A maze of narrow, winding streets, Lisbon‘s Alfama quarter is the oldest and most historical part of the Portuguese capital, having survived the great earthquake and subsequent fires and tidal waves of 1755 almost intact.
Mostly traffic-free these days except for the occasional 100-year-old tram creaking and rattling through, this ancient labyrinth of twisting lanes and cobbled stairways is in many ways the heart and soul of the Portuguese capital.
Called Al-hamma by the Arabs because of the hot springs that once rose near Largo das Alcaçarias, Lisbon’s Alfama district testifies to the Moorish occupation of the Iberian Peninsula as most of Portugal‘s place names beginning with the prefix ‘al’ are of Arabic origin, such as Albufeira in the Algarve and Alcácer do Sal in the Alentejo.
Delightfully medieval in character, the Alfama is arguably the most atmospheric of Lisbon’s old neighbourhoods and is the ideal place for visitors to get their first impressions of the city.
And there’s much to see, most notably the city’s strikingly visual reference point – the imposing Castle of São Jorge – prominently perched atop Lisbon’s steepest hill.
The Castle of São Jorge was taken from the Moors in the 12th century by Portugal’s first king, Afonso Henriques, and later became the official residence of Portuguese monarchs between the 14th and 16th centuries.
The views from its battlements are unparalleled anywhere in the city and stretch as far as Sintra to the west and Arrábida to the south on a clear day, with more splendid views to be found below the castle at a sun terrace called Largo das Portas do Sol.
A stone’s throw from the terrace is Lisbon’s magnificent Sé Cathedral believed to have been built on the site of an old Roman temple that was later converted into a Visigothic church. Sturdy as a medieval fortress, the cathedral was built in the middle of the 12th century and has survived three major earthquakes intact, including the most devastating one on the 1st of November, 1755.
In the shadow of the Sé stands the church of Santo António, the city’s favourite saint. Every year in June, an explosion of coloured paper festoons the Alfama as Lisbon celebrates the life and work of this most learned and holy man, who today is fondly remembered as the patron of the poor.
Nearby lie the remains of a Roman theatre dating back to 57 AD, which was built when Emperor Augustus was in power. Rediscovered by archaeologists in the 1960s, today the site is operated by the Museum of Lisbon and comprises a permanent exhibition and an excavation area.
The Alfama harbours a host of other must-see tourist attractions warranting a half-day’s sightseeing at the very least. Chief among these are the Church of Santa Engrácia which houses the National Pantheon and the church and monastery of São Vicente de Fora, one of Lisbon’s most prominent landmarks.
Lisbon’s most popular flea market can also be found in the heart of the Alfama at a square called Campo de Santa Clara. Open every Tuesday and Saturday starting at first light, the market specialises in antiques, old books, coins, clothes, jewellery and a wide range of other collectables.
Last but not least is the Casa dos Bicos (House of Pointed Stones) located at Campo das Cebolas. Built in 1523, this architectural treasure is well worth seeing for its unusual façade of pyramid-shaped pointed stones, a style popular in Mediterranean Europe during the 16th century.
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