Among the Americans in Lisbon
As Portugal cracks down on hordes of visitors, what does a shot of cherry liqueur say about what's "touristy" and what's not?
I spent a decent amount time in Lisbon in the early-to-mid 2000s. I was ostensibly researching travel stories for magazines. More likely, I was aimlessly wandering the city, a total flâneur. My first order of business upon arrival into Lisbon was always to wander down to the central Rossio Square, with its mosaic tiled streets, and to have a glass or two of ginjinha at one of the tiny, hole-in-the-wall bars. This was my first stop regardless of whether I’d arrived into town in the morning, mid-afternoon, or early evening.
Ginjinha is a cherry liqueur that’s as central to Lisbon as its pastel de nata egg-custard pastries, bacalhau, or sardines grilled outside in the streets. As the clichéd travel writer might say: Ginjinha is part of the fabric of the city. The reddish spirit is served in small shot glasses, usually with a booze-soaked sour cherry in the glass. All day long, people pop into the closet-sized ginjinha bars, take their nip of ginja (as it’s also called), spit out the seed, and move on. You don’t really hang out for long at a ginginha bar—you get your shot (and maybe a mini-bottle of Sagres beer) and go about the rest of your day. Around the turn of the 21st century, I once watched a bus driver jump out of his bus, quickly down a ginginha, climb back behind the wheel, and move on with his route.
Now, Lisbon’s ginjinha bars are by no means some insider’s secret. They are not some exclusive, faux-speakeasy thing. There are two main ginjinha bars right there in daily bustle of the Rossio’s commerce and tourism. Both are busy all day long with locals and tourists alike, paying 1.50 euros per glass. To ask whether the ginjinha bar is “local” or “touristy” is to ask the wrong question. The ginjinha bar just is.
Everyone knows that the best places in the world are like this. Geoff Dyer talks about this phenomenon in his travel book Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It. Dyer discusses his favorite bar in Rome, the San Calisto:
Restaurants and resorts often boast of their “exclusive” status, but most of the world’s best places are the opposite of exclusive—and nowhere was less exclusive than the Calisto. The Calisto made a prison look exclusive. It wasn’t just that everyone was welcome; everyone was actually there. Heroin addicts, film directors, journalists, models, garbage collectors, tourists, drunks, nutters, doctors, waiters from other bars that had already closed—they all ended up at the Calisto.
A few days ago, I returned to Lisbon for the first time in about a dozen years. I’d been told, and read, that Lisbon was a very different place than what I remembered from the mid-aughts. Overtourism was rampant. TAP Air Portugal had transformed into a sort of Icelandair clone that offered cheap, crowded flights and three-day layovers. More cruise ships than was sustainable kept arriving. A new design sensibility, seemingly from the pages of Monocle, had taken over the old shops and bars. Due to a relaxed “golden visa” program, Lisbon was now home to lots of American tech-bro/surfer types who were driving up home prices. The rise of Airbnbs was driving up rents.
In fact, the housing crisis is apparently so bad that, last week, the Portuguese government announced a bunch of measures, including ending the golden visa scheme and banning new licenses for Airbnbs and short-term vacation rentals. Portugal is still among the poorest countries in Western Europe—more than half of workers earn less than 1,000 euros per month. Meanwhile, in Lisbon, rents jumped 37 percent in 2022.
So, like any nostalgic old flâneur, I arrived and retraced my old steps, to see if the city I knew a dozen years before still existed. I stayed at an Airbnb on a cobblestone street in the Bairro Alto, where a group of local kids played soccer below the rows of laundry hanging from apartment windows.
I ate amazing bread and pastel de nata at the ornate Padaria São Roque (“the cathedral of bread”), had the strongest caipirinha of my life at a Brazilian bar in the Príncipe Real neighborhood, and rode the slow, graffitied tram up to the Jardim do Torel, a quiet hilltop garden with a nice view of the city that I’ve always enjoyed. I took the escalator up into the narrow alleys of the Mouraria neighborhood to a classic tasca, Zé da Mouraria. Amid the tiled walls, posters of fado queen Amália Rodrigues, and long tables lined with white paper, I ate a huge platter of bacalhau with chickpea, potatoes, cabbage and coriander, washed down with vinho verde.
It was all lovely, and mostly the city seemed as it always had, if a bit more modern and pricey. Sure, many of the shops, cafes, and restaurants appeared a lot fancier than before. But in most cases that seemed relatively positive—though I realize I was here in off-season February. I tasted some amazing wines and ate some wonderful meals at the city’s new generation of bars and restaurants.
Of course, I started my visit to Lisbon at a ginginha bar—specifically Ginginha Sem Rival, which has been run by the same family since 1890. I drank my ginginha at the outdoor tables along with three well-dressed Portuguese businessmen, an American Boomer couple in matching sneakers, and a Norwegian guy with long curly hair wearing a Whitesnake t-shirt. Another Portuguese guy with dreadlocks eventually joined us all. This was Lisbon as it had been for years.
It was only later, as I walked up into the Alfama neighorhood, when I really saw the effects of how things had changed. Traditionally, the Alfama had been the old fishermen’s quarter, a gritty-but-picturesque place of serpentine alleyways, squares with fading azulejo tiles, and corner bars with late-night fado. It’s always been the so-called “authentic” neighborhood, and everyone from Rick Steves to yours truly has written paeans to the Alfama’s charms.
But on this trip, even though it was squarely the off-season, I could clearly see the impact of Lisbon’s wave of overtourism on the Alfama. This neighborhood has always been a delicate balance of a real working class community along with visitors who loved to wander its streets. Amid the guided group tours crowding the narrow pathways, I could see that balance had been broken. It was no surprise to see “Fuck Mass Tourism” grafitti throughout the quarter. I cannot imagine what it would be like in July.
One telltale sign, for me, were placards around the Alfama advertising ginja shots, in English. While you could certainly always find ginja in Alfama’s bars, years ago it was never promoted and there were no ginja bars like those in the Rossio. Now, there were little ginja stands set up outside private residences, surrounded by crowds of tourists. Most offered the ginja shot in an edible chocolate cup—something I had never seen before. As I suspected, upon tasting I found ginja-in-a-chocolate-cup to be…umm, not very good. Actually kind of gross. It seemed the complete opposite, a mass tourist version, of what a daytime shot of ginginha in downtown Lisbon was meant to be.
Love the idea that the best places aren’t "touristy" or "local" they just are.
I visited Lisbon in 2017, remodeling was going on everywhere as it was being tabbed as the best investment in Europe. our tuk tuk driver took us to a narrow street neighborhood of outdoor restaurants grilling fish and meats outside, I assume that was Alfama. would love to return and as always your writing may inspire me to do so.