From a distance, Alfama looks like a tumbledown fairy tale town. Up close, it’s a reminder of Lisbon’s rich and varied history.
As the oldest district in the city, it clutches an impressive collection of culture and heritage within its confines, which sprawl out between the towering façade of the Sao Jorge Castle and the sparkling waters of the River Tagus.
Its mesh of winding lanes spiral around each other, amassing restaurants, cafes, and stores in every nook and cranny. The city’s tile trend reigns strong in Alfama, which was the only part of Lisbon untouched by the 18th century earthquake. This has left a district that’s imbued with scattered remnants of the past, from ramshackle old tram lines and higgledy-piggledy houses, to quaint museums and preserved workshops.
Portugal’s foodie scene is a mishmash of Mediterranean cuisine and firm favourites that have stood the test of time. Throughout Alfama, there are a lively collection of eateries tucked away in the tangles, from upmarket new-age offerings to traditional, family run venues with incredible views.
Set in a pretty courtyard framed with twisting vines and fairy lights, Santo Antonio de Alfama (Beco São Miguel 7) adds a dash of cosiness to the city’s restaurant scene. Chunky wood tables sit below vaulted ceilings that are decorated with pictures of Hollywood hunks, while the menu promises upmarket Portuguese cuisine in popular dishes like grilled bream and tuna steak in ginger.
For a stylish soiree, hotfoot it to Faz Figura (Rua do Paraíso 15B), a fine dining venue with incredible views. Overlooking the Tagus Estuary, big picture windows breathe a light and airy ambiance into the setting. The menu’s just as welcoming, boasting a mouth-watering mix of Portuguese and Mediterranean dishes, including tiger prawn risotto, duck breast in sour sauce, and caipirinha mousse.
Dedicated to serving rich wine from the Porto region, Porto Alfama (Rua de São Pedro, 26) is a unique wine cellar that gives guests the chance to travel to one of Portugal’s most iconic regions. Alongside fine tipple, there’s a menu fit to burst with Portuguese delights, including sardines, smoked chorizo, and a number of vegetarian tapas options – a bit of a boon in such a meat-loving city.
Things get a little wilder in Chapito e Mesa (Costa do Castelo 1), which pals up with a well-known circus school to create an arts centre and café. Its offbeat restaurant proffers panoramic views across Lisbon, while the candlelit terraces are the perfect place for a schmooze in the sun. The rooftop location is ideal for alfresco dining in the summer months, as well as a hearty snack alongside a late-night drink.
Pois Café (R. de São João da Praça 93-95) is a trendy favourite in Alfama, injected with hipster personality thanks to its mismatched old furniture and its reams of old, worldly newspapers and books. Reminiscent of grandma’s living room, it’s a cosy spot for a quick brunch or a relaxing space for a lunchtime salad or sandwich. The cakes and homemade lemonade prove popular choices, and the Austrian owners ensure there are several Vienna-style dishes on the menu at any one time.
The nightlife in Lisbon is a much-coveted affair, with plenty of underground bars blaring out music until the small hours of the morning. In others, traditional Fado music trills out of rustic windows, and punters sip local wines overlooking the River Tagus.
Recreating the smoke-filled underground jazz bars of the past, Club de Fado (R. de São João da Praça 86 – 94) hosts some of the best Fado music in the city. Big name guitarists work their magic in the atmospheric confines, while the intimate dining space harks back to times-gone-by with stone columns, grand archways, and even a Moorish well.
Food and music go hand in hand at Duetos da Se (Tv. Almargem 1B), an intimate hotspot that’s loved for its voice and piano recitals. Tapas-style snacks are served alongside a jaw-dropping selection of wines, beers, and liquors, which guests enjoy alongside the eclectic selection of performances.
Then there’s Cinco Lounge (R. Ruben A. Leitão), the cool kid on the block. The laidback, elegant interior looks like it’s stepped out of the future, while the unique cocktail menu promises a night to remember. It’s definitely not the most affordable spot in the city, but the guarantee of original cocktails and bite-sized sushi offerings are well worth digging into your wallet for.
Right at the top of Alfama, Portas do Sol (R. São Tomé 84A) sprawls out among the terracotta rooftops to offer a spectacular spot for drinks with a view. From the bright and breezy terrace, you can look out over Lisbon’s most iconic landmarks while sipping on a cool beer, a glass of local wine, or a fruity cocktail. Plush sofas and squishy beanbags add an element of cool to the stylish décor.
Azulejos (Portuguese tiles) are a huge part of Alfama’s history. Around every twist and turn, you’ll stumble across a new offering in muted tones or bright blues and whites. It’s in this historic part of the city that you can learn more about the centuries-old tradition in one of the remaining tile workshops.
Loja dos Descobrimentos (Rua dos Bacalhoeiros 14B) offers a fine selection of locally made tiles and handicrafts set in the shadow of the Casa dos Bicos. From intricately painted ceramics to fun souvenirs, this handicraft store has the perfect gift for every occasion. There’s even a workshop out back, where you can watch the artists while they work.
The National Tile Museum (R. Me. Deus 4) promises so much more than just a workshop. Set inside a beautiful 16th century convent, it takes visitors on a journey through time, covering several eras of the Portuguese tile and its prominence in Lisbon and beyond. Here, you can marvel at the huge collection of tiles, including a 53m long piece.
When asked why set up shop in Alfama, Rita of Pelcor gave the perfect response: “Alfama is the heart of Lisbon – all the traditional things about our culture are there.” Throughout the maze of spindly streets, there are dashes of history in the range of artisan shops, from richly painted tiles, beautiful antiques, and unusual puppets.
Presenting a colourful collection of Portuguese crafts from all walks of life, A Arte de Terra (R. Augusto Rosa 40) provides a cultural shopping experience. Browse the displays of quirky puppets, traditional Portuguese carpets, and hand-painted tiles, which are set against an impressive pebble floor and rustic brick arches.
Alfama’s Fiera de Ladra (Campo de Santa Clara) is one of the most coveted events in the area. The market takes place every Tuesday and Saturday, where hawkers come together to flog all sorts of second-hand goods, from artworks and books to vintage clothes, collectible stamps, and antique furniture.
Nestled away down one of the many winding laneways in Alfama, the Alfama Shop (R. dos Remédios 165) bursts with crafty goodness. Original artworks don the walls, while handmade artifacts relating to the city – think paintings of trams and sculptures of roosters – cover every available space. This is the place to pick up a little reminder of Lisbon.
Portugal is one of the largest cork producers in the world, and Pelcor (Pátio do Tijolo, Store 4 , 1250-096) taps into this historical trend. Selling a range of cork products, from handbags to cute accessories, this artisan shop is an unusual addition to the city’s shopping scene.