When you say ‘Alfama’ to someone from Lisbon, their heart will immediately beat faster. This area is the oldest district in Lisbon and yes, the city kind of grew out from there. Out and about on an adventure containing steep hills, cobblestoned streets and medieval walls, you will think you time travelled to some 100 years ago, when walking through ancient Alfama. Let us teach you the essential stuff for a unforgettable time in this neighborhood.
Back in the days, the area that is Lisbon today belonged to the North African Moors. You can still see the Moorish influence today, especially in Alfama. This makes up a big part of the neighborhood’s charm. Even the word “Al-fama” is believed to have its origin in Arabic language. The city became Christian after the famous “Siège of Lisbon” when Christian Crusaders defeated the Moors in 1147. Already in 12th century Alfama looked a lot like it does today, at least the steep maze consisting of countless narrow lanes is still the same. You will be blown away when entering the lovely district for the first time.
And where else could you better start then where the Crusaders conquered the city? We are talking about the stunning castle that is located right in the middle of Alfama and can be seen from almost everywhere in Lisbon: Castelo de São Jorge. The walk up the hill towards the castle can be quite exhausting but we guarantee that it will be rewarding. You won’t pay that much entrance fee but the breath-taking view over the Baixa district from the castle battlements will take you by complete surprise. There is no better way than starting your Alfama adventure.
After this there is no way around the next step: getting lost in Alfama’s maze of hundreds of cobblestoned alleys and streets that sometimes do not even lead anywhere but in a dead end. Be sure to bring a big bottle of water as there will be loads of staircases to climb up and down. You will most possibly run into some adorable Portuguese grannies who have been living in Alfama for their whole life. Sometimes they just look out of the window right onto the small courts, lost in thought as if they were strolling down memory lane. Keep your eyes peeled for all the colorful tiles that can be found on the floor and house walls. Tiles are famous in Portugal and there is even a museum about it.
If you are tired of wandering around this lively and breathing district, search for the tram number 28. These historic, small trams are the only ones who can cope with the squiggly, undulating alleyways of Alfama. No modern tram could navigate all those sharp turns of the tracks. Getting on tram 28 seems a little too touristy in the first place but it is indeed a highlight to take a ride, especially with those crazy Portuguese drivers.
Hopping off the tram you will most probably find yourself at one of the many “Miradouros”, which is how the Portuguese call viewpoints. And boy, Alfama offers lots of viewpoints. There would be Miradouro de Graça. This one is located at the border to another, wonderful neighborhood called Graça. You absolutely have to check this out, not only because of the fantastic panorama view over the city but also because this is one of the viewpoints where the locals mostly go. There is a small kiosk café offering to sit down, have a glass of wine and enjoy the moment.
Then there would be Miradouro de Santa Luzia. At times, it can be pretty crowdy, but it is also a little bit more reachable due to its central location. You will be able to admire the splendid view over the river and all the cute, terra-cotta colored roof tiles of Alfama. If you’re lucky and it is not foggy you can see the Bridge Ponte Vasco da Gama to your left. It is the longest bridge of Europe with slightly more than 17 kilometres (about 11 miles) of length.
From Miradouro de Santa Luzia it is not far to the oldest church of Lisbon: Santa Maria Maior, or Sé de Lisboa, how the Portuguese call it. You can walk there or take tram 28 again. Portugal’s first king built this Romanesque church in 1147, when Lisbon was conquered from the Moors. Our favorite part is the two bell towers that remind us of a medieval fortress. If you are keen on seeing even more churches and chapels, go ahead and look for Igreja de São Vicente de Fora and Igreja de Santa Engrácia (Panteão Nacional), which can both be seen from Miradouro de Santa Luzia.
If you are in Lisbon on a Tuesday or Sunday and there is still some extra money left in your pocket, you could ask a Tuk Tuk driver to bring you to the famous flea market Feira da Ladra. Tuk Tuks are a great and fun way of getting around in Lisbon and especially Alfama since they are so agile and fast. If this seems to pricey or touristy for you just walk to Feira da Ladra, it is located nearby Igreja de Santa Engrácia. You can shop various artisan objects, both new and second hand – perfect for a unique Lisbon souvenir.
Want to know the perfect time of the year for admiring Alfama? Visit Lisbon in June and be part of the Saint Anthony Festival. Saint Anthony (Santo Antonio) is said to be Lisbon’s patron saint, besides Saint Vincent, and the Lisboetas dedicate the whole month of June to that man. Incredible, right? One month where Alfama, Saint Anthony’s home, is full of streets parties, food sold on the street (especially Sardines – yum!), and street music. No alleyway will be without colorful garlands, happy people or typical Portuguese music. We go there every June – and next time you will be part of it!