Sometimes a travel destination explodes so quickly that the service industry scrambles to catch up. Such is the case with Lisbon, which fell off tourists’ itineraries following decades of military dictatorship and a 1974 coup. Hard times saw Lisbon’s young creatives flee to other European capitals, and the city mothballed into a colonial relic.
Portugal exited its economic crisis aided by an international bailout in 2011, followed by progressive social reform. Suddenly, picturesque and cheap Lisbon—The Guardian calls it “Berlin with sun”—was drawing young talent from all over the globe. The sleepy fishing-village vibe was supplanted by a lively cultural scene, and the city’s gastronomic reputation no longer rested solely on its bacalhau, praise Jesus. Faster that you can book a 29 Euro ticket on Ryan Air, Lisbon exploded as the weekend destination for Europe’s jet setters, and Americans weren’t far behind.
Now Lisbon receives eight visitors for every resident—making acute the question “Is there room at the Inn?” A few hoteliers, like the Bairro Alto’s Marta Tavares da Silva, got out ahead of the boom. Intuiting that her hotel’s five stars wouldn’t shine so brightly by new Lisbon standards, she purchased over the course of several years the other three 18th century buildings on the block. What followed was a renovation so massive that the Bairro Alto Hotel shuttered its doors from 2017-2019 to fuse the four buildings into one. Both cosmopolitan and true to its Lisbon roots, the recently reopened Bairro Alto is the latest entry in the The New Room with A View series.
The hotel’s city block straddles two neighborhoods—the elegant Chiado with luxury shopping (check out the oldest glove shop in the country, Luvaria Ulisses) and the Bairro Alto, a bohemian enclave frequented by literati and revolutionaries (check out Café a Brasileira, where poet Fernando Pessoa sipped his absinthe and penned the words, “To live is to travel.”) The hotel’s deco-inspired interior harmonizes these moods. The lobby’s nooks of dark polished wood and brass are perfect for small groups fomenting revolution—or resting after shopping. The 87 guest rooms, some of which offer panoramic views, are clad in traditional Portuguese blues and creams, natural stone, local textiles, and artisanal tiles. Updated amenities, such as the gym and spa, are impressive, though for many Americans, the main sensory experience of the sensory shower will be wishing it was single-sex. The fifth floor restaurant, BAHR, embodies the hotel’s global-outlook-with-Portuguese-soul. CEO Da Silva, who grew up in the neighborhood, lured Michelin-starred sensation Nuno Mendes back to his native Lisbon after twenty-five years cooking abroad. Bringing the author of the cookbook My Lisbon home to serve as BAHR’s creative force is another kind of full-circle renovation.
Since 1781, the hotel has fronted the Praҫa Luis de Camὂes, and the poet’s statue still stands on the square, with his “eyes trained on Chiado.” But the purchase of the rear buildings allowed the architectural team—led by Pritzker-Prize-winning Eduardo Souto de Moura—to maximize the view downhill to the river Tagus. Both the serene sixth-floor bar, exclusively for hotel guests, and the lively public fifth floor terrace boast some of Lisbon’s best vistas, even in a city famed for them. Sipping a caipirinha at sunset, gazing out over the terracotta roofs to the water, one might indulge in the sweet myth that time doesn’t pass in Lisbon. And when one tires of timelessness, an elevator ride delivers guests back to the thrumming city, its cobblestoned alleys leaking mystery and music—and (who can blame them?) millennials.