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The Changing Faces of Lisbon

Updated: Apr 2

Dancing down Rua Sa Miguel on Portuguese Independence Day

Dancing down Rua São Miguel on Portuguese Independence Day

Lisbon has many faces, allowing you to experience the city in vastly different ways. Over time, those faces have changed. Whether or not that is good, is up for discussion.

When We First Met

When I first visited Lisbon in 2012, the city was a relatively unknown jumble of authentic experiences that appealed to all of the senses. I saw it in the faces of friendly residents, welcoming you with their expressions even if you could not speak with them in their language. It was there in its beautifully tiled buildings, showing their age but proudly standing the test of time.

I tasted it in the addictive flavors of the food, from the seafood, pulled out of the ocean hours ago, to the pasteis de nata, fresh from the oven. I even fell in love with its hills that, while challenging, provided many viewpoints from which to admire this wonderful maze.

When I returned in 2017, travel journalists, who inevitably change the face of a place and not always for the better, had written of the joys of Lisbon. Top travel magazines repeatedly named Lisbon the hot new place to visit in Europe. Lisbon’s combination of old world charm, nice hotels and amazing food, all at a very economical price, was attracting tourists in increasing numbers.

The faces of Lisbon began to change.

Choosing a Home for My New Life

Flash forward to 2023. When trying to choose where I wanted to live, Portugal, particularly Lisbon, was on the short list. While Italy had long been my chosen destination, I’d spent so much time there it no longer held much mystery for me.

For my next chapter, I wanted to go somewhere familiar, but still mostly unknown to me. I longed to disappear into a new environment, and find joy in overcoming the challenges of learning to live a new life in a place still foreign to me.

Lisbon was the obvious choice.

Old School in the Alfama

The Alfama is my home in Lisbon and the oldest neighborhood in the city. While there are a handful of people like me moving in, it is still mostly home to residents whose families have lived there for generations. I love this about the neighborhood.

One morning, I headed out with my laptop to grab a cup of tea and work for a bit. I had passed a local cafe many times, just a few minutes from my apartment but had yet to visit. Today, I walked in, ordered a tea and chose a seat at one of the five tables. As I sat there, the locals popped in for a coffee and a quick chat before resuming their days.

Soon I became aware that people were leaving because there were no seats. Not wanting to sit forever after only having a cup of tea, I packed up my laptop and headed back to Rua Sāo Miguel, the street that is the true heart of the Alfama and off which I live.

New Faces on An Old Street

As I turned onto the street heading home, I noticed the new coffee place had just opened. It was bright and shiny, with a minimalistic design. The centerpiece of the place was a new Italian espresso machine, surrounded by imported coffees displayed in clear canisters. A few high-end coffee makers were for sale if you wanted to choose your coffee beans to take home.

The family that runs the place welcomed me as I peeked my head in for a quick look. Immediately, I noticed plugs for my laptop at every seat, which were mostly empty. This place filled all of my needs! I ordered a coffee, overpriced for Lisbon, and chose a table. I worked, undisturbed for over an hour while customers, mostly foreigners, popped in and out, buying their own overpriced drinks.

While the place is just what I need as a remote worker, I struggle with having this high-end place in the heart of the Alfama. This street is the essence of old school Portugal. Recently I got caught up in an impromptu Portuguese independence day parade with the locals and we all danced down this street, celebrating Portuguese freedom from tyranny. Now, it’s home to a fancy high-end coffee shop most locals cannot afford?

That eats away at me.

Choosing the Life I Want

While I cannot say I do not visit these places that are far out of reach of normal Portuguese people, I do increasingly limit that. I want to support and protect the lifestyle of the people from the country that has taken me in.

After all, that is the life I came here to live.

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