If you have only 1 night in Lisbon, spend it at a fado club. The nostalgic sounds of fado, Portuguese "songs of sorrow," are at their best in Lisbon -- the capital attracts the greatest fadistas (fado singers) in the world. Fado is high art in Portugal, so don't plan to carry on a private conversation during a show -- it's bad form. Most of the authentic fado clubs are clustered in the Bairro Alto and in the Alfama, between St. George's Castle and the docks. You can "fado hop" between the two quarters. If you're visiting the Alfama, have the taxi driver let you off at Largo do Chafariz, a small plaza a block from the harbor; in the Bairro Alto, get off at Largo de São Roque. Most of the places we recommend lie only a short walk away.
For more information about nighttime attractions, go to the tourist office, which maintains a list of events. Another helpful source is the Agência de Bilhetes para Espectáculos Públicos, in Praça dos Restauradores (tel. 21/347-58-24). It's open daily from 9am to 9:30pm; go in person instead of trying to call. The agency sells tickets to most theaters and cinemas.
Also check out copies of What's On in Lisbon, available at most newsstands; Sete, a weekly magazine with entertainment listings; or the free monthly guides Agenda Cultural and LISBOaem. Your hotel concierge is a good bet for information, too, because one of his or her duties is reserving seats. Note that the local newspaper, Diário de Notícias, carries all cultural listings, but only in Portuguese.
By the standards of the United States and Canada, "the party" in Lisbon begins late. Many bars don't even open until 10 or 11pm, and very few savvy young Portuguese would set foot in a club before 1am. The Bairro Alto, with some 150 restaurants and bars, is the most happening place after dark.
Gay & Lesbian Bars & Clubs -- Although this ultra-Catholic country remains one of the most closeted in western Europe, at least eight gay nightspots have sprung up in the district known as Príncipe Real. With each passing year, the gay presence in Lisbon becomes more visible.
Port Wine Tasting -- Solar do Vinho do Porto (tel. 21/347-57-07) is devoted exclusively to the drinking and enjoyment of port in all its glory and varieties. A quasi-governmental arm of the Port Wine Institute established the bar a few years after World War II as a low-key merchandizing tool. In a 300-year-old setting near the Glória funicular and the fado clubs of the Bairro Alto, it exudes Iberian atmosphere. The lista de vinhos includes more than 200 types of port wine in an amazing variety of sweet, dry, red, and white. A glass of wine costs 1€ to 25€. Open Monday through Saturday from 2pm to midnight, it's located at Rua de São Pedro de Alcântara 45 (Metro: Restauradores; bus: 58 or 100).
Fado: The Music of Longing
The saudade (Portuguese for "longing" or "nostalgia") that infuses the country's literature is most evident in fado. The traditional songs express Portugal's sad, romantic mood. The traditional performers are women (fadistas), often accompanied by a guitar and a viola.
Experiencing the nostalgic sounds of fado is essential to apprehending the Portuguese soul. Fado is Portugal's most vivid art form; no visit to the country is complete without at least 1 night spent in a local tavern listening to this traditional folk music.
A rough translation of fado is "fate," from the Latin fatum (prophecy). Fado songs usually tell of unrequited love, jealousy, or a longing for days gone by. The music, as is often said, evokes a "life commanded by the Oracle, which nothing can change."
Fado became famous in the 19th century when Maria Severa, the beautiful daughter of a Gypsy, took Lisbon by storm. She sang her way into the hearts of the people of Lisbon -- especially the count of Vimioso, an outstanding bullfighter. Present-day fadistas wear a black-fringed shawl in her memory.
The most famous 20th-century exponent of fado was Amália Rodriguez, who was introduced to American audiences in the 1950s at the New York club La Vie en Rose. Born into a simple Lisbon family, she was discovered while walking barefoot and selling flowers on the Lisbon docks near the Alfama. For many, she is the most famous Portuguese figure since Vasco da Gama. Swathed in black, sparing of gestures and excess ornamentation, Rodriguez almost single-handedly executed the transformation of fado into an international form of poetic expression.
Fado Clubs -- In the clubs, it isn't necessary to have dinner; you can just have a drink. However, you often have to pay a minimum consumption charge. The music begins between 9 and 10pm, but it's better to arrive after 11pm. Many clubs stay open until 3am; others stay open until dawn.
Coffeehouses and Cafes
To the Portuguese, the coffeehouse is an institution, a democratic parlor where they can drop in for their favorite libation, abandon their worries, relax, smoke, read the paper, write a letter, or chat with friends about tomorrow's football match.
The coffeehouse in Portugal, however, is now but a shade of its former self. The older and more colorful places, filled with turn-of-the-20th-century charm, are rapidly yielding to chrome and plastic.
One of the oldest surviving coffeehouses in Lisbon, A Brasileira, Rua Garrett 120 (tel. 21/346-95-41; Metro: Rossio), lies in the Chiado district. It has done virtually nothing to change the opulent but faded Art Nouveau decor that has prevailed since it became a fashionable rendezvous in 1905. Once a gathering place of Lisbon's literati, it was the favored social spot of the Portuguese poet Bocage of Setúbal, whose works are read by high school students throughout Portugal. He was involved in an incident that has since been elevated into Lisbon legend: When accosted by a bandit who asked him where he was going, he is said to have replied, "I am going to the Brasileira, but if you shoot me I am going to another world." Patrons sit at small tables on chairs made of tooled leather, amid mirrored walls and marble pilasters. A statue of the great Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa sits on a chair amid the customers. At a table, sandwiches run 2.50€ to 3.10€, pastries are 1.25€ to 2.50€, a demitasse costs 1€ to 2€, and bottled beer goes for 1.75€ to 3€. Prices are a bit lower at the bar, but you'll probably want to linger a while -- we recommend sitting down to recover from the congestion and heat. It's open daily from 8am to midnight and accepts cash only.
Although lacking A Brasileira's tradition and style, the Pastelaria Suiça, on the south corner of Praça de Rossio 96, in the Baixa (tel. 21/321-40-90; www.casasuica.pt; Metro: Rossio), is a sprawling cafe-pastelaria. It stretches all the way back to the adjoining Praça da Figueira. This house draws more visitors than any other cafe in Lisbon. The outdoor tables fill first, especially in fair weather. In addition to serving an array of coffee and tea, the pastelaria is known for its tempting pastries baked on-site. The atmosphere is boisterous, and the place is generally mobbed. It's open daily from 7am to 9pm.
Another possibility is Versailles, Av. da República 15A (tel. 21/354-63-40; www.pastelariaversailles.com; Metro: Saldanha), long known as the grande dame of Lisbon coffeehouses. It's also an ideal place for afternoon tea, in a faded but elegant 60-year-old setting of chandeliers, gilt mirrors, and high ceilings. As an old-fashioned and formal touch, immaculately attired waiters serve customers from silver-plated tea services. In addition to coffee and tea, the house specialty is hot chocolate. The homemade cakes and pastries are delectable. (They're baked on-site.) It's open daily from 7:30am to 10pm.
On the street level of the previously recommended Bairro Alto Hotel, the Café Bar, Praça Luís de Camões 8 (tel. 21/340-82-62; Metro: Baixa-Chiado), sprawls across three floors, with its hip minimalist decor. It is a gathering place of young Lisbon. Shared tables add to the conviviality, as DJs spin the latest hot music. If you descend to the lower level, you'll find a lounge whose vaulted ceiling once sheltered alchemists mixing up brews from an age-old pharmacy.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.