ALFAMA - a fusion of heritage and music

Angela Youngman


Exploring Lisbon’s Alfama district involves a lot of walking – and much of it uphill. One of the oldest parts of the city, it also covers one of Lisbon’s seven hills. Admittedly, once you reach the top, the views are spectacular! It is an area where heritage and music create a unique combination.

Fado – the unique sound of Portugal

Characterised by mystical, emotional lyrics accompanied by sombre guitar music, this is the national folk style music of Portugal. For many years, it was even slyly subversive in content and was sometimes censored by the government. Fado singers and musicians can often be heard performing in cafes and bars, or in plazas during the evening. Head over to the Fado Museum to discover its story, and what makes it unique before visiting some of the fado bars around the Alfama district. The most famous of these is the Clube de Fado offering the opportunity to dine on traditional Portuguese cuisine while listening to Fado music. Worth considering are the guided tours of the Fado district accompanied by a Fado singer who can explain the details of the lyrics and music. 

An abundance of tiles!

Wherever you walk in the streets of Lisbon, especially in the Alfama, one of the most noticeable features are the abundance of decorative tiles (azulejos). Beautifully painted tiles can be found round doorways and windows, in borders along walls as well as making up large pictures on the outside of buildings. Many are religious in theme, but equally common are historical scenes, silhouettes, flowers, trades such as wine together with geometric patterns. Typical examples can be seen on the Rua dos Remedios where there are scenes of the lives of St Antony and St Martial while in the Escadinhas dos Remedios is a scene of the Holy Family returning from their flight into Egypt. It was believed that putting such images on the buildings would help protect them from earthquakes and fires.

By far the biggest example of these tiled pictures can be found in the Tile Museum, which has a 23metre Lisbon cityscape which was made out of 1300 tiles in 1738. This picture even survived the Great Earthquake of the same year.

Travel by tram

Lisbon.The characteristic clanking of the trams as they head up and down the hill, along streets just wide enough for two to pass each other while pedestrians walk blithely along the narrow footpaths, quickly becomes a familiar sound. Sitting inside the trams as they snake around street corners, the adjacent buildings seem so close that you could almost reach out and touch them. They are a great way to travel quickly around the Alfama, and are well used by locals and tourists alike reducing any risk of getting lost amid the labyrinth of steep streets, alleyways and plazas that are such a feature of this area

Shop at the Thieves Fair!

Despite the name, this is just a flea market and vendors say that nothing has been stolen! It is one of the long established flea markets in Lisbon and can be found ever Tuesday and Saturday in the area around the Pantheon and St Vincent’s Church. If you are looking for unusual and traditional items then this is good place to start hunting. Since the Fair opens around 6am, the earlier you arrive, the better your chances of finding something suitable as all the best items tend to go quickly. The vendors are mainly a mix of artisans, antiques and second hand traders. The local shops in the area are also worth exploring. 

Spectacular views

The great castle of St George is perched high above Lisbon surrounded by the closely packed buildings of the Alfama District. Head out to the Praça d’Armas within the Castle for stunning views old Lisbon with its rows of white buildings and terracotta rooflines down to the wide expanse of the Tejo estuary dominated by the massive spans of the Pont 25 de Abril and Vasco da Gama bridges. It is the perfect way to see how the city has grown and developed over the years.

Walking along the castle ramparts offers a variety of differing views of the city – but you do need a head for heights as there is just a low wall on one side, leading to a steep drop down to the ground level of the castle. Exploring the castle interior is something of a maze, as there are lots of hidden paths, which suddenly take you into unexpected corners! Not to be missed is the Tower of Ulysses with its camera obscura periscope providing some really unusual views around the city, as well as the Castle Museum highlighting the role the Castle of St George has played in Lisbon’s history over the centuries.

For an alternative viewpoint head for the neighbouring Baixa district and take a trip on the Elevador de Santa Justa. An extremely decorative nineteenth century structure, the Elevador’s wooden carriages provide access to a viewing point allowing visitors the opportunity to enjoy different views of the Castle. 

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