Lisbon’s new lease of life

Our writer discovers the Portuguese capital’s blend of old and new, with its ambitious new museum opening


Lisbon is Europe's great survivor. Devastated by earthquake in 1755 before being rebuilt, ravaged by fires over the centuries and the scene of numerous invasions, the Portuguese capital is not only one of the world's beautiful historic cities but also among the most resilient. 

It’s all thanks to the city’s knack for re-inventing itself, breathing new life into existing properties and unloved areas, and the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (MAAT), which has just opened, is only the latest example.

Tipped to be the country’s new cultural hub, MAAT has made part of its home in the Tejo Power Station, an example of industrial architecture in a formerly unloved waterfront location, not unlike The Tate Modern before the Bankside development transformed the South Bank of the Thames. And Lisboetas are hoping that the area around MAAT will enjoy a similar regeneration to London.

In contrast, MAAT’s second building is an ultra-modern design from British architect Amanda Levete, designed to allow visitors to walk over and under the building as well as through, with panoramic views from its undulating roof out towards the Tagus river and across historic Belém.

Even the contemporary façade has its own nod to tradition, covered in 15,000 three-dimensional tiles reminding visitors of Portugal’s rich tradition of ceramics.

Along with collections of Portuguese art, the museum has plans for international contemporary exhibitions, with Pedro Gadhano — the former curator of contemporary architecture at the Museum of Modern art (MOMA) in New York — as its director.

Stepping inside, I found the dystopian fairy-tale of Pynchon Park, an installation by French artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, which runs until March 2017.

It’s a world away from two of the city’s most visited historic attractions — although in reality, the Unesco World Heritage fortress Torre de Belem and the picturesque Jeronimos Monastery are just a few minutes from the museum. Then, Portuguese explorers of the Golden Age ruled the seas, with the fabulous wealth brought back from India financing the intricate monastery building begun in 1501.

But Lisbon’s latest rejuvenation doesn’t stop here. Heading the other way along the water, other neighbourhoods/buildings have been given their own new lease of life.

The stunning Asian art at the Museum do Oriente sits inside a former salt cod warehouse, MUDE’s home was once a bank before reinventing itself as a museum of fashion and design while the Money Museum opened earlier this year in a former Baroque church, just off the Praca do Comercio, the jewel in post-earthquake Lisbon’s crown.

Then there’s “Pink Street” in Cais do Soidre, not long ago one of the city’s seediest neighbourhoods but today Lisbon’s liveliest nightlife venue. Closed to traffic, the brightly painted street jumps to life after dark — perfect for the design and media start-ups not far away at LX Factory, a former industrial estate in Alcantara dubbed Lisbon’s Creative Island.

But you never need to walk far to find evidence of the city’s unique heritage, with Sao Jorge Castle dominating the medieval Alfama district on one of Lisbon’s seven hills. Once the site of the Jewish quarter back in the 15th century, the area’s Largo de Sao Miguel will be home to a new Jewish Museum, opening in the first half of 2017, tracing the history of Judaism in Portugal.

Because even in the historic heart of the city, wandering twisting alleyways which seem unchanged for centuries, you’ll always find something new.


TAP Portugal flies to Lisbon from several UK airports, with returns to Heathrow from £78 and Manchester from £160 in January.
Stay at the boutique Inspira Santa Marta where rooms cost from £80 per night room only.
For more information, and to buy the Visit Lisboa card which includes free public transport and admission to the main attractions, visit the tourist office website.


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