Backstage with Portugal’s creative set: the DJs and digital nomads building new lives in Lisbon

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It’s 11.49pm on Saturday night. Our taxi flies across the 25 de Abril Bridge, catapulting my friends and I from our base in the sleepy surfer town of Caparica to the buzz of central Lisbon, where the night is just unfolding. City lights sparkle beyond the inky blackness of the River Tagus, while the backlit Cristo Rei statue watches over us, arms outstretched. 

In our wake we leave an apartment, strewn with glitter, make up and after sun. Having bonded through surf lessons and cycling adventures out here in Portugal, we’re excited to swap wetsuit boots and trainers for heels. Tonight, there’s a party in an abandoned palace and it’s invite-only.

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At the party, DJ Shugi is bringing the noise

In my London life before Covid, invite-only meant exclusive – and, by nature, excluding. After 10 years working as a lifestyle and music journalist, I’d booked a one-way flight to Portugal. I’d grown sick of cold, formulaic events propelled by profit, reserving entry for the biggest names and highest bidders. I’d heard that Lisbon was changing fast: the food and music scenes catching up to the likes of Berlin. This, I had to see. 

Now, a mysterious WhatsApp message from event promoter Katya Kukureko delivers a jolt of excitement. Our chance meeting in the changing room at gym had now spun another thread in the web of digital-nomad connections stretching across the city. In Lisbon, all that’s needed to access this invite-only party is a password and an open mind.

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Oysters and freshly-made cocktails are handed out

Whispering the magic word through iron gates in a moonlit courtyard, we totter up stone steps, following the distant thrum of bass. Part of the team behind the party, Parisian producer, singer and DJ, Shugi, is already bringing the noise.

When she’s not delivering stonking house sets at sun-soaked beach festivals and the city’s world-class club nights, she’s producing events like this. I’m struck by the talented, impeccably dressed, female creatives everywhere I look: artist Chiara Mecozzi live paints a portrait in one corner of the grand palace’s hallway, while Lydie Lucas checks over her painstaking, mystical set design. 

Katya herself directs staff handing out oysters and freshly-made cocktails, eyes bright behind an intricate mask framed with feathers. The atmosphere is electric, as guests breathlessly swap travel and work plans. It seems everyone’s up to something, their lives a heady mix of hard work and play. The air is thick with chatter about sustainability, holistic wellbeing and conscious living – it’s refreshing to hear so many female voices.

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Women empower each other here in Lisbon

“Women empower each other here, it’s beautiful”, Shugi tells me between sets. “I feel like there’s a lot of support between us. I finally feel like I’ve met my people. I’m surrounded by such brilliant minds. I feel seen and heard.

The great thing about this city is that it’s incredibly supportive and welcoming of new projects, which wasn’t the case for me back in Paris. Where I come from, the motto is ‘eat, or be eaten’ which is very counterproductive in my opinion.”

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People from all around the world are moving to Lisbon

Lisbon has been “cooking”, as Shugi puts it: “Forward-thinking people from all around the world are moving here, which has led to a highly interesting and fun energy emerging.”

Creative industries that might feel impenetrable in Barcelona, New York or San Francisco, are accessible here. The city is gentrifying at speed and the busy streets teem with locals, expats and tourists soaking up the buzz. 

Where there’s innovation, there are usually Crypto bros. But Lisbon is by no means a boy’s club. In fact, plenty of the women at tonight’s party are members of Lisbon Women’s Club, a networking initiative set up by project manager Katya Maia. A varied programme of speaking panels, after-work drinks and activities ensures there’s always a space for women to inspire each other personally and professionally.

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We support each other – in the skate park or out surfing

With a sticker covering her lens for the night (no pictures allowed), the club is perfect for women like Kika Mocek – a photographer, videographer and lifestyle brand owner. Half-Polish, half-Hawaiian, she moved here on a whim four years ago – and relishes a little healthy competition. 

“Some of the best experiences I’ve had here were actually in male-dominated situations, such as the skate park or out surfing. When other girls are in the water or on the ramp, I love approaching them with a sense of support,” she says. 

“We tap into this vibe of sisterhood. Cheering each other on to get a wave, getting loud when landing a trick, just sharing joy and enthusiasm towards one another. It dilutes the masculinity around and throws this competitor mindset out the window. You come into these situations as strangers and leave as friends.”

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In Lisbon, you can leave behind the person you ‘should’ be

Attitudes like this make Lisbon a place to reject the scarcity mindset that characterises most cosmopolitan cities. Here, there’s enough space for everyone to try new things. You can leave behind the person your hometown says you should be. Always dreamed of joining a skateboard collective? Do it. Want to try self-healing at a full-moon ritual? There’s a Facebook group for that.

Here, 30-somethings are embracing a life of abundance: of creative ideas, opportunities and gorgeous surroundings to explore together (in near-constant sunshine). Miles of pristine beaches, dense cork forests and lush national parks are reachable by car or train in under an hour from the city. No wonder it’s one of the most popular city-break destinations in Europe.

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When the club closes, we head to the beach

When the palace gates close, we hail a fleet of taxis straight to Font da Telha beach. We spend the afternoon sleeping, awoken by a huge crowd forming. They’re marvelling at a truly magnificent spectacle: a beached whale lying metres from our sunbathing spot. 

The coastguard and bystanders exchange theories on how best to help the creature. It’s not long before dozens of men and women wade in, pulling together to shift the beast. It feels oddly symbolic: people of all backgrounds using their collective ingenuity, surrounded by nature. It’s not your average hangover epiphany. But, that’s Lisbon.

I shake my head in disbelief, pondering what fresh wonders tonight will bring. As the sun starts to set, my thoughts return to Shugi’s sentiment: “This place is boiling with innovation. I live for that shit.” 

Amy Everett is a British journalist, based in Lisbon. Find out more about Flash Pack adventures here, including a note-perfect Portugal trip.

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