Lisbon owes much of its beauty and charm to its wealth of architectural treasures: gothic cathedrals and monasteries, Moorish castles and countless historic palaces and mansions. Credit the earthquake of 1755 for the city’s elegant visual coherence: Lisbon was almost entirely wiped out by the catastrophe and rebuilt in a consistent neoclassical style. Today many of those pastel-painted, red-roofed, azulejo-tiled buildings are being converted into boutique hotels, in part a response to the record number of visitors coming from overseas (a more than 12% increase since 2017). But it’s also testament to the city’s resurgent creative energy, which expresses itself in food, art, design and culture, in addition to hospitality.
Lisbon already has some fine luxury hotels, including the lavish 109-room Olissippo Lapa Palace and the stylish Valverde Hotel, located on tony Avenida da Liberdade. Another favorite, the Bairro Alto Hotel, reopens after extensive renovations later this month. But on a recent spring visit, I decided to check out a few of these more intimate options, each promising historical resonance, contemporary flair and five-star accommodation.
My first stop was the hilly Alfama neighborhood, where a 15th-century palace was converted a few years ago into the 19-room Santiago de Alfama. The city’s oldest quarter, Alfama wasn’t destroyed by the earthquake and hence retains a medieval atmosphere, with sharply angled alleyways and steep staircases converging onto cobblestoned plazas. The hotel sits on one such square, an ecru-colored building with striped awnings and tables set outside. A smiling staffer met me at the door as I arrived, ushering me past a skylit lobby tucked between two grand stone arches and into the reception area. This was a small, brightly wallpapered room lined with displays of Portuguese soaps, wines and jewelry. My room was not yet ready, so she gave me a map and suggested walking uphill to the Castelo de São Jorge, the Moorish-era citadel that sits at Alfama’s highest point and provides an ideal first perspective on Lisbon.
By the time I returned an hour or so later, my room was ready. A junior suite, around 400 square feet in total, it consisted of a long L-shaped corridor leading into a generously sized bedroom with large windows overlooking the square and a vaulted ceiling. The king-size platform bed was flanked by two daybeds covered in a periwinkle fabric; behind the headboard ran a green lacquered table that served as a desk. Three large closets lined one leg of the corridor; beyond that was a ceramic-tiled bath, with two pedestal sinks, a large shower stall and a separate toilet-bidet area. The bath products, from Portuguese heritage brand Claus Porto, were citrusy and fragrant; unfortunately, the water pressure from the rainfall shower proved uselessly weak.
Overall, despite the room’s unusual configuration — a result, no doubt, of the building’s historic provenance — it felt airy and bright. Multiple windows provided natural light from various angles, and while my primary view was of the buildings across the square, I could see the Tagus River from over their red rooftops.
Indeed, I found the entire hotel comfortable and inviting. Throughout my stay, the mostly young staff were congenial and helpful and contributed to an air of relaxed hospitality. The building held some enchanting surprises, like a small terrace on the third floor with a view over the São Tiago church, where Christopher Columbus is said to have been wed in 1479. (The fourth-floor suite has a private wraparound terrace.) The lobby was compact, but it included a carved wooden cabinet from which guests could help themselves to snacks and cold and hot drinks throughout the day.
The hotel’s homespun sensibility extended, unfortunately, to the interior design, which straddled the line between charming and cheap. My room exhibited some questionable choices: A pair of deco-style wall sconces felt out of place, as did a framed Lichtenstein print. Those daybeds were not particularly functional. The aesthetic incoherence extended to the restaurant: I could tolerate the breakfast room’s mishmash of vividly patterned wallpaper, gingham tablecloths, azulejo floor tiles and bright red drapes in the morning, but it felt overwhelming in the evening, when dinner was served there. The other dining rooms and bar area were somewhat more sedate and benefited from interesting historical details.
I preferred to sit under an umbrella at one of the outside tables, however. During the day, the square was lively with tourists trudging their way to and from the Castelo and stopping at the Santa Luzia viewpoint just below the hotel. But in the evenings, the neighborhood regained its authentic and evocative appeal, and the hotel’s amiable charm outweighed any of my grumbles.
Cheerful, easygoing ambiance; location in a charming, historic neighborhood; large, bright rooms with plentiful storage and a spacious bath.
Disjointed design, particularly in the restaurant; weak water pressure in the shower.
Alfama’s streets can be quite steep, so staying here requires some physical mobility. It’s about 10 to 15 minutes by car from the main sights of downtown Lisbon; Ubers and taxis are plentiful.
The Verride Palácio Santa Catarina opened in 2017 as a 19-room hotel in the Bica neighborhood, just below the popular nightlife district Bairro Alto. All is elegant restraint inside this neoclassical palace in the Pombaline style, the prevailing architectural mode of 18th-century Lisbon. The original rococo moldings, wrought-iron central staircase, ceiling ornaments and marble foyer have been carefully restored and the rooms filled with contemporary furniture in cool beige and blue tones. Standing at the end of a long stone-paved lane, next to the popular Santa Catarina miradouro (belvedere), the magnificent building sits like the grandee of this neighborhood of steep streets, staircases and quaint funiculars, affording stunning views of the Tagus and the 25 de Abril Bridge.
But as I learned when I first checked in, that location has its downsides: For one, only authorized vehicles and taxis can enter the street, not my Uber. Only after I’d dragged my luggage 200 yards down the bumpy pavement and up the steps to the reception desk was I informed that hotel guests can enter a special code at an automated barricade to gain access. My annoyance seemed to unsettle the receptionist, perhaps because he followed with the (not unreasonable) news that my room wasn’t yet ready. He showed me to a pretty terrace to the rear of the lobby with a small swimming pool and views of Lisbon’s red rooftops, offered me a coffee and told me to expect a wait of around 20 minutes. Eventually, close to an hour late, he escorted me to my room.
My accommodation, a Superior River View, countered that inauspicious first impression — up to a point. Around 375 square feet, it had wide-plank wood floors and three large glass windows that slid open onto Juliet balconies, with commanding views of the city and the river. The furniture was modern and understated, in an Arts and Crafts-inspired style, and included an upholstered bench, two armchairs at a low table and a large framed mirror propped against the wall. The bath was fully integrated with the living space and included a soaking tub positioned to enjoy the view, a large glassed-in shower, a minuscule marble vanity and a separate toilet and bidet stall, the only area with privacy. Two walls of the room were lined with paneling that concealed storage space, although, oddly, one set of panels opened onto nothing but an impractical pair of hooks.
The space felt commodious and was filled with natural light, and the furniture and soft goods (luxurious bedding, fluffy towels, Aesop toiletries) were of high quality. But the designers sacrificed substance for style in the bath — there was no place to stow my toiletries — and the paneling was badly chipped, a serious demerit given the hotel’s young age and high rates.
That night, I learned the other drawback of the Verride’s location: The Santa Catarina square attracted beer-toting teenagers and vagrants, one of whom had taken up semipermanent residence and sang lustily through the night. Because the air-conditioning was not operative during my spring visit, I had to sleep with the windows ajar and was treated to his nightly serenade, punctuated by the shrieks of rambunctious adolescents. I like a bit of urban grit (and am sympathetic to the plight of the homeless), but the noise was extremely irritating, and I could see how other guests might feel concerned about safety.
The next morning, I enjoyed my breakfast on the pool terrace: fresh pastries, a tray of meats and cheeses, sliced fruit and eggs to order. However, because the day was bright but chilly, the room had been cordoned off with glass partitions, and the resulting greenhouse effect made it uncomfortably glary and hot. (I opted to have breakfast delivered to my room the following morning.) I then set out to explore the rest of the hotel. The original palace building was connected in back to a newer extension, and the resulting jumble of staircases and hallways, some of them closed off by unmarked doors, was disorienting. I opened one to find myself at the top of that glorious original stairwell; behind another, I was suddenly in the back of the restaurant. One floor above the lobby I discovered a baroque sitting room with extraordinary carved plasterwork on the ceiling and walls painted goldenrod yellow; I was able to peek at the adjacent suites, each with equally lavish period details.
By far my favorite aspect of the hotel was the rooftop bar, where I enjoyed a glass of wine and a (rather pedestrian) plate of cheese and charcuterie, accompanied by a panoramic view over the city. That inspiring vista was bettered only by the 360-degree observation deck one flight of stairs up. The restaurant, Suba, enjoys the same vertiginous views, but it seemed too formal and austere for my taste, and indeed was never busy during my stay.
The Verride is a gorgeous building with sublime views and rooms designed with panache, if not utter practicality. But in the end, my stay proved that the hotel’s beauty is mostly skin-deep. The problems could be addressed with warmer service, more-appealing dining venues and better maintenance, as well as year-round air-conditioning to combat disturbances from outside. Until then, there are better boutique options in Lisbon.
Impeccably restored 18th-century interiors in period rooms and soothing, tasteful modern décor in guest accommodations; sweeping views from front-facing rooms, the pool deck and the rooftop bar.
Tentative and sometimes frosty service; impractical bath design; lackluster dining options.
Entry-level rooms may be on low floors in the back of the building and therefore dark and claustrophobic. Higher-up accommodations with river views are preferable.
Owned by a TAP pilot named João Rodrigues, Silent Living is a collection of small guesthouses across Portugal designed by Lisbon architect Manuel Aires Mateus. The first, Casa Na Areia, opened in the boho-chic beachside retreat of Comporta in 2010 and immediately gained notice for its daringly minimalist design. The main house, for instance, has a thatched roof and walls and a sand floor (heated in winter, natch). Such was the project’s notoriety among design aficionados that Mateus was invited to exhibit it at the Venice Architecture Biennale.
Other properties with a similarly ascetic look have opened since, with Santa Clara 1728 debuting as the group’s first urban location in 2017. Situated in a relatively quiet section of Alfama, it’s an 18th-century mansion converted by Mateus into a six-suite hotel, with Rodrigues and his family residing upstairs. The designer took care to use traditional building materials (Lioz marble from Sintra, pine flooring) as well as pedigreed furnishings (B&B Italia four-poster beds, Hans Wegner chairs) to create an atmosphere of stylish serenity that also feels inherently Portuguese.
Armed with this knowledge, I arrived at what I thought would be a crisp but somewhat aloof design hotel. What I didn’t expect was the genuine warmth of the welcome. I was greeted, by name, at the door by a smartly dressed young woman, who introduced herself as Marta. She pointed out the public spaces on the ground floor: an entrance hall centered around a modular sofa under an enormous, moon-shaped globe light, with a Renaissance-style oil painting propped against the wall; a dining room, called Ceia, where breakfast and dinner would be served at a long wooden table; opposite that, a sitting room, where employees worked on their computers and guests could lounge on sofas and enjoy complimentary snacks and drinks. There was a well-worn limestone staircase leading to the upper floors and, behind that, a courtyard with high white walls.
Marta confirmed the dinner reservations I’d arranged with her in advance, and then showed me to my Suite Santa Clara, the larger of the two room types offered. She indicated the cabinet containing a minibar and pod coffee maker, handed me a card with a key code for both my room and the hotel’s front door (reception closes at 8 p.m.), and parted with a smile, leaving me to discover the room’s “surprises” at my leisure. I loathe the interminable room tours some hotels insist on giving to arriving guests, so I was put at ease by this informal gesture.
The first surprise was the room’s gracious size: At 750 square feet, it was divided into three large living areas — bedroom, sitting area and bath — with unadorned but beautiful furniture. The front-facing windows overlooked the baroque dome of the National Pantheon, with the red-roofed Feira da Ladra (site of a twice-weekly flea market) just below and a perfectly blue sky above. The bath, in back, was enormous, with its own set of windows, plus a tub and twin sinks made of beige marble, a two-person walk-in shower and a toilet and bidet within a freestanding pine closet. Two closets in the bedroom provided ample storage space. Otherwise, the room was devoid of clutter: no television, no phone, no “Do Not Disturb” sign, no desk piled with notepads and brochures.
And so, left alone in this divinely spare space, with an hour before the start of dinner at Ceia, I found myself filling the sarcophagus-like stone tub with scalding-hot water and lowering myself gingerly inside. Now, I am not a person who takes baths. Did the almost Japanese solemnity of the design remind me of a ryokan? Did the trio of candles on an otherwise empty shelf next to the bath inspire a romantic impulse? No matter: I soaked and stretched and felt my muscles relaxing until they were as tender as a Portuguese octopus.
My meal that evening contributed to the hotel’s convivial sensibility. (See the full review of Ceia, along with other Lisbon restaurants.) There is only one seating per night, with up to 14 diners seated en famille at a long communal table. Conversation was a bit awkward at first, especially with the language barrier, but as the meal progressed the experience felt more like a dinner party — albeit one with a tasting menu of 14 dishes, each impeccably plated by chef Pedro Pena Bastos, with an emphasis on locally sourced ingredients. I particularly enjoyed a rich dish of celeriac “noodles” topped with toasted buckwheat and house-cured bottarga, and a hunk of lamb that had been roasted in a bed of hay. The wine pairings, all Portuguese, ended with a lovely H.M. Borges 15-year Madeira.
Near the end of my stay, I redeemed another lovely surprise I’d found in my room: a handwritten note offering a complimentary massage.
The hotel has one important caveat: There is no air-conditioning. Despite this, I slept well, with the open windows in front and back allowing a cool breeze to filter through the room. (Nonetheless, I wouldn’t recommend a stay here in the heat of summer.) The next day, I explored the neighborhood, a residential corner of Alfama farther than most visitors venture. Its primary attraction is the Mosteiro de São Vicente de Fora, a Mannerist landmark renowned for its handsome azulejo-tiled cloisters and the astonishing inlaid marble decoration of the sacristy. The hotel provided its own printed walking tours in several neighborhoods, with some off-the-beaten-path suggestions to avoid the crowds.
Near the end of my stay, I redeemed another lovely surprise I’d found in my room: a handwritten note offering a complimentary massage. This turned out to be an expert, pressure point-focused rubdown given by a Cambodian woman in a candlelit room. My mind wandered to some of the less satisfactory aspects of my stay: the lighting in the room (subdued to the point of monastic), the lack of a robe (in my book, a necessity, not an extravagance), the self-service pod coffee machine at breakfast (I want someone to steam my milk, thank you). But the warmth of the welcome, the tranquil beauty of the design and the therapist’s soothing hands all conspired to counteract any faultfinding. Stylish and self-possessed, Santa Clara had seduced me.
Genuine sense of hospitality in an intimate, private home atmosphere, combined with pared-down but exquisite interior design; helpful and friendly staff; non-touristic Alfama location with breathtaking views.
Lack of air-conditioning combined with potential for bothersome street noise; lack of some standard amenities like bathrobes and vanity kits; low lighting in room.
Santa Clara operates as a luxury guesthouse rather than a hotel, so it lacks 24-hour reception, room service, televisions and phones.