Our favorite area in Lisbon is Alfama. It is as old as Lisbon itself, being the oldest district in the city, founded in 1200 BC. The rustic neighborhood looks like something out of an old sketch.
Historic buildings with red clay roofs are everywhere. Cobbled side streets wind through the hills and connect small squares. In addition, decorative tiles mark the doors and locals sell liquor from the windows or hang laundry.
There is much more to Lisbon than Alfama, and certainly more impressive things to see. A few individual attractions in Belem and other parts of the city are more impressive, but there’s something about the authenticity of Alfama Lisbon.
During the collapse of tourism, we still walk the same cobblestone streets, up and down the same hills, through the same buildings that were here before the great earthquake of 1775.
Other neighborhoods have been rebuilt after the disaster, but not Alfamaa. In Alfama, you can see more of what you would have seen 200 years ago than in other parts of Lisbon.
PORTUGUESE EGG AND COFFEE DISH
Our first stop when we arrived at Santa Apolonia station in Lisbon around 9:00am was a simple little cafe for a Portuguese coffee and custard.
We got there by crossing between the parking lot, the train station, and the decorated facade of the War Museum and walking along the sidewalk among the tables and yellow umbrellas.
This was our second visit to Lisbon and we knew this little square and cafe. Our adult and teenage children, Nicole and Alex, have been talking about egg custard for quite some time.
My wife Nataliya and I had also joined in with some strong Portuguese coffee. And we wanted to make this little cafe our first destination.
Nothing fancy, but special to us for its simplicity. There was an old man at the counter serving coffee and pastries, and the locals sat reading newspapers, drinking coffee and talking quietly.
With the help of an English-speaking customer, we ordered strong coffee, tea and Portuguese pastries as we waited for our host, Carlos, to find us where he left us years ago.
Carolos greeted us at the bar and helped us carry our bags as we walked a few buildings to his place – a corner building at the root of Alfama.
AT HOME IN ALFAMA, LISBON
The large apartment was right on the square in front of Apolonia station and next to the War Museum. Our apartment on the second floor had a hall, an office, three bedrooms, a kitchen, a dining room and a bathroom. The building was historic on the outside, but completely new on the inside.
This was one of the few apartments that Carlos and his family had bought to renovate and turn into guesthouses. Knowing that Lisbon’s biggest and fastest growing industry today is tourism.
The ground floor was full of cafes. From our bedroom window we could see both the river and the statues decorating the war museum next door.
Alfama resembles a kind of old-time San Francisco. There are steep hills and yellow and red carts pass regularly, meandering through the narrow, winding, Mäkinen streets.
Today, they are more crowded with tourists than local travelers. In fact, we’ve learned that it’s best not to board the famous number 28 tram unless you want a ride.
Looking at the area today, it’s hard to believe that Alfama was once the richest part of Lisbon. The fear of earthquakes has motivated wealthy residents to flee to other areas. Ironic because Alfama is the only neighborhood that survived the great earthquake.
Distressed fishermen and laborers settled Alfama in 1775 during an earthquake that affected the rest of the Lisbon area. Their ghost lives nearby today.
Now that I think about it, Alfama is very similar to the first cafe we hope to visit when we return. Nothing fancy, but special to us for its simplicity. Alfama is not necessarily spectacular or remarkable, but it is pleasant and comfortable in its authenticity.
ALFAMA MUSEUMS OF LISBON
The war museum was easy to find because it was right next to our apartment. However, it is easy to find as it is opposite the Santa Apolonia train station. The building itself is a beautifully decorated 16th-century cannon foundry and armory.
Today, old cannons, weapons and ammunition throughout the ages are on display, from flints and spears to rifles and cannons. Beautiful crests and crests adorn the rooms and doors.
The walls and ceilings of the rooms themselves resemble the walls of a palace rather than a barracks. This museum in Lisbon stands out from other museums in the city.
An example of such a museum is the Casa dos Bicos or House of Diamonds. The former home of Nobel laureate Jose Saramango is now a museum dedicated to his work. The permanent exhibition of Saramango’s works, including several copies of his books in different languages, is impressive.
However, what most people find most interesting is the facade of the building, which is covered with diamond-shaped stones, a style that was popular in the 16th century.
Walk the cobbled streets
One of our favorite things to do in Alfama Lisbon is just explore the winding streets without a map. Every time you walk the cobblestones you will see new things or be greeted by old favourites.
Like the hole in the wall Gingija bar, which we visited every few days on both visits. Just an open door, a table for two on the street, another table for two inside and a small bar, enough for three people. People walk by and order Gingija or Porti, beer, wine or coffee.
They have a drink and maybe a short conversation, then pay the bartender and leave. We enjoyed seeing familiar and friendly faces behind the counter each time we returned for another refreshment.
“Last time we were here, we made friends,” Nataliya recalls. Many of the same locals, British and other European visitors turned up every time we visited. After a few visits the bartender told us what we wanted and not the other way around.
Walking through Alfama there are always beautiful blue, yellow and colorful tiles, often hand painted, decorating houses and buildings. The tiles depicted Fado scenes, historical figures, religious images, ships and battles. There was even a map of Alfama in blue and white.
MIRADOURO DE SANTA LUIZA
Sometimes you come across an entire courtyard full of ornamental tiles with a breathtaking view of the city of Lisbon. An example of this is the Miradouro de Santa Luiza, a terrace next to the church with a wide view of the Alfamaa and the river.
You can usually find tourists here taking pictures. But also street musicians playing Portuguese guitar, old men playing cards and street artists selling their painted tiles and watercolors.
Next to the terrace is the church from which it takes its name: Santa Luiza, built in the 12th century. Don’t miss the white facade with its striking red door. But the highlight of this church for most visitors, including us, are the blue and white tiles on the outside wall of the terrace with historical scenes.
Behind the terrace, we visited the Museum of Decorative Arts, a nice little institution that has preserved the tradition of Portuguese decorative arts since the 1950s. Here we have included ceramics, textiles, porcelain and of course tile panels.
Museum guards often just sit on chairs and tell people not to touch. However, here they offered to tell us about some interesting decorative pieces of furniture.
We also saw a demonstration of applying gold leaf to woodworking. This can come in handy when we consider upgrading some of our antique picture frames at home.