If you’ve ever visited Portugal you will have undoubtedly heard the distinctive string music drifting from the doorways of bars, cafes, and restaurants. These melancholic and mournful sounds are that of Fado, Portugal’s national genre of music.
The Fado style of signing emerged in Portugal in the 1820s and is known for the expressiveness of the mainly female singers who often sing about the struggles of daily life, heartbreak, and desire. It’s said that Fado can best be described the Portuguese word “Saudade’ – meaning longing and feeling loss.
Fado music tends to fall into one of two styles: Lisbon and Coimbra. Each form originated in its namesake city and can be distinguished through the structures and traditions of the music. Lisbon Fado bloomed from experiences of marginalization and transgressions faced by the creators of early Fado musicians, who would often play in establishments popular with the outcasts of society such as sailors and prostitutes.
Fado has been one of the most popular genres of music in Portugal for centuries but found mainstream global success in the 1990s and more recently with the release of albums such as Madonna’s Madame X, which drew inspiration from her relocation to Lisbon.
As the birthplace of the most popular and recognisable form of Fado music, Lisbon is the perfect destination for travelers to enjoy the authentic sounds of Portugal’s favourite genre.
Before heading out to sample Lisbon’s Fado first hand, take some time to learn about the genre’s fascinating history at the Museu do Fado. The museum is entirely dedicated to Lisbon’s thriving Fado culture and works with the intention of showcasing the symbolic and cultural significance of Fado music.
The Museu do Fado features a range of permanent and rotating exhibitions as well as performance spaces that often play host to local Fado artists and bands. Museum visitors can also take guitar workshops where the basics of creating Fado sound is taught.
It’s worthwhile checking upcoming events at the museum as there are often concerts, demonstrations, and presentations that can be booked in advance. Museu do Fado has hosted some of the world’s finest Fado singers including Carlos do Carmo and Maria Teresa de Noronha.
Lisbon’s charming streets are packed with bars and restaurants specialising in Fado music and culture where travelers can have a traditional and authentic experience, whilst enjoying some of the city’s finest food and drink.
Tucked away in a former chapel and still boasting its original tiling and wall murals is Mesa de Frades. This intimate and candlelit bar is cosy and offers visitors a unique and authentic taste of Fado music. What makes Mesa de Frades so special however is its mixed lineup of artists which ranges from Fado legends to up and coming local performers. The artists walk between tables during sets, giving guests an absolutely personal experience. Mesa de Frades is beautiful.
Although a more expensive option, Club de Fado is a Lisbon favourite and the high price point is quickly justified by the restaurant’s standard of Fado performance and food. Since opening in 1995 Club de Fado has continuously played host to a rolling mix of the city’s best Fado singers. Located just feet from the stunning Lisbon Cathedral, architectural inspiration can be seen in the restaurants arched ceilings and thick interior columns. Club de Fado’s central location makes it the perfect place to end a day of exploring all that Lisbon has to offer.
For the most authentic and unadulterated experience of Fado visit, Tasca do Jaime. Less polished than the other choices but often featuring the best Fado vocals in Lisbon, the bar is a raw interpretation of what Fado means to the people of Lisbon, and with only 24 seats guests can be sure that an evening at Tasco do Jaime will be a memorable one.
For travelers who wish to discover Fado culture in greater depth, there are a number of walking tours that are operated by locals and offer a range of tailored experiences. Many of the tours take place in Alfama- Lisbon’s steepest and oldest area, as well as the location of many of the city’s favourite Fado venues. Alfama is charming and often intimate making it the perfect place to enjoy Fado.
One of the most popular tours and one that is guaranteed to provide an idyllic taste of Fado culture is the Lisbon Sunset Small-Group Walking Tour. Travelers are promised breathtaking panoramic views across Lisbon before sampling local food and drink and finally enjoying a live Fado performance. The groups are limited to 12 people, which makes this tour one of the city’s most personal.
Other walking tour experiences offer visitors to Lisbon the chance to be immersed in Fado culture with Fado signing guides, wine tasting, and Fado classes. There really is a true Fado experience for any traveler.
by George Pizani | More: Gay Lisbon