Luis Sanchez have quickly become the darlings of Portugal’s fashion scene. Their fairytale-inspired ready-to-wear and made-to-wear creations are known for breaking the rules, and the Queen of Pop herself, Madonna, paid a visit the last time she was in Lisbon.
As night falls, Bairro Alto becomes even livelier. Dinner at Restaurante Paladar (Calçada do Duque 43A) combines the best elements of Bairro Alto: tradition and modernity. Based on a traditional tasca serving Mediterranean dishes, its modern and minimal interior is a great place to watch the in-crowd. Typically Portuguese, it might be the trendiest restaurant in town, but it maintains a laid-back vibe.
End the day by bar-hopping around Bairro Alto’s many cool and imaginative establishments. One of the most popular is Maria Caxuxa (Rua da Barroca 6-12), a former bakery that effortlessly blends the original shop fittings with cutting-edge design features. For something different, seek out the melancholy notes of fado, a type of Portuguese song dating from the mid 19th century, which is increasingly popular. Head to one of Bairro Alto’s fado houses, such as Tasca do Chico (Rua do Diário de Notícias 39), for an authentically moving experience. It’s further proof that, in Lisbon, old and new co-exist in perfect harmony.