Lisbon has been an international city for millennia. And while it has experienced a substantial increase in foreign residents over the past several years, this global appeal is not a new phenomenon.
As a perfect natural harbor and aesthetic jewel perched on the edge of the endless Atlantic expanse, Portugal’s capital has seen more than its fair share of immigrants, travelers, and traders eagerly packing its restaurants and tabernas back into antiquity. More recently, it served as the primary escape route and haven from the unspeakable horrors of World War II. A city of arrivals and departures. Intrigue and espionage. Simultaneously a place of final settlement and a stepping stone to global safe zones.
It’s a point of pride here. Lisbon: Europe’s ancient gateway to the wider world.
Within this complex social fabric, a multinational army of hospitality workers has always been on the front lines: serving up sustenance, trading in beverages, and arranging accommodations. They experience the changes firsthand — one wave after another; more business yet more challenges; adapt and survive. But in this latest surge of immigration, there’s something different.
The most recent tsunami — with its expats wielding a distinctly star-spangled accent — is now critically testing the city’s ability to absorb both the newcomers and their outsized pocketbooks.
As sidewalks swell and rents vault ever higher, the hospitality industry and its diverse collection of skilled international and local workers watch on with both fear and hope over the fate of their beloved city — and their future in it.
Coffee: The Brazilian
A lawyer turned accomplished coffee guru, Brazilian Leandro Lee now helms the flagship Chiado location of top-tier boutique Fábrica Coffee Roasters. While his family ancestry is South Korean, his outlook on the housing crunch belies a particularly South American sentiment. “I’m a bit fatalistic about it all,” he says. “The government hasn’t effectively done something about it, and this will hit a crisis point. It will come.”
As the pandemic began to subside and international travel resumed, rising rents pushed him across the Tejo river — the rough equivalent of San Francisco to Oakland. Leaving the beachside suburb of Algés wasn’t a welcome change, but he could see the writing on the wall. “Over just one week, I saw rents go from 700 to 900 euros,” he says. Like so many others, Lee was forced to make the unenviable choice between a difficult commute or giving up on Lisbon entirely. He’s still here — for now.
“Being a good expat involves contributing both socially and economically. ‘Learn some Portuguese. Actually change your address. Are you here to experience something or to take advantage?'”
Despite the storm clouds, Lee speaks with enthusiasm about the coffee community. “There’s a lot of change but also a lot of opportunity,” he says. “Specialty coffee still has space to expand here, and we are actually seeing quite nice raises for baristas with good experience.” The silver lining seems to be the dissemination of expanding wealth into the hospitality realm. However, the question remains whether or not it’s happening quickly enough to keep up with ever-bloating rent.
The endgame for Lee likely lies in the northern reaches of the continent. Now that he’s established a foothold outside Brazil in the more politically stable — and physically safer — environs of Western Europe, the higher wages and robust social infrastructure of Germany or the Netherlands are potentially within reach. It’s a recurring theme here recently, and it’s understandable.
Beer: The Portuguese Returnee From France
Tucked into a nook of the west side Campo de Ourique neighborhood is Alexandre Fialho’s outstanding little beer shop, The Craft Corner. Regulars pop in and out, buying rare cans to-go and sipping the latest suds on draft.
Born in Paris, Fialho would visit Lisbon during the summers. His extended family always lived here, and a few years ago he was ready to return to his roots. “The quality of life is just better, and the craft beer scene in Portugal has a lot of room to grow,” he says.
Fialho started noticing dramatic changes in the city about five years ago. “I thought the hype would wear off by now, but it hasn’t,” he says. He notes that the past two years especially — with the pandemic chaos and subsequent continuation of the expat surge — have suffered the negative side of gentrification. “It’s an infestation of cookie-cutter brunch places,” Fialho says, laughing, “and there’s a difference between a good expat and a bad one.” Being a good expat involves contributing both socially and economically, he explains. “Learn some Portuguese. Actually change your address. Are you here to experience something or to take advantage?”
“It’s not that I’m pessimistic, but I’m just not that optimistic,” he adds. Fialho’s worry is justified, as the Lisbon craft beer scene has been hit with not just pandemic and rent woes, but also by the war-fueled inflation affecting the industry. “Craft beer is a luxury,” he explains, “and as budgets tighten and prices rise, the sector suffers.” For now, though, he’s riding out the storm.
Travel: The Ukrainian
One Lisbon resident who has the most to be angry about — the most to mourn and the most excuses for cynicism — is, ironically, a beacon of optimism and hope.
“‘I want to go to Spain’ has become ‘I want to go to Portugal.’ That sucks and it’s not at all fair to Portugal and its culture. They’re completely different.”
Within the world of travel and hospitality, Talia Mazepa is one of Lisbon’s bright new talents. After a young life working in the industry and bouncing between several countries, she made the leap to Portugal in January 2022 — just as Russia chose to brutally invade and maul her homeland. Despite this unfathomable backdrop, or maybe because of it, she has already clicked with Lisbon and established her own bespoke travel consultancy. “I never found that personal alignment like here in Portugal,” she says. “Right away I loved working with Portuguese people specifically.”
Commanding a broader view of the travel sector, Mazepa has a clear perspective on the influx of visitors and expats. She sees a transition among American travel and settlement desires. “‘I want to go to Spain’ has become ‘I want to go to Portugal,’” she says, and it has happened at lightning speed in this era of social media saturation. Once again, the velocity of the change is the problem, and there’s a lazy tendency among the uninitiated to regard Portugal as a cheaper Spain. “That sucks,” Mazepa says, “and it’s not at all fair to Portugal and its culture. They’re completely different.”
Yet through the noise, there is a pragmatic enthusiasm about the future: The glass is still half full. She points out that the newer arrivals are already here. It’s done. It has happened. So while the government tries to catch up with this surge on the policy front — banning new short-term rentals and doing away with the Golden Visa foreign investment program — expats should focus on being thoughtful and responsible ambassadors for this unique heritage. “The world needs to be educated about Portugal so it gains the respect it deserves … so let’s teach them about the culture,” Mazepa says.
Wine: The Lisbon Native
Around age 22, Lisbon native Nuno Santos was given a glass of 1989 Burmester Vintage Port to try — an overachieving bottling from a lesser vintage — and the hook was set. From then on, he has dedicated his life to Portuguese wine.
In 2009 he partnered up and opened his own place, Wine Bar do Castelo. Highly regarded and successful, it rode waves of visitors making the pilgrimage to Castelo São Jorge, Lisbon’s iconic castle on the hill. Then the pandemic hit, and everything stopped. With the business shut down at a vulnerable moment of expansion, Santos realized the end was near.
“The vacation rental boom was the really destructive influence. You have neighborhoods where nobody really lives anymore.”
Now running point at the venerable bottle shop Garrafeira Estado d’Alma in the well-heeled Rato neighborhood, he has witnessed all the changes through the years. “It used to be seasonal,” he says, “but now there aren’t seasons anymore. It’s constant.” Santos doesn’t blame the American wave in particular. In fact, he seems to like the Americans — at least those who choose to come here. He’s seen many expat and tourism surges over the years, and to him this is just another swell.
“The vacation rental boom was the really destructive influence,” he says referring to the ‘Airbnb-ifcation’ of Lisbon’s core districts that accelerated over the past decade. To Santos, it is this — combined with the wild economic ups and downs of the pandemic — that finally broke the system. “You have neighborhoods where nobody really lives anymore.” Truly, it feels as if central Baixa and its surroundings have been converted into a theme park for tourists — hollowed out of any real inhabitants. Sure, fine establishments remain and are worth the visit, but it’s no longer a functioning neighborhood.
Lisbon needs a reasonable housing market to support an affordable small-businesses workforce — yet it’s on the cusp of pricing out its own lifeblood. Still, Santos has some hope. “I think Lisbon will be OK because there is finally some good government response. It won’t become Venice.” he says.
Upon arrival as a newly minted expat in 2020, I would wander Lisbon’s stone mosaic sidewalks with my Sightglass Coffee bag casually slung over my shoulder.
Now, I make sure the logo side is facing in.
“Immigrant and expat: two synonyms with completely different meanings.”
I’m not certain when exactly over the past three years I made this adjustment, but it’s the sign of a growing awareness — a guilt, even — that as a middle-class American living comfortably here, I’m “part of the problem.” Fair? Not really. I’m not some uber-wealthy foreign investor converting housing into vacation rentals. I’m not exploiting. I’m just a regular guy following his passion wherever it leads, damn the torpedoes. I pay my taxes. I’ve learned a decent amount of the language. I try to fit in.
But the gentrification and evictions I see around me are real. Recently, rent in my own neighborhood rose so dramatically that even I had to question my housing’s long-term viability. Honestly, this kind of transformation is inevitable on some level. I get that. Cities and their zeitgeist are constantly in flux, especially in a place so full of international influence. Things change. Economies develop. Cultures evolve. Adaptation is a fact of life.
It’s the rate of this transformation, though — there’s an inability to absorb so much upheaval in such a small window of time, and the march is happening too fast for many to keep up. Yes, there’s help on the way with changing housing policy and phasing out of foreign enticement. Will it be enough to blunt the wave and keep heads above water? I hope so.
Immigrant and expat: two synonyms with completely different meanings. We expats — we international dwellers through luxurious, privileged choice — have a responsibility to our host country; a duty to support and participate in the established culture.
It doesn’t have to be all the time, and I’ll always be an American at my core. But we owe them something more than just our sexy, powerful, disruptive money.