How To Get A Proper Dose Of Fado In Lisbon

by  Will McGough | Nov 15, 2013
Lisbon / Kisa_Markiza/iStock

We know what you’re thinking: “Fado” is a chain of Irish pubs in cities all across America.

Well, yeah… we’re not really sure what’s up with that, because Fado is also a traditional style of urban Portuguese folk music that typically features two or three guitarists and a male or female singer. The lyrics reflect themes of longing and nostalgia, about the sea or the life of the poor. The Portuguese describe it with the word saudade, which has no direct translation into English but describes a deep melancholic longing for something or someone that is now absent.

Sounds like a bit of a downer, right? But the mood inside a fado bar is far from sad. And we guess that’s the one good thing about not speaking Portuguese as a tourist – you won’t know what they’re talking about anyway. But you will appreciate it in very much the same way as people appreciate Opera music: the beautiful, booming voices to go along with the soft, picking guitar. Except you don’t have to wear a tux to a fado show, and you can see a show while bellied up at a bar.

You can find “fado bars” all over the Barrio Alto neighborhood that range from well-lit, more upscale performances at restaurants to shows in darker, dive-bar type places. Regardless, all follow the same basic format, which entails a handful of songs followed by a 10 to 15 minute intermission. This is great for two reasons: first, you've got plenty of opportunities to refill your glass of port; and second, you won't feel bad ducking out later in the night without catching the entire performance.

We recommend A Tasca do Chico as a great place to start because of its inviting and neighborhood feel, not to mention cheap beer and bar food. You can call ahead to reserve a seat, or simply show up, jostle for a spot at the bar, and make friends upon arriving. Be careful, though – on the weekends, it can get pretty crowded, so go ahead and make a reservation if you’re planning ahead. The place is small and cozy, and a reservation only guarantees you seats (as opposed to a full table), so you’ll have no trouble making friends. Better yet, almost every show we saw was free and without a cover charge.

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