I stayed just off of Avenida da Liberdade (at the Ibis Hotel) and I spent lots of time strolling up and down. This was especially so when I just arrived in Lisbon and my room was not yet ready. I was dead tired and walked up and down this palm lined avenue just trying to keep awake. There are plenty of cafes, pasteurises and restaurants here to keep you going. The Avenida da Liberdade is also lined with many high-end shops to draw your attention.
Fondest memory: Perhaps the many cafes that line the Avenida da Liberdade is the most interesting feature. These cafes are very busy at all times of day and sell inexpensive drinks.
Lisbon's oldest quarter is the steep Alfama district which almost wasn't damaged during the 1755 earthquake. It is still home to some Roman and Arab remains.
The Alfama district consists of an interesting mixture of cobbled alleys with drying laundry, tiny squares with chatting locals, wrought-iron balconies with caged birds and hole-in-the-wall stores with all sorts of local specialities.
The Alfama district is situated east of the Baixa, just in between the castle and the Tejo river banks.
The Mouraria covers the foothills and slopes of the Castle at the north side, dilating to the gates of São Vicente, now the "rua do Arco do Marques de Alegrete".
Mouraria, so designated after D. Afonso Henriques send the Moors, driven from its stronghold, to that location. Moors lived there free, kept their customs, practiced their religion, they spoke Arabic and were governed by a mayor. So it was until 1497, when D. Manuel I expelled Jews and Moors from Portugal. However, the term remains to this day. The Mouraria evokes times of dark deeds, knife and slap frequented by fado and vagabonds of Alfama and Bairro Alto. Today is mainly picturesque.
Favorite thing: The Portuguese troops who accompanied D. Afonso Henriques settled here for the siege and conquest of Aschbouna - Moorish name of Lisbon. This neighborhood was given the name "da Graça" in 1305, when all the convents of St. Augustine came also to the invocation of Our Lady of Grace. Along to the convent built there and because of "good air", was born a neighborhood that began with nobles, after bourgeois and merchants and later workers.
As I said you have a good view of the rooftops of downtown Lisbon from the top of the Elevador de Santa Justa, it is worth the trip up just for the view.
Just off the elevator ramp is also an abandonded monastary or church whose ruins give you a few good shots also.
Favorite thing: Whichever of these three areas in Lisboa you'd end up staying in, you can be sure to enjoy yourself the romance and charms of old Lisbon. It all depends on which quiet street your hotel might be situated at, that it's not next or worst fronting a main vehicular street. And being right in the center of the old city, you can be sure that there is no shortage of the old neighborhood ambiance with the appropriate ingredients of families, old grannies, kids and small shops, etc. at every turn. Noting these neighborhood categories you're hankering for, of the three neighborhoods I'd say that Bairro Alto collectively has the most to offer in terms of varied interests. The Alfama, tho older and more tranquil, has fewer selection of cafes and shopping and closes early. Chiado on the other hand, being right next to the Baixa, is at the center of good shopping, far more cafes and restaurants and therefore busier with decidedly more human traffic. However, if your apartment would be away from Rua Garrett and main Chiado district, then you'd be fine in terms of quiet. It's best to stay where you'll be among a constant crowd yet removed from it once in your apartment, when one of your chief concerns would be safety. But you shouldn't worry much about crime in Lisboa, other than incidental pickpockets, the city is fairly safe and very pleasant. The late night partying mostly in Chiado and Bairro Alto especially from Thursday night into Saturday, also poses no great threat and inconvenience. You'd even find this casual disturbances fitting to an overall holiday spirit.
Starting in Rua da Alfândega (customs street) and climbing up the hill up to Castelo de S. Jorge, we find Alfama, Lisbon's oldest and most picturesque quarter, which faces the river on the southeastern slope of the most visible of the 7 hills. Visitors will find the unique atmosphere prevailing in the streets and alleyways of far greater interest than individual buildings.
Some houses in this quarter still stand on foundations dating from the times of the Goths (5th C.), but the whole structure of the area was essentially shaped by the Arabs that settled in Iberia peninsula on the 8th C. Actually the name derives from arabic, al-hamma (hot spring or hot baths), from the hot springs that existed in the area and which gave birth to some of the oldest fountains in the town –today we still can see the Chafariz de Dentro and the Chafariz de El-Rei. Although no houses remain from these times, the confused arrangement of its maze of moorish streets and alleyways does. The initial intention was to protect the castle from crusader invasion by designing streets that only residents could navigate.
Like a kasbah, Alfama is a labyrinth of lanes (becos) paved with pebbles, tiny alleys, steps, arches, courtyards and small squares. The houses, shouldering each other, deteriorating, with crumbling walls and chipped tiles (azulejos) and with wrought iron balconies with lazy cats, birds in cages, and all sorts of plants growing in cans. Some of the houses are so close that the sun never makes its way into the lane (something that you can see in many arab influenced countries as it was a moorish typical way of making the streets in places of hot sunshine), and the roofs seems to touch each other as the inhabitants pass each other things from one window to the next. And without sun the laundry hanging out the window or the balcony, a “typical” photo, dry mostly from the breeze that flows through the lanes. There is practically no vegetation, except for a skinny tree in the small backyards and maybe a bougainvillea here and there. Of course in the small squares there is room to accommodate maybe a big tree.
In the old times, Moors, Christians and Jews lived in the old quarter (although separately). Rua da Judiaria recalls one of its three former Jewish ghettos. Today it seems almost inconceivable that during the Middle Ages Alfama was once a respected, rich quarter where prosperous members of the bourgeoisie and aristocrats lived. On 1511 king Manuel I moved the royal palace to Terreiro do Paço (Praça do Comércio), and Alfama increasingly changed its character and started to be poorly maintained, and consequently those Lisbon's prosperous inhabitants moved to the “new” Bairro Alto to build new houses and palaces for themselves. Alfama never recovered its importance and this left space for fishermen, craftsmen, workers and sailors to settle here, and the area started to crumble. In the 18th C. Alfama was temporarily regarded as a center of prostitution. The 1755 earthquake left Alfama almost untouched, and the mentor of the rebuilding of the Baixa (downtown area), Marquis de Pombal, is supposed to have said that “Lisbon could really do with a second earthquake”.
Being one of the poorest quarters in the city there are some clichés: the already mentioned laundry hanging out on the balcony; the poor food of the fishermen -sardine-; the devotion to Santo António (born here) with its processions and parades; and the fado -the songs of “fate”. During the summer is “sardine time” and their smell spread all over the neighborhood, but when it’s not hot the humid plaster and moss are perceptible in many places. Misery, cheap wine, yearning or “saudade” (the quarter has a Rua da Saudade), are essential to the fado.
Actually this is the quarter where fado was born and where some of the best fado houses still exist. But remember that some are big tourist traps (see my tips about fado restaurants). Fado born as what we call "vadio" (loosely translated as vagrant / vagabond but that means "amateur" in fado's language) and the most “castiço” (loosely translated as “pure”) is the one you can listen in places where anybody may get up and perform. In Alfama you have still some those restaurants, as for example “A Baiuca”, which has a modest family atmosphere and basic but honest food. Of course you have more “fancy” ones such as "Clube do Fado", "Parreirinha da Alfama" or “Casa de Linhares” with higher prices but more professional performers. And you have Fado Museum, close to the fountain "Chafariz de Dentro", which is open 10am-2am Fri-Sun. If you are lucky maybe they have a nice performance there when you visit.
Most of the people who live in Alfama right now are not fishermen anymore as you may read in tourist guides... that was more than 40 years ago as I never saw them there. Nowadays they are pensioners, artisans and immigrants, and surviving from one day to the next is about all they can manage. But they are gentle people, maybe melancholic and amiable. According to some tourist guides “ready to help tourists”... but this I don’t comment as I don’t’ know them all. But at least I can say it is a safe place.
Some of the becos are overrun with tiny shops serving souvenirs, or food, and you can see small taverns and adegas (wine cellars) where you can have a glass of “honest” red wine from the barrel. Nowadays with the European Community laws we will not see anymore the varinas (fish sellers) yelling the nice pregões (street vendor's cry) about the “best and fresh fish in town”. But we will still see the small benches with fresh vegetables sold in the street in some small squares.
Moreover, cars don’t circulate the internal side of Alfama, rendering the streets and alleys entirely to walkers (or bikers if you are able to). Actually, here life is lived for the most part on the street and gossiping when shopping for groceries or while taking a glass of wine is still a daily routine. So you can “lose” yourself in these streets without a problem -even without understand a word of English (of course the young generation will understand) the locals will “understand” you. And of course you are more than welcome if you come in June, especially on the Santo António’s eve -June 12th-, as the entire city will come to this quarter celebrating, singing, dancing, eating and drinking. Next day, -June 12th-, will see the devotion of the inhabitants toward the saint, as it is the day of the procession that goes from Santo António church down to the small streets of Alfama and passes, in front of the major churches in the quarter.
The famous tram 28 is the typical touristic way to climb from Baixa to the narrow streets that leads to the castle. But in case you can I will recommend using your legs instead. The usual route into Alfama leads via the cathedral (Sé Patriarchal) and the Santo António church to the Santa Luzia Miradouro (viewpoint), and from there to the steps of Rua Norberto Araújo.
The best way to see Alfama is from the castle, and there are 2 other viewpoints (miradouros) in Alfama wher you can see the Tejo -Miradouro de Santa Luzia and Miradouro das Portas do Sol.
Most of the guide books also will tell you that along with Bairro Alto, Alfama is the place to eat the “real Portuguese traditional food”. I doubt in most part of the places because they are designated to tourism and flavors/tastes are twisted according to the “internationalization” and “globalization”. Nevertheless, there are a few exceptions which are the small taverns and adegas and the small restaurants where the inhabitants and working class have their meals. Try to find one of those.
Favorite thing: The best thing to do is to get lost in the different neighborhoods. Just lose the map, the way and you will experience different views and aspects of the city. you will explore an 'arte antiga' and an 'arte moderna', that you won't find in the museums...
While vacationing in beautiful Lisbon, and because of a trained eye nowadays, I had the opportunity to witness a couple of instances that teenage girls were gazed by adult men in a way that women with self respect would simply be insulted. I had the unfortunate (believe it or not) opportunity to walk through Avenida de Libertade and admire the well trimmed urban landscape and observe the gentrification creeping in a city that can’t wait to compete with the marketability of other European capitals. And there across the Louis Vuitton flag store boutique I show a person totally covered and wrapped in a black plastic foil (a garbage bag?) sitting on a bench in the middle of the grand avenida. Of course this is hardly a characteristic of Lisbon or Portugal; I have witnessed a bag lady stationed next to the Prada shop in Soho NY. Then one walks the narrow rua(s) in the Barrio Alto. And in the mid day even, the feeling is strange as the run down neglected environs create a fear, probably imagined, but still real. And the police car looking for a specific address, going back and forth does not help. Small facades of taverns that one can barely have a view inside, discourage the intimate tourist (who better follow her/his instinct and act accordingly). Graffiti is all over in some narrow streets. Because in many European cities graffiti has been criminalized, one may perceive it as a sign of delinquency or danger. On the other hand it can be seen as an act of expression, in cases quite artful, and/or an act of protest maybe. If the case is the latter then why not wonder why does such a protest exist, and against what?
Lisbon doesn’t have the main core, the centre that other cities may have. Lisbon has many centers dispersed, and some hidden. Walking in the main pedestrian and grand street I show quite a few shops, fewer cafes, while the only design shop was that of ZARA Home. In the adjacent streets there were many banks, and then corner shops closed and deserted. Gentrification for Lisbon is waiting just around corner. Great opportunities said a friend. Yes, but I am also afraid of the opportunists. There is a nostalgia in the decadence of previously wealthy buildings. A bittersweet feeling? An interesting combination between the then and the now. Portuguese are stereotyped as moody, like their fado. I can only say that I experienced them as friendly, helpful, although a bit too serious people, modest and maybe not too sophisticated but then again I was just a tourist.
Fondest memory: FOOD: The small restaurants where locals go to eat are a guarantee for good food and drinks in great prices. There is a policy I regret to say not to offer water even with coffee and pastries. TIP: is not obligatory and we didn’t get any special appreciation for living 10-15% everywhere.
Sintra and Palau Pena: An extraordinary landscape. A frightful bus ride to the palace.
MOVING AROUND: Do take buses, trams, metro and taxis (they are affordable) as much as you can. We used the one day card for 3€ something. The hills are not a peace of cake.
SHOPPING: Well, it’s not the shopping as such that seemed limited as the galleries, and art and design shops, and for sure Portuguese designers seem to be in shortage in the actual centre of Baixa. Close by the central, famous, and very touristy café Brasileira, there is a shop for gloves that is exquisite. In any case that shop with the tiny facade and public area, and the great and affordable merchandise is a must. And if you have 52€ to spare on hand-made Portuguese leather gloves with cashmere lining (men’s gloves) go ahead. I didn’t do and regret it. Brasileira is overrated.
The water frond: It is quite typical for many cities to have turned their back towards their precious water frond. Lisbon is not an exemption. A highway, and train tracks create a “wall” between a big stretch of the old city and the river.
Beleem: One word: mmm!! You must try the fresh and still warm pastries in the famous Pasteis de Beleem.
The weather: temperature around 16 degrees Celsius, with rain showers and humidity but sunny. The weather was very favorable: warm and sunny most of the time.
Favorite thing: Don't be afraid to wander around the city in the daylight and just see where life takes you. All the neighborhoods are so enchanting there's no way you can be directed to find them. Also don't fear hiking up the hills! Take it slowly and absorb the scenery. I think this is one of the reasons that I loved Lisbon so much.
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