Alfama – Lisbon’s Oldest District

Azulejo 1If you are visiting Lisbon then a walk around Alfama should definitely be on your must do list. Alfama is part of old Lisbon, the part that withstood the earthquake of 1755. The higgledy-piggeldy streets in this once no go area have in recent years opened up to the world and become a wonderful place to explore. Expect to get lost. It’s almost impossible to follow a map – let go and step back in time.

The tiny cobbled streets are mostly too small for cars, indeed you sometimes might want to breathe in when travelling on the tram through here! Steep hills and maze like streets wiggle their way down to the Tejo – these are known as travessas or becos instead of ruas. There are many sites to see here such as the Sé Cathedral, the Church of Saint Anthony (where St. Anthony was born), the Museum of Decoratives Arts, Lisbon Castle, the Puppet Museum, the Church of São Vincente de Fora, the Military Museum and the Museum of Water.  A flea-market (Feira da Ladra) is held every Tuesday and Saturday morning and has much the same feeling as a Moroccan market – wonders hidden beneath trinkets and tat.

Alfama Graffiti

© ILWL

Personally I feel that the main attraction is the streets themselves. Steps from the Miradouro das Portas do Sol take you down into the area. A funny piece of graffiti requests that you to respect the silence: Alfama is a peaceful place. Often streets are deserted aside from a stray cat  sitting in a patch of sunlight. On other streets, dogs bark or wag their tails from tiny balconies, children kick footballs, birds sing from cages dangling from windows and elderly ladies sit quietly in their doorways. On almost any street you are guaranteed to see the typical Lisbon site of washing hanging outside the windows and sometimes streamers from old festivals still decorate the streets.

Alley cat - Alfama

© ILWL

Alfama is beautiful although I have to say the second time I visited there I was alone and felt a little more vulnerable. I did get very lost and had difficulty finding my way out. I spotted a rogue teenager who had a glint in his eye following me, so had to take different roads than the ones I thought I needed. In the end, fed up with the dance, I turned round and took his photograph – that seemed to put a stop to it!

Generally though, I would suggest if you are lost, just decide to make for up or down – you will eventually hit the water or end up back near the castle.

There are plenty of little bars, cafes and shops to sit in and enjoy the atmosphere. I particularly like the tiny fado bars on the edge of Alfama almost opposite the Fado museum. If you are keen on photography, Alfama offers some picture postcard scenes and plenty of atmospheric alleyways. Azulejos abound in the area and there are also parts that are extremely run down or derelict yet have fantastic graffiti. Under Arab occupation the area was known as al-hamma meaning spring or bath as hot springs are found here. However, as the Moorish rule fell, Alfama became an area where the poorer people lived. Fishermen often lived here with their families.

Alfama streamers

© ILWL

These days Alfama is a wonderful mix of old and new so typical of Lisbon in general. The ancient traditions are still evident in the ladies taking their washing to the public washing baths and the smoky fado bars yet you can find funky hip clubs and trendy bars down near the docks. Wandering in Alfama is perfect inspiration for the photographer, musician, novelist and film-maker alike.

Alfama is easy to find – just take the 28 tram to Miradouro das Portas do Sol (the stop after the castle). Alternatively you can get off at the castle and carry on walking up the hill past Miradouro de Santa Luzia. Look for the open air cafe  to your right for the fantastic view. The steps down are just there.

There is an excellent collection of photos in the Alfama group on Flickr. Take a look here.

 


4 comments for “Alfama – Lisbon’s Oldest District

  1. January 12, 2008 at 1:14 pm

    Hi leah
    Great blog!
    Thanks for visiting mine:)

  2. Lily
    January 12, 2008 at 2:31 pm

    Hi and thankyou 🙂
    I’m going to enjoy seeing you make your dreams come true x

  3. richard taylor
    November 5, 2015 at 6:51 pm

    I kept getting my digital camera out (I had a camera with film on my previous visit) as I walked through Alfama right up to Santa Apollonia Station. Wonderful walking! Not sure the Alfama was ever a no-go area during daylight hours, Lily, but even now, it’s not recommended as a place to go walking round after dark! My one issue with this picturesque and soulful neighbourhood is the presence of one or two rather aggressive-sounding dogs and a thankfully muzzled one snapped at me this time – even Rudi Vogler’s character in Wim Wender’s Lisbon Story turned back when he saw a dog at the top of a stairwell (I think he was probably in Alfama)

  4. Susanne Sayers
    October 3, 2016 at 5:02 am

    Nice blog, thank you.

    However, I live in Alfama, and there is absolutely no problem walking here after dark. Really. I come home now and again at three o’clock in the morning, I never feel unsafe.

    People are friendly, polite, and gentle. Portugal is the 5th most peaceful country in the World according to the World Peace Index, and Alfama is no exception. And there is a great, but frequently understated sense of humour here as well. I love Alfama, I love living here.

    Lisboetas outside Alfama remain sceptics, though. For years it was known as an area of thieves and other people of dubious reputation, and the language between old people especially still contain dialect words that other citizens of the city may find difficult to understand. There is a certain robust toughness to the old people here.

    But by all means, the area is not dangerous, not even at night. As in all large cities pickpockets are a real menace, but usually they work in crowds. Your main danger will be being drawn to some of the fadistas continueing the night’s music by one of the little squares well into the early morning on warm nights. The beautiful viewpoint in front of the church of Saint Stephen, Igreja de Santo Estevao, is particularly popoular.

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