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Alfama is a delightful maze of narrow cobbled streets and ancient houses, which lead up the steep hill from the Tejo Estuary to the Castelo de São Jorge. Contained within this diverse and charismatic district are many of Lisbon’s most important historic buildings, including the Se Cathedral, the Castelo de São Jorge, the Panteão Nacional and the Igreja de Santo António.
Historically, Alfama was situated outside of the city walls and was associated with poverty and squalor, where only the poor and disadvantaged lived. As Lisbon grew into a major seafaring city, the district retained its lowly status as the tough and deprived district where sailors and dock workers lived. Today, Alfama has shrugged off this grim reputation, and has transformed into a fashionable and artisan district, but still retains its unique character and rich heritage.
For visitors, Alfama is a joy to visit and is often best explored by simply getting lost within the labyrinth of alleys and side streets. Around every corner or steep climb, is a delightful plaza, a trendy café, an independent shop or panoramic viewpoint. If you are new to Lisbon, we recommend that Alfama should be the first district that you begin your discovery of the city.
This article will provide an introduction to the district, by providing a suggested tour and details of the main tourist attractions.
Related articles: 3 days in Lisbon – The Baixa district – The Belem district
The following section is our suggested tour of the Alfama district and is the route we advise to friends and family who are new to Lisbon. This tour typically takes 4-5 hours but could be reduced to 2 hours if you finish after stage 10 (Saint Anthony’s church), which leads nicely into a tour of the Baixa district.
Insider tip: There are many hills in Alfama, and for any tour of the district we recommend taking the number 28 tram up to the highest point, the Largo da Graça (1), and wandering in a generally downhill direction.
Ride the number 28 Tram from central Lisbon up to the Largo da Graça (1), which is on the edge of the Graça district. Admire the view from the Miradouro Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen (2) with its wonderful views over central Lisbon and the Castelo de São Jorge. Follow the main street downhill to the magnificent Igreja de São Vicente de Fora (3).
The next section wanders through the maze of cobbled streets and is a charming section of Lisbon. If you do lose your bearings/get lost use the tram lines as a guide to lead to the Largo das Portas do Sol (4).
Charming plazas in the narrow backstreets of Alfama
This is the largest plaza in Alfama, and the viewpoint offers views over the roofs of lower Alfama and the cruise terminal. In the grounds of the Igreja de Santa Luzia (5) are beautiful Azjules tile paintings and another popular viewpoint. The Museu de Artes Decorativas (6) depicts a 18th-century Portuguese villa and is housed in the former Azurara Palace.
From the Largo das Portas do Sol it is an uphill walk to the Castelo de São Jorge (7). The castle is an outstanding tourist attraction; there is sprawling keep, towering battlements, an informative museum, and more great views over central Lisbon.
On the walk downhill from the castle, visit the Teatro Romano and museum (8), on the way to the gothic Se Cathedral (9). A visit to the cathedral should include the cloisters and excavations of the Moorish mosque. Close to the cathedral is the Igreja de Santo António de Lisboa (10), which was constructed on the birthplace of Saint Anthony, the Patron saint of Lisbon, lovers and lost things.
Advice: This is a convenient place to stop for people wish a half day tour or spend the rest of the day in Baixa
The Casa dos Bicos
This part of the tour explores the lower sections of Alfama, which used to follow the banks of the Tejo. The first sight is the Casa dos Bicos (11) is a uniquely styled house with a spiky exterior.
The Rua Cais de Santarém could be followed to the Largo do Chafariz de Dentro (13), but a more scenic route is to climb the steps of the Arco de Jesus (12) and wander along the Rua de São João da Praça. The Museu do Fado (14) is an informative museum that details the history of Fado music.
The area between the Largo do Chafariz de Dentro and the Portas do Sol is one of the most charming/authentic areas in Alfama. This is an area of steep alleys, endless steps and hidden plazas, and (if you have the energy) is great to explore.
The Igreja de Santo Estêvão (15) stands high above this area of Alfama, and from the grounds is another decent viewpoint. The magnificent Panteão Nacional (16) is the final resting place of Portuguese Kings and Queens, and from the roof are views over the Tejo estuary. Opposite the pantheon is the Jardim Botto Machado (17), which on Tuesdays and Saturdays hosts the Feira da Ladra market flea market.
At the Santa Apolónia train station (18) is a metro station to take you back to central Lisbon, or there is the Museu Militar (19) if you are interested in military history.
There's so many new gimmicky ways to explore Alfama.....
Alfama extends from the banks of the Tejo estuary up to the castle, and you will quickly discover that there are almost no flat streets in Alfama. The entire time in Alfama will be spent climbing cobbled streets or descending staircases. This can be very demanding for visitors with limited mobility, young families or those struggle with the intense summer heat.
The number 28 tram provides a public transport route through Alfama, but is incredibly popular with tourists and locals alike. During the hours of 10am to 6pm it is often standing room only.
Insider tip: For any tour of the district we recommend taking the number 28 tram up to the highest point, the Largo da Graça (1), and wandering in a generally downhill direction.
Tuk-Tuk tours have rapidly become the new gimmicky way to explore Lisbon. They do remove the toil of climbing the steep roads and are ideal to negating the narrow streets of Alfama, but are comparatively expensive (€40-50 per hour).
We have worked with Getyourguide.com for the last six years, and some of the best tours of Alfama include:
The best tourist attraction of the Alfama district is the Castelo de São Jorge. This castle has been entwined with Portugal’s early history and was the location in which the Christian Crusaders defeated the North African Moors in 1147. The castle’s importance waned from the 15th century and was badly damaged by the 1755 earthquake, but was restored to its former magnificence in the 1940s.
For your visit, there is a lot to see in the castle, including the fortified keep, a museum and views from the battlements. A typical visit lasts 1hour, and the adult entrance fee is €10.
Related articles: Guide to Lisbon castle
The most enjoyable activity of Alfama, is a ride on the number 28 tram. This tram route connects the districts of Graça with Estrela, but the most scenic section is as it passes through Alfama. This narrow and undulating tram route is totally unsuitable for any modern trams, so the historic Remodelado trams, which date from the 1930s, provide the service instead.
Related articles: The 28 tram
Fado is an emotional and sorrowful style of music, which originated in the tough neighbourhoods where the sailor’s families lived. Fado is sung by a solo singer and is accompanied by a traditional Portuguese guitar and this mournful yet powerful music reflects the emotions felt by sailor’s wives, who were waiting for their husbands to return. The Museu do Fado details the history of this style of music.
Related articles: Fado music.
Fado street art in Lisbon
The Chafariz d’El Rei (king’s fountain) dates from the 13th century and supplied drinking water to ships moored on the banks of the Tejo. This fountain was on the outside of the city walls, while the Chafariz de Dentro (inside fountain) served the residences of Alfama and is in the Largo do Chafariz de Dentro (location 13).
The Casa dos Bicos (The house of spikes) was constructed by the first Viceroy of India in 1523, who took his inspiration from was inspired similar “spiked” buildings in Italy and Spain. The top two floors were destroyed by the 1755 earthquake and were only restored in 1981.