The Lisbon of bygone days lives on in the Alfama, the most emblematic quarter of the city. The wall built by the Visigoths and incorporated into some of the old houses is a reminder of its ancient past. In east Lisbon, the Alfama was the Saracen sector centuries before its conquest by the Christians.
The devastating 1755 earthquake spared some of the buildings here, and the Alfama has retained much of its original charm. You'll see narrow cobblestone streets, cages of canaries, strings of garlic and pepper adorning old taverns, and street markets. Houses are so close together that in many places it's impossible to stretch your arms wide. The poet Frederico de Brito dramatically expressed that proximity: "Your house is so close to mine! In the starry night's bliss, to exchange a tender kiss, our lips easily meet, high across the narrow street."
Stevedores, fishmongers, and sailors still occupy the Alfama. In the street markets, you can wander in a maze of brightly colored vegetables from the countryside, bananas from Madeira, pineapples from the Azores, and assorted fish. Armies of cats prowl in search of rats. Occasionally, a black-shawled widow, stooping over a brazier, grilling sardines in front of her house, will toss a fish head to a passing feline.
Aristocrats once lived in the Alfama; a handful still do, but their memory is perpetuated mostly by the noble coats of arms fading on the fronts of some 16th-century houses. The best-known aristocratic mansion is the one formerly occupied by the count of Arcos, the last viceroy of Brazil. Constructed in the 16th century and spared, in part, from the earthquake, it lies on Largo da Salvador.
As you explore, you'll be rewarded with a perspective of the contrasting styles of the Alfama, from a simple tile-roofed fishmonger's abode to a festively decorated baroque church. One of the best views is from the belvedere of Largo das Portas do Sol, near the Museum of Decorative Art. It's a balcony opening onto the sea, overlooking the typical houses as they sweep down to the Tagus.
One of the oldest churches in Lisbon is Santo Estêvão (St. Stephen), on Largo de Santo Estêvão, originally constructed in the 13th century. The present marble structure dates from the 1700s. One of the most dramatic views of the Alfama is possible from the southwestern corner of Largo de Santo Estêvão. Also of medieval origin is the Church of São Miguel (St. Michael), on Largo de São Miguel, deep in the Alfama on a palm-tree-shaded square. Reconstructed after the 1755 earthquake, the interior is richly decorated with 18th-century gilt and trompe l'oeil walls.
Rua da Judiaria is another poignant reminder of the past. It was settled largely by Jewish refugees fleeing Spain to escape the Inquisition.
For specific routes through the Alfama, refer to the walking tour. The Alfama is best explored by day; it can be dangerous to wander around the area at night, when the neighborhood's spirit changes. Although the Bairro Alto is the city's traditional fado quarter, the cafes of the Alfama also reverberate with these nostalgic sounds until the early morning hours.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.