Whether you wish to shop for the latest gadget, walk in the footsteps of historic authors or simply enjoy a cup of coffee, this neighbourhood should not go unnoticed
Lisbon is a city of many charms, a perfect balance between classic and modern. Chiado, one of the central districts, is a mix between the two. Situated on one of the many hills that compose Lisbon, Chiado is known for being a popular place for both tourists and locals alike, for those who enjoy a neighbourhood steeped in history as much as shopping for the latest collection from a hip fashion designer.
One of the most famous places is Armazéns do Chiado, a former department store turned into a shopping centre with its several floors packed with different stores. Although it was built back in 1894, it owes its modern look to the fact that the building was gutted by the massive fire that blazed through the neighbourhood in 1988. The tragedy that would change the old neighbourhood for ever started before dawn on 25 August in Rua do Carmo and quickly spread to other streets. Firefighters had trouble accessing the buildings with their vehicles due to controversial works carried out by the city council that had blocked the pedestrianised streets with decorative features. A number of gas explosions also kept them at bay. After the fire was declared extinct, more than 10 days later, the old Armazéns do Chiado and 17 other long-standing 18th century buildings had been left gutted and destroyed.
One year later a project was conceived by Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza Vieira aimed at rebuilding and modernising the area, but the actual works only started in the late 1990s. 23 years later and renamed as Grandes Armazéns do Chiado, it is a very popular shopping centre, with several shops dealing in fashion, sporting goods, books and records and electronic devices.
Yet, the great fire of 1988 is only one in a long list of disasters which have struck in this central district of Lisbon. In November 1755, a massive earthquake followed by a tsunami devastated the whole area. The rebuilding works are one the greatest feats in Portuguese architectural and urban design history. Under the supervision of the prime minister Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, the Marquis of Pombal, Lisbon’s downtown was rebuilt and became known as the Baixa Pombalina, in his honour.
The type of architecture followed, which became known as Pombaline architecture, features an easy and simple style, as the most pressing need at the time was to rebuild quickly, not aesthetically. Reconstruction was based on symmetry and repetition of models, with classical lines and sobriety, having introduced for the first time urban design based on a modern grid plan. Yet, while the main lines were clean, building façades became in their turn more detailed, featuring elaborate mantels, pediments and pilasters.
Beyond shopping and fashion
If you wish to enjoy the city’s urban aesthetics and architectural features, nothing beats sitting down for a coffee in some of the city’s best pavement cafés.
Perhaps the most famous of the classic Lisbon cafés is A Brasileira, opened in 1905 where Largo do Chiado meets Rua Garret. Its name means The Brazilian, because the first owner, Adriano Telles, imported coffee from Brazil to serve in his establishment. Inside, you will feel like you are still in the early 1900s, with a classic wooden décor and mirrors lining the walls of the narrow room.
A Brasileira is one of the many cafés where writers would meet and discuss literature, modernism as well as aesthetics and current affairs. One of its most famous customers was Fernando Pessoa, arguably the greatest Portuguese poet, who used to sit there regularly for a cup of coffee and write as one of his many and heterogeneous alter egos. In fact, his influence was so great that outside the landmark café a bronze statue of him sitting at a table was erected, which has proved so popular that some days tourists line up to sit alongside him and have their photo taken while “sharing” a cup of coffee with him.
All over Lisbon there are several places where the educated elite used to get together and discuss not only literature but other important subjects. This type of free association, and freedom itself, was later forbidden during the years of the authoritarian regime led by António Oliveira Salazar. Cafés, for their accessible and public characteristics, became thus the privileged location for such meetings, now with politics as the most dominant topic.
Bookstores for the ages
The influence of literature is most noticeable in this district not only due to the presence of writers like Pessoa and Eça de Queirós, but also for its numerous bookstores. In this particular department, there are two veritable landmarks: Livraria Bertrand and Livraria Férin.
Bertrand is actually in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the oldest bookstore in the world as, since it opened in 1732, it has never ceased its activity. This centennial place was once the stage for gatherings among writers. Bertrand tries to maintain the same environment, and as you walk inside, the lighting and furniture tend to transport you back to those days. Nowadays, however, the company has developed into a chain that manages over 50 bookstores in the entire country, and has lost part of its temporal allure.
Another landmark, Livraria Férin, is also a centennial bookstore; one that keeps the charm of the 1800s virtually intact. Managed by the same family for six generations, this bookstore, with 170 years of existence, still maintains the same style and patterns since its foundation, such as several collections of books written in French. Inside, the bookcases and other furniture where books are displayed are still the originals, in dark mahogany, a treat you will not find in any other bookstore. Besides, you will find the current manager and member of the founding family at your service, willing to share a piece of history.