Lisbon's Cultural History

BY Alex Couto

Lisbon's Cultural History
Photography by Cristiana Morais


The myth goes something like this: One day, a bolt of lightning appeared and exploded into flames in an unknown land. Ulysses, mid-aventure, was then instructed by Zeus to build a city named Olissipo (modern day Lisbon) on the point of impact. This story has stumbled through the centuries, a favourite among locals to showcase just how old the city is.

Moving on from the myth, the fact is: Lisbon is older than Paris, London or even Rome. Due to its unique location where the Tagus River leads into the Atlantic Ocean, Phoenicians settled in Lisbon around 1200 BC. The Romans loved it too. Julius Caesar himself called it Felicitas Julia and made it a municipium. After the fall of the Roman Empire, it was ruled by Germanic tribes from the 5th century and captured by the Moors in the 8th century. In 1147, Dom Afonso Henriques conquered the city and since then it has been the political, economic and cultural centre of Portugal. It’s been a wild ride.

But it’s not all quirky facts and amusing timelines. Lisbon was the centre of Portuguese maritime exploration (a still applauded, but increasingly polemic topic in Portugal). In what is now Terreiro do Paço, ships brought spices from across the world, but as sad as it is, the spice trade is only a small part of the story. The Portuguese initiated the slave trade all by themselves and are calculated to be the country with the most bloodied hands. The country's colonial past plays a huge part in the multicultural feel Lisbon has today, and has contributed to the culture we now refer to as Portuguese. It’s easy to explain why colonialism is still so present; the Portuguese people feed off the problematic past as our last greatest “achievement”. The narrative of glory haunts the way we teach our children and how we perceive our nation; the architecture of the city also serves as a reminder of the past, with street names, dedicated monuments and two of the biggest malls named in ode to period.

As you roam the city, you can see remnants of the last millennium in the form of ruins peering through the modern architecture. Some of the most famous buildings are relics from the past, like the Jerónimos Monastery and the cathedral, Sé de Lisboa. Pay a visit to Museu do Carmo, a physical reminder of the destruction provoked by the 1755 earthquake that caused such a shock, it inspired a book by Voltaire.

Nowadays, the cultural scene is dominated by street art façades that showcase Lisbon’s crush on the arts, championed by local art juggernaut Vhils and the public art work of Underdogs gallery. The music from the suburbs has found its way into the clubs, with labels like Principe Discos bringing African rhythms to the centre of the nightlife scene. The city is packed with editors and writers from all over the world, creating a super inspiring dialogue and cultural exchange. In recent years, artists have flocked to the city too; locals and expats – lured in by the chilled lifestyle, beautiful landscape and modest price points – share gallery walls at spaces like Duplex Air.

Despite being free from religion (finally), centuries spent overdosing on catholicism can be seen in the amount of churches, cathedrals and monasteries throughout the city. As well as being liberated from religion, the country is also free from the 40- year-long dictatorship that plagued it, which prompted the end of the colonial war, brought democracy and filled Lisbon with carnations and a new-found freedom. Interesting fact: carnations became a symbol of Portuguese democracy after a florist gave them to soldiers, who put them on their weapons, celebrating a peaceful end to the fascist regime. Google images will show you what I’m talking about.

If you want to know more about Lisbon’s past, be sure to visit Bertrand Bookstore in Lisbon’s Chiado district. Established in 1732, it’s actually the oldest bookstore in the world, but has sadly been acquired by a chain now.