Alfama - the Charm of the Past
I have already written about the beauty of the historic Pálacio Belmonte high above the old part of Lisbon (Alfama). During my last stay at this bespoken guest palace, I have taken the opportunity to explore the Alfama, the oldest neighborhood in Lisbon. You can easily reach the following sites in one day – if you are not afraid of staircases and wearing comfortable shoes. As an alternative, you may use a "tuk-tuk" (yes, those funny means of transport you may know from Bangkok). Or take a taxi. If you really want to have a local experience, take the historic tram called "electrico." Line 28 crosses the Alfama with all its narrow alleys and is a relict oft he 1930s site, so to say. Take a ride and live the charm of the past!
Let's start at the highest point in Lisbon, the Castelo Sao Jorge. In 1147, the Christian crusaders had defeated the Moorish. The castle was restored in the 40s. The best is the stunning view of the city and the giant Tagus River that you can enjoy.
The perfect Souvenir
Not far away from the castle, you will find "The Cork Store" – a lovely boutique with a wide array of accessories made of cork. What an excellent alternative for leather! At the same time, this is a typical Portuguese product, ideal as souvenir or gift for your beloved ones at home.
Breathtaking Lookouts in Lisbon
Walk the cobblestone alleys down to Miradouro Santa Luzia. Due to its many hills, Lisbon has a couple of these lookouts called "miradouro," with breathtaking views. The charming white church Santa Luzia enchants with its tiles. On some of them, you can see Lisbon before the big earthquake.
From Pálacio Belmonte (and from the Miradouro Santa Luzia), you always have a fantastic view of another white church, the Igreja de Sao Vicente de Fora. It dates back to the 17th century. Don't miss it! You will find a collection of over 100,000 "azulejos," the renowned blue tiles. The view of the Alfama and the Tagus River from the rooftop is second to none. It makes up for climbing all those staircases.
Coffee Break and Churches...
However, the best is yet to come. From Sao Vicente, you walk in the direction of the Tagus River (your feet will be happy because it's all downwards). You will pass a little art market and with plenty of opportunities to sip a delicious coffee. My tip: the Copenhagen Coffee Lab. A little bit of Scandinavia in Portugal, a very charming mix. A modern ambiance, tasty snacks, and a perfect brew. Lots of young people with their laptops and smartphones. There are plenty of other little cafés all over the place. In most of them, you will get excellent coffee and sinful little cakes and bakeries. Ready for more? Let's walk to the Igreja de Santa Engrácia, one of Lisbon's most beautiful churches (also called National Pantheon). The construction started in 1681, but it took until 1966 to complete the building. That's the reason for all the elements of different eras. The giant dome reminded me somehow of the White House in Washington. In this church, there are the coffins of some of the most famous Portuguese such as Vasco da Gama and Amalia Rodriguez, the country's most popular and almost holy fado singer.
Same again – don't miss to visit the church and to climb the roof. Hooray, there's is a lift! From the many turrets on the rooftop, you have another incredible view of Lisbon and the Tagus River. I could not get enough of this marvelous vista. If you don't suffer from vertigo, take a look from the platform down to the church. On the first floor, there is an exhibition of modern art. What a nice contrast to the sacred character of the Pantheon.
Time for the river, even if you have to climb up all those stairs again up to Palácio Belmonte. Get in shape or take a taxi. And time for another coffee or refreshment (or both). Opposite the historic train station Santa Apolónia (one of the most important ones in Lisbon) that dates back to the year 1865, I discovered an edgy place called "Brunch." Mostly young people meet here to talk and to enjoy an ample late breakfast. You can eat well (and quite a lot) for just 10 EUR, love it!
From here, it's only a stone's throw to the fado museum, which unfortunately is closed on Sundays. It doesn't matter, though. The sun is shining, and I prefer to be outside. However, it would be interesting to learn more about the history of this sentimental music with all its theatrical singers. Maybe you have seen some of the fado stars during the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest in Lisbon?
Photo: I loved the chandelier at BRUNCH
More Churches, more Stairs
Time to go up all the way to Palácio Belmonte. I no longer count the stairs and take a walk as a perfect exercise for legs and bum. No gym needed today. What a day! No doubt: Lisbon ranks very high on the list of my favorite cities.
If you still have not seen enough churches, go visit Lisbon's oldest one. Construction of the Igreja de Santa Maria Maior Sé Patriarchal de Lisboa (also simply known as "Sé") started in 1147. The church was reconstructed after two earthquakes. From "Sé," it's a short walk down to the Rossió square on the banks of the Tagus River. On your way, have a look at "A Arte da Terra," an art gallery opposite the church. In the former horse stables, you get a fantastic overview of Lisbon's arts and crafts.
I loved the fancy flagship store of The Lisbon Walker, within walking distance from the Sé church. Shoes and wine from local production, what an exciting mix. A charming young lady invited me for a wine tasting while I had a look at the extravagant shoes for men. In their little restaurant just next door, you can have a lovely dinner.
Food and Fado in lisbon
Let me say a few words about restaurants in Alfama. There are so many with an essential, authentic cuisine. Maria, the owner of Palácio Belmonte, is very clear about the gastronomy: "You either have a wonderful view but not such a good cuisine or the other way round." So, maybe just enjoy a dinner in one of those little places that don't look impressive. Quite often, they have fado entertainment in the evening. I liked Conqvistador, a small restaurant just next to dem Castelo Sao Jorge – lovely service and tasty food with an appealing presentation. As in most restaurants, most dishes contain meat or fish, but with a little bit of fantasy, you can compose something vegetarian as well.
A few more tips for restaurants:
Aura Lounge Café (modern Portuguese cuisine in an elegant atmosphere)
Portas do Sol (rather a cocktail bar with a fantastic view of the Alfama district and the Tagus River)
Tips from a Local
Ana Paris was born in Lisbon and has lived in various places in Portugal. 20 months ago, she returned to her home city to work as real estate broker. Ana describes the Alfama as follows:
Alfama is one of the best neighborhoods that you can visit while you are staying in Lisbon. You can explore the streets of Alfama every day, and none will be the same as the day before.
Its narrow alleys, stairs, and people are the key elements of its beauty. While exploring this part of the city, you will encounter street art displayed along the building walls. You will find balconies decorated with flowers of different shapes and colors, dolls, windmills, and all sort of catholic saints that will brighten up a smile and make you want to register that image. And more often then not, a person will be at that balcony, window, or door to great you. That will make the whole experience more authentic.
After all the exploring, you can treat yourself to a fine meal of the Portuguese cuisine and an excellent glass of red wine while listening to Fado music. Don't worry, though; even if you don't understand or speak Portuguese, you will undoubtedly feel the lyrics flow through you.
One of my favorite places is the Miradouro Portas do Sol at night. I love to watch the lights and the majestic Tagus River.
How to get to downtown lisbon
A transfer from Lisbon airport will usually take 20 to 30 minutes.
WHERE TO STAY in lisbon
If you are looking for something extraordinary and have high budget for accommodation, I recommend one of Lisbon´s most beautiful, award-winning guest palaces:
Pátio de Dom Fradique 14, 1100-624 Lisboa, Portugal
firstname.lastname@example.org or +351 218816600.
Looking for some Lisbon photo tips from a pro? You will find them here.
You may consider to combine a city escape in Lisbon with a trip to the Algarve with some of the most breathtaking beaches in all of Europe. You will find more information in this article.
For further information about the Alfama and Lisbon, click here.