When Your Secret Spot (Lisbon) Becomes Overrun with Tourists
We were all intruding on one another’s authentic experience, one of the outcomes of mass tourism.
Our Airbnb was on a narrow street, downhill from Bairro Alto. The stairs to the second floor suggested a nation of small-footed people. Opening the door to the apartment, we entered a bright, cheerful room containing a sofa, a table, and a bookcase. The kitchen and bathroom, at opposite ends of a brief corridor, were small and tidy. There was no bedroom; the bed occupied a space above the bathroom and was accessed by an outcrop of ascending wooden blocks.
We dropped our suitcases and headed outside. A yellow funicular, filled with tourists, glided past us as we climbed the hill on the stepped stone sidewalk. At the top, a crush of people stood taking pictures of the antiquated vehicle. We turned right and threaded our way down Rua do Loreto to Praça de Luís de Camões. Rows of tired sightseers sat at the foot of the great poet’s statue.
A friend who had been in Lisbon in June had told me about the large numbers of tourists. I assumed most of them would be gone by the end of September. One of the things I had always loved about Lisbon—this was my fourth visit—was its absence from discussions of great world capitals. Because most travelers went elsewhere, the few of us who came developed a private, proprietary attachment to the place, thanks in large part to Lisboners, who, unlike the residents of more frequented cities, seemed to appreciate the fact that we had come.
My wife and I crossed the street to Largo do Chiado. The statue of Fernando Pessoa, sitting at a table eternally awaiting his order, still adjoined the terrace of A Brasileira, which hummed but not with the susurrations of Portuguese. Next door the Hotel Borges still stood. I walked into the lobby, widened since my stay there 28 years earlier, and inquired, out of curiosity, about the price of a room.
“For tonight?” the woman behind the reception desk asked. It was a surprising question in a city swelled with visitors.
In October 1989 I took my first trip as a newspaper travel editor. I flew to Spain and, after schlepping around Madrid, Barcelona, and Seville, boarded a bus to Portugal. Lisbon, I assumed, would give me more of the same, loneliness in the face of Iberian self-absorption. Instead I found a softness, the humility and curiosity of a once powerful people who still turned their gaze outward. I met a poet—Casimiro de Brito—who took me to hear fado in a Bairro Alto dive and translated the lyrics into beautiful English. In Spain, with my bad Spanish, I had been a tourist; in Portugal, with no Portuguese, I became a travel writer. For that alone the country would have won my affection.
Every morning as we stepped out of our building we’d see other tourists leaving theirs. The prevalent sound on Rua da Bica de Duarte Belo was not of the funicular, which ran sporadically, but of suitcase wheels being rolled over cobblestones. The aisles of the mini-mart at the top of the hill were thick with foreigners stocking up on yogurt and bottled water. The smells on the street were of pizza and burgers.
This was our first time staying in an Airbnb and its chief attraction outside of the financial —the feeling it gives you of being a local—was rather lost on us. Inside we could feel vaguely indigenous—I had found a radio station that played mostly fado—but as soon as we went out (something that travelers are generally encouraged to do) we were joined by similarly thwarted vacationers.
We were all intruding on one another’s authentic experience, one of the outcomes of mass tourism. I had witnessed it before, but had often been able to minimize its effects. I am not an avid sightseer; when the proverbial friend of a friend met me and asked me what I’d like to see, my response was always: “Neighborhoods. I want to see how people live.” So I frequently went where the tourists didn’t.
Hania had never been to Lisbon and, naturally, I wanted to show her the best of it. Which is why, in the first hours, we headed to Praça de Camões and Largo do Chiado. Three decades earlier this flawless public space—cafes, churches, rumbling streetcars, patterned pavements, eclectic statuary—had not been a tourist haunt; the few tourists who came to Lisbon prowled Baixa—the Rossio, the Praça do Comércio, the shops in between—and climbed the hilly streets of Alfama, making sure to leave before dark. Then they’d head off to Belém and Sintra.
Eventually we discovered less crowded spots. El Corte Inglés, the department store where Hania found her gluten-free bread, was not on people’s must-see lists, and Lapa was a quiet, residential area (though Madonna was rumored to be eyeing a house there). But in the evening we’d return to our everyday neighborhood of Airbnbs.
Walking to dinner one night we passed the restaurant where I had first met the poet: 1° de Maio. It now had a stylish shingle out front—the name used to be written minutely on the lantern above the entrance—but its array of dead fish still decorated the small window. In 1989, the interior featured a mural that a customer had started who couldn’t pay his bill. Every week he’d return and add something new, and locals would come not just to eat but to monitor his progress. The painting, I’m sure, was more famous than the chef.
The restaurant we ended up at, a few blocks away, was named for its chef, who had a number of restaurants in the city. Colorful figurines of sea creatures hung from the ceiling, and a large mural in tiles—depicting a party of pigs à table—filled one wall. We got talking to the young couple at the next table, a vacationing Dutch banker and his social worker wife.
People sometimes ask me if I’ve ever felt guilty for ruining a place by writing about it. I explain that I don’t write about “undiscovered” places; my specialty, if I have one, is the unsung: Warsaw; Iowa; Archer City, Texas; Columbus, Ohio; Mobile, Alabama; Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. Today tourists are not beating a path to any of them.
Lisbon is the exception, and there’s a reason. Over the last few years, the glossies have given so much ink to Portugal—not just through advertisements but editorial content—that they seem to be trying to make amends for years of inattention. Travel magazines are in continual and often spurious search of the next new place, and in the age of anxiety, Portugal has become the perfect find. The feature that contributed to it being overlooked for decades—its position on the lower edge of the continent, far from the action (which now includes terrorism)— makes it sublimely attractive today.
The Portuguese have not changed; even with tourists now clogging their sidewalks, filling their streetcars, taking their homes, Lisboners are still remarkably friendly. It goes beyond rote politeness to a genuine interest in people. This is something that, unlike manners, cannot be taught; it is an ingrained part of national character. More than once, asking for directions we were drawn into conversations.
Of course, treating tourists like fellow human beings will only make them want to return.
One day, walking down a quiet street toward the old Mercado da Ribeira—now the Time Out Market—we saw a banner strung across a second-floor balcony: “AIRBNB KILLS LISBON.” The popular tourist housing had overtaken not only our neighborhood but, we learned later, Bairro Alto, significantly reducing the number of apartments available to Lisboners, and changing the character of two prime sections of the city. Instead of a local, our Airbnb was making me feel like a spoiler.
But Airbnbs are not the only problem in Lisbon: The city is now visited by cruise ships. They dock at the foot of Alfama, letting thousands of passengers loose. Their economic impact is questionable—they don’t spend the night in hotels, and some return to the ship for their prepaid meals—though they do serve a purpose: They make Airbnbers feel superior.
Two ships were in port the day we visited Alfama. I was searching for a spot I had stumbled upon during my last visit—a winding street of modest restaurants and gorgeous views —but there were few locals to ask for directions. We climbed the steep hills and read the translated menus flanked by T-shirted and sneakered brigades.
They had as much right to be there as we did, and, unlike us, they weren’t hanging around for a week. But they highlighted a sad truth: It had been easier to love the city, or at least to feel a special bond with it, when it had had a smaller number of admirers. Yes, my affection was strengthened—but also now complicated—by the fact that this was the place where I had become a travel writer, the being now implicated in its rise to stardom, and piecemeal transformation.
On one of our last nights we went to a club to listen to fado. It was not the dive I had enjoyed with Casimiro (that had closed long ago) but a place with a mix of locals and tourists. At the break we struck up a conversation with the people seated next to us, a recently retired couple from Hartford, Connecticut.
The four of us went for a nightcap to A Brasileira. The temperature was mild, so we took a table outside, near the entrance to the Hotel Borges. Though it was after midnight, two street musicians arrived and set up shop. I watched a young man enter the hotel and thought of myself, 28 years earlier, returning from my outing with the poet intoxicated by the triumph of having lived like a local—at least for a few hours—and gotten a story that would be different from any other about Lisbon.
The duo’s first number was Hotel California. We grabbed our drinks and headed inside, where—under the high ceiling—we shared our stories free of musical accompaniment. It was an altogether pleasant evening, one that, I thought as we walked back to our Airbnb, I will never write about.
Thomas Swick is the author, most recently, of The Joys of Travel: And Stories that Illuminate Them.