Lisbon’s oldest neighborhood is also its most well-known and picturesque. Stretching from the banks of the Tagus River to São Jorge Castle on top of one of the city’s famous seven hills, Alfama beckons to photographers, explorers, and locals alike.
Though much of the city was destroyed during the earthquake of 1755, Alfama survived the wreckage. Its maze of narrow streets, colorful buildings, tiled facades, and beautiful vistas is a reminder of Lisbon’s medieval past. If you plan to explore this classic Lisbon neighborhood, here are a few helpful tips to keep in mind.
Stretch Your Legs
Lisbon is nicknamed “The City of Seven Hills,” which seems cute until you realize that you have to walk those hills yourself. Alfama is at the heart of Lisbon’s hilliness — with only a few flat squares in between the steep slopes of cobblestones. To prep for wandering around the neighborhood, do some stretches before you head out. Your legs will thank you later!
Learn to Love New Music
Alfama is where fado was born. This type of music dates back to at least the 1820s and is typically characterized using another Portuguese word: saudade. The term has several loose translations that all refer to a profound sense of melancholy or the emotional state of being nostalgic. Played on a Portuguese guitar, fado is still popular in modern day Alfama. Do a bit of research and be sure to make a reservation at an Alfama restaurant that features live shows!
Take in the View
One of the most gorgeous viewpoints in all of Lisbon is right in Alfama. The Miradouro das Portas do Sol viewpoint is one of the only aforementioned flat areas in Alfama, making it the perfect spot to rest your legs and take in the scenery. With several different spots from which to look out over the city, the Miradouro das Portas do Sol is always bustling with activity. Historic Tram 28 stops right across the street, hopeful tuk-tuk drivers line up to get your business, tour guides lead groups along their routes, and street artists set up their wares on the balconies. Miradouro das Portas do Sol is a must, so you might want to come back several times while in Lisbon (we recommend early in the morning so you can watch the sun illuminate the pastel buildings and orange rooftops).
Follow the Yellow Tram Tracks
Historic Tram 28, Lisbon’s iconic yellow vehicle, chugs along its route, which runs right through Alfama. You could take a ride for a few euro, but it’s hard to photograph the yellow trams while sitting inside. Instead, find the tram tracks and follow along. You’re bound to find the tram eventually — if it doesn’t find you first! Just make sure to have your camera at the ready.
Try the Pasteis de Nata
Though this sweet treat was originally created at the Jerónimos Monastery in the Belém neighborhood, you can find shops selling pasteis de nata all around the city. The egg-based dessert is the perfect pick-me-up for a quick rest during your exploration of Alfama’s steep streets.
It’s All About that Tile
While exploring Alfama, keep your eyes peeled for azulejos — the ceramic tiles that line many of the building interiors and exteriors. The patterned decorations are traditional of Spain and Portugal, but were also functional before the age of air-conditioning, as they acted as a natural temperature control system. You’ll see tiles all over Alfama, so keep your camera ready to photograph the many colors and patterns. See how many varieties you can find!
Hit Up the Market
On Tuesdays and Saturdays, Campo de Santa Clara Street comes to life with Lisbon’s most famous flea market: Fiera de Ladra. Vendors set up shop from dusk to dawn, and you’ll find everything from handmade porcelain and azulejos to vintage clothes, furniture, and household objects. Arrive early to avoid the crowds, and allot plenty of time to explore each row of stalls thoroughly. Trust me, you’ll need it.
If you’re curious about Lisbon’s culture and history (or simply want to get out of Portugal’s midsummer heat), consider a tour of Alfama’s many museums. In Lisbon’s oldest neighborhood, you’ll find the Fado Museum, which details the history and significance of this musical genre; the Decorative Arts Museum, which evokes the style of Portugal’s 18th and 19th century aristocracies; the Teatro Romano Museum, which displays the archaeological remains of Lisbon’s Roman Theater; and the National Tile Museum, which is dedicated to the aforementioned art form.
The best way to experience Alfama is to lose yourself in its maze of cobblestone alleyways and sloping streets. Set out with the express intent of getting lost — make random turns, follow whatever route your intuition devises, and have fun with it. Alfama’s colorful buildings, tiled facades, and plentiful shops and cafés are so welcoming it won’t even feel like you’re lost!
Cover photo by Jason Briscoe