Among the many reasons everyone is falling in love with Lisbon right now are the city’s interesting, independent small hotels. There’s the colorful Alice-through-the-looking glass character of the Internacional Design Hotel, the five-star grandeur of the Valverde, the rich history of the Pousada de Lisboa, the quirky schoolhouse vibe of the Hotel da Estrela, and many others.
“These intimate, traditional hotels account for a big part of Lisbon’s appeal as a destination,” says Sofia Brandão, the director of operations at the year-old AlmaLusa Baixo/Chiado, a small hotel that exemplifies the trend. The name comes from alma, which means “soul” in Portuguese, and Lusitania, the name of the Iberian province of the Roman Empire that is now Portugal.
Portuguese soul is the defining feature of the 28-room hotel—which has the residential quality of a luxury guesthouse rather than the formality of a five-star hotel. There are no old-fashioned luxury trappings like bathrobes, minibars or bathtubs. Rather, there’s a staff who dress as visitors do, in jeans and tidy shirts, and, with their body language and speech, relate to guests as friendly hosts. The idea is that luxury is getting what you want when you want it, at a reasonable price (from €145), with a human element. (I recently stayed as a guest of the hotel.)
And Portuguese soul shows up in the physical details. The linens are locally made, the coffee is roasted nearby, the bath products from the native Castebel, and the food in the Delfina restaurant leans toward classic Portuguese dishes (and much of the breakfast buffet at the “fine Portuguese deli” is made in house). One exception is the gorgeous wallpaper, which riffs on local themes but is the work of hotshot British designer Andrew Martin. The overall aesthetic, the vision of longtime hotel veteran and AlmaLusa founder Miguel Simões, is that of an aristocratic Portuguese home, updated for the 21st century.
Then there’s the history of the building. The first building on the site was erected in the 15th century, and its stone floor remained after the earthquake that devastated Lisbon in 1755. Most of the current building dates from the 18th century and underwent a multi-year renovation that preserved historic details like the super-thick walls and high ceilings (which mostly make up for the narrow width in some rooms). The design varies from floor to floor, reflecting the businesses that flourished here: a Moroccan trader on 1, a wine merchant on 2.
The location is one of the best in the city’s historic center, one block from the river and the main square, Praça do Comércial, with its majestic arch and goldenrod buildings. There are many great restaurants and attractions nearby, as well as the central train station, but the AlmaLusa is tucked in a quiet back corner of a hidden park that gives it privacy as well as prestige among locals.
That’s one reason Delfina comes to life during weekday lunch hours, when business people come to entertain or simply to enjoy gussied-up Portuguese comfort food (bread stews, rice dishes, the inevitable bacalhau). The home-style fare and polished-yet-casual vibe of the dining room put it somewhere between simple neighborhood joint and a Michelin-starred destination. So does the genuine care and helpful attitude of the staff. Over my dinner, a server recommended a local sushi restaurant, and when I popped back into Delfina six days later, she asked if I’d been yet and what I thought. That attentiveness is its own aspect of the Portuguese soul, and another that reason small, local hotels like AlmaLusa make Lisbon so charming.