How down-at-heel Lisbon became the new capital of cool

How down-at-heel Lisbon became the new capital of cool

18 April, 2017

In Lisbon people keep telling me about the surfing. It’s great. The beaches are 20 minutes from the beautiful, historic and lively centre of Lisbon. You get the best of everything: Bondi meets old Europe. I hear this from Patrick, a Kentuckian whose digital marketing business was formerly based in Costa Rica and at another time in Bali; from Matthieu, a French life coach; and from Tariq, a British property specialist. I hear it from the Yorkshire-raised, London-based Rohan Silva, whom the British press likes to describe as a “tech scenester” or “techpreneur”, and from João Vasconcelos, Portugal’s suave secretary of state for industry.

Until recently, most of the news coming out of Portugal was of what Vasconcelos calls “the worst crisis in 100 years”, with stories of professionals sleeping in their cars because they’d been evicted from their homes. On my last visit, for the architecture triennale in 2013, an event full of ingenious low-cost ideas for reviving empty spaces and struggling businesses, Lisbon felt like a city on its knees. Now, according to one of the 2013 triennale’s organisers, Mariana Pestana, “there’s a psychological improvement. People are starting to dream again, they’re starting to consume again.” Economic change is “no longer something that happens to us. There is some control.” There are also early outbreaks of the complaints that come with urban success, rising property prices and loss of character.

Lisbon is becoming an outstanding example of what might be called Monocleurbanism, after the magazine that combines trendspotting and lifestyle advice with social and political commentary, and which recently devoted many pages to the Portuguese capital. For the sophisticated nomads that Silva calls “the global creative class”, Lisbon’s attractions are powerful. According to Vasconcelos, “the big cosmopolitan cities of the world are more like each other”, such that central London and central Lisbon are closer to each other than London is to the Brexit-voting regions of Britain. (Theorists of the liberal metropolitan elite will take note.) For the first time since the 1940s, when Lisbon was a refuge from the war, says Pestana, the city is “really cosmopolitan”.

Take Patrick Tigue of Downtown Ecommerce, the American who was formerly in Costa Rica. He has clients all over the world, from the US to Australia, some of whom he doesn’t meet for years, if ever. “Our business started to grow, and we had a problem scaling up, so we opened up a map and wrote down a bunch of cities.” They had business criteria – access to English speakers, low cost of living, low wages, a convenient time zone – and personal preferences: surfing, good weather. “Berlin and Barcelona were good from the workforce perspective, but the lifestyle in Lisbon did it.”

“In Lisbon,” he goes on, “the people are incredible. There is always some type of music, style, arts going on. The food is incredible, the architecture… It’s a big little city. The real estate – you feel it’s coming up. It was quite a gamble. I came here last year for a vacation but it turned into an extended stay and then into moving here permanently. I’d like to stay here for the long term, to have kids here. I am that convinced.”

Manifestations of the new Lisbon include reincarnations of locations first created to serve tech businesses in London. One is Village Underground, “part creative community, part arts venue”, which aims to combine affordable workspaces with art, music and performance. In London it’s distinguished by four recycled Tube carriages perched in the air. In Lisbon it consists of a pile of shipping containers and repurposed double-decker buses, on a dramatic location next to the city’s suspension bridge.

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