“Wise is he who enjoys the show offered by the world” – Fernando Pessoa
Fernando Pessoa may be Lisbon’s proudest resident, past or present. One walks the streets and feel his spirit in every cafe and book store. He was the poet of Lisbon, productive in the early 20th century, though his great fame came posthumously. Today, his words are well known by all of Portugal, and his likeness is seen in photographs, statues, and mementos littering the city.
Born in Lisbon, he moved to South Africa with his mother and stepfather at an early age, following the death of his father. There, he focused on his studies, mastering the English language and penning many of his first works under pseudonyms — many which he used throughout his career, it’s hard to keep track. He returned to Lisbon at the age of 17, where he would live out the rest of his life, rarely leaving his beloved city. He was a lover of coffee, lingering in the cafes, most often alone with an espresso and his notebook; he used the cafe as a meeting place, often debating with his contemporaries literature and philosophy. I decided to have coffee with the spirit of Pessoa by frequenting his favorite coffee haunts, attempting to absorb a bit of his genius, and to see the beauty and character of Lisbon through his eyes.
Cafe a Brasileira (R. Garrett 120, 1200 Lisboa)
One of the most famous and oldest in Lisbon, A Brasileira is still as bustling and significant to Lisboans as it was when it opened over one hundred years ago. A center for meeting and sipping, it’s located in the chic neighborhood of Chiado. The inside is gorgeously decorated with mosaic floors, a long oak bar and intricately carved paneled ceilings. Brass chandeliers light up the walls, which are covered in eclectic art deco paintings. The expansive bar is a great place to grab an espresso, but I prefer to sit outside and enjoy Lisbon’s ever-present breeze. Many famous literary, political, and artistic giants have congregated here, but Pessoa may be the most celebrated — outside of the cafe, a statue of him seated at a table rests amongst the others, as though he’s having coffee with you.
Cafe Martinho da Arcada (Rua da Prata 4-8, 1100 Lisboa)
Situated under an arcada overlooking the Praca do Comercio square along the Tagus River, Cafe Martinho da Arcada is the place to be seen. Dine al fresco on whole grilled fish and perfectly roasted potatoes (both Portuguese staples) and then move inside to the bar, where all the baked goods are housed. An espresso at the bar will complete the experience, and a Belem pastry for dessert is a must. The espresso is strong and good. Inside, one can explore the main dining room, where Pessoa’s presence is undeniable. The corner table where he most often sat is now a display of affection for the writer, postcards with his image and copies of his beloved books. In fact, nearly every wall is covered with photographs of him in his signature fedora, overcoat, and thick dark eye frames. He is said to have treated this cafe as an office, meeting fellow writers and artists to debate and discuss their work.