Souvenir Shopping in Lisbon: How to Support the Local Economy
If you’re planning to travel to Lisbon in times of COVID-19 please refer to these official sources when planning:COVID-19 Information from the U. S. Embassy in PortugalVisit Portugal’s COVID-19 | Frequently Asked Questions
One of the blog’s most popular posts ever is one I wrote in the early ages of Tripper about alternative shopping in Lisbon. It was a pretty generic post, highlighting four areas in the city where you can go shopping just about anything you need (and don’t need), depending on what kind of stores you like browsing.
I deliberately left out most of the shops that always make the top 10 lists then and I will most certainly do the same now. If that post I wrote over two years ago was meant for generic shopping, this one is aimed at souvenir shopping in Lisbon while supporting the local economy. It’s a win-win for sustainable cultural tourism (or any kind of sustainable tourism, for that matter) and, honestly, I want to stop the trend that when someone asks for a souvenir shop in Lisbon, they will usually be pointed in the direction of any place selling fridge magnets, dated postcards, and other ridiculous mass-made merchandise.
Companhia Portugueza do Chá
Earlier in 2017, I discovered Lisbon still had a sense of community in some places, if you took enough time to explore. It’s easy to get caught up in the angry voices speaking against the touristification and the gentrification of Lisbon (which is slowly happening, nevertheless) and forget to see the positive side of things.
I found myself caught in a whirlwind of recommendations that started at Polo Cultural Gaivotas in a neighborhood of Lisbon that’s not really a neighborhood, but a cluster of three small streets between Bairro Alto and Santos. This string of tips that always started with the question “have you been to?” eventually led me to Companhia Portugueza do Chá (and to include “the triangle” in an article for Lonely Planet called “10 of the world’s coolest neighbourhoods to visit right now“).
Although the shop specializes in selling tea (and it is a rare sight in a city where people clearly prefer coffee), even if you’re not a fan of the drink the decor alone is worth the visit. And then, if you’re curious enough to ask questions, you hear the story of the shop, how it came to be and how the owner (and master tea sommelier) crafts his own customized tea blends with ingredients from Portuguese (usually small) producers.
Rua do Poço dos Negros 105
10.30 am – 7.30 pm Mon-Sat
Companhia Portugueza do Chá’s Facebook Page
Mercearia Poço dos Negros
A grocery store was my second stop that day following the string of recommendations, although I don’t know if grocery store is the right name for it. Mercearia Poço dos Negros is more than the place around the corner where you go to buy a loaf of bread and a dozen eggs when you don’t have time to drop by the big chain supermarket.
These days this is what I think of most grocery stores in Lisbon: they’re usually set up props for tourists, selling everything they can stick the “typical” sign to (and, oh brother, anything goes), and making up profit by jacking up the prices. Or, they cater to very niche segments of the population (yes, I want to say hipsters), selling very niche products (in shelves for long enough until the next fad hits).
So, when I decided to take a peek at Mercearia Poço dos Negros, my mind was quite fixed on one of those two stereotypes. But, instead, I met the sweetest, the most warm-welcoming couple behind that counter, who attend to tourists with the same bright smile they do to the old lady from three doors down that popped in for fresh bread and butter.
Don’t be fooled by the size of this store, you can find something from anywhere in the country there (yes, really), all sourced from small producers who craft their goods in small batches. I know that the “artisanal” adjective gets a bad rap these days, but this is not the case here.
Rua do Poço dos Negros 97/99
10.30 am – 8.30 pm Mon-Sat
Mercearia Poço dos Negros’s Facebook Page
I hadn’t felt the weight of “the triangle” until I realized I had explored less than half of it, always promising to myself that I’d be back soon. Cafés, food stores, and restaurants seemed to be the most-talked-about places in the area, getting the attention of local and international publications. Aren’t the local cuisine’s peculiarities one of the reasons people visit a place?
For years (pre-blog era), when people asked me where to buy authentic Portuguese design pieces in Lisbon, I would refer them to (as I’m sure everyone else did) the Santos quarter, the Vida Portuguesa chain, or the niche-specific stores of Bordallo Pinheiro’s ceramics factory. Well, a lot has changed. Some would now call those places mainstream and Santos is a shadow of the design quarter it once ambitioned to be (because when an economic recession hits, the last worry on your mind is buying designer pieces).
Six months passed between my first and my second visit to “the triangle”, and this time the plan was to give my undivided attention to street Poiais de São Bento. I ended up losing track of time inside a bright, minimal-decorated corner shop/art gallery called Apaixonarte. Not only did the owner have the audacity to open the shop in the middle of the recession, it has the courage to sell only pieces from local designers produced in Portugal.
While I was there, our conversation was interrupted by the clacketing tram 28 at least half a dozen times. The most famous tram ride in Lisbon goes right through “the triangle” (on both sides) and, unfortunately, there aren’t many people hopping off. No, I don’t want this to become another mass-tourism attraction on someone’s bucket list. I want people to pay attention to the few things that still hold up Lisbon’s cultural identity intact.
Rua Poiais de São Bento 57
Noon-7.30pm Mon-Fri & 11am-6pm Sat
Historic Shops of Lisbon
Not all is lost under the threat of overtourism in Lisbon (although we’re not quite there yet when it comes to short-term rental regulations). In 2015, Lisbon City Council started a project of considering some of the most iconic stores in the city as local heritage. This means they have considerable value in the city’s History (as architecture eye-candy or historical hang-outs of literature geniuses) and that they can apply for a special restoration fund if needed (given that most of them struggle to keep in business).
You see, this is more than slapping a plaque on a wall or on the sidewalk. This is an active way of giving these shops visibility (and hopefully attract some business).
At the time I’m writing this post, the list includes 82 officially recognized historic shops and Lisbon City Council just launched a pretty neat (but not necessarily comfortable to carry around) book listing all of them and their background stories.
Not all of the shops included will appeal to everyone, but that’s obviously not the intention.
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Let’s say you are traveling in Lisbon but you don’t have the time or the patience or the budget to go hunting for authentic Portuguese products. Or you just returned from your trip to Lisbon and are just reading this and thinking “damn it, Sandra, why didn’t you write this blog post while I was there?” (fair enough, but if you were one of my newsletter subscribers by now, you’d know what blog posts are coming next month and that my email inbox is always open to requests from subscribers *smile emoticon*)
I’ll be honest with you. I’d buy the world if I could get it all in the shape of surprise subscription boxes. Seriously. But I would settle for Portugal in a box for the time being.
Tuga Box manages to put the best of Portugal in a surprise box every month. If you’re not sure you want to commit to receiving pieces of a country in your mailbox every month, give it a try for one month and subscribe the 1 Just to Try Out Plan.