It’s June and the Lisbon locals are going sardine crazy, although what sardines have to do with a 13th century Catholic saint is anybody’s guess. Needless to say, it’s an excellent excuse for the city to bring out the bunting and barbecues in the old quarter of Al fama and have a good old festa courtesy of Saint Anthony, Lisbon’s patron saint. However, I’m in the haven-like Praca do Municipio, just next door to Al fama in the Baixa-Chiado neighbourhood, the home of the AlmaLusa boutique hotel, Lisbon’s latest luxury urban hideaway, a perfect sanctuary for those of us who have had our fill of sardines for one night.
Set in a beautifully restored 18th century building, tucked into a corner of the square, the AlmaLusa boutique hotel is a breath of fresh air amid much of Lisbon’s more aristocratic hotels.
The brainchild of experienced hotelier Miguel Simoes de Almeida, this is a boutique property of just 28 rooms, which offers informal contemporary luxury for sure, yet still manages to harness the character and history of a wonderful old building which once hosted a bank, a prosperous family, a tile factory and a wine merchant.
I know this because all over AlmaLusa there are remnants of its former occupants craftily woven into the fabric of the design; some original tiling on a bathroom floor, a big fireplace concealing a guestroom dresser. I’m convinced the old bank vault is mysteriously hidden somewhere.
Walking out onto the square, I spot where in 1910, Portugal announced itself a republic from the town hall balcony to a throng of thousands. From here it’s just a few metres to the Tagus River in one direction and the upscale designer shopping of Chiado to the other.
Lisbon is like that. Its neighbourhoods and hills harbouring so many different sights and sounds you really need to explore it on foot to peek under its tourist veneer.
Back inside AlmaLusa, I go up to my room for a well earned rest. I’m in a deluxe suite, a very long room in tasteful brown pastels, dominated by a king bed with crisp percale cotton sheets, huge pillows and a luxurious shag pile carpet.
There’s a handy kitchenette here with a microwave, a dishwasher and fridge and a great view four floors up out over the square. The coffee machine winks at me from its perch on the kitchenette counter and I succumb to a double espresso.
As dusk falls, the hotel’s Delfina brasserie-style restaurant is doing brisk business. Restaurant manager Diogo is determined to give me something typically regional “You won’t believe the pica pau, it is to die for” he tells me.
Pica pau is a sautéed beef dish with heaps of garlic, black olives, mustard and pickled veg. It is indeed delicious. Made all the more delicious by an added portion of Bacalhau a bras, a Lisbon speciality of scrambled eggs, grated cod, onion and straw fries.
Diogo comes over to check my health armed with a chilled glass of Douro white for me and all is well.
Another Lisbon morning shines hot after a night of much sardine merriment in Al fama no doubt. After a healthy Delfina breakfast, I find Sofia, AlmaLusa’s Director of Operations in the lobby, helping two guests with the best route for walking around Lisbon.
I’m looking for something quite the opposite; a quiet beach front with as few people as possible and access to a beach cafe for lunch. “Take the ferry from Belem across to San Joao beach” she tells me without a moment’s hesitation. “Only takes 30 minutes.”
Now that’s what I call a proper concierge.
San Joao turns out to be a splendid beach only marred by me having to share it with sixteen other souls. I suspect if I’m honest, I’m a little fortunate.
The Sunset Beach Club is just a few strides away and whilst the pica pau may not quite come up to Diogo’s Delfina standards, it is still glorious. Club owner Jacinto is on hand to keep topping up my beer. “Try and visit at night. We have music.”
I suspect Jacinto’s music may not be the kind that Lisbon is mostly famous for.
Fado, the traditional Portuguese music of sailors’ lament, can be heard in bars and restaurants all over the city and while many cater for tourists, there are still places where authentic local fado can be heard.
Sofia once again points me in the right direction, to another old neighbourhood, Mouraria and a tiny tapas restaurant called Maria da Mouraria.
Only six or seven tables, but dripping with atmosphere and some wonderfully authentic live fado for locals and those in the know.
AlmaLusa Baixa/Chiado is the first of a growing group of AlmaLusa boutique hotels with another due to open in 2017.
There is a strong experience management team here who clearly know their trade. The location is perfect. The style of service is informal but on point. And the interior is chic urban luxury.
Personally, I can’t wait to go back. Sardines notwithstanding.
All non hotel and restaurant images (c) Andy Mossack
Tell me more about the AlmaLusa Boutique Hotel
Praça do Munícipio, 21
General phone: +351 212 697 440
Reservations: +351 212 697 440
Rates from €110 per room per night including buffet breakfast in Delfina
Getting to Lisbon
TAP Portugal flies from London Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester to Lisbon up to 9 times a day, prices start at £124 return including all taxes and surcharges.