To the casual observer, the Lisbon neighbourhood of Santos may be more easily defined by what it’s not than what it actually is. It’s neither Baixa nor Chiado, two core neighbourhoods of Lisbon’s old city center, both of which are chock-a-block with historical sites (and now, also, tourists). Nor is it the nearby Bairro Alto, the city’s thumping nightlife hub, with its throngs of 24-hour party people.
In fact, Santos is not even easily pinpointed on the map. Long an official freguesia—or, in English, “civil parishes,” the Lisboeta equivalent of Paris’ arrondissements—Santos was subsumed into its neighbour to the north, Estrela, during an administrative overhaul back in 2012. It’s now not 100 percent clear where, exactly, the neighbourhood begins or ends. (Grosso modo, Santos is a swath of prime riverfront, due west of the city center, south of Lapa and Estrela and east of Alcântara, though many spots that locals claim as part of the Santos are also claimed by other neighbourhoods.) Still, Santos is one of Lisbon’s oldest areas, as its official name—Santos-o-Velho, which literally translates as Santos-the-Old—would suggest. And while it may not be as rich in must-visit attractions as some of its neighbours, Santos has plenty to offer, particularly to those who set down roots here.
Santos has managed to keep a relatively low profile amid Lisbon’s emergence as one of Europe’s top tourist destinations. Even as the Chiado and Bairro Alto filled up with chain stores and franchise restaurants, Santos has remained almost entirely multinational-free, a tight knit ‘hood with mom-and-pop shops and an almost village-like vibe. Which is not to say that Santos remains stuck in the past. Young new residents are opening restaurants, shops and service with a hipster vibe—think yoga studios and cafés offering every conceivable type nut milk—that now rub elbows with the area’s classic hole-in-the-wall bars and corner grocers that appear to have remained absolutely unchanged since at least the middle of the last century.
Santos’ eclectic mélange of stately palaces and more humble buildings testifies to the neighbourhood’s historic mix of residents, which long included both moneyed bourgeois families and working class people. (Santos saw an influx of wealthy people in the wake of the devastating 1755 earthquake/tsunami/fire, which flattened much of the city center, and it was also traditionally home to a bustling working-class community, made up largely of successive waves of fishing families from the Algarve and the Minho who migrated to Lisbon in search of a better life.)
This social fluidity is still palpable in the neighbourhood today, with its mix of life-long locals, a smattering of newly arrived foreigners and a fair number of students—many of them pursuing degrees at IADE, a private university specialising in technology, communication and design. In fact, the institution and its student body are partly responsible for Santos’ newly minted reputation as Lisbon’s design hub. A host of high-end home furnishing stores, such as Paris-Sete, AR interiores, and Roche Bobois, are within about a minute’s walking-distance of IADE, and Santos is also home to an enviable collection of galleries, including the edgy Shiki Miki Gallery, which is run by artist Ivo “Bassanti” Moreira and his brother and features work unlikely to appear in a more conventional gallery space; and Wozen, a gallery-cum-artist’s residency space directly opposite the Museu de Arte Antiga. (Portugal’s answer to the Louvre, the Museu de Arte Antiga boasts impressive collections of Portuguese masterpieces and jaw-dropping works from Portugal’s former colonies spanning three continents, a Hieronymus Bosch triptych, as well as romantic gardens overlooking the Tagus. The sprawling museum definitely qualifies as a must-visit destination—arguably the sole of its kind in Santos.)
Still, the fewer the monuments, the fewer the tourists—one factor that has helped Santos hold onto its tight-knit neighbourhood feeling. It was precisely this vibe that attracted Tiago Rodrígues Jorge, a Portuguese-born restaurateur who, like many of his fellow compatriots, had decamped to London, before he and his English wife decided to return to his homeland. In 2017, the pair settled on a former bank branch to open the Mercearia da Mila, a greengrocer/delicatessen/café, opposite the French Consulate. At first, the location seemed not to have been the most auspicious choice. “As we walked out of the shop (after signing a lease on the space,) we stood in silence for quite a while, realizing that there was not a single human being in sight,” Tiago recalled. But the Mercearia da Mila would soon become not just a local hangout but rather a nexus, knitting together the neighbourhood’s diverse inhabitants.
A one-off event that Tiago organized to raise money for a local charity would blossom into Santos Collective, a non-profit cooperative supporting the neighbourhood and its tradespeople, who have been hard-hit by the coronavirus pandemic. As successive COVID-19 lockdowns emptied restaurants, Tiago lobbied hard to turn the parking lot of Santos’ emblematic, namesake church, the Igreja de Santos-o-Velho, into an outdoor dining area for where customers can eat their take-away orders. And now, every Saturday morning it’s also the site of a lively farmers’ market that attracts a broad cross section of people from the neighbourhood and beyond.
“People love it because it’s a charming bubble, but it feels real because it’s created by and for locals,” said Tiago, whose efforts have won him the unofficial title of “honorary mayor” of Santos. He added that he’s thrilled his work on community organising has borne fruit. “It’s beautiful to see how from one day to another, 81-year-old Rosa, who had lived in Santos her whole life, began waving to 30-something Pierre from Bordeaux as he walked past her window to his morning yoga.”
Still, changes are afoot. An extension of the green line will see a new station in Estrela proper, as well as one in Santos, which will put the neighbourhood just one stop away from the Cais do Sodré. Already underway, the project had initially been slated to conclude in 2022, although it’s not clear whether the pandemic might throw a monkey wrench into those plans. Regardless of when, exactly, the project wraps up, it’s undoubtedly good news for those looking at properties for sale in Santos, as the improved public transport access is sure to give property prices an extra boost.
When asked about worries that this and other changes afoot in the neighbourhood might touch off a wave of gentrification, Tiago, the “honorary mayor” replied, thoughtfully, “I’d like to see unification, instead of gentrification, and from what I’ve seen so far in Santos, that seems not only possible, but preferred.”