Rua Garrett in Lisbon is among the loveliest shopping streets, with a diverse assortment of vendors and a provenance reaching back to the 1700s.
Every major city has at least one outstanding street of elegant shops. London’s Bond Street, Florence’s Via Tornabuoni, Paris’ Rue Saint Honore. In Lisbon, it is the Rua Garrett. This is an upscale shopping street with elegant designer stores that attract shoppers with a healthy bank balance and a need for retail therapy — or perhaps just to gaze in the windows and dream.
With Lisbon being the second oldest capital in Europe, there are also, of course, some historically relevant shops with antique storefronts that are blended in among the newer exclusive designer and shoe stores … and the finest restaurants helmed by the most notable chefs of the day.
The street itself is laid out with a mosaic of cobblestones and it seems to scream history at every vista. Buildings clad in antique tiles surround original street lamps with the iconic symbol of Lisbon, a ship carrying the remains of St. Vincent guarded by two ravens.
Three of my favorite shops are:
LIVRARIA BERTRAND – Bertrand Book Shop
Portuguese have a love of books and a rich literary history, This is reflected in the number of bookshops and library cafes including some that are historic landmarks, such as Livraria Bertrand.
Clad in blue and white antique tiles and with beautiful ironwork balconies on the exterior, the bookshop commands a prominent corner on Rua Garrett.
One of the world’s oldest bookstores, this has always been a place where intellectuals, poets, writers, and thinkers could gather and exchange ideas. Opened in 1732, this year it will celebrate its 288th year of continuous business. In 2010, the Guinness Book of Records awarded Bertrand with a certificate recognizing it as the oldest bookstore still in business, and the certificate is proudly displayed for all to see.
This is truly a magnificent old bookshop and worth a detour. Look inside and explore the interconnecting rooms with domed ceilings and perfectly aged antique hand-carved wooden bookcases, displaying the huge selection of titles and subjects. This is the best place to find Portuguese authors and poets, from contemporary to times gone by — and it does also carry books in English, French, and Spanish.
Several Portuguese writers are featured prominently, with dedicated space for their books. The best known is Fernando Antonio Pessoa, an important literary figure of the 20th Century. Especially famous for his poetry, he was also a prolific writer, literary critic, translator, philosopher … but is almost unknown in the English language world although he has published works in English. However, in the Bertrand Bookshop, he has a room dedicated to his work, with a sign that reads: ‘Sala Fernando Pessoa’.
Downstairs, in what was once a warehouse, Bertrand has opened a cafe called “Taste the Books” where they serve meals inspired by national and international chefs including Jose Avillez, one of the most famous Portuguese contemporary chefs; Jamie Oliver, an English Chef from London who has an outpost in Lisbon; and Gordon Ramsey from the UK, who now lives in the US … and is known more for his blasphemous language than his food.
In 2010 Bertrand was sold to Porto Editora, who then grew the company to 53 bookshops throughout Portugal.
POSTSCRIPT: I had never heard of Fernando Pessoa, but while learning more about him after visiting Bertrand Bookshop I was intrigued to learn that he had lived in South Africa from the ages of 7-17 while his stepfather was the Portuguese Consul in Durban. My roots are in South Africa, and I found it fascinating that this exceptional literary figure had spent his formative years there. This is where he learned to speak fluent English, earning top honors for his writing while at school. Pessoa died prematurely at age 47, his passing accelerated by the effects of imbibing too much absinthe … and although he was a prolific writer and poet, much of his work remained unpublished until after his death. Anyone interested in literature or poetry should read his bio on Wikipedia — he is one of the most complex and fascinating personalities with a huge body of work.
Livraria Bertrand (Bookshop)
73-75 Rua Garrett
A BRASILEIRA CAFE
Founded in 1905 to sell Brazilian Coffee, A Brasileira Cafe later became a coffee shop and restaurant. The exterior is distinctive with the iconic carved art deco storefront, easily recognized because it is featured in every guide book on Lisbon. Located on Chiado Square with its cobblestone street and black antique ironwork lampposts, it is always besieged by crowds of people.
The opulent interior has remained unchanged since 1905 with decorated ceilings, a long dark polished wooden bar, shiny brass sconces reflected in the mirrored walls, cherubs, swirls, and a collection of eleven Portuguese paintings. A large old-fashioned glass display case has tempting pastries and snacks one can eat inside or out on the terrace. The terrace is a prime spot for people watching so the prices are a little more expensive — but worth it.
This is also a place to see the street performers who gravitate to entertaining here because of the number of tourists …. who hopefully will be inclined to drop a few Euros into the collection box. This photo shows a man selling humorous balloon figures — it is difficult to see this because the photographer taking the shot wasn’t as quick as he was!
In the early days, the cafe was also a hangout for our friend, the poet and writer Fernando Pessoa and his cadre of essayists, journalists, and thinkers who would come here to debate the important issues of the day… laced with endless glasses of absinthe to drive the conversation. If it’s authenticity you’re looking for, though, it is said this was not Pessoa’s favorite cafe which was across the street.
Pessoa is memorialized with a bronze statue in front of A Brasileira Cafe, installed in 1988 — it could be one of the most photographed statues in Lisbon. Visitors love to take a selfie posing next to Pessoa’s likeness, a snapshot that will likely end up on Instagram — even if they do not know who he is or remember his name!
Treat yourself to a bica, a coffee drink made famous here and is essentially a strong espresso … then try a delicious pastry from the display. Find a seat and imbibe the old world atmosphere that reflects another era. Even though most of the guests are foreign tourists, it is worth fighting your way through the crowd for the “local” experience.
122 Rua Garrett
PASTELARIA ALCOA – ALCOA PASTRY SHOP
Loosen your belt, it’s time for indulgence. Pastelaria Alcoa is a “stop in your tracks, you have to try this” pastry shop. Unless you’ve been to Portugal, you have never seen anything like it. They offer a selection of traditional Portuguese custard pastries that have been masterfully decorated – can they even be real?
The Alcoa on Rua Garret was a former tobacco shop, and still has the original antique tiles on the exterior — but walk inside and you find a modern pastry shop with clever lighting that draws the eye to the spectacular display of handcrafted masterpieces.
Many of the pastries in Portugal are known as “convent sweets” because the recipes originated in the convents or the monasteries. Egg whites were used to starch the nun’s habits leaving a surplus of egg yolks that were turned into custard pastries with the addition of cream and sugar. These were sold to the townspeople, thereby, creating revenue for the convents.
One of the iconic recipes at Alcoa is the “cornucopia” filled with custard arranged in an eye-catching display on the counter.
The Alcoa Pastry shop originated in Alcobaca, north of Lisbon, where the pastry makers use recipes that came from the 12th century Santa Maria de Alcobaca monastery in the town. The pastries created in their kitchens were exceptional and when they began to win prizes, the bakery became famous.
The basis for most of the pastries remains the custard… but it is the decorations that set them apart and have earned many accolades for the bakery.
Passing the window display of pastries on Rua Garrett, I was ‘compelled’ to go inside. Pastries were displayed in refrigerated cases, a sight which was mouthwatering and remarkable. They do not encourage people to linger, and try to keep the line moving.
So I lingered… totally hypnotized. Each pastry was a work of art. They were meticulously labeled with the name of the pastry, the prize it had won, and the year of the award. As these are convent pastries, they nearly all have convent names such as ‘Saint Peter,’ ‘Nun’s Bellies,’ and ‘Forbidden Love’ !! Did I say they were convent names? ……….. I want to know what was going on in that convent!
This needs to be on anyone’s Lisbon must-see list (to be converted into the must-taste list).
37 Rua Garrett