Alfama, the oldest Lisbon district
Alfama, the oldest Lisbon district, embodies the city’s spirit like no other: Alfama is sardines, is Fado, is history and is genuine and welcoming people.
Wondering through the streets of Alfama is like breathing the soul of an ancient Lisbon that has been kept untouched for centuries.
The oldest district of the Portuguese capital still offers traces of the Arab and Roman occupations as the 1755 earthquake – and subsequent tsunami – that destroyed the city’s downtown left it almost undamaged. Its name depicts the Arab influence as it comes from the Arabic Al-hamma that means fountains or baths.
The charm of Alfama
Alfama’s narrow and winding streets of crumbling buildings, resulting from the Muslim architecture that values more the interior than the façades, resemble a magic labyrinth where Fado echoes at every corner recalling the early days of the Portuguese song elected World Cultural Heritage by UNESCO, when the district housed the poorer, the delinquents, the prostitutes and other outcasts from society along with sailors and dockers who sung their misfortunes to the sound of a Portuguese guitar in local taverns of dubious reputation.
In fact, since the 16th century, Alfama was the city’s criminal core. Fortunately that reputation was overcome and nowadays the district is known for its strong sense of community, for being a place where everyone knows each other and for the old women who spend their days gossiping from window to window.
Going up from the Tagus River to São Jorge Castle – one of the top 10 monuments in Lisbon, Alfama offers some of the best views over the city either from São Jorge castle or from its many belvederes (miradouros) such as Santa Luzia miradouro, situated over remnants of the Moorish city walls, and the Portas do Sol miradouro.
Characterized by its countless Fado restaurants – Casas de Fado (typical places where Fado is sung), Alfama is also a religious district with many churches. The most imposing is the Lisbon Cathedral, dating from the 12th-14th centuries, thus the capital’s oldest church. Worthy of notice are also the Monastery of São Vicente de Fora, burial of the Kings of the House of Braganza, and National Pantheon, where are buried some of the most important Portuguese personalities, such as the Fado diva Amália Rodrigues, the writers Aquilino Ribeiro, Almeida Garret, Guerra Junqueiro or the former presidents Manuel de Arriaga, Teófilo Braga, Sidónio Pais and Óscar Carmona.
The best time of the year to discover all the wonders of Alfama is June when the aroma of the grilled sardines is in the air, the tunes of marchas populares (dancing and singing popular parades typical from Lisbon during the Saint Anthony celebration) bring joy to the streets and the windows gain new colours with basils decorated with popular four verses.
I can’t promise you that our matchmaker Saint Anthony will help you to find the love of your live, but I am sure that if you came to Alfama you will surely fall in love for this Lisbon treasure.