Portugal always seemed to me like an imperial dowager from an age of colonial exploration when men wore cod pieces and claimed new lands for queens and gods, with Lisbon remaining its overripe, threadbare and marked-down capital city. I did not expect to discover a vibrant and creative gay community ready to welcome LGBT visitors looking for something in Europe that has not yet been tarted up for tourism.
In September, my husband and I took an apartment in the epicenter of percolating gay Lisbon, the Principe Real neighborhood. Not a day went by without our agreeing that we could happily live in Lisbon, which is enjoying something of a gay heyday. The streets and cafes are filled with attractive gay men with thick black hair and stubbly beards; and there is an energetic and inviting gay creativity in the air of Lisbon. It reminded us of the spirited Gay Village in Montreal of twenty years ago.
Lisbon’s gay personality is young, festive and growing rapidly. When I asked some of Lisbon’s gay entrepreneurs (Everyone speaks English, but it’s only polite to master a few basic greetings in Portuguese.) when they started their businesses, their answers were always in the two-to-four-years-ago range, which coincides with Portugal’s becoming in 2010 the sixth European nation to legalize same-sex marriage. Perhaps that was the catalyst. In any case, now is the right time to book your gay Lisbon vacation. Here are a dozen tips to guide you, with links at the end.
- Pack some sturdy walking/hiking shoes. Lisbon is composed of steep hills, and the marble cobblestones of its quaint narrow streets are sometimes challenging. Basically, the entire city is a medieval Stairmaster designed by M. C. Escher. Your legs and butt will get a great workout as you explore each distinctive neighborhood, but walking Lisbon will be the essence of your visit. We covered several miles a day on foot. There are plenty of buses and subway routes for when you get tired, or as an alternative way to reach destinations.
- Choose lodging in the Principe Real, Bairro Alto or Chiado neighborhoods. At the end of the day when you want to stroll to local restaurants, bars and cafes, you’ll be happy you did this. We chose one of the newly renovated Principe Real apartments owned by handsome and hospitable Jose Luz. The panoramic views from the private roof terrace were spectacular. The modern kitchen and bathrooms were immaculate and efficient. (Having a washer/dryer means packing fewer clothes.)
- We toured a brand new 16-room gay guesthouse “The Late Birds” scheduled to open very soon. Owners Carlos Sanches Ruivo and Duarte Nuno Oliveira Branco are cordial and experienced guesthouse managers and will be living on the premises, assuring visitors of a comfortable stay. The pool is sleek and its adjacent deck is clothing-optional. Relax in the shade of the citrus trees. At dusk, peacocks strut along the tops of the property walls.
- We spent a day at fabled gay “Beach 19.” It exceeded expectations, reminding me of Provincetown's Herring Cove the way I remember it 40 years ago, but without the poison ivy, biting flies and mean rangers (and the stretch of sand is much wider and longer at Beach 19.) Naked is okay. Frolicking in the dunes and bushes is okay. Mixing tourists with locals, and straights with gays is okay. There are cheaper ways to get there from Lisbon but you should call Rui Silva who runs a car service driving the LGBT visitor from Lisbon to Beach 19 and back for 50 euros a couple or 35 euros for a single. (There are discounts for repeat customers.) You’ll make new friends in the car during the brief half-hour trip, and see Lisbon from the high bridge that spans the Tagus River. Bring water. Rui supplies beach towels.
- We did some shopping. After all, Lisbon is still a bargain. We stopped into “UP! Town Lisboa” and I got acquainted with owners Bruno Ferreira and Jacob Jan de Graaf while my husband did some serious damage to their inventory of stylish European-cut shirts and trousers. Their wide selection is urbane, adventurous and on the cutting edge. We chatted with Jorge Gavancha, the owner of the colorful “Men Spot,” a clothing store for the fashionable young gay.
- At Lisbon’s International Queer Film Festival, we attended the debut of the final episode of Season One of the web series “Barba Rija” (Rough Beard) and complimented writer/director André Murraças on its huge success. We also socialized with some of the hot bears in the cast. Season Two is in the works.
- Be sure to give yourself a day or two for visiting the magical town of Sintra, just an hour away from Lisbon by train. You’ll never be able to tour all its fantastic palaces, castles and gardens, so you’ll have to make choices. I recommend putting the fabulous “Quinta da Regaleira” at the top of your list. Here, you’ll learn all about the ornate Manueline architectural style that is prevalent in many of the historic buildings of the region. If you can bear to tear yourself away from the Quinta, make the “Palácio Nacional da Pena” your second stop. We hiked up to the highest points in Sintra: the Moorish castle ruins (and aforementioned Pena.) It's not for the weak of limb or the vertiginous, but the views are spectacular and the forest paths are drenched in emerald and bright moss. You'll feel like a hobbit in Middle Earth. The Moorish castle is just a ruin, but climb to the top of it if you dare. We did. The palace of Pena is ever so slightly Disneyfied in its new paint, but its old monastery section has one of the most beautiful cortiles you'll ever see, with two-level arches, carved stone scuppers and pillars, and tiles that date back several centuries. We spent two wonderful nights in Sintra and hiked the hills between the palaces. We splurged on lodging and were glad we did, watching sunsets from the private terrace of Suite 26 at the elegant Palacio de Seteais. (Take the express bus from the train station. It drops you off at the entrance to the hotel’s formal gardens.)
- Lisbon is famous for its “azulejos,” decorative tiles used for the last five centuries to cover buildings and interiors with richly saturated and glistening blues and yellows. For a dazzling review of traditional azulejos, take a #728 bus to the National Tile Museum in a grand convent founded by Queen Leonor in 1509. She covered every square inch of its over-the-top chapel with azulejos and gilt.
- Save an afternoon for taking the tram to Belem, an adjacent town where you will tour the 16th century Benedictine monastery of Hieronymous and stroll the waterfront with its immense monument to explorers.
- Devote a day to the dreamy Alfama neighborhood where you will climb all the way up to the Castel de Sao Jorge for the 360 view and a lesson in Lisbon history. You will also visit Lisbon’s Pantheon and take the stairs up to the dome for another sweeping view over the city and the Tagus River. On your way down the hill, get yourself a haircut and shave from the hunky barbers of “Barbearia Oliveira” who deliver classic cuts for gay hipsters (and guys like me who sported the Bruno Mars look forty years ago when it was new and belonged to Ricky Nelson.)
- Because there are so many fine restaurants in the gay neighborhoods of Lisbon, giving you any list would be unfair, but we did enjoy a notable al fresco lunch with water and park views on the terrace of Pharmacia adjacent to the apothecary museum. Our server said that the chocolate cake would be the best we had ever tasted. He may have been right. Don’t miss the Café Corallo for some extraordinary coffee with decadent shards of ginger chocolate and rich brownies. On the waterfront, bargain with fruit and vegetable vendors (if you have a kitchen and like to cook) or, enjoy an excellent meal at one of the many restaurants of the new TimeOut Lisboa marketplace, the Mercado da Ribeira, showcasing some of the best food in the city. In general, with menu in hand, I often chose the grilled octopus, which was always tender, savory and coated with pungent olive oil.
- For gay nightlife, Lisbon’s got it all: clubs, bars (several of which are “Bear” bars, all named WOOF) cafes, backrooms, baths and a delightful old school venue called Bar Cru where you press a buzzer to be greeted speakeasy-style. Here, the men check their clothes into little lock-boxes and step up to the bar in only their skivvies. There is something disarming about forcing men to relate to each other in only their undershorts, making them refreshingly sociable and silly. The small room was crowded with a wide variety of fascinators both local (including a hot rugby star named Nuno) and from around the globe. The owners are friendly British ex-pats.
With its little pocket parks wedged into narrow cobblestone streets, Lisbon is a city of enticing nooks and crannies. I fantasize about living in Principe Real, maybe in a town house faced in blue and white azulejos on the charming triangular Praça das Flores with its gentle fountain surrounded by the tropical flowers of its Jardim Fialho de Almeida, where I’d take coffee on a bench and wave to the guys sitting on the corner in front of Ursus bar. They’d wave back, because that’s how they are in friendly gay Lisbon.
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