Nightlife in Lisbon: live music and culture

by guyan

Lisbon's best spots to catch a gig or take in a bit of culture

Historically, the cultural hallmark of Lisbon has been the sombre fado music that has chimed through the city’s cobbled lanes for centuries. But these days there’s a lot more going on in this Latin town, both musically and culturally.

Edgy and contemporary

One of Lisbon’s trendiest venues, Music Box (Rua Nova do Carvalho 24; +351 21 3473 188; www.musicboxlisbon.com), is found down a dark industrial alleyway, past Cais do Sodres’ ropey streetwalkers and under a row of eerie cobbled archways. Edgy and contemporary, the underground feel also translates to the music where the international acts play breaks, dub and hip hop. As ever with Lisbon, the crowd is mixed, but the alternative scene largely attracts the early-twenties, music-savvy hipster set. While it’s a live music venue, the atmosphere is more club-like than live show-orientated.

Jazz

Lisbon’s oldest and most famous jazz bar is Hot Clube (Praça da Alegria 39, Restauradores; +351 21 346 7369), where faded posters of Miles Davis and other jazz greats adorn the walls. Smokey and literally underground, the venue truly feels like a Bourbon Street den. The club has a solid reputation amongst jazz purists and the standard of music is always high with many big-name artists dropping by for an impromptu jam after playing bigger venues.

Traditional fado

The local music of fado should be experienced at least once. I like Clube de Fado (Rua São João a Praça 92–94, Alfama; +351 21 888 2694), which is one of Lisbon’s newer fado clubs and is owned by local fadista, Mario Pacheco. Set among the old stone columns and arches of a Moorish well, and just below the grand Se cathedral, it couldn’t be in a more romantic spot. Guests come for dinner, while artists perform between courses in an intimate dining room - those who just want to drink - although talking during performances is heavily frowned upon - can use an upstairs gallery.

For a more traditional fado experience most go to Senhor Vinho, (Rua do Meio a Lapa 18, Lapa; +351 21 397 7456). The most renowned of Lisbon’s fado houses is found in this former bakery. The world-famous singer Maria Da Fé owns Senhor Vinho and seven different singers (and occasionally Maria herself) perform every night. The food served is always excellent, but tables fill quickly. This is certainly very touristy with large tour groups filling the place most nights, but locals still respect this place as one of Lisbon’s proudest and most sophisticated fado houses.

Classical music and theatre

Big name international acts regularly come to town and play venues such as the Coliseu dos Recreios, (Rua das Portas de Santo Antao 96, Baixa; +351 21 324 0580; www.coliseulisboa.com). Hosting international music acts since 1890, this venue has been used for circus and opera performance but now shows classical music events and large-scale gigs and rock concerts. Lisbon’s largest auditorium is the Centro Cultural de Belém, (Praça do Imperio, Belém; +351 21 361 2400; www.ccb.pt). The CCB, as it’s known is a grey modernist block-like limestone structure, designed by Vittorio Gregotti and Manuel Salgado, caused a fair bit of strife when it opened in 1993. Now it plays host to some of the best music, theatre and dance events in Europe. Several vast exhibition spaces also feature a varied programme of art displays.

As well as being a major art hub, Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, (Rua Dr. Nicolau, Bettencourt, Praça de Espanha; +351 21 793 5131; www.gulbenkian.pt) has its own orchestra, choir and ballet company. Throughout the year, a number of international orchestras and chamber groups play here. Look out for the festivals of contemporary music in May and early October, which take place along with regular concerts in the outdoor amphitheatre.

Built in the late 18th century, Lisbon’s main opera house, Teatro Nacional de São Carlos (Rua Sepra Pinto 9, Chiado; +351 21 325 3045; www.saocarlos.pt), was inspired by La Scala. A venue for ballet, opera and classical music, the theatre is renowned for its excellent acoustics and a stunning rococo interior. The Portuguese Symphony Orchestra is based here and other international classical music acts play throughout the year.

More expert advice on Lisbon

For suggestions on where to stay in Lisbon, see my Lisbon Hotels – Award winning expert hotel reviews, from cheap to luxury hotels in Lisbon page.

Read my overview on Lisbon nightlife and my guides Nightlife in Lisbon: Lisbon's best bars and Nightlife in Lisbon: Lisbon's best clubs.

guyan

I'm a freelance travel writer, editor and author. I write and edit travel features and books for Lonely Planet, the Sunday Times, the Sunday Times Travel Magazine, A Hedonist's Guide To..., Esquire and many others.

I have been a regular visitor to Lisbon for the past thirteen years. I first visted on an interrail trip as an eager 16 year-old backpacker and immediately fell in love with the city for its cobbled mish-mash charm and Atlantic-sprayed air. I have many close ties with the city, and working as a travel journalist, I continue to return regularly. I’ve often spent months at a time in the city, living in an apartment in Bairro Alto or Cascais, where I would eat and drink my way around the town by night and sleep it off on the suburban beaches by day. I consider the city a second home and when I’m not there I can be found seeking out the best pastel de nata or bica in the many Portuguese enclaves of North West London.

My Lisbon

Where I always grab a coffee: going for a coffee in Lisbon is as much about getting my pastry fix as it is tending to caffeine cravings. If I’m anywhere near Belem, I’ll go into Pasteis de Belem for the world’s best pastel de nata (custard tart). If I’m closer to the centre of town I’ll head into Café A Brasíleira, for excellent coffee, Old World charm and bustling street tables.

My favourite stroll: in the summer, I like to head out to the beachside suburbs of Cascais and Estoril. There’s a lovely walk along the seafront promenade that connects the two towns. I also like to take one of the free bikes at Cascais train station and cycle out to the wild beaches at Guincho and beyond.

Fiction for inspiration: The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon by Richard Zimler will give you an insight into 16th-century Lisbon and the mystical world of kabbalah during the Jewish persecutions of the time. While the book is set in a very different Lisbon from the one you’ll see today, it does bring alive the medieval cobbled streets of the historic quarters and gives the city’s religious sites real poignancy.

Where to be seen: with its penthouse views across the city, members bar Silk (free membership can be arranged easily online) in Bairro Alto is where the beautiful people hangout these days.

The most breathtaking view: position yourself behind any of the cannons that protect the medieval Castelo de São Jorge. Here you’ll get a view that spans over the city’s church spires, terracotta rooftops and yawning Atlantic-facing estuary.

The best spot for some peace and quiet: for real inner-city calm you can’t beat the city’s ornate and serene churches and cathedrals, Basílica da Estrela, Igreja De São Roque, Igreja de São Vicente da Fora and Sé Cathedral.

Shopaholics beware: the vintage tailors, perfumeries, herbalists and haberdashers in the timeworn Baixa district are a maze of skills, crafts and trade.

City soundtrack: while the melancholic fado music is the traditional sound of the city, 21st-century Lisbon swings to a more Samba sound. My favourite local artist is Sara Tavares, have a listen to the lovely ‘Balancé’.

Don’t leave without... partying till dawn then getting a freshly baked pão com chorizo (chrozio baked in bread, or a Portuguese hot dog, if you like) from one of the city’s just-opened bakeries.