Crumbling, flaky walls that flank steep, winding streets up, up, up – the epitome of Lisbon, right? In truth, this image of old apartments and uneven cobblestones covers only a part of the city.
The oldest district of Lisbon, Alfama, is the only area that wasn’t ruined in the 18th Century earthquake and, today, is a postcard perfect museum of what life used to be like before modern, high rise hotels and wide boulevards. Where the rest of Lisbon has moved forwards in terms of design and aesthetics, Alfama remains solidly in the past, emanating a time that we can no longer imagine.
As many of you know, I struggled to put my thoughts about Lisbon into words. One thing I am certain of, though, is the oldy-worldy beauty of Alfama, which was, without a doubt, my favourite part of the city.
Think of this as a short guide, complete with free things to do in the area and a selection of stories and articles for further reading.
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The steep narrow hill leading up to the Sao Jorge castle, which perches atop the city looking over it like a tired, majestic warden, and the streets that branch out from it are a rabbit warren of tiny shops selling soaps, prints, and tiles. Then there are the colourful apartment blocks punctuated with bright, flower-filled balconies, and small restaurants tucked away behind low doors and dark windows.
Take a left or a right at any point and you will end up getting lost, but then, as is the nature of Lisbon, you will emerge out into a lively plaza, where potted plants are being sold from trestle tables, or find a café that serves the best coffee hidden away down a dead-end.
I spent a whole day meandering through the streets; popping into art galleries and playing hide and seek with street art and tile designs.
It certainly helped that the St Anthony festival was about to take place when I was there, which meant that the narrow streets were drawn in even more as pop-up bars and barbecue stalls were set up down the length of almost every street. Colourful tinsel and paper decorations hung from first and second floor balconies, too, highlighted against the paler, worn exteriors of the buildings that supported them.
With so much going on around every corner – whether it’s an elderly lady beating out a rug from a top floor window or a parrot watching the world go by from his door-side perch – you can spend a lot of time in Alfama without spending much at all. Of course, unless you take a packed lunch (which I don’t recommend as there are so many great places to eat!), you will have to pay for food, but apart from that there are a lot of free things to do in Alfama.
Street art hunting
Street art is a massive part of Lisbon’s culture, and Alfama is one of the best places to explore it. From colourful tags to elaborate wall murals, you can find every form of graffiti amongst the winding streets. It turns into a bit of a game, too, of seeing if you can find a bigger, better piece around the next corner.
Take in the tile designs
Tiles, or Azulejos, are huge in Lisbon ever since they were introduced by the Moorish in the 15th Century. Because Alfama was the only part of the city not destroyed by the earthquake, you can still see some original tile designs dotted around. Although cracked and faded, they show Arabic inspired geometric patterns and religious scenes. Many, many buildings throughout Alfama are adorned with these kinds of designs – wander around and you’ll start noticing some of the similarities and differences!
Check out some churches
Despite being fairly small, Alfama is home to a number of magnificent churches. Because of the dipping hills that characterise this part of the city, it’s always a surprise when one emerges, domed-head first, behind a collection of chipped buildings. Although it costs money to go into some of the churches, you can still appreciate their grand architecture without spending a penny. Be sure to check out Santa Engracia Church and Lisbon Cathedral.
I lost count of the amount of parrots I saw in cages set outside buildings, either from a hook in the wall or perched on balcony railings. I guess because gardens are so rare in this area that to get some fresh air they have to be hung outside. This also means that Alfama sort of has its own soundtrack made up of wolf-whistling and chirping. Good or bad? I don’t know.
I hate the term window-shopping. What’s the point if you’re not going to buy anything? Just stay at home or do something else.
Well, in Alfama, window-shopping is actually a great way to explore the handiwork of local artists, as many shops stock prints, postcards, and original paintings from both well known and lesser-known creatives from the city. It’s not just what’s inside the shops, either, as many have personalised tile designs outside (a vase for a flower-shop, or an elaborate peacock design for an arty shop, for example).
Wander through some ruins
Sao Jorge castle is busy and it’s not cheap to get inside or to explore the grounds. However, just before you reach the peak of the hill, there are some old ruins that sprawl out on a small patch of land between houses. There’s not much to see, to be honest, but the view is great from here (and much less crowded than from the castle itself), plus, street artists have been given free reign to make their mark in this area.
Listen to some live music
By the Decorative Arts Museum there’s a small plaza type place that, in all honesty, is a bit touristy – there’s a fairly pricey cafe and it’s the starting point of tuk-tuk tours in the area – but, on most days, you will find a live band performing there against the backdrop of the Tagus River. You can watch them for a while (of course, I’d recommend giving them some money but that’s optional) and rest your weary legs.
There are so many other great free things to do in Alfama that I didn’t get the chance to do. I didn’t, for example, see the Thieves Market which takes place in the winding streets on a Tuesday and Saturday, but I’ve heard it’s a great for picking up inexpensive trinkets and locally made handicrafts (what’s not to like about that!).
If you wander around for long enough, I’m sure you’ll find other stuff, too. Alfama seems to be a haven of never-ending sights, sounds, and smells, so my suggestion would be to soak up as much of it as you can!
For now, I’ll leave you with a list of further reading material if you want to find out more about this old, rickety part of Lisbon (and why would you not!).
Feast of St Anthony: a guide to Lisbon’s sardine festival
Lonely Planet have put together a brief introduction and guide to the annual festival which sees Alfama become even livelier, even more colourful, and even more exciting.
Alfama: Our Lisbon Neighbourhood
If simply visiting Alfama isn’t enough for you and you want to stay for longer, the duo at Never Ending Voyage have put together a little introduction to spending a bit of time in the area (i.e. more than a month).
I didn’t know this before I went, but apparently there’s a dog that roams the streets of Alfama that everyone who lives there knows about. This is a moving story about the little guy by a German girl who lived in Alfama for a while, working in one of the many cafes there.
Fado: The Lisbon Blues
Here, travel writer extraordinaire Rick Steve’s has written a brief guide to Lisbon’s traditional music, Fado. It’s a narrative piece about his experience of the music in Alfama, but touches on some other parts of the city, too.
Eating in Lisbon, Portugal
This piece isn’t solely about Alfama but, if you remember, I had a bit of trouble finding some great places to eat throughout the city. This extensive guide is perfect for highlighting the best places to eat what, and the typical dishes you should look to try.
And finally, this little gem from the New York Times in 1988…
Lisbon Journal; in Old Section of City, a Ghetto With a View
So, Alfama, you are beautiful. Very old, but very beautiful.
Do you have any more tips for Alfama? Have you been? Would you like to go? Let me know in the comments!
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