Being Lisbon’s oldest district (having survived great 1755 Lisbon earthquake), Alfama has much heritage and beauty to share amongst it’s winding back streets that climb high from the steep slope that rises from the Tagus River. It’s so different to many of the other parts of Lisbon – to Chiado and Belem with their wide streets and coloured houses – and it’s just begging you to explore it.
Because it has stood tall over Lisbon for almost forever, it plays host to some of its most important buildings. It has long historic connections with Fado, a genre of music known for its melancholy lyrics and melody and a charisma that is hard to put your finger on, as you watch retired fisherman sit on their doorsteps with the local paper.
Want to explore Lisbon’s most interesting and oldest district? Here are 6 things to do in Alfama:
Miradouro das Portas do Sol
If you’ve seen any pictures or heard anything about Alfama, it’s probably about getting up high and making the most of the view. Lisbon is well known for its “miradouros”, view points from which you can observe the true beauty of the city’s riot of coloured buildings and sky and river that combine into one of the most impressive vistas I’ve ever seen. Even in overcast weather.
Miradouro das Portas do Sol is probably Lisbon’s most famous, giving a breathtaking look at Alfama’s rooftops and cultural buildings, helping you to decide which bit you’ll explore next.
They say good views don’t come for free, but in Alfama they do. You can climb up to this particular miradouro from Baixa or by jumping on the famous Tram 28 and if you want to linger a while longer you’ll find a bar to grab a gin and tonic to sip whilst watching the sun go down over one of the best views in Europe.Want to explore Lisbon's most interesting and oldest district? Here are 6 things to do in AlfamaClick To Tweet
Castelo Sao Jorge
Carving out its spot right at the top of Lisbon’s hill, you can see this incredible moorish design from almost everywhere in Lisbon. It was the seat of power for over 400 years, and although the present castle was lovingly restored in the 1920’s, it doesn’t stop the castle from being a beautiful attraction in its own right.
As one of Lisbon’s most popular tourist spots, queues can be long so it is best to go earlier or later in the day to avoid the rush. Not only can you get another great view of the rest of Lisbon (you’ll never tire of them), you can discover a sketch of how Lisbon looked before the 1775 earthquake, the traitors gate and the Tower of St Lawrence.
Cost: 8.50 EUR per adult, open all year round.
Dating back to the 12th Century, Se Cathedral (also known as Lisbon Cathedral) is Lisbon’s oldest church, a beautifully gothic masterpiece similar to many you’ll find in Europe. Whilst it cannot rival some of the other religious buildings in Lisbon, like Jeronimos Monastery, it’s still beautiful and its a very well used place of worship for locals.
The cathedral has some beautiful cloisters to explore, which hold moorish objects and roman finds, and its history is impressive – it was built by Portugal’s first king on the site of an old mosque, and parts of the old mosque wall have been discovered in the cloisters. Inside you can visit the treasury, which is home to St Vincent’s remains – the most important patron saint of Lisbon.
Cost: Free to enter, open from 9am-7pm daily.
Church of Santa Engrácia
The Church of Santa Engrácia is also known as the National Pantheon, it’s domed roof visible from many of the miradouros of Lisbon, an iconic part of the city skyline. It’s a beautiful church and acts as the final resting place for many important Portuguese figures. For those not buried here, cenotaphs have been erected in their honour, such as Luís de Camões and Prince Henry the Navigator but the most recent and famous burial here is probably Amalia Rodrigues, a celebrated fado singer.
The church has a tumultuous past, with it finally being completed in 1966. It was subject to delays, collapse and financial issues and its name became shorthand for “unfinished projects” in Portugal. It’s still a fascinating building to visit both inside and out, and is worth the small fee to go inside.
Cost: 3 EUR per adult.
Explore the back streets
Whilst there are many beautiful buildings and places of worship to explore in Alfama, one of the best ways to get a feel for this old neighbourhood is just to get lost within its cobbled back streets, patterned houses and staircases winding ever upwards into the sky.
As you wander between small pathways and alongside tiny houses with impossibly small front doors you might hear strains of Fado, the music that was born in this district. Alfama used to be one of Lisbon’s poorest neighbourhoods and tourism is certainly changing that slowly – you’ll find the biggest concentration of Lisbon’s Airbnb apartments here.
But this isn’t always positive – in 2012 rental laws were changed which started to price many locals out of the area who were paying rents more suited to the 1990s. Lisbon, and especially Alfama have very much benefited from tourism money, pulling it out of recession. But it is still trying to work out how to get a balance, so be sensitive as you visit.
The Monastery of Sao Vicente de Fora
The Monastery of Sao Vicente de Fora is another gorgeous building that stands proud as part of Lisbon’s impressive skyline, alongside the castle and the pantheon. But it isn’t just a pretty face (even though its white facade and beautiful towers might have you think otherwise). It’s not quite as popular as other sights in Alfama, which means it doesn’t get as crowded, leaving you in relatively peace to explore.
It was damaged quite badly in the 1755 earthquake, and restored over the years, it becoming the final resting place of the Braganza family (one of whom was married to the King of England, Charles II. But perhaps its most interesting feature is that it is probably the best example of mannerist architecture in the city an artist style that originated in Italy. In fact, Michelangelo is the best known artist associated with Mannerism.
Cost: 5 EUR per adult.
Alfama was my most favourite place in Lisbon, which is saying something as I loved every moment spent on my city break in Portugal’s fastest growing tourist destination. There was something evocative about this neighbourhood that sprawled high into the hills – with its important buildings, it’s Fado history and tiny streets I couldn’t help but get lost within its walls.