My curiosity peaked when the old man refused me entrance to his antique tile shop in a cobbled corner of Lisbon one morning. “Tourists are usually interested in a newer assortment” he said, pointing to colorful replicas in the souvenir shops next door, stacked between Ronaldo t-shirts and tram-adorned shot glasses.
His showroom sits imperceptibly between an assortment of new boutiques, bistros and souvenir shops that surround the tourist-saturated Portas do Sol overlook. It bears no name or awning and is only distinguishable by the number 12 carved above a narrow doorframe. A model of impertinence in an all-consuming digital age, the store has no website or online presence, and remains a legacy from a time when independent artisan workshops were the norm. The lifeblood of his family’s business for generations, the shop’s newest tiles are older than my home country (I’m American).
Over the years, Lisbon’s tourist influx has sparked a commercial boom that has replaced many independent stores with chain retailers. Residents are left to reconcile old versus new as modern high-rises emerge alongside ancient monuments, and new stores pop-up to cater to High Street tastes. The city’s rich history is preserved; however, by the vast array of artisans and traders who have withstood the changing landscape of their neighborhoods and who keep its old-world charm and centuries old traditions alive. When in Lisbon, forgo the usual shopping haunts and discover the city’s remaining vintage and antiquarian havens.
Antique and Vintage Stores
Community and commerce hum in the city’s outdoor flea markets as locals gather to catch up and vendors push their best merchandise forward. Along with ample opportunities for people watching, Lisbon’s markets offer scores of bargains on vintage trinkets and antiques, as would be expected in one of Europe’s oldest cities.
The city’s most famous flea market is the sprawling Feira da Ladra, affectionately referred to as the Market of Thieves. Sorting through the typical flea market clutter here can be daunting, but persistence can uncover lightly used analogue cameras, porcelain china, and vintage apparel worthy of an evening jaunt around the city. Held on Tuesdays and Saturdays, the market is a few steps away from the Jardim BottoMachado in Alfama, the city’s oldest neighborhood.
Visitors to Lisbon often overlook the Intendente neighborhood north of the city center, which brims with specialty shops and beautifully tiled buildings around its main square. Here, the popular A Vida Portuguesa may attract the most attention, but low-key Retrox Vintage Shop is the better option for a quirky, highly curated catalogue of goods from the 50s and 60s. The tiny space invokes nostalgia with an eclectic mix of retro collectibles, vintage light fixtures, and plush bohemian furniture. Most importantly, the owner will tell you all about the changing face of the neighborhood and point you towards the best Gin joints in town.
Used and Antique Books
Portuguese author and historian Alexander Herculano once swanked that the world has only two peaks: the Himalayas and Chiado. The elegant neighborhood was once Lisbon’s intellectual stronghold, and is still the best place to pick up some old books. Here, traveling bookworms are awash with options for alfarrabistas, or antiquarian bookshops, which can be found everywhere from the entrance halls of Cais do Sodré station to outdoor flea markets dedicated exclusively to their trade.
It’s no surprise then that Chiado is home to the world’s oldest operating bookshop, Livraria Bertrand. Founded in 1732, the iconic establishment relocated to its present location on RuaGarrett after the great earthquake of 1755, and now looks like most cosmopolitan bookshops; low ceilings and monastic arched porticos are the only hint of its age. Bertrand’s selection of literature and music is expansive and comes in several languages, and there is even a café in the back. A book haul is best paired with coffee and croissants (considered some of the best in town), or a light dish inspired by the many books on local gastronomy featured in store.
Further along Rua Garrett towards Chiado Square is the equally grand Livraria Sa Da Costa that has all the elements of a great alfarrabista: leather-bound volumes overflowing from shelves, antique prints and maps draped above curios, and classics piled haphazardly in dusty corners. Getting lost in the stacks here is easy and the whole shop permeates with that familiar musty smell of worn pages.
Nearby, the outdoor second-hand book market Feira dos Alfarrabistas is a great source of rare and used books for the reader who enjoys fresh air, cobbled surrounds and views of the Tagus River. Held every Saturday along Rua da Anchieta, the market is packed with novels and specialty books on art and history, all skillfully hawked by vendors who welcome a chat and humor attempts at haggling.
Lisbon is a city obsessed with tiles. These painted and glazed ceramics, known as azulejos, have been a hallmark of the Portuguese architectural aesthetic since the 15th century when the Moors first introduced them. The tiling of homes has since been ubiquitous throughout the capital’s “7 hills”, adorning everything from houses to train stations.
Only a few shops offer authentic antique azulejos in Lisbon, the most well-known of which is Fábrica Sant’Anna, whose diverse selection includes pieces commissioned by some of Portugal’s most esteemed ceramic painters and artists. A half-hour taxi ride from their Chiado showroom is the Sant’Annafactory in Belem, where masterful Iberian craftsmanship has been used to create intricate tiles by hand since 1741.
The four Cortiço brothers inherited an industrial tile collection from their grandfather and later opened Cortiço & Netos in the Mouraria quarter. Their shop has since been the toast of the local art and design scene, and offers a relatively newer collection of over 900 vintage styles stemming from the 1960s onward, including jazzier geometric patterns. Their colorful display is gallery worthy and creates a dizzying contrast to the showroom’s pine wood shelves and minimalist, white walls.Aiming to preserve the family heritage, the brothers also work with local universities to promote the art of traditional Portuguese tile making in hopes of inspiring younger generations to learn the craft.
Exploring the maze-like cellars of the Solar Antiques workshop in Barrio Alto can unearth exceptional antique tiles, including 16th century Moorish pieces sourced from the remains of Lisbon’s old monasteries and palaces. Splurge on a single raretile as a keepsake (some are priced in the thousands), or mix and match from a selection of slightly nicked pieces offered at abargain price. Either way, taking home a piece of Lisbon’spalatial history is likely to be better than anything picked up at the airport gift shop.