Lost in Alfama: The Historic Heart of Lisbon
"The best way to explore Lisboa is to wander around its streets and see what you find," our Airbnb host told us as we gazed out her fourth floor window at the red tiled roofs of the city and ultimately at the Tajo (Tagus) River beyond.
Built atop a series of seven hills, like Rome and Istanbul, Lisbon undulated before us from the kitchen window in a series of criss-crossed alleys, wide boulevards, and pedestrianized footpaths. Out the bedroom window on the other side of the apartment, São Jorge Castle and the city's Alfama district grew away from us.
Historic Sites To See:
- National Pantheon: A former church and dominant site on Lisbon's eastern skyline, the Pantheon now houses the remains and cenotaphs of famous Portuguese. It is also stunningly beautiful.
- Monastery of São Vicente de Fora: One of the most prominent monistaries in Portugal, it is located close to the Pantheon. Tile work, which is always impressive in Lisbon, in the entrance tells the founding of the monastery.
- São Jorge Castle: An ancient city, the castle's walls offer some of the best views of the city and the river.
- Lisbon Cathedral: With construction starting on the cathedral in 1147 atop the site of what had been the city's main mosque under the Moors, he building has withstood numerous earthquakes. It is also a natoional monument.
- Santo António Church: Built on the site of where Saint Anthony of Padua was thought to be have been born, the church is a beautiful example of Baroque architecture. For most people who don't care about that, the statue of Saint Anthony outside is thought to offer a unique charm: Successfully toss a coin into his open book, and you will find a better lover within the year. (Note from Jen: Coin tossing was not necessary for us, ahem).
Things To Do:
- Wander Alfama: The winding streets, the cobble stones, the cafes, the views, the history — everything in Alfama just begs to be explores and looked over at a leisurely pace.
- Take In the Views (Miradouros): Multiple parks dot Alfama looking out over Lisbon's hills towards the Tajo River. The Portas Do Sol, not far behind the cathedral, offers stunning views of both sunrise and sunset.
- Stop by Feira Da Ladra: The "Thieves" Market, Feira Da Ladra is an immense flea market that stretches multiple blocks by the Pantheon. Full of local art, crafts, and unique junk, the flea market is a perfect place to browse.
- Enjoy a Cafe: You're in Lisbon. Treat yourself like a local and stop by a cafe, people watch, and enjoy a solid glass of port, a shot of ginja, some sangria, or a mazagran — espresso served over ice with lemon and sometimes rum. Our favorite was Medrosa d'Alfama. 1.5€ for Sangria, anyone?
- Experience Fado: Alfama hosts a plethora of restaurants that also play live Fado music, a traditional musical form of the region. If you're not interested in staying for an entire performance, you can still hear the music ringing off Alfama's walls if you walk through the neighborhood after 8pm.
The center of many historical sites, the Alfama neighborhood lives in my mind as a cross between Istanbul, San Francisco, and a truly unique Lisboan emotion that is all its own. At night, the crescendoes of live traditional Portuguese music reverberate off the cobble stone streets and tiled walls of the neighborhood alleys as specialized Fado restaurants cater to the city's nostalgia and eager tourists.
During the day, visitors and locals throng through the narrow streets to compete with tuk tuks, trolleys, and cars along the steep hills. But in spite of that, Alfama never felt stressful or harried in the way that Istanbul easily does.
Instead, an internal fluidness guided us as we wandered, never quite lost, from alley to alley searching for the perfect creamy Pastel de Nata, the best (and cheapest) glass of sangria, cups of coffee, or shots of the local specialty: Ginja cherry liqueur served in glasses made of chocolate. The hardest part of these searches was not in finding any of the savory delights, but in instead deciding on the perfect cafe, instead of a merely great one, to settle into.
If this post feels disjointed, it is because Alfama itself is a warren of streets, each worthy of exploration if for no other reason than to see beautiful tile-work on a random apartment building, or the brightly colored pastel walls of the city, or the surprise patio gardens full of succulents and ferns.
Even while wandering aimlessly, we were still never far from genuine revelations too. When Jen and I turned a corner and suddenly found ourselves facing the plaza containing Lisbon's massive National Pantheon — the burial place of many famous Portuguese — both of us could do nothing more than gawk for a good second.
It was then that our host's words took on a real salience for us. We could have easily made a beeline for the Pantheon, or for the churches, or for the castle ... but instead, through wandering, we gained something much more than just a photo of the neighborhood's sites.
By doubling back through the narrow streets, up and over the hills — only in Lisbon, I joked to Jen, could you tell your kids you had to walk to school uphill both ways — without a clear destination in mind beyond wondering what was beyond the next bend, it truly felt like we had found Lisbon's historic heart.
Now watch this space as we desperately try to find a way to move to Lisbon forever.
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