Lisbon and its surrounding towns have always been attractive to gay boys from around the world. As far back as the early 18th century, William Beckfrod left England to avoid a gay scandal and headed for the town of Sintra. Today, after several decades under a brutal disctatorship and the power of the Catholic Church, lisbon is finally out of the closet and taking its rightful place amongst the gay cities of Europe and some would say rivalling neighbours such as Barcelona and Mardid.
So what makes it so Special? Well take an amazing balmy climate, add in an upbeat nightlife, mix that up with a charming outdoor atmosphere, beautiful sandy gay beaches, stunning cultural attractions, narrow winding streets and the friendliness of the Portuguese and you have the perfect ingredients for an international gay destination.
The city effortlessly blends the old with the new and Lisbon is very welcoming of Gay Visitors. While the percentage of gays in the closet is still quite high, the city is noted for its "freedom, tolerance and creative restlessness", as noted in the city's first official toursim guide dedicated to the gay visitor. (It is available at all Welcome Centres). Indeed, gay/lesbian sex is legal from the age of 16 and a gay rights causes are winning ground against the ultra conservative church backed policitians.
Lisbon is small compared with other national capitals with a city population of around 600,000 (according to the 2001 census), but what it lacks in size it makes up for in atmosphere and liveliness. Once the centre of one of the greatest empires in the western world, it has been devastated by two earthquakes (one in 1531 and another in 1755).
However, much of its historical heart survived intact and can be seen today in the Baixa, or lower town, its narrow winding streets dominated by the Sao Jorge Castle. Not much remains inside the castle walls, but it is worth a visit for the stunning views over the rest of the city. Another survivor of the earthquakes is the nearby cathedral of Santa Maria Maior, more commonly known as the Se.
A short train journey away is Belem, now a pretty suburb but once the starting point for Portugal’s globe trotting navigators and discoverers. The famous Torre de Belem graces a million postcards but is rather under whelming in real life, partly due its location on a modern pLisbonnade.
The lavish Jeronimos a Monastery is altogether more impressive, but the real highlight of any visit to Belem has to be the cafes selling Portuguese custard tarts, a specialty of the area. Best enjoyed straight from the oven with a strong black coffee, the queues outside the huge cafes are a testimony to the popularity of the sweet pastries with both locals and tourists alike.
For first-time visitors to Lisbon, the city can seem rather elusive, but once you’ve dispensed with tourist must-dos, like taking the rackety Number 28 tram up to 12th-century Sé Catedral and Moorish Castelo de São Jorge, you can get acquainted with the real Lisbon. In terms of tourist attractions Lisbon has nothing to rival the palaces, museums and churches of Paris or London, but with its laid back daily life and buzzing gay scene after dark, it’s the perfect location for a fun packed weekend break.
You may find it hard to put your finger on the city’s pulse, at first, because Lisbon’s pleasures are more clandestine than those of other world capitals. This is especially true in what is currently Lisbon’s hippest neighborhood, Bairro Alto. Meaning the “high quarter,” its undulating cobble streets became synonymous with nightlife in the mid-1800s, when Lisbon’s indigenous music style, fado, gained popularity among the area’s working-class inhabitants. Melancholic and emotional, fado has its roots in Bairro Alto’s seediest taverns, though today it’s more readily performed in casas de fado, accompanied by dinner and folk dancing. Bairro Alto’s oldest fado house, Café Luso (Travessa da Queimada 10. http://www.cafeluso.pt) opened in 1931. The “Queen of Fado,” Amália Rodrigues, is said to have made her debut here in 1939.
A more contemporary nightlife scene was the catalyst for Bairro Alto’s most recent rebirth. The transition from rundown residential area to Lisbon’s most happening neighborhood began on June 15, 1982 when Manuel Reis opened his night- club Frágil (Rua da Atalaia 128.). Lisbon had known nothing like it and Frágil soon attained a similar level of infamy as New York’s Studio 54. Numerous other gay bars and gay clubs appeared in the ensuing years, making Bairro Alto increasingly cosmopolitan.
Reis has since moved beyond the Bairro: he sold up in 1998 to open Lux Frágil (Warehouse A, Av. Infante Dom Henrique. http://www.luxfragil.com), a cutting-edge superclub in a former boat factory in Santa Apolónia that draws the likes of Prince, Scissor Sisters, and Antony and the Johnsons. Although predominantly straight, it remains the place to see and be seen for every fashionable sexual persuasion. His newest venture is the retro-minimalist Bica do Sapato restaurant (Warehouse B, Av. Infante Dom Henrique. http://www.bicadosapato.com) opened in partnership with actor John Malkovich.
Since Reis’ departure, the original Frágil is not considered as crucial as it once was, but it’s still a popular and gay-friendly club. Moreover, Bairro Alto’s nightlife scene has continued to evolve, and is today augmented by stylish restaurants, quirky designer boutiques, beauty salons, and contemporary art galleries—the bairro that was born for the night is beginning to step into the daylight.
Like every lover of the nightlife, Bairro Alto is a late riser. Many of its shops don’t open until 2 P.M. during the week, and as late as 5 P.M. on Saturdays. For the rest of the day they lurk silently behind graffiti-covered grilles, like hung-over party girls who can’t face daylight without sunglasses.
The Adjacent Chiado area is another neighborhood to explore. It also has more shops and cafes that are open in the afternoon. Operating since 1905, Cafe A Brasileira (Rua Garrett 120) is a great coffee pitstop, and something of a gay hangout in the early evening. Although its carved and panelled wood interior is magnificent, camera-touting tourists tend to covet the outdoor seating. Nearby is the flagship store of Brazilian designer brand Osklen (Rua do Carmo 9. http://www.osklen.com), while the vast fnac store in the Armazéns do Chiado shopping mall carries an extensive array of Brazilian samba and MPB CDs—illustrating how much of an influence Brazil has on modern Lisbon.
After sunset, Bairro Alto gains a new vitality. Shop lights illuminate the neighborhood like lanterns, patrons of the numerous small bars naturally overflow onto the narrow streets, and groups of friends hover outside restaurant doors as they check out menu options.
This is an excellent time to refuel at Portas Largas (Rua da Atalaia 105). Once a traditional Portuguese tasca, it retains its marble bar, marble-top tables, and old-world charm, but now boasts sexy bartenders, excellent caipirinhas, and a stylish gay/mixed crowd. Its large wooden doors open onto the street, making this a great spot for soaking up the local scene. Nearby gay café bar Sétimo Céu (Travessa da Espera 54) has a more contemporary style and hot Brazilian sounds, and like most Bairro Alto bars, its floor inevitably becomes littered with discarded peanut shells—it remains an old tasca at heart!
With the opening of the deluxe five-star Bairro Alto Hotel (Praça Luís de Camões 8. Tel: +351-213-408-288. ), this area is also home to Lisbon’s first boutique hotel. Occupying a restored 18th-century building, and with fifty-five rooms and suites designed to be nostalgic with a contemporary edge, it was recently featured on the Condé Nast Traveler Hotlist..
Nearby Hotel Anjo Azul (Rua Luz Soriano 75. Tel: +351-213-478-069. http://www.anjoazul.com) has the distinction of being the first and only gay hotel in Portugal. Housed in a 19th-century building fronted with distinct blue tiles, it has twenty simple but comfortable rooms, three with small rear terraces.
Those on a super-tight budget will appreciate gay-friendly sister property Pensão Globo (Rua do Teixeira 37. Tel: +351-213-462-279), which has room rates from just 15 Euros.
Great gay friendly restaurants in Lisbon abound. Funky fondue restaurant Found You (Trav dos Inglesinhos 34-40. http://www.foundyou.com.pt) and its precious sibling Be Gold (Rua da Rosa 151. http://www.begold.com.pt) have gleaming, modern interiors. The eclectic décor of Mercearia De Comida (Rua da Barroca 90-92) gives it a timeless ambience, although it’s brand new.
Owner Ana Pereira’s grandmother had a grocery store, to which friends and neighbors would bring a chair from their homes so they could sit and chat, inspiring the quirky mix of mismatched chairs, shelves of produce, and daily specials chalked up on old wooden fruit crates. The menu is market fresh, the morcela sausage is flambéed in a kitsch pig-shaped pot. The shrimp and black bean feijoada is delicious, and the waiters cute and flirty.
When the boisterous Bairro Alto scene begins to subside, gay men and lesbians head to the adjacent Príncipe Real neighborhood, where the second tier of gay venues awaits.
Old favorites like tiny Finalmente (Rua da Palmeira 38), which packs its customers in so tightly that it has the vibe of a Christopher Street house party circa 1985, Bric-a-Bar (Rua Cecilio de Sousa 82-84) with its dancefloor and upstairs darkroom, and the bearish and cruisy Max (Rua Sao Marcal 15) all remain popular.
Trumps, alarge basement venue isn’t new, but following a recent refurbishment, it’s once again regarded as the hottest gay club in town. The bar is decorated with a provocative photomontage of black and white torsos, but sexy shirtless guys were just as plentiful on the main dancefloor.
There’s a second dancefloor where the DJs spin pop, plus an opulently appointed chillout room upstairs. Although predominantly gay male, Trumps attracts a high quota of young Lisbon lesbians too. Trust me, once you’ve danced till 6 A.M. at Trumps, you’ll be glad that the shops of Bairro Alto don’t open till very late.