Lisbon is a city that knows how to keep a secret. In the early days of World War II, German, American and British spies overran the capital – Portugal was officially neutral during the war – and many of the city’s bars and casinos were hotbeds of international (in)discretion. Later, just before the Carnation Revolution in 1974, many central cafés were meeting points for covert leftist associations.
Today, the hidden bars in Lisbon are decidedly less cloak-and-dagger. Yet there is still a real sense of intrigue when you ring the bells of exclusive clubs, private cultural associations and former brothels, and step inside for a hush-hush drink.
Long a meeting point for journalists and politicians, Snob is located on Rua de O Século, a quiet, steep road in Príncipe Real lined by architectural gems from the 18th and 19th centuries. Opened in the 1960s, the bar has a somewhat British style: original wooden cabinets fitted with glass doors line its interior walls. These cupboards hold a wide range of oddities, from whisky bottles to an old map of Africa and a curious Bogart-style painting – gifted from a customer who had accumulated a large bar tab, as the legend goes. Even the waiter, Albino Oliveira, has been there since 1974, discreetly opening the door nightly to a range of activity, from the intellectual to the adulterous.
Enjoying a digestif here feels like traveling back to a more clandestine past.
Snob’s kitchen is open until 2:30 a.m. – a rare late-night treat for hungry Lisboetas. They often order the special: ‘Snob style’ steak covered in a creamy mustard sauce. Bochechas de porco (stewed pork cheeks) is another one of the chef’s delicacies. Enjoying a late dinner followed by a digestif here feels like traveling back to a more clandestine past.
Another hidden place to have a drink (if the door opens, that is) is Estrela Decadente, a cultural association that is a little rowdier than Snob. This bar, which is located on the first floor of an eclectic residential building in Estrela d’Ouro, a working-class quarter built in Graça at the turn of the 20th century by a factory owner, is often open until dawn. Many have adopted it as their late-night hangout spot, but it is also a good place for an early-evening beer; in fact, it’s easier to browse the exhibitions by young local visual artists that are on display before the crowds descend. A word of caution: at 4 a.m., it’s difficult to see past the person in front of you because the air is so heavy with cigarette smoke.
Bar Afterhours is another little-known spot close to the Santa Apolonia train station. The mirror-lined walls clue you in to its sordid past as the neighborhood’s humble house of ill repute, but we love this tiny spot despite (or maybe, in part, because of) its history. We often drop in for a late-night drink, a game of darts and a spot of people watching – there are always characters, both suspicious and not, coming and going.
As the name suggests, Afterhours is open until very late. Like a casino, there are no windows, and it can be quite easy to lose all sense of time – sunrise often hits you with a dose of reality when you leave the bar, reminding you just how out of sight you were.