Europe’s hottest hub

IMG_6985aAfter ten years abroad, my friend Débora moved back to her hometown, Lisbon, last year. People there sometimes ask why she came back. Surely there are so many more opportunities abroad?

Sometimes Débora wonders why, too. After Bonn, Leipzig, Brussels, Geneva and London, it’s taking a while to adjust to the laid-back Portuguese attitude to planning, the open-ended work meetings and the buses that don’t turn up. Not to mention eating dinner so late.

It’s not only the reverse culture shock; for many returning to Portugal, there’s also a financial one, in a country where the minimum monthly wage is under EUR 600.

But for those who left their homes behind — whether by desire or necessity (by early 2013, up to 240,000 people had left since 2011, many of them young and educated) — the decision to come back is a little easier now. Because the country, especially the capital, feels different now.

Another friend, Sofia, returned to Lisbon last autumn after five years in London. She sees her home country as regaining its outlook of centuries ago, when Portugal led the world in discovery and trade. Lisbon is an Atlantic city not only in geography, she told me: culturally it’s now more influenced by London than by more conservative Mediterranean norms. In 2010, Portugal became the eighth country to legalise same-sex marriage.

And with its relatively low (though rising) rents and an IT-savvy workforce, Lisbon is fast attracting a wave of new international arrivals.

Spending a few days there last week, I easily found deskspace at the newly-launched Canopy City, a coworking space and startup accelerator that’s expanding from its initial bases in Massachusetts and Exeter. Surf Office, which offers companies a package of workspace, accommodation and surfing, opened its most recent branch in Lisbon, while London’s Second Home has also set up its first overseas site there. The attraction is captured by the Europe editor of TechCrunch, who claimed in 2014 that Lisbon was “emerging as a genuinely new tech ecosystem in Europe, with Berlin-levels of cheapness but with Southern European weather”. A year later, the city’s infrastructure and “the thriving startup community” prompted Web Summit, an Irish company, to announce their move from Dublin to Lisbon. That’s 60,000 people — the number now attending the major event — being enticed to sample Europe’s hottest hub.

Some visitors stick around. At Canopy City, I met Maud from the Netherlands, who had convinced her employer to let her work remotely from Lisbon. Filipa, who spent three years in Brussels but is now back in her native Portugal, is delighted to be the only Portuguese person living in her building (this is someone with nearly 2000 Facebook friends spread around the world). The tourists are descending, too. On the early May holiday weekend, camera-clad explorers throng the narrow streets, filling customised tour buggies and tuktuks and “historic” trams. Airbnb bookings in Lisbon doubled in 2015, according to newswire AFP; just last week, Forbes listed Portugal as one of the “ten coolest places to go in 2017”. The capital, they say, has reached a tipping point:

“Some places have their moments when everything comes together and they become irresistible—Paris in the 1890s, Barcelona in the 1990s, Cartagena in the 2010s,” says Red Savannah’s Morgan-Grenville. “That time for Lisbon is now. It really is one of the most vibrant, good-value, ebullient and attractive cities in Europe.” 

But another factor in the city’s reawakening, Forbes continues, is the renovation of old buildings in the city centre, “removing the aura of dilapidation”. That may be great for the hoteliers and the travel bloggers, but for residents the change is happening frighteningly fast, and it’s pushing many of them out of the historic centre. Foreign investors benefit from incentives such as residency permits for non-EU buyers who spend EUR 500,000 on property, and prices in the old town district of Chiado have doubled in about three years, according to estate agents Fine & Country.  And then there’s the “Airbnb effect”, intensified by the fact that the authorities — so far, at least — impose no limit on the number of nights a private property can be let out per year (unlike in London (90 nights) and Amsterdam (60 nights)). So if they’re not being priced out of their homes, elderly people who’ve lived all their lives in the same apartment now find themselves surrounded by short-term lets and an emptied-out community. The Erasmus generation of Portugal may be finding it easier to move back home, but let’s hope it doesn’t become too easy for the rest of Lisbon to leave.

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