If comparisons between Lisbon and San Francisco are to be believed – and I heard many such statements before coming here, from friends and Rick Steves – this is where they come from. Walking up hills on winding, narrow streets while dodging street cars that rattle by does indeed remind me of San Francisco, at least to a point. But Lisbon’s Alfama district is older; while the buildings are almost entirely post-1755, when an earthquake destroyed pretty much the entire city, they are built with a charm and old-world style that San Francisco cannot rival. Oh, and there is a castle at the top of the hill.
The Castelo de Sao Jorge
The Alfama is probably Lisbon’s best known neighborhood, though not for the sights; those are mostly in the Baixa, the lower town. But this hilly district has all the charm one expects of a European capital with the sense of wonder one would get from wandering a North African marketplace. Narrow streets wind seemingly aimlessly up and down the hill. Churches, houses, restaurants, and shops wait to be discovered around each bend. Street art lines stairways. And as always, the red clay tiles of Lisbon’s roofs contrasts with the blue tiles of its facades in a colorful cavalcade of style and beauty.
A tile facade in the Alfama
After the 1755 earthquake – said to be felt as far away as Ireland – leveled the city, new construction was undertaken rapidly, so many buildings here, and throughout Lisbon, were built similarly, in an almost pre-fab fashion. Tile was used to decorate what would otherwise be blank walls. While these tiles, called azulejo, have been around since the 13th century, they took on additional significance in the rush of construction after the earthquake as a means of differentiating buildings that would otherwise look remarkably similar.
Nowhere can the beauty of azulejo tiles better be seen than the Miradouro de Santa Luzia. Lisbon is built upon seven hills, and lookouts – miradouros – were designed to be public spaces featuring some of the city’s best views. This is one of the finest, featuring stunning tiles both on the vine-covered lookout and the Santa Luzia church next to it, and a spectacular birds-eye glance at the lower portions of the Alfama, and down to the Tagus River. The tiles are used both in geometric Moorish patterns as well as to depict complex scenes of city life or Biblical stories.
The Miradouro de Santa Luzia
And that view!
For many, the highlight of a visit to the Alfama is the hilltop Castelo de Sao Jorge (pronounced very much like George is pronounced in English, but Zheorge as in Dr. Zhivago). The castle is a rebuild dating from the 1940s, but there have been fortifications on this hill since at least the 12th century. While it costs €10 to access, it is worth it for the views over the city. My advice is to get there about two or three hours before sunset, explore for an hour or two – be sure to check out the peacocks, including exotic white ones – and then have a glass of wine from the Wine With A View trailer and watch the sun go down from Lisbon’s most dramatic viewpoint. (The wine guy was there when I was, though I am not sure he is around every day. I also saw him – or a franchise – in Belém on a Sunday afternoon.)
Sunset from the castle terrace
After the sun goes down in the Alfama, it is time for fado. Fado is a traditional music here, basically the Portuguese version of the blues, with some jazz mixed in, featuring a singer (or singers) and guitars or mandolins. There are any number of cafes and restaurants with fado shows – most start around 9pm – and reservations are handy. There will be a cover charge, plus the purchase of food, but you’ll have a uniquely Portuguese night in this most unique of neighborhoods. I went to dinner and a show at Casa de Linhares, a small establishment in an old wine cellar or vault of a long-since-forgotten noble house. The food was great (including the best goat cheese I’ve eaten in my life), and the three-hour long a la carte dinner showcased four different fado singers between courses. Including the €15 cover, expect to pay between €45-60 per person, an extravagance, but one worthwhile in my opinion.
Fado with ambience
The Alfama can be a little bit sketchy at night. Lighting isn’t the best, and the narrow streets can be empty, so stick to the main drags. Ignore the men offering you hashish or cocaine, and just tack it up to yet another similarity with San Francisco. And if it has been raining, watch your footing. While all of Lisbon has tile sidewalks in many places, those on the hills here can get especially slippery. But during the daytime, this is one of the most magical areas to simply wander.
Lisbon’s Alfama district reminds many of San Francisco, and it’s easy to see why. Just add colorful buildings, a castle with a view, and the sounds of fado filling up the evening air!
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