This post is part of our Love Letter series: first-person accounts of what we love about Lisbon.
My relationship with Lisbon over the last 20+ years hasn’t always been undisturbed.
I suppose that’s what happens with most long-term relationships. But if there is one thing Lisbon does well, and has done so since the Great Earthquake of 1755, is to constantly reinvent itself.
I discovered “The Triangle” by accident. I was on a work assignment to visit Polo Cultural Gaivotas, on a street not quite part of the triangle’s street cluster but close enough to be called a next-door neighbor. Too close to the deadline for comfort, my plan was to go, see, interview, and write. Lisbon, as always, had other plans for me.
That short interview about this old school turned cultural center resulted in recommendations to visit A Avó Veio Trabalhar, a place where grandmas literally come to work using their crafts’ skills for disruptive creativity. Then the café owned by a Portuguese-Australian couple, the mill, that roasts their coffee beans at a father-and-son business down the block. Then Mercearia Poço dos Negros, owned by a Portuguese-Peruvian couple who specialize in selling products of small Portuguese producers. Then Companhia Portugueza do Chá, where Argentinian Lisbon-based Sebastian Filgueiras custom makes tea blends and created the very local Lisbon Breakfast and Lisbon Afternoon. Then Hello, Kristof, a café where the Scandinavian-style is an interior design choice not a sign of gentrification. Then Palavra de Viajante, the only bookstore in Lisbon that specializes in travel books and everything related to travel.
I refer to “The Triangle” with quote marks because it’s not a neighborhood, geographically nor officially, but it’s a neighborhood at heart. The name was given by locals and shop owners. That was the first thing I noticed when I came here the first time and that I feel every time I find an excuse to return. Old and new come together in a way that, I confess, I no longer thought possible in the “overtouristed” and gentrified areas of Lisbon. As we began to lose the rugged character of the historic neighborhoods of Alfama, Mouraria, and Graça, I sincerely thought the city was gone for good.
And then, like a beacon of light, this cluster of three streets (Poço dos Negros, Poiais de São Bento, and the end part of São Bento) that looks like a perfect triangle on the map came to the rescue. A real-life example of how a city can grow without completely losing sight of what makes it unique.
It has the same cobblestoned narrow streets and the same iconic mustard-yellow tram 28 as Alfama, and the multicultural vibe of Mouraria. It has some of the same glazed tile façades of posh Chiado, and the gritty personality of the repurposed buildings in Cais do Sodré. It has the same avocado toasts a tourist would relish in Baixa, and the history-in-a-plate dishes a local would eat at a tasca in Bairro Alto.
In a way, the whole of Lisbon fits here. In this cluster of streets that looks like a triangle, between Bairro Alto and Madragoa.
Some businesses are part of an older side of the city, like the secluded nightclub where people got to by word of mouth long before that was a trend. The name? Aptly, Incognito. Forget complicated cocktails or carefully brewed artisanal beer. It’s the place to drink a local bottled or draft beer while dancing to punk-rock tunes from a time when punk-rock was still young.
The same Poiais de São Bento street is lined by a hand full of local design stores that lead the way into a narrow side alley where more art lives and breathes: The Atelier Museu Júlio Pomar, a museum designed by renowned Portuguese architect Siza Vieira that houses the work of a lifetime of Portuguese Modernist painter and sculptor Júlio Pomar.
If Lisbon has a café in every corner, Poço dos Negros street has a café for every taste. But if you want to try something new, take a detour to the side street on the corner of Companhia Portugueza do Chá for a cup of Lisbon Breakfast tea at Dear Breakfast.
For lunch, go local. Always communicative, language is not a barrier for the staff at Zapata. Beware that the bilingual menu can only help you so far. Knowing what’s on the menu is one thing, making the hard choice of what to have is another. When in doubt, remember you can never go wrong with the daily specials.
For dinner, get Cabo Verdean’s typical dish cachupa with a side of live music on the weekends at Tambarina. The food tastes as homey as the innocent spats inside the kitchen. The cook runs that kitchen with an iron fist and she’s always right, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. There is love in that food.
Next time you’re in Lisbon, whether it’s your first or your 100th time, do me a favor and visit “The Triangle” first. Forget all you think you know about or heard about Lisbon. Turn off your mobile app and fold up your map. Come here with an open heart and wide-open eyes, without expectations, nor even looking for the ultimate authentic experience. It’s not the foodie haven of the city, it’s not the cultural center of the city, here all you’ll find is the city that perfectly caters to tourists as it does to locals. If there is one place in Lisbon where I feel there’s life after overtourism, where it’s possible for outsiders and residents to experience the same city without threatening that fragile balance, that place is here.
Calling all curious travelers! Do you love connecting with the local community while in a new place? We’re right there with you. We’d love to keep connecting you to Lisbon through our newsletter. It comes out a couple of times a month, brimming with dispatches on culture, recipes, tips and even a discount or two!
Sandra Henriques Gajjar is a freelance web content writer and travel blogger born in the Azores and based in Lisbon for 20+ years. Since 2014 she’s been blogging about travel, culture, and the people she meets in between at Tripper, a blog on sustainable cultural tourism.