When asked to think of the world’s great shopping cities, few people would automatically suggest Lisbon. London, New York, Paris, yes. Marrakech even. But Lisbon?
I was sceptical, too, but the Portuguese capital surprised me with its rococco shopfronts and wonderful timewarp interiors selling some of the most delightfully packaged goods. Add to that the city’s temperate climate and reasonable prices and it would be fair to say Lisbon is one of the best places I have come across – as a person a little overfond of returning with a suitcase stuffed with treasure.
If you covet anything “old fashioned”, you’ll find it in Lisbon: soaps by Claus Porto in art deco boxes (clausporto.com), twinkling sardine tins, retro 1930s packets of flour and ground rice, handmade leather gloves, copper pans, flea market finds and toys you may well have imagined went out with the ark. They’re all here.
What makes the city such a feast is that behind the many exquisite, sometimes belle époque facades lie antiquated interiors and myriad goods that have been produced in Portugal for generations.
I had already been told that I would love A Vida Portuguesa (Rua Anchieta 11, avidaportuguesa.com). Its walls are lined with soaps, oils, toothpastes, petroleum jelly in retro boxes and store cupboard staples such as Zelly’s flour. Run by Portuguese journalist Catarina Portas, this shop is lovely. I walked out with armfuls of Zelly products, as well as a sardine grill for the barbecue, a stunning, iridescent ceramic sardine, tins of sardines, a stove-top toast maker, bright orange and red melamine plates and piles of Couto toothpaste and petroleum jelly in bright orange and black boxes. My pal Andrea said I looked like a pig in the veritable. It was as well I couldn’t see in the mirror. I think she might have been right.
My Lisbon friend, journalist Célia Pedroso, told me that her city, like many, had once been segmented into artisan sections, where you would find clusters of shops and workshops all selling the same things: sapateiros (shoemakers), douradores (gilders), correeiros (saddlers). She pointed to the street signs that still bear these names: “For many of those trades, only those beautiful, evocative words remain as street names. The artisans have long since gone. Out-of-town shopping malls, and the city’s inability to see that it might be worth preserving some of these crumbling old buildings, mean that a lot of them are now lost.”
But there are some that still defy the changing times. One of my favourites is a little haberdashery called Retrosaria Bijou (Rua da Conceição 91). Inside this skinny shop are drawers and boxes filled with buttons, ribbon and trimmings and other nick-nacks. It is one of a number of button shops (retrosarias) on a two-block chunk in the Bairro Alto district. For days I racked my brains trying to remember which old coat or cardigan it was that I wanted to revamp with beautiful buttons, and vowed to return to Lisbon with a list. I shall hover around this treasure trove of fastenings and fixtures and when I have decided which of these jewels will be mine, I will watch in delight as the aged assistant presses the buttons on the antiquated silver till.
On this same street Andrea and I also found the time warp that is Perfumaria Alceste, (Rua da Conceição 85). It is filled with bottles of homemade cologne and fragrance closely guarded by two sparrow-like ladies who taciturnly forbid the taking of pictures.
The nearby Napoleão, (Rua dos Fanqueiros 70) is a veritable cornucopia of port, other wines, and gourmet foods. I bought a little box of five different ports by Ramos Pinto – so that’s dad’s present sorted.
Coffee is the focus of two old shops in the heart of town. At Casa Pereira (Rua Garrett 38), the smell of the freshly ground beans may leave you craving a caffeine fix but they don’t brew the stuff here. This is where they sell whole and ground beans, such as the exclusive São Tomé at €22 a kilo, from the tiny island of the same name. The shop, founded in 1930, is also crammed with teas and chocolates, sweets and biscuits, plus port, Madeira and other wines.
A Carioca (Rua da Misericórdia 9) also specialises in coffee. It’s an art deco palace with two coffee grinders dating from 1936. The shop’s iconic symbol is a carioca, a woman from Rio de Janeiro, holding a cup of coffee.
One of the best ways to see Lisbon is to hop on and off the no 28 tram. A €4.60 one-day travelcard let us use all the trams, buses and funiculars we wanted. It was on my first day of riding the 28 that I stumbled across Sementes para Hortas e Jardins, on Praça de Figueira, a quaint corner shop selling flower and vegetable seeds and bulbs. A few doors along is 150-year-old Antiga Casa do Bacalhau, which sells hunks of salt cod, dried beans, tinned goods, bottled water and little else.
The 28 tram passes right by the button shops as well as Viúva C. Ferreira Pires (Rua Santo António da Sé 2, viuva.com), a hardware store selling an amazing selection of copper pans and of course the traditional Portuguese cataplana, a lidded, copper dish used to make slow-cooked fish and seafood stew. And round the corner was Santos Ofícios (Rua da Madalena 87, santosoficios-artesanato.pt, a handicraft store where Andrea bought a 20-piece miniature nativity set, carved in wood and hand-painted, for her sister.
With all our booty, we were glad to head back to our beautiful, and central, apartment (micasaenlisboa.com/apt/sao-bento, from €100 a night), also, handily, on the 28 tram route. When hands ached from carrying too many shopping bags, we could pop home to a chilled bottle of dry white Planalto (around €4.68 from the mini-supermarket) and a seat on our tiny terrace with a view of the Tagus river.
That same 28 tram took us to one of Lisbon’s shopping highlights: the Feira da Ladra, or flea market, held on a Tuesdays and a Saturdays. On row of stalls, and on pavements, is laid out anything from old bottom-of-the-drawer tat to real treasures. Andrea bought a beautiful watercolour by the artist Laiert, a costume designer for the Lisbon theatre. I was thrilled with the packaging on an old Abbott and Costello 8mm film called Riot on Ice, with the two comedy stars flying through the air with hats, scarves, ice skates and looks of absolute terror. Both Andrea and I bought magnificent old tins for €5 euros each – mine had once been a home for orthopaedic bandages.
From here we moved to Baixa, where grand old Rua Augusta is lined with fine shoe shops and Rua do Carmo is home to perhaps the world’s finest purveyor of leather gloves, Luvaria Ulisses (Rua do Carmo 87, luvariaulisses.com). Since 1925, ladies have been coming to this tiny place behind its neoclassical facade here to have their hands covered in talc before being carefully fitted with custom-made gloves.
Back on Praça da Figueira, a few streets north is a wonderful patisserie, Confeitaria Nacional (confeitarianacional.com/english) dating from 1829 with a mirrored ceiling, wooden staircase and marble counter. It sells cakes, pastries (including the famous pasties de nata, custard tarts), and jams. Run by five generations of the Castanheiro family, its most famous delicacy is the special Christmas cake known as the Bolo-Rei, (the King’s cake) a brightly coloured candied and glazed sweet bread made to a secret recipe.
Conserveira de Lisboa (Rua dos Bacalhoeiros 34) is an 80-year-old store filled from floor to ceiling with bright, vintage-looking tins of sardines and other fish. Sardines are the most common fish caught off the Portuguese coast and the 19th-century canning industry began preserving the fish so that the country’s addiction could be satisfied all year round. Tinned sardines are exported but the exquisite labels such as Tricana (conserveiradelisboa.pt/en/tricana) are not often seen outside Portugal – though they do now grace my kitchen walls.
Convida (convida.pt/home) publishes a free shopping guide to the Baixa and Chiado area (find it in shops, bars, restaurants and hotels), and it led me to the nicest lunchbox-come-tiffin tin I have ever seen. It’s a red-lidded metal dish known as a marmita, traditionally used by thrifty workers years ago and brought back into vogue by the owner of Cais do Chiado, an organic grocery and cafe (Rua do Alecrim 26), who recommissioned it. Just before heading for the airport, I took my new marmita to Confeitaria Nacional, jammed it full of pastries and quietly ate a couple on the plane. The rest of those pastéis de nata and queijadas de Sintra (cheesecakes) were finished off at home in London later when Andrea and I opened a bottle of Planalto and toasted Lisbon, the great shopping city. We will be back, for the buttons.
• This article was amended on 30 November 2011 to correct the spelling of Catarina Portas, from Catarina Portes.
Specialimo Travel Group