To recognize that Lisbon is on the brink of a cultural boom, one needs no more proof than this: Frank Gehry has already swept through town to size up the Parque Mayer Theater, the site of his next architectural commission. And if Pedro Santana Lopes, Lisbon's mayor, has his way, the entire area around the Parque, now a bit shabby, will see a cultural renaissance on a Bilbao-like scale. In fact, Lisbon has been waking up, in a sense, for the past five years, since it hosted the 1998 Expo. But only now do you feel that its eyes are wide open—in the docklands' galleries; the new museums, restaurants, and hotels; and in the bohemian energy that fills Atalaia and the surrounding streets, where bars spill out onto cobbled sidewalks.
Some of the most lavish changes can be felt at the Palácio Belmonte, where Mr. Gehry stayed during his visit this January. The Belmonte is not strictly a hotel. There are no chocolates on the pillows and there's no concierge. There's barely even a sign indicating its existence at the foot of Castelo de São Jorge near Alfama, Lisbon's Old Town. But inside the heavy wooden doors lies an eight-suite palace, including three rooms inside ancient Roman or Muslim towers. Each has carved Visigoth pillars, seventh-century Moorish brick ceilings, black-marble bathrooms, antique linen sheets, and some 38,000 18th-century tiles. Architects, artists, and presidents alike have been checking in, seduced by the Palácio's beauty, even in the absence of conventional hotel services. The restoration cost its eccentric owner, Fréderic Coustols, $29 million—commercially nonsensical, perhaps, but the Belmonte is more an act of cultural philanthropy. It has become an emblem of Lisbon's increasing sophistication.
To date, there may not be a single Michelin-starred restaurant in the Portuguese capital, but the proliferation of experimental, contemporary eateries has begun. Bica do Sapato is a new dockside restaurant with a sushi bar upstairs, restaurant downstairs, and a bistro-style café that stretches to the water's edge in summer. The food is acceptable, the dining room always full (reserve a window table), but the kitchen isn't the attraction. It's Bica's design, with plum and fuchsia walls and original Knoll and Saarinen chairs, that is the real draw (a troupe of 80 Scandinavian architects recently chartered a plane to inspect its interiors). At Kais, a restaurant in a converted warehouse also on the docks, the menu is as noteworthy (don't miss the Mozambique prawn curry) as the decor, with its pulleys and chains dramatically suspended from the high ceilings. Not least of the newcomers is Stéphane Hestin, the recently installed chef at Varanda, the restaurant at Four Seasons Hotel The Ritz . Poached from the three-star Michelin La Côte d'Or in Saulieu, Hestin is putting his rigorous Gallic training to use on Portugal's traditional diet of fish (his sautéed crayfish and parfait of foie gras with chestnuts is hardly traditional). "Lisbon is ready to move forward," Hestin says. "You see it in the design and fashion. The kitchen will follow. Lisbon is finally ready to experience new tastes."
Experimentation may not come easy to the traditional Portugese, but Lisbon has nonetheless found inspiration in modern design. It is everywhere: FactoLab, on the docks, is devoted to avant-garde beauty and fashion (it's a shoe store and a salon). Down the street, Nord features Swedish twister stools and Arne Jacobsen vases. At the recently opened Lojadatalaia, which sells collectible '60s and '70s chairs, the pieces are almost on a par with the midcentury furniture exhibit in Lisbon's new Museu do Design (an essential half-day for anyone who knows their Swan from their Egg). In addition, the contemporary-art scene is burgeoning, with a major new private gallery in Xabregas, a run-down, out-of-the-way dockside neighborhood (watch this area; other gallerists will likely follow). Called Galeria Filomena Soares, it features both Portuguese and international artists, such as the feminist photographer Shirin Neshat. But for exclusively home-grown talent, there is only one address: ModaLisboa, a concept store along the same lines as Colette in Paris, where Portuguese fashion hangs alongside ceramics, jewelry (look out for Susana Barbosa's beautiful silver pieces) and José Viana crystal. Not that you need to look into a ball for Lisbon's future; it seems clear already.
• Antiga Confeitaria de Belém offers a taste of old Lisbon and the best hot custard-cream tarts (pastéis de nata) in the city (75¢). Ignore the surly waiters and be patient—a table is worth the wait. $ At 84-92 Rua de Belém; 351-21-363-8077.
• Following extensive refurbishment, the Lapa Palace now has a room-with-a-view to be reckoned with: Number 701, the Tower Room ($2,375) with a private, open-air tower accessed via a narrow terrace. At 4 Rua do Pau de Bandeira; 351-21-394-9494.
• For an English-speaking driver who doubles as a tour guide, call José Joaquim de Sousa Oliveira, who was a hotel concierge for 25 years. Cell 351-96-400-1417.
• Go to Luvaria Ulisses for handmade wild-pigskin gloves with cashmere lining ($100), made since 1925 by the shop's tiny atelier. And we mean tiny: The shop is large enough for one customer at a time; hence, the line out front. $ At 87a Rua do Carmo; 351-21-342-0295.
• The renovated Calouste Gulbenkian Museum features an unusual collection donated by a single collector, including Manets, Monets, and Persian rugs. The last room is stuffed with a spectacular selection of original Lalique jewels. At 45a Avenida de Berna; 351-21-782-3000.
Palácio Belmonte Suites, $370-$2,000. At 14 Páteo Dom Fradique; 351-21-881-6600.
Kais Dinner, $75. At Cais da Viscondessa, Rua da Cintura-Santos; 351-21-393-2930.
Bica do Sapato Dinner, $95. At Avenida Infante D. Henrique, Armazém B; 351-21-881-0320.
Varanda Restaurant at Four Seasons Hotel The Ritz Dinner, $150. At 88 Rua Rodrigo da Fonseca; 351-21-381-1400.
Nord $ At 6 Avenida Infante D. Henrique, Armazém B Loja 6; 351-21-882-1045. Nord $ At 6 Avenida Infante D. Henrique, Armazém B Loja 6; 351-21-882-1045.
Lojadatalaia At Avenida Infante D. Henrique, Armazém B Loja 1; 351-21-882-2578.
Museu do Design At Praça do Império; 351-21-361-2400.
Galeria Filomena Soares At 78-80 Rua da Manutenção; 351-21-862-4122.
ModaLisboa Design 25 Rua do Arsenal; 351-21-031-2830.
FactoLab At Avenue Infante D. Henrique, Armazém B, Loja 9; 351-21-882-2898.
Restaurant prices reflect a three-course dinner for two, excluding beverages and gratuity. Hotel prices show high-season rates from the least expensive double to the most expensive suite.
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