7 non-travel books about Lisbon in English you can buy online
I always wanted to share a list of books about Lisbon that weren’t travel guides but that weren’t 100% fiction either. Even the ones listed here that are fiction have Lisbon as background.
Lisbon as a scenario.
Lisbon as a spectator.
Lisbon as a character.
Lisbon as a subject of our full, undivided attention.
Can you imagine how many Lisbons you can find in these books?
"Secret Lisbon" by Vitor Manuel Adrião
Do you know how some people claim – myself included on more than one occasion – to know a place like the back of their hand? Well, I used to think that about Lisbon until I found this book and started to flip through the pages.
The fact that I couldn’t put it down was more than enough reason to buy it. Are you familiar with those stories (Dan Brown style) about secret messages and hidden meanings, where nothing is what it seems? This book, my friends, is the Lisbon version of that.
The minute I bought this book, I knew this was the kind of book you read twice – the first time, to get to know the stories, and the second time, to go to all the spots listed to confirm them.
"What the Tourist Should See" by Fernando Pessoa
Whether you’ve visited Lisbon already or are planning to, chances are you’ve heard about Fernando Pessoa. His statue outside Café Brasileira has to be the most famous one in the whole city where people pose for photos.
The bronze statue, sharply dressed and low-key, sits as a regular customer (which he was, in the early 20th Century).
Pessoa was a complex author, and his work is challenging to interpret. He probably didn’t want to be interpreted at all; he just wanted to write (frequently under the influence of low-quality alcohol).
He kept writing and creating, in a furious and dizzying moment of creativity, generating new personas when his own voice wasn’t enough to say what he meant.
After his death, his descendants found a trunk of bits and pieces, some scribbled random notes, and a lot of unpublished work. “What the Tourist Should See” was among them.
Originally written in English (Pessoa was bilingual), the author shows the real Lisbon to tourists (as it was in 1925, of course). Even then, he was concerned with what was authentic.
"Street Art Lisbon"
When the topic is urban art, I have no idea where to begin.
If someone asks me about the best spots for street art in Lisbon, I could hardly tell the difference between a vandalized wall and a piece by a renowned artist. Unless I’m looking at something that I easily recognize, made by Vhils, Os Gemeos, or MaisMenos.
Although I know art is about interpretation, part of me doesn’t find it beautiful all the time. I agree that it mostly adds a colorful vibe to the city (and we, the Portuguese, are sometimes known for being gloomy and always complaining about something).
This book is a photo collection of different artworks – some of them very familiar to me, others a complete surprise. It includes a map with all these spots in the city.
Side note: as you know, street art is not always permanent, so chances are that some of these works only exist in the book today.
"Lisboa, Cidade Triste e Alegre" by Victor Palla & Costa Martins
The cities shift as their populations’ fads and trends change. If you think they’re not as organic as living tissue just because they’re made of bricks and stone, you haven’t been paying attention.
I notice that in Lisbon, and the change has been fast in the last 20 years I’ve lived here. This is a very recent awareness. It happened around the time I started exploring the city to write travel guides and blog posts. I miss certain parts of it, but I still have the memory of them (so, they’re not really gone).
This book – a limited edition launched in 2009 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first edition – pairs the raw and untidy city life in the 1950s (via unpolished, snap-shot-like, black and white photography) with poems by Portuguese authors.
There’s something about Lisbon that attracts poets to write about her. Often portrayed as a woman (frequently glowing and bright), the city has as many sides as the authors who have written about it.
Compiling poems written about Lisbon in a book is not entirely original. But editing them in a bilingual version gives it a refreshing twist. A lot is lost in translation from Portuguese to English; in poetry, the odds are higher. Hopefully, having access to the Portuguese version to compare it might help keep some of the meaning.
Side note: If you ever walk the 8Km trail between Belém and Cais do Sodré (or part of it), stenciled on the sidewalk, you can read the poem “Eu Sou do Tamanho do que Vejo” (“I Am the Size of What I See”) by Alberto Caeiro (Fernando Pessoa).
"Queen of the Sea: A History of Lisbon" by Barry Hatton
I often talk about Lisbon’s several cultural and historical layers. The most famous historical event in the city, the Great Earthquake of 1755, not only shook Lisbon violently but buried its past under more layers of rubble and the foundations for new buildings and streets.
While future discoveries may be an act of luck, Barry Hatton’s book can unveil all those layers that built Lisbon into the city we know today.
"A Short Book on the Great Earthquake" by Rui Tavares
I have the Portuguese version of this book, a birthday present from a friend, and I was looking forward to an English translation. And, here it is. You can now buy it in English directly from the publisher (yes, they ship worldwide).
Rui Tavares is many things — author, historian, politician, professor, public figure. But to me, the most important side of him is the storyteller. In this book, he weaves a convincing story around Lisbon’s likely most transformative natural disaster (the Great Earthquake of 1755) and the ripple effect throughout Europe.
In a mix of political, historical, and philosophical considerations around the earthquake’s impact, Tavares also takes us by the hand through a would-be Lisbon in a parallel universe where the earthquake never happened.
My advice? Read it before, during, and after you travel to Lisbon.