by Stuart Haggas
Knowing very little of Portugal beyond its grand capital city, I decided it was time to turn the tides and explore it for myself. Although my voyage of discovery would follow the dramatic coastline south of Lisbon, I figured that a galleon wasn’t the ideal mode of transport, so I opted for a rental car instead.
Positioned on the edge of the Iberian Peninsula, Portugal is the westernmost country in mainland Europe. There’s very little besides ocean separating it from the East Coast of the United States, perhaps explaining why the Portuguese were seafaring pioneers who were skilled at discovering new worlds, and why even today, they appear to be instinctively lured by the sea.
During the 15th and 16th centuries, an era known as the Age of Discovery, Portuguese sailors were vanguard explorers. Nobleman and Naval Commander Pedro Álvares Cabral is celebrated for discovering Brazil, while fellow explorers like Vasco da Gama discovered and mapped the coasts of Africa and Asia, establishing lucrative spice trade routes.
When news came of Christopher Columbus’ first voyage to the Americas in 1492 under the flag of the Spanish crown, a dispute arose between Portugal and Spain about exactly who’d discovered the New World. It was settled by the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, an agreement that divided newly discovered lands outside of Europe between the two countries. This agreement marks the start of centuries of Spanish and Portuguese dominance across much of the Americas.
Portugal’s Age of Discovery has left a lasting impression. Grand historic buildings in places like Lisbon, Porto, Braga, and Sintra remind us of Portugal’s prosperous past, while former colonies like Brazil have a massive cultural impact on modern-day Portuguese life.
Rather than discovering new worlds, today there are initiatives emerging throughout Portugal that endeavour to preserve the world that we know, with everything from luxury Lisbon hotels to remote rural businesses looking at ways to safeguard our planet. It’s also unnecessary to sail 5,000 km across a torrid ocean from Lisbon to find somewhere new and wonderful, because there’s plenty to discover within easy driving distance of this beguiling capital city, including wineries, national parks, dolphins, dinosaur footprints, and stunning gay beaches.
After collecting a rental car at Lisbon International Airport, our first stop was Lisbon itself. For gay and lesbian visitors, adjoining districts Bairro Alto and Príncipe Real have the most potent appeal. Here, you’ll find many stylish shopping and dining options, plus a vibrant nightlife scene, encompassing everything from live fado performances in an atmospheric bar to Beyoncé hits being spun in rammed gay clubs like Trumps and Construction.
There are numerous places to stay hereabouts, ranging from indulgent five-star Bairro Alto Hotel to inexpensive options like Anjo Azul—a simple gay hotel in an historic blue-tiled building. Bairro Alto literally means “high neighbourhood,” and its steep, heady, narrow streets aren’t easy to ascend in a rental car (especially after dark when they’re overrun with partying Portuguese), so I opted for somewhere more approachable.
One of a handpicked selection of gay-friendly accommodation, the contemporary four-star Inspira Santa Marta Hotel sits discreetly behind a historic façade just one block from Avenida da Liberdade, Lisbon’s grand main boulevard.
Designed using the principles of feng shui, part of the hotel’s philosophy is to treat everyone equally regardless of factors like wealth, status, and sexuality. This idea of universal equality means there’s no downgrading when it comes to amenities in the 89 rooms and suites: all come fully loaded with state-of-the-art technology like plug-and-play- enabled LCD TVs, surround sound, ambient LED lighting, and free Wi-Fi, plus indulgences like Nespresso coffee machines, bathrobes, slippers, organic toiletries, and free access to the Inspira’s fitness room and spa with sauna, Jacuzzi, and Turkish steam bath.
Sustainability here is another important consideration. The Inspira’s striking modern architecture uses environmentally friendly materials like sustainable wood panelling and cork flooring, while a vast lobby skylight with heat-reflecting glass maximizes daylight and minimizes the need for artificial lighting, heating, and air-conditioning.
The secure underground parking lot even has free parking for electric or hybrid vehicles to promote sustainable mobility—although as many of Lisbon’s main tourist attractions are within easy walking distance, I’d advise you to explore on foot and burn calories instead of fuel.
The ocean is tantalizingly close wherever you are in Lisbon, so it’s easy to supplement a trip here with some beach time. Tourists tend to head west to the elegant resorts of Cascais and Estoril. Locals prefer to head south to the more casual and natural beaches of Costa da Caparica—that’s my recommendation too.
The most crowded beach is by Caparica town. Just 16 km from central Lisbon, it can be reached by car in around 20 minutes so it’s possible to come here after work, and that’s what many Lisbonites do! The easiest way to get here is to drive over the Ponte 25 de Abril suspension bridge. Often compared to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, it was built by the American Bridge Company and is in fact based on their San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge. You may also take a train or a ferry from Lisbon across to Cacilhas and then a local bus, but these options take considerably longer.