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SIGN OF THE TIMES Lisbon lights up after dark.
Photo Credit: Luxe Frágil: © Luisa Ferreira 2010

The Portuguese capital has lately earned a reputation for its social life. In this city of about a half-million, entertainment can be less edgy than in other European destinations, but it compensates with a welcoming spirit. Not to mention, theater companies, rock festivals and a growing showcase of independent film festivals continue to thrive.

A pop-up party land, Lisbon’s Bairro Alto comes alive with a noisy street scene that evaporates by dawn. You can’t see the neighborhood looking up from the city’s downtown, and you can only get there by climbing sidewalks barely wide enough for human beings or on skinny streets too narrow for cars. Throngs of people revel in the myriad bars and outside on the cobblestones—as this is the only place in the city where drinking in the street is permitted. It’s a constant mini-Mardi Gras.

Beginning about 10 pm, rows of nondescript doors, shuttered and blank by day, open to reveal one-room bars, clubs and restaurants. It’s a row of charming cubbyholes, numbering about 150 on the main drag, Rua da Atalaia, and populated by gays and straights, singles and couples, street philosophers, musicians and just plain partygoers.

On the edge of the Bairro, check out the Pavilhão Chinês Bar (the Chinese Pavilion Bar), which is crammed with the late bar owner’s spectacularly eccentric collection of 19th-century toy soldiers, mugs, maps and artworks. Be You Bar Lounge shines with charming little blue lights, under which bartender Claudia Maria Borges makes fresh cocktails and friends. The establishment is crowded and narrow, so you get up close with your neighbors. Borges, wearing what looks like knitting needles in her hair, holds court, her talk getting the crowd rolling. As do her Morganskas, a crushed ice, vodka and fresh strawberry concoction in a plastic cup that you can carry down the dodgy paths. “Lisbon is all about liberty, freedom and discovery,” she says. “Every single street has a magic, hidden adventure about it.” Indeed, rows of bars run at parallel angles from the cobbled streets, looking dark and narrow, like the interiors of old railroad cars.

The city has a good public transit system, but you can walk from the Bairro Alto through the Baixa (business and shopping) to the waterfront, much like walking from Kenmore Square to Quincy Market. The climate makes this nearly always enjoyable: 60 degrees in winter to 85 in summer, and never snow. For stylish accommodations—part vintage, part ultra modern—check into the Altis Avenida, a boutique in Lisbon center with a singular seventh floor balcony cocktail lounge and stellar dining room.

As is the case in many watery cities, the old riverfront warehouses have been transformed into cosmopolitan bars, clubs and restaurants. The center of the area is the marvelously restored Commercial Square, formerly the royal seat of power, bordered by outdoor eateries like Can the Can, an industrial chic café that, like many entertainment spots, presents seasonal productions of fado, traditional Portuguese blues music.

The hippest clubs in the city are in the docklands, opening at midnight and winding down at 6 am. Top of the list is the dramatic Lux Frágil, partly owned by Cambridge’s John Malkovich (although sightings are rare). Lux holds three stories of bars, a stage, dance floors and a lounge, plus an open-air balcony where you can sip a nightcap as the sun comes up. In the same neighborhood is OpArt, a similar but smaller concept—cafe by day, club by night—featuring electronica and house music.

All the activity stimulates the appetite. For a hearty base—steak with eggs, salted cod, rice and potatoes—get a table at Ibo, an elegant restaurant melding Mozambique and Portuguese cuisine. Try the chicken, Zimbabwe style, while looking out on the marina. O Barrigas (meaning “belly”) is an intimate spot with an emphasis on local specialties like octopus and pork loin.

As Borges says, “Lisbon starts late and finishes early, be it from Saturday night fever or a chill Sunday night.” And there’s a lot to do before sunrise. 

Sata Airlines flies direct from Logan to Lisbon.

Pavilhão Chinês Bar
89 Rua D. Pedro V, Lisbon, | 351-213-424-729

Be You Bar Lounge
133 Rua da Atalaia, Lisbon, | 351-213-471-899 

Altis Avenida Hotel
120 Rua 1º Dezembro, Lisbon | 351-210-440-000 |

Can the Can
82-83 Terreiro do Paco, Lisbon | 351-914-007-100 | 

Lux Frágil Armazém
A, Avenida Infante Dom Henrique, Lisbon | 351-218-820-890 | 

OpArt Café
Doca Alcântara, Lisbon | 351-213-956-787 | 

Cais do Sodré, Lisbon | 351-213-423-611 | 

O Barrigas
31 Travessa Da Queimada, Lisbon | 351-213-471-220 |