Portuguese style
The Portuguese aesthetic is charming and laid-back with Moorish influences. Image via The Style Files.

Global Style: Portugal

by Alexia Biggs

Lose yourself among the centuries-old alleyways of Lisbon as design month guest style editor Alexia Biggs uncovers the traditional artisans and heavenly patisseries that pepper Portugal’s capital city.

One of the oldest cities in Europe, Lisbon is spread across steep hillsides that overlook Rio Tejo (the Tagus River). Gothic cathedrals, imposing monasteries and quaint museums are all part of this charming city, but the true delights to discover are within the narrow, winding backstreets of this historical place.

The best way to see the neighbourhoods is on the no. 28 tram, a rickety yellow-painted historic mode of transport that criss-crosses the city centre, grinding to the top of each hill, then flying down curved old streets like a runaway roller coaster. It takes you past the Cathedral, and the church of Sao Antonio, and through Graça district, the old area of the city. Here, delightfully, everything is being beautifully restored, returning the old-tiled buildings and mansions to their former glory.

Graça, especially Lago da Graça, boasts some of the most spectacular views in Lisbon. The most famous viewpoint is the Miradouro de Santa Graça, which offers up the whole of central Lisbon and the castle to the north.

Alfama, Lisbon
Lisbon’s oldest quarter, Alfama, offers up beautiful examples of Moorish-style azulejos (tiles). Photography: Alexia Biggs.

Below is Alfama, Lisbon’s oldest quarter. Spread over the southeastern slope of the hill crowned by Castelo de São Jorge, the picturesque neighbourhood is composed of a maze of narrow streets, winding alleyways, and steep flights of steps. Its kasbah-like layout is deliberate – this is the city’s ancient Arab district, and although there are no Moorish houses still standing, the tightly packed lanes, small archways, and cobbled terraces are full of Moorish aesthetic (with later influences from The Netherlands, England and China) endues in the designs on the painted the blue-and-white azeuljos (tiles) which adorn hundreds of indoor and outdoor walls throughout the city.

For centuries, the design and fabrication of lace, rugs, hand-knit clothing, wood carving and embroidered linens have evolved in homes and workshops throughout Portugal. The city of Lisbon was once segmented into artisan sections, where you would find clusters of shops and workshops selling the same things: sapateiros (shoemakers), douradores (gilders) and correeiros (saddlers). Street signs still bear the names, but many of the artisans have long since gone. However, there are some that still defy, and it’s this that makes the city such a feast!

Behind the many exquisite, sometimes belle époque facades lie antiquated interiors packed with myriad goods that have been produced in Portugal for generations. On the flat, central street of Rua da Conceição, haberdashery store Retrosaria Bijou is one of many retrosarias (button shops), which is packed with drawers and vintage boxes filled to the brim with buttons, ribbons and trimming. Nearby, Perfumaria Alceste doesn’t appear to have changed since the shop was first established, with its age-old metal and glass display cabinets lined with charming bottles of cologne and fragrances.

Retrosaria Bijou
Retrosaria Bijou is one of the cities many button shops, brimming with boxes of ribbons, trimmings and buttons. Photography: Alexia Biggs.

A stop at Confeitaria Nacional on Praça da Figueira (a patisserie dating from 1829) will satisfy your pastel de nata (Portuguese custard tart) cravings. These melt-in-the-mouth buttery pastries filled with heavenly custard will feed your addiction in just two bites. On Rua Santo António da Sé you’ll find Viúva C. Ferreira Pires, a hardware store selling an amazing selection of copper pans and traditional Portuguese cataplana, a lidded, copper dish used to make slow-cooked fish and seafood stew.

Conserveira de Lisboa (Rua dos Bacalhoeiros 34) is an 80-year-old store filled from floor to ceiling with bright, vintage-style tins of sardines and other fish. Sardines are the most common fish caught off the Portuguese coast and tinned sardines are a big export for the country, but the most exquisite labels (such as Tricana) are not often seen outside Portugal.

A must-visit is Vida Portuguesa, which occupies an old perfume warehouse in the chic Chiado district. (Rua Anchieta 11). Its walls are lined with nostalgic Portuguese arts, crafts and traditional Portuguese brands. Look for divine products such as Claus Porto soaps, Viana do Castelo embroidered textiles, Portuguese cotton bathmats, and household essentials such as aluminium fish kettles and sardine grills. Many of the factories that supply this shop were close to shutting down, but have made a revival, thanks to owner Catarina Portas, who has renewed the country’s old crafts.

Lisbon, Portugal
It’s easy to lose yourself in the winding backstreets of this charming city. Photography: Harriet Morgan.

Porcelain tableware, china, handmade glass pieces and crystal can be found at the sophisticated store Vista Alegre on Largo do Chiado 20-23, which stocks a huge selection of ‘cabbage leaf’ glazed pottery from the Bordalo Pinheiro ceramics factory. In the same district, the best place to buy tiles is Fabrica Sant’Anna (Rua do Alecrim, 96). They range from the functional to elaborate panels covered in still life or pastoral scenes, and the ceramics and tiles here have been handcrafted using the same methods since 1741.

Nearby, the pocket-sized Luvaria Ulisses (Rua do Carmo, 87-A), is an Art Deco boutique dedicated to traditionally handcrafted leather gloves, lined in cotton, satin or cashmere. So small (a mere 4 metres square) it can only accommodate two people at a time. Since 1925, this charming shop remains untouched since it first opened. It is the only glove shop in Portugal, and one of the very few in Europe.

Specialising in hand-embroidered tablecloths, intricate laces and fine linen sheets, Principe Real (Rua da Escola Politechnica 12-14) has sold its fine linens to European royalty since 1938.

A rarity among European capitals, Lisbon is a vibrant city of charm and colour, bearing the mark of an incredible heritage with laid-back pride. Still growing and changing with undeniably youthful energy, it is modernising not by copying the rest of the world, but through updating and improving what it’s always had.

Get the Portuguese look

Get the Portuguese look

  1. Ceramic salad servers, $74.95
  2. Hand-painted blue ceramic jug, $34.95
  3. Mogul cushion cover, $59.95
  4. Orba bed linen, from $84.95 for pillowcases and from $529.95 for bedcovers
  5. Aqua floral bedspread, from $184.95
  6. Wood & ceramic drawers, from $64.95
  7. Veri cotton weave leather sandals, $119.95
  8. Short-sleeve embroidered dress, $79
Guest style editor Alexia Biggs
Guest style editor Alexia Biggs. Photography: Cath Muscat.

Alexia Biggs is a freelance stylist and interiors editor, plus an expert in scouting for all that’s new and stylish in homewares within Australia, and around the globe. She knows the best shops online and on the streets, and for the past four years has delivered the all that’s great in design in her weekly column, “The Source” in Spectrum, in Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald.

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