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.
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.
My Lisbon is a place where dogs are happy: they stand by windows and look out to see what's going on, or else roam the streets at night looking for a partner to make love to. I have seen the strangest dogs in Lisbon - doing the strangest things. Although I'm not a dog lover, I got the love the dogs of Lisbon
Fondest memory: Animal aside, "my" Lisbon is a city of many faces: the old quaint houses in Alfama, the wonderful monuments of Belem, the fashionable avenues of the Baixa and the buzzing nightlife of the Bairro Alto. Many faces - one charm.
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.
the Bairro alto is the high neighbourhood of Lisbon. The first time I went there it looked really sad and run down - the saddest place on earth... it seemed devoid of charm, of atmosphere.
Fondest memory: I went back there at night, only because a friend had insisted, and found it really buzzing, alive with music, pubs, people having fun. At night it turned out to become magical and to show its hidden and truest character... At night, it was all beaut!
After the devastating earthquake of 1755, it was decided that a new city centre be built for The area called Baixa is a - let's call it "dignified" area in Lisbon. it's the low-city... the one that's nearly completely flat. After having been demolished by an earthquake in 1755, this new centre was built - in neoclassical style.
Fondest memory: My favourite part are the wide airy squares surrounded by amazing buildings, and at times lined with statues or arches. Despite the traffic, it's a plesant area to walk. I am particularly fond of Rua Augusta, but not for its cafes and boutiques... the reason is more trivial... it bears my name. How can you not like such a street?
After the earthquake of 1755, Marquês de Pombal designs and projects the "new" Lisbon in an effort to rebuild the destroyed city. This area of the city is his work, thus the name Pombalina. Straight and wide streets cross between themselves in a geometric way. These small streets were named according to the shopkeepers and craftsmen who traded in the area.
In this area many interesting monuments and structures can be found. The Terreiro do Paço, Rossio, Praça da Figueira and Praça dos Restauradores are the main squares in this area.. and they can be explored easily one after another just by walking.
Some say that Terreiro do Paço or Praça do Comércio is the most imponent square of Europe. The british call it the “Black Horse Square”. The Royal Palace stood here for 200 years before it was destroyed by the earthquake. When the square was rebuilt turned to be the port of entry for Kings and Presidents. This is the place to start a visit to the Baixa Pombalina
Fondest memory: After a long stay far from Lisbon I always do the same whenever I come back: a walk in the afternoon from Terreiro do Paço to Rossio with a stop for a beer or a coffee in one of the cafes in Rua Augusta, the main street.... and if it's sunny it's just perfect.
The Alfama is the oldest area in Lisbon: it's very quaint, with narrow winding streets nestled upon the hillside. There are many discoveries to make - at every twist or turn: old churches, statues, beautiful old buildings, a castle.
Fondest memory: Above all Alfama is a maze: we tried to navigate it with a map, but it proved useless - we would see something nice in the distance, and we would forget about where we were planning on going. And yet... Alfama's not only beauty: at times it gives you the impression (wrong, I assume) of poverty, of decadence.
The district of Belem is located a few miles from the centre of Lisbon: it's on the Tagus river and it's the city's original port. it's also the place that's brought Lisbon to be listed as a UNESCO place - because of its amazing monuments.
Fondest memory: The monuments: old ones like the tower of Belem, and new ones like the monument to the nation’s Age of Discoveries. And then again the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos: never have I seen such intricate patterns on a monastery. It's a real delight to the eyes.
After the fire of 1988 that started in Armazéns do Chiado the neighborhood was rebuilt, regaining it's elegance and charm. Here can be found several old style cafes where, in the beginning of the 20th century, many writers, artists and intellectuals use to go.
Rua Garrett and Rua do Carmo were always famous for having the best stores, especially shoe stores... and also beautiful women walking on them :)
The Armazéns do Chiado is today a shopping center with many stores inside.
Fondest memory: Having a coffee in A Brasileira on a sunny day
Favorite thing: Walking in Lisbon, I felt like I was exploring an overlooked, often missed, out of the way, European secret, but at the same time, that I was in a bustling capital that was truly the focus of a nation. I talked with locals who had that hardened exterior pride that only comes from living in the "big city" and I was reminded of friends that I have from New York City ("if you can make it there, you'll make it anywhere" goes the tune). I wondered if they were aware, or if they would even care, that much of the traveling world tends to view their city as a rustic diversion from exploration of the Iberian peninsula's larger country to the east. Somehow, I think they're enjoying their beautiful city too much to mind.
Favorite thing: Despite being virtually levelled in 1755 by a massive earthquake, Lisbon still has many reminders of its ancient past. After the earthquake, the lower town was completely rebuilt in a more modern, wide-laned and grid-patterned style, but you can still wander through Medieval lanes in the surrounding neighborhoods. The city is topped by a castle which dates to the 5th century and from here the views are breathtaking.
Favorite thing: . . . I was trying to stay dry! The first couple days we were in Lisbon, the rain was annoying as heck! It would rain for five minutes and then stop for two, then rain, then stop, then start again, then . . . well, you get the picture. While visiting the Castelo de Sao Jorge, we were caught in a sudden, drenching rain, but fortunately we were able to duck into one of the covered watchtowers and wait until it passed. It only took a few minutes and when it stopped, we saw this beautiful rainbow arching through the sky.
One of the best things about Lisbon is that it has managed to retain an old-fashioned, slightly worn and tattered feel. As you walk the cracked cobblestoned streets, you are bound to see graffiti sprayed on faded, ochre-colored walls, clothes hanging from second floor windows and the occasional building that is falling into aged and neglected disrepair. I loved it!!
Some cities, particularly in the States, are so architecturally homogenous and are kept so antiseptically clean and tidy that it borders on boring. Lisbon, on the other hand, is a tangle of funky streets, blending a spectrum of styles, colors and textures. It marries the old world with the new and this diversity of sights makes it fascinating to explore.
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.