Lisbon, Portugal, is a tourist hot spot right now. One attraction visitors want to experience is authentic fado music. This was difficult for us to find on a budget, but we did it. I will tell you upfront: our method is not the way most tourists would use.
Fado is a melancholic style of song that laments fate, and topics usually include lost love, sea life, or poverty. Its roots are based in the Alfama district of Lisbon. Mostly hookers and sailors lived there in the early 19th century, when fado is known to have become a thing (although some sources will tell you the music style is older). Corner pubs in the neighborhood churned out fado played by locals who had meager means. Traditional fado is a female singer accompanied by one Portuguese guitar, but modern versions of fado have more musicians.
In fact, today, the whole fado scene is entirely different. Booming tourism has made it near impossible to find impromptu fado belted out from the hearts of those struggling through a tough, sometimes cruel, life. Today, the Alfama district is a trendy spot with expensive Airbnb units and boutique hotels. And restaurants and bars are not afraid to charge top dollar. I don’t blame them in the least – and this post is not a knock on their food or their music.
Alfama restaurants offer an evening of fado music, but you must buy a mandatory dinner of around 30 euros and up per person. Some places cost more, some are less. Reservations are encouraged, sometimes necessary. This is hardly the kind of a fado-filled evening hookers and sailors would have had for themselves. And while I’m sure the music and the food is enjoyable, we didn’t want to drop a lot of money to experience modern-day fado.
If you don’t want to have a mandatory dinner, there are bars around all over Lisbon with musicians who play fado. You just have to buy drinks. While this saves money, the bars are loaded with tourists, and the modern bar vibe isn’t anything like a 19th century local dive.
So instead of the bar scene, we did something else entirely. We went to see a modern fado singer perform at the Belem Cultural Center. Yea, this isn’t like a local dive bar experience either, but this ‘date night’ didn’t cost us much money.
I did a ton of searches online and found there was going to be a modern fado singer at the BCC during our stay. Lucky us! I booked two seats for five euros each. We had dinner at a Portuguese restaurant down the road. Our date night cost about $30 USD for everything – tickets, dinner, tips, transportation.
How was the music? It was great! Cuca Roseta is a beautiful woman with a beautiful voice. She and her modern band (piano, bass, guitar, Portuguese guitar) played some melancholic, sorrowful songs associated with traditional fado. But every other song was a bit lively and engaging – so it was certainly not a depressing evening of music. Roseta is a well-known singer in Portugal. (Her website is here.)
How was the Belem Cultural Center? It’s a good place to see a show. Our cheap seats weren’t really seats – we were in a standing room area on a side balcony of the auditorium. That’s a good thing, because we danced around a bit. There didn’t appear to be many tourists there – we didn’t hear anyone in attendance speaking English.
Do I feel like I missed traditional fado music in some dark, depressing, corner dive bar? Yes, to be honest, I do. But modern bars aren’t what I envision for real fado. And the idea of dropping $75 USD minimum on a mandatory dinner to experience this music wasn’t high on my list, either. (By the way, most of the cheaper options don’t get great reviews.)
I’m not sure what to tell any reader looking for authentic fado without the mandatory dinner other than to search, search, and search. I usually can offer you more than that – but not this time. If we hadn’t found Roseta, we would have gone into a modern bar somewhere for the drinks-only option. (And I don’t think Roseta performs at the BCC often.)
If you happen to know of a great local place that offers authentic fado music without a mandatory dinner, help me out and drop a comment below. Next time I’m in Lisbon – and there will be a next time – I’d love to check it out.