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How do cities in the midst of economic hardship become the new capitals of cool? For one, they entice artists and other creatives looking for more bang for their buck; some of these cities, such as Lisbon, receive innovative facelifts in return.
More than a decade ago, Berlin was labeled as Germany’s poor but sexy capital by its mayor, who presented the low cost of living in an attractive light, highlighting features like rent prices in order to catch the eyes of euro-pinching creatives. As a result, the metropolis benefited from a cascade of artistic initiatives and saw new startups, such as global favorites Babbel and Wunderlist, gain footholds in the city, as well as well-known companies such as the online audio platform SoundCloud. Now it’s Lisbon’s turn in the limelight, and in the last few years, the Portuguese capital has made a name for itself as a creative hub, a tech capital, and a top location for entrepreneurs.
It seems hard to believe that Lisbon was for so long one of Europe’s best-kept secrets, especially considering the ever-present sun, local surfing scene, superb national gastronomy and viticulture, rich history, and, most of all, the super wallet-friendly cost of living. Artists and business-minded professionals looking for a blank canvas on which to paint their lives and careers saw the city’s potential, however, and began taking advantage of the low rents, building prices, and cost of living, and the high quality of life. Old factories that had been shut down and neglected were renovated and converted into galleries, cafés, bookstores, and co-working spaces.
One of the best examples of something old being converted into something new and vibrant is the super-trendy LX Factory in Alcântara. A strip of neglected buildings that belonged to a prominent fabric company in the 19th century was taken under the wings of businesses and professionals and is now filled with offices, stores, fashion and modeling agencies, souvenir shops, and many restaurants, cafés, and bars. In some of the stores, like the beautiful book-filled Ler Devagar, the building’s industrial past is still present in the form of its unusual background decor.
Another case in point is an up-and-coming neighborhood locally known as the Triangle, set between Cais do Sodré and Santos. Slightly off course from the party-beaten paths of Cais do Sodré, lower Bairro Alto, and Bica, the Triangle’s weathered but beautifully tile-covered and traditional buildings are attracting the attention of creative minds with business ideas and tight budgets.
Tourism to Lisbon has boomed, and the city is riding a wave that doesn’t seem to be losing power anytime soon. A drive to brighten up some of the city’s old buildings has involved commissioning street artists, and now, free street-art tours have become yet another great reason to visit.
When you’re down, the only way to go is up. Lisbon, like Berlin, is emerging from a dark past by using its obstacles as supports, and is perhaps becoming stronger and all the more beautiful for it.