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Hauntingly seductive melodies wafted from a dimly-lit bar on a small street in Lisbon, Portugal. The melody was marked by impassioned vocals drenched in emotion as a classic Portuguese 12-string guitar strummed along. A striking woman draped in a long, black, beaded dress stood before an audience entranced by her evocative voice that belted out various octaves. The crescendo moved you. Minutes slip into hours as the music transported you to a bygone era. This is the draw of fado.
Fado is Portugal’s traditional folk music and its version of the blues, with roots tracing back to the 1800s. Most ballads evoke the Portuguese emotion of saudade: a yearning or longing for something lost.
In recent years, fado music has experienced a similar resurgence as the city that birthed it — so much so that fado was added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2011.
Today, fado houses are scattered throughout Lisbon’s cobblestone streets, and hundreds of fadistas (fado singers) perform nightly in the city’s Alfama, Mouraria and Bairro Alto neighborhoods.
Here are some spots to learn and listen to this beautifully melancholy music.
Museu do Fado Start your fado journey by learning about its history — from its working-class roots to its evolution — and about major composers at this engaging museum. The museum houses periodicals, photographs, posters, fine art depicting scenes related to fado, music scores, instruments, phonograms and clothes worn by popular fado singers throughout its history.
It also sheds light on the importance and ambiance of fado houses, where the music was typically heard, as well as fado personalities such as renowned singers Amalia Rodrigues and Mariza. The museum also organizes live performances.
The best way to navigate the museum is with an audio guide; that way, clients can listen to its different iterations throughout the decades as they move through the exhibits.
Clube de FadoFado is said to have originated in the streets of the city’s Alfama neighborhood, so it’s only fitting to head here to experience the fado scene at one of Lisbon’s most well-known “adegas” (wine cellars or bodegas). There are two types of fado clubs: professional adega topicas and amateur tascas. The former requires a reservation and is often a full dinner-and-a-show experience showcasing some of Portugal’s famous performers.
Owned by renowned fado guitarist Mario Pacheco, Clube de Fado is a vaulted restaurant, complete with battered stone columns, arches and a Moorish well. The music is better than the food (as is the case with many formal fado restaurants), so come later in the night. Performances start at 9:30 p.m.
Tasca Do ChicoTascas (traditional Portuguese restaurants) are far more informal and less touristy than adegas. Often open mics, they showcase both aspiring professionals and veteran fadistas. They speak more to fado’s working-class origins.
At Tasca do Chico, you can listen to fado vadio, which translates as bohemian or vagabond fado, used to describe music sung to express emotion.
Even though the shows usually really get going around 11 p.m., head to Tasca Do Chico early to grab a spot; it can get packed in this intimate concert venue.
Parreirinha de AlfamaOwned by fado legend Argentina Santos, some of Portugal’s most famous fadistas have performed here including Amalia Rodrigues, Lucilia do Carmo and Alfredo Marceneiro.
Since 1963, this cozy, rustic restaurant offers good food amid candlelit ambiance, against a backdrop of beautiful azulejos (tiles) on the walls. It attracts an audience drawn to top-quality fadistas. During dinner, expect to listen to at least three different fado singers.
Povo Hop over to the Barrio Alto district to check out Povo, a classic tascas. Up-and-coming fado singers are given a short residency and perform every night. It’s an intimate venue where you can see the emotion on the singers’ faces and feel it in their beautiful voice. There is no entry fee, and you can reserve a table in advance. Shows start around dinner time, but break into full-throated fado around 11 p.m.