A hot, sunny city surrounded by a wide river with ocean views and lookout points atop its seven hills, Lisbon offers urban and landscape vistas that are hard to beat, especially in such quantity. For those who don’t want to challenge the endless stairs or scale the steep hills, downtown Lisbon has plenty of expansive plazas packed with sculpture, refreshing fountains, and stunning “Portuguese pavement” (mosaic cobblestone in black and white, artfully arranged in beautiful patterns). Perhaps the most astonishing sights in the city are the everyday buildings themselves — apartments, cafes, shops — each tiled on the outside in a variety of colors and designs. It’s impossible to walk a single block without stopping to snap a few pics of these otherwise ordinary buildings.
With art under foot and sunshine over head, it’s no wonder that Lisboans claim: all tourists want to live here. The more fascinating element is the rest of the saying: and all residents want to live elsewhere. As a visitor, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to leave such an idyllic, visually stimulating environment, especially when it’s quite inexpensive, too. But the people, with a diverse political history, a relatively new democracy, and a weak economy, are often melancholic, and envy the opportunity and advantages elsewhere. Don’t worry, though: It’s a city that loves foreigners, and turns on the charm with tourists. One man told he sometimes speaks in English at restaurants to get better service!
My host in Lisbon was Carlos Mata, 38, who proved how helpful Lisboans by reaching out after reading my desperate plea for help when my original host cancelled last-minute. He was working a 24-hour shift and wouldn’t be able to meet me until the second day, but he opened his home to me anyway, and we shared a trove of Lisbon experiences in our single day together. Here, Carlos touches on how far Lisbon has come, where it needs to go, and how to leave the city with warm memories.
Out Traveler: How long have you lived in Lisbon?
Carlos Mata:Since 2004. I had to do a four-year internship to become an anesthesiologist, so I chose Lisbon Central Hospital. And then I stayed because it’s an open-minded, liberal city. Because it’s the capital, we have access to new technology and people coming from all over world through an international airport. I’m emotionally attached to where I was born, in Porto, Portugal, but I choose to live in Lisbon. I feel better here.
How long have you been out?
It was a conflict with myself, so I had to solve that problem first. After I accepted myself, around 2002, 2003, I didn’t feel any conflict anymore, so I was open with people. I don’t go around saying, “I’m gay,” but I don’t deny it if anyone asks.
How is it for a gay person to get along in this city?
Now, it’s easier. We passed gay marriage, which is a great improvement. It’s an important signal to society. The thing is, we don’t yet have the full rights that hetero couples have—we can’t adopt. Day-to-day to life is easy in the city, though. In the countryside, things are not easy yet. We’re still fighting for full equal rights.
Two places a visitor should go with just one day here?
Go downtown by the riverside. Lisbon has a lot to offer but what makes the biggest impression is the brightness and light. Down by the river, it’s so wide it looks like the sea, and it’s like a big mirror reflecting everything. You’ll leave with a memory of light. And it’s a romantic neighborhood. The other place to go is Bairro Alto for the nightlife. It’s a good place to be with friends, have drinks, and listen to music. There’s a lot of options for all people — families, teenagers, older people who like Fado music, gay people, fashion people, theater people — it’s very eclectic.
Your favorite restaurant in Lisbon?
Sinal Vermelgo, in Bairro Alto. It has good quality, traditional Portuguese food with a good atmosphere.
One thing every visitor needs to know about your city before coming here?
In comparison with other cities, it’s quite safe for travelers. People who live here are welcoming, they try to help, and you’ll always find a safe and friendly place to rest.