Lisbon’s Chiado Rises from the Ashes

Chiado, Lisbon

It was 20 years ago today. The Chiado district, the very center and cultural heart of Lisbon went down in flames. It started with a small fire in a department store at 4:30 in the morning of August 25th 1988, and thirty minutes later the entire building and those surrounding it were burning down.In total 18 buildings in three of the neighborhood’s main streets were destroyed, and it took 300 fire trucks and 1,680 firemen to prevent any further destruction. Two people died, 73 were injured, and about 2000 were left unemployed. The Armazéns do Chiado department store (now reopened as a shopping mall) only had its façade left standing, and gone forever were the Grandella department store (today housing a H&M branch) and the legendary Café Ferrari (the historical Café A Brasileira remained unaffected).

A Brasileira is one of the few establishments to have survived and is still going strong today, as is the landmark Bertrand bookshop, in existence on this spot since 1732. After the reconstruction of the neighborhood by renowned architect Alvaro Siza Vieira, international names such as Cartier, Hermés, Hugo Boss, Nespresso, Moooi, and Kiehl’s have moved in, but older residents will tell you shopping here was much nicer during the pre-inferno days. It had unique specialty shops and was still free of some retailers that you’ll find here today but that you’ll also see at a shopping mall near you (Foot Locker, Zara, Levi’s, etc.). Despite criticisms and nostalgia, not one can argue that this reborn Chiado is also a much more cosmopolitan and democratic space today. Nowhere else in the city will you find a higher concentration (or higher quality) of shops, cafes, and theaters making it a mandatory stop in the city.

Two decades later and after much renovation, the rebirth (and a great deal of gentrification) is still underway. Two major boutique hotels opened in the last few years, contemporary-design cafes and restaurants attract crowds hungry for something new, and major international brands are on waiting lists for retail space. Siza Vieira’s plans are still only 99% complete, and much rehabilitation will go on for years to come (extending to the adjacent Baixa district).

One thing the fire could not destroy was Chiado’s cultural, literary, and historical soul, and no matter how many changes and facelifts it is given, the statues of its poets, the café tables on the cobbled pavements, and the shopping bags in the hands of people of all ages and styles will always make this the beloved heart of Lisbon.

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