Alfama walking tour in Lisbon


Well now we are going to take you on an extended
walk through the Alfama, the old section of Lisbon. Strolling through Alfama is one of
your great experiences in coming to Lisbon so don’t miss this opportunity. It’s a real
family, old-fashioned residential neighborhood with lots of staircases. it’s up on the hill
and people are friendly here in the Alfama. A great time to come is late in the afternoon,
early evening when folks are out socializing, visiting, shopping. And it’s generally a pedestrian
zone – there are a few motor scooters and mopeds of course, but most of these lanes
as you can see are quite narrow and cobbled and just ideal for strolling.
Alfama goes from the Castle on top of the hill down to the Cathedral of Se, and has
many little lanes that we’ll be taking you to inside that circle area on a wonderful
walk. This gives you a quick idea of the lanes and
alleys and staircases we’ll be taking you through coming right up. A map helps but part
of the fun here is follow your nose and just get lost. Starting out at this scenic terrace of the
view of St. Vincent Church in the distance. This panoramic terrace is a great place to
take your photographs and get the overview of the rolling hills covered in the old buildings
of the Alfama with a view of the beautiful waterfront down below. Fortunately you don’t have to walk up the
hill to begin your explorations because there are these wonderful old trams. They go from
the heart of downtown right up the hill and will bring you to that terrace. You can get
out enjoy the view and then start walking down. A major staircase street will bring you from
this terrace right down into the heart of Alfama The Alfama is the Old Town, the old residential
neighborhood of Lisbon. Walking around in the Alfama is really an
amazing experience – a whole series of narrow lanes and staircases and local people out
living their life in the streets and just having a nice time enjoying each other’s company,
kids are out playing, the old folks are out walking and it seems like everybody has to
climb up and down the steps. For those in good condition who love ancient
neighborhoods, Alfama is absolute heaven to explore, best seen during the day when the
street life is lively and conditions are completely safe, especially in the late afternoon when
lots of people are out mingling, and talking with their neighbors. In order to explore Alfama you need to walk
— preferably downhill, but the winding alleys will take you up and down like a slow-motion
roller coaster. Bring a map along for general reference, but don’t try and follow it too
closely. Alfama is a place to wander and follow your whimsy by turning whatever way looks
best as you reach each corner. It is a small district where you cannot get very lost, and
as long as you generally head downhill you will easily get out at the bottom. Behind me is one of the biggest staircases
in the Alfama, the Santa Helena staircase. And there’s lots of little staircases and
lots of little alleys – an amazing place. You could walk down this staircase from the
viewing terrace, called Santa Helena, which extends down from Portas do Sol and continues
as Beco da Cardosa and other names, as it changes its way and reaches finally the bottom
of the hill at the main street of Rua de San Pedro. You could simply walk straight downhill through
Alfama, it would only take you 15 or 20 minutes to get from the castle at the top down to
the river at the bottom, if you just simply want to exit right out of the neighborhood,
but then you’d be missing out on the quaint and authentic charm of this very special place.
But if you have the time and energy, continue meandering through the bewildering maze of
Alfama to really explore this special neighborhood. This alleycat meows like a doorbell, trying
to get back in the house. Rua Sao Miguel is one of the very special
streets of his neighborhood. It’s like the main street of Alfama. And it’s not a steep
one, it doesn’t go up and down the hill, it’s running more flat and parallel to the hill,
so it’s very easy to stroll along it. All the people on the street were locals. I didn’t
see any other tourists walking along, in fact, throughout the Alfama, especially late in
the afternoon this way. You’ll find yourself sitting in with these people who have lived
here all their lives. It’s a safe and family-oriented place where everybody knows each other and
the generations mix together in a friendly way. You might want to stroll up one way and
turn around and come back down the other. There are bars and restaurants here and tiny
little shops and mostly it’s a place for the locals to hang out, especially in the very
late afternoon, early twilight, as we’re walking now. Folks have got the time and they’re
catching up with their neighbors. It’s the best of that small town life in the middle
of the big city. The residents find everything they need in
this one small area. They can walk to the food store, they can walk to visit their neighbors,
there’s really no need to have a car, there’s public transit that can get you into the city
from here. It’s a neighborhood where you can gracefully age in place and be surrounded
by friends and family. So it’s very easy to walk in along one narrow
residential pedestrian lane, and enjoy these ancient homes and facades and some colorful
balconies, and there are a few shops scattered here and there. But it’s still mostly a residential
neighborhood. It’s comforting to know that there are still
quiet places like this in the center of a European capital city where people take care,
they look out for each other. It’s a peaceful and safe neighborhood and everybody’s getting
along just great. You’ve got a lot of different ethnic groups mixed in here already, although
it’s mostly that native Portuguese stock whose been here for many generations. The life in these busy pedestrian lanes presents
that rich mix of uses that modern urban planners are striving to reconstruct in our new cities. Another lovely street running parallel is
San Pedro, it’s just a block towards the river and here to you’ll find all lively scene of
shops and people out walking and a residential neighborhood. Of course you’ll find a mix of restaurants,
some of them beautiful outdoor places on a plaza, or a little hole in the wall, or maybe
just go into a bar. There are quite a few kids living in Alfama
with their families. This particular square was perfect for the
kids to kick their ball around because with the confining walls that balk couldn’t go
bouncing very far – easy to keep the game going at a fever pitch — and some broad staircases
that they’ll turn into soccer fields. This young fellow is practicing his soccer at a
broad wide-open staircase. Kind of unique way to practice, like hitting
tennis balls off the wall perhaps. He’s kicking the soccer ball up the steps and the ball
returns to him and he kicks it back up again, having a one-man game. Sometimes the ball
gets away and bounces on down the steps – he’s got to run down chase after it. And they really
don’t have any green parks to play in, but there are some small squares, and they’ve
learned how to make the most of it. Of course in such an old but dynamic neighborhood
you’re going to see the past and the future combined in the blink of an eye, and here
we see it with the grandma and the granddaughter and the older sister all playing out their
parts. Notice the laptop computer in the midst of this medieval lane. This is a lane that
probably did not even have running water 40 years ago but now it’s pretty modern on the
inside, the homes are comfortable enough and providing a launchpad for the next generation. Alfama is the oldest section of Lisbon, founded
in the time of the Romans or perhaps earlier, and then given shape by the Arabs, who didn’t
make any urban plan but just built alleys and homes as they were needed. And the more
tangled the streets got the better they liked it because then it was a more effective defense
mechanism to keep out the enemies who are going to get lost if they tried to find their
way through the winding tangled lanes. It was all located inside the walls of the
old fortified city, so development was dense and streets were narrow. During the Middle
Ages it became the Jewish district, but after 1594, the Jews were evicted from Portugal,
and the Alfama became home for sailors and fishermen.
Later, some fine palaces were built but they were mostly destroyed in the 1755 earthquake,
after which the neighborhood was left again to the poor and working class. Humble homes
sprang up in the crowded network of alleys and tiny plazas, following the original jumble
created by the Arabs. Today this remains a lower-class neighborhood,
mixed with buildings from the inevitable gentrification of new money and yuppie redevelopment.
The neighborhood is alive with locals who treat these lanes as their outdoor living
rooms. Most of the homes are quite small, and so people naturally gravitate outside
to chat with neighbors, do their laundry, linger in the little markets, visit with friends
and catch up with stories. Everyone knows everything about each other in this small
self-contained community which has been here for generations.
The loneliness and isolation typical of modern cities is nowhere to be found in these charming,
narrow old lanes. Because residents are so used to talking with
everyone, you will find they are extremely friendly people. Stop in to some of the tiny
bars and say “bom dia,” rather than hello, because they don’t speak English up here.
Some of the small bars have big jugs of wine they use to refill their customer’s bottles,
so you can bring your own bottle to the wine store and refill it out of one of these big
barrels. It’s very inexpensive and the wine is quite drinkable.
Another activity for some of these kids is some dancing in the streets. These two girls
are playing and practicing right out in front of their home, and they are just cutting it
up here – practicing, singing, dancing, having fun. We join up with our local guide Isabel Neves
who tells us some more about the Alfama. [local guide] here we have a square that is
called St. Michael’s, and this is considered to be one of the largest squares in Alfama.
The streets are very narrow so the squares cannot be very big as well. The name of the
square is Sao Miguesl, meaning Saint Michael and that’s the name of this church right here.
So a lot of houses are being renovated like this one here. So these buildings usually
have one apartment per floor, but only when they are completely empty they will renovate
the whole building. Here in the corner you can see one of the oldest houses we have here
in Alfama, and you can see that the top floors the house is wider than in the ground floor
and first floor. And this was a technique developed here in Lisbon in the late 15, beginning
of the 16th century, where they were still having the city completely surrounded by walls.
The population was growing, they needed bigger houses, more houses, but at the same time
they didn’t want to make the streets even narrower. And if it was surrounded by walls
they could not expand. So they had the new houses at that time built like this, just
bigger on the top. This way, the size of the street would not change but you’ll have more
room, a little bit more space on the top of the building. The streets are very narrow, winding streets
as I told you. Almost each house is facing a different direction, because these are winding,
small crooked roads. All the houses were built exactly on the same place as the former ones,
meaning that we have exactly the same plan as in the Middle Ages. The oldest houses we
can find here are about five, dating back from the 16th century, so not damaged by the
earthquake. All the others that were damaged, they were rebuilt or a new one was rebuilt
exactly on the same site as of original one. This city was completely surrounded by walls
by the Arabs. The Portuguese kept it like that until the 16th century. Most of the walls
were destroyed so that they could expand the city, but parts of the walls were kept like
this one here, which is the original medieval wall. This one was not destroyed because there
was one church up there that had been built against the wall. But the population now is really a mixture.
We have very old people living here that inherited the houses from their, their ancestors. We
have young people. We have students. We have foreigners who work in Lisbon, or they are
working or studying in the University, and they prefer to live here in this neighborhood
that in the modern residential areas. So it’s quite a big mixture of different people that
really live altogether in this neighborhood. And now we are going this way please. Now we are going to continue our tour through
these narrow streets that has its name written there, Rua da Judiaria. Judiaria means Jewish
section. So when Lisbon was only the slope of the hill and completely surrounded by walls,
the city was divided into neighborhoods. We had the Jewish section, the Christian section,
the Muslim section. And when the city expanded outside the walls in the 16th century, the
first to go where the wealthiest ones, no matter if they were Christians, Muslims or
Jewish. So after the expansion of Lisbon, when the walls were destroyed, so that we
had no longer different sections according to the religion, then they just mixed all
over Lisbon. [end guide] There are a few hotels located in the Alfama.
We picked one at the top of the hill just a block from the castle, and it turned out
to be a very nice spot to stay, a terrific home base for exploring the Alfama. A small
hotel, a boutique property that’s highly rated on Trip Advisor. A very casual scene, a small
dining area. They serve breakfast every day, but they don’t have a restaurant for lunch
or dinner. That’s easy because there are plenty of restaurants out in the neighborhood. And
after all you want to get away from your hotel for lunch and for dinner, usually.
So their breakfast is a very nice way to start the day. It’s a self-service buffet typical
of a nice, European, full continental breakfast –coffee, juice, rolls, yogurts. And there’s
a nice view out the window. There’s a little garden, and the rooms are really quite lovely
– air-conditioned, and many of them have got a dramatic view looking down across the
hillside of Alfama, towards the water. You can even see some of the cruise ships coming
and going — this is after all a seaport for cruise ships. The name of the hotel is Solar dos Mouros,
and it’s just a few blocks from the castle, right in the middle of Alfama. They only have
13 rooms, one of them is a luxury suite, so you might want to inquire and book in advance
if you’d like to stay in this little boutique hotel. They are located on a very quiet street
in this mostly pedestrian neighborhood, so you’re sure to get some rest in the evening
and recharge your batteries for another busy day. There’s lots more to see in Lisbon. There are a combination of factors that make
Lisbon a very special European city to visit. It’s relatively affordable, it has great history,
the buildings are well-preserved, they date back hundreds of years, and the city is rather
compact – you can get across it easily in one hour, and it consists of a variety of
diverse neighborhoods ranging from the very old Alfama, to the heart of town around Rossio
Square, called the Baixa, the master-planned city from the mid-1700s. And then up on the
other hill you’ve got Bairo Alto, which is particularly attractive in the evening
as the bars and restaurants come to life. On the edge of the city you got the famous
Jeronymos Monastery and the Tower of Belem, which date back to the early 1500s, that great
Age of Discovery when Portugal became one of the most powerful countries in the world.
They discovered and owned Brazil and had large colonies in parts of Africa and India, Macau
and even Japan where they established the city of Nagasaki for their trading purposes.
It’s no wonder they built some magnificent palaces, which you can visit on day trips
out to some nearby areas, up to Sintra and Cascais and Estoril where you’ll find palaces
and gambling casinos, and more of the old-fashioned quality of this part of Portugal. And the
price is right – you can definitely get more for your money here in terms of hotel accommodations
and food and even some shopping than you will find in some of the more famous cities of
Europe. This total package makes it a great destination. At night the Alfama comes alive with some
restaurants that have outdoor sitting, and many of them provide this wonderful entertainment
with the Fado singers in the tradition of Portugal. [singer] At the very bottom there is a series of larger
restaurants that makes for a very scenic spot to sit outdoors and have a meal at twilight.
We have many more movies about Lisbon which you can see on our YouTube channel.
Well as we dance our way out of here we’re going to leave you with more images of Alfama,
and some musical backdrop presenting the finale as a music video of sites and sounds of the
old town of Lisbon.

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