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Lisbon's Bairro Alto and Fado Music

Lisbon, Portugal

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.

Complete Video Script

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.