The Year in Review: The Best and Worst of Lisbon in 2008

Lisbon's Berardo Museum

Vincci Baixa Hotel
The opening of this hotel brought a breath of fresh air to the grid of streets of Lisbon’s downtown. The city’s most interesting hotels are found in the old historical quarters of the city, but those streets of Baixa so close to the river house mostly charmless budget hotels. Vincci Baixa brought modern design and a better 4-star service to the neighborhood, and the good news is that others are scheduled to follow it in the next couple of years.

VIP Grand Lisboa
Finally a good 5-star hotel within walking distance to the Gulbenkian Museum! Lisbon’s culture vulture tourists never miss the Gulbenkian, and in fact I have known a few who’ve visited the Portuguese capital just with that museum in mind. Those wishing to stay at a hotel close to it always had many good options, but they were the standard business hotels with good but not exceptional service to make your Lisbon stay more memorable. VIP Grand also caters to business travelers (it’s located in the heart of uptown’s financial district), but adds 5-star services also sought by leisure travelers such as a spa and a good restaurant.

Lisbon’s most exclusive hotspot opened early in the year and in less than 12 months is already the talk of the town, especially among those curious to check what it’s all about but can’t get on the restrictive guestlist. If you’re staying at an upmarket hotel, you may very well be one of the lucky few. You’ll find an elegant space, a sophisticated ambience, high-priced drinks, and views of every corner of Lisbon.

Lisbon has been conquered by Vienna. Sure there are only two Austrian cafes in the city, but they have become two of the favorites. Pois Café in Alfama was a mandatory stop in the neighborhood when a second Vienna-inspired café opened in the city, but in the Chiado district. It now competes with the hip Deli Delux as Lisbon’s favorite Sunday brunch destination.

Orient Museum
Lisbon finally offers a major attraction that it was lacking. As the European capital that most contributed to the cultural ties between the Far East and the West, Lisbon had to have a space dedicated to showing the best of the Orient, and that happened in 2008. With the opening of the Orient Museum, visitors can now learn about traditional art from all over Asia, and see how Portugal influenced and was influenced by that part of the world.

Blindness in theatres
This was not only an opening in Lisbon. It was an opening around the world, but it had more relevance in Lisbon. Critics didn’t seem to like the Hollywood version of Portugal’s Nobel Prize author Jose Saramago’s novel “Blindness,” but as the first novel that the author allowed to make it to the big screen, it was an event Lisbon looked forward to see. Some were pleased, others were disappointed, but everyone enjoyed seeing Saramago’s work come to life. And this year it was also announced that the writer will have his own foundation housed in the city’s landmark Casa dos Bicos soon.

Fado Museum
The museum dedicated to showcasing Lisbon’s special music went through major renovation works and reopened later in the year. It got rid of attractions it felt it didn’t need, and added new features such as new sample audio tracks. Also of note is its new restaurant, given a surprisingly minimalist and completely contemporary look, further showing that Fado is very much a traditional sound of the past, but also with a very strong present.

Cravo e Canela
It’s one of the best restaurants in Bairro Alto, but remains underrated perhaps because it was closed for a few months. It’s now reopen and remains an excellent choice for those looking for a different gastronomic experience made up of contemporary international dishes with a small dose of exotic flavors. It’s served in a low-lit and very comfortable space, which you’ll only want to leave after a few hours, and to move on to the bar by the entrance.

This got our vote as the best place for late-afternoon/after-work drinks. It’s been a summer hotspot for the last couple of years, and we welcomed it again in 2008. And this year it was even better because it was also transformed into an autumn destination, and although it’s closing on the last day of the year, we look forward to it next summer again.

Rossio Station
Major works were needed to renovate the tunnel that connects Lisbon’s central Rossio Station to the suburbs that lead to Sintra, the country’s most beautiful town. So the station closed in 2004 and only opened this year with a cleaned-up façade and with a new terrace on its left side featuring cafes offering outdoor seating.

Miradouro São Pedro de Alcantara
Only when it was closed for so many months did the people of Lisbon realize how much they love this garden-terrace outside Bairro Alto offering a panoramic view of the city. It was so spotlessly clean when it opened, that some have said it lost a little of its charm, but there’s no denying that it’s much more welcoming, and the new kiosk-café only invites you to go and stay longer even more.

Berardo Museum
This museum could also have very well been the attraction of 2007 as it was the year when it was opened and so talked about, but in 2008 it remained the city’s there’s-no-excuse-to-miss attraction, as it prolonged its free entrance for one more year. Throughout the year it also hosted a couple of major temporary exhibitions, and renovated the permanent one. So it was free, there was always something new, and you got to see Warhol, Picasso, Dali, Magritte, and Bacon under the same roof. No other attraction in the city could beat that, and 550,000 visitors took advantage of that this year.

2008 was a special year for:
Lux: Lisbon’s most famous club turned 10

Downtown Lisbon: Baixa’s Renaissance is 250 years old, and there’s much debate over where it goes from here.

Botanical Garden: It’s charmingly decadent and it was remembered when it turned 130.

Manoel de Oliveira: The world’s oldest film director turned 100 years young.

Incognito: It celebrated two decades this year, but in true Incognito fashion, it did it without much fanfare and to the sound of the 80s.

Party Poopers
Some people are trying to silence Bairro Alto. That neighborhood of multiple personalities; the quiet old lady in the morning, but a partying 20-something at night, likes to stay awake until very late/early. As a result, the people who can’t deal with the noise she makes at night as everyone joins her for drinks outside, have succeeded in making city hall close the bars’ doors earlier, at 2AM. In Lisbon time, that’s when you’re still leaving your house or a restaurant after dinner. Old habits just don’t die like that, and the battle between the below-40 generation and city hall is still not over.

Where’s the Design Museum?
First it was supposed to reopen in 2007 in a mansion to be renovated by the Santa Catarina Viewpoint. Then it was postponed for the end of 2008, and then for early 2009. Another change in plans moved the location to a building downtown, to be reconverted in time for a reopening in late 2010. Lisbon’s Design and Fashion Museum still seems to have an uncertain future, and in the meantime, the city and its visitors are without one of its major cultural attractions.

So this is Christmas?
Could Lisbon’s 2008 Christmas decorations have been in any poorer taste? The ones around Chiado do their job of bringing the season’s spirit to its shoppers, but what was everyone, anyone, someone thinking when they approved the advertisements masked as decorations in Rossio and Comercio Square? The central monument of Rossio was given a kitsch décor by a national charity house (which also oversees the national lottery), while the central space of Comercio Square was taken over by gigantic “lightbulbs” serving as advertisement for a national cell phone company. Sure it’s time for cutbacks in this financial crisis, but it’s better to not have any decorations than to see your emblematic public spaces invaded by shameless advertisements.

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