Lisbon's Bairro Alto and Fado Music
One of Lisbon’s neighborhoods, the hill-topping Bairro Alto, is home to the grand A Brasileira coffee shop and restaurants that offer fado music at night. Fado is Lisbon’s blues — it’s an intimate scene, with women singing bittersweet, nostalgic ballads accompanied by guitar.
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The Bairro Alto was laid out in the 16th century to house ship workers back when Lisbon was a maritime power and its ships planted the Portuguese flag all over the globe. Five centuries later its character survives, as families who call the Bairro Alto home go back generations.
A popular stop nearby is the grand old A Brasileira café. This café retains the ambience it had back in the 1920s and '30s, when it caffeinated the literary soul of Lisbon. And it's still a good place for a coffee break.
In the evening, the Bairro Alto buzzes with a thriving restaurant scene. And various restaurants serenade diners with the folk music of Lisbon's back streets.
Traditionally, simple family-run restaurants [this one is Canto do Camões] entertained guests with fado music. Since the mid-1800s, fado has been Portugal's blues — mournful ballads about lost sailors, broken hearts, and bittersweet romance. It's impromptu…informal…sometimes the singer's just taking a break from the kitchen. She's accompanied by a couple of musicians, one playing a 12-string Portuguese guitar.
We're dining a little more upscale [at Restaurante Adega do Ribatejo] with just the right seat for this intimate music. These are songs of sadness, love, and hope. It's a distinctly Portuguese emotion called saudade — a kind of yearning, or nostalgia.