As the cheapest western European capital, Lisbon has never been more popular with visitors.
The city’s Old Town – roughly, the Baixa, Alfama, and Bairro Alto districts – are beautiful, busy, noisy places. The streets are cobbled and crowded, the city’s famous trams doing their best to avoid the taxis and tuk-tuks that compete for fares, while all fighting the city’s (in)famous hills. It’s colourful and wonderful – and, rebuilt in 1755 after the Great Lisbon earthquake, has survived relatively unscathed.
Historic buildings and antique-looking streets stand tall, if somewhat diminished. It’s hard to deny that part of Lisbon’s charm comes from its faded glory; the dimmed tiles that used to shine, the brightly coloured but peeling paint, the faint whisper of past heroics. Modern Lisbon has grown up outside the old districts, but for visitors, it’s these winding streets, the cafes tucked into corners selling cheap pastel de nata, that keep them coming.
Among the most famous sites, though, you’ll also find another side of the city: one of graffiti and street art that is starting to attract international attention. Street art in Lisbon is taking off.
Street art – from graffiti to complex installations – has found a home in Lisbon like no other city. For one thing, Lisbon street art is everywhere: walls, bins, even the iconic yellow funiculars, the train-tram hybrids that carry passengers up and down the steepest roads. They may have been declared national monuments in 2002, but they’re still fair game for taggers and artists.
With the city as their canvas, Lisbon’s street artists have managed to add even more colour to this rainbow-tiled capital. Best of all, sticking to the tourist sites doesn’t mean you miss out: culture and street art go hand in hand here, as long as you open your eyes.
Sao Jorge Castle – the old Moorish castle overlooking the city – gives unbeatable views over the Tagus River, and remains a must-see for visitors. Wander away from the castle, though, south and along Pátio de Dom Fradique, and you’re in another world – one where broken walls and empty buildings have become studios, art spaces, a chance for creativity to break out among the rubble and winding alleys. Walk down the Beco Do Maldonaldstairway, or head the opposite direction and aim for the Miradouro da Graça, one of Lisbon’s classic viewpoints (and, you guessed it, plenty of streets teaming with art) and you have a chance to see everything TripAdvisor tells you to, while still seeing something that no guide book could pin down.
This is what Lisbon does best: castles with modern murals just a street away, the old and the very new sitting side by side. Tourist Hotspots Turned Urban Art Meccas
Another example: ride the Ascensor da Glória, or Gloria Funicular tram, from the overlook of São Pedro de Alcântara to the downtown Restauradores Square. The top of the street is a treasure trove of graffiti space and free art, with whole walls (and the trams themselves) painted, tagged, and painted again. This is what Lisbon looks like: a city that isn’t being damaged by the art, but made even more colourful.
Everywhere you look, walls and empty space are being claimed and built upon by artists. Depending on your point of view, they might be ruining a historic city, but maybe it’s better to think of it as the next part of Lisbon’s design. Just like London’s East End, home of Banksy paintings and street art tours, Lisbon has gained a reputation as a place to see streets that are coming alive before your eyes, even if the buildings are a few hundred years old. For visitors, that has to be a good thing.
Pop into the Cathedral, then wander down the backstreets towards the river, eyes peeled for intricate designs stuck among the tiles. Walk along the Avenida da Liberdade (and stop for another pastel de nata, because, come on) and pick a side street, see where it takes you. The city itself has embraced its new look, with Lisbon City Council co-organising Muro Urban Art Festival,which ran through April and May 2016, celebrating and promoting urban art culture. It’s the kind of recognition that even ten years ago seemed unthinkable – but it’s a great show of support.
Lisbon will never be boring to visit. Its history and beauty guarantee that. For new visitors, the best advice is to try to peer through the crowds to the walls – and the art – that are so easily missed.