The humble Alfama, Lisbon

It is difficult to believe that humble Alfama, the oldest and most atmospheric of Lisbon’s neighbourhoods, was once the city’s most desirable quarter. It was first settled by the Romans but flourished in Moorish times, when the tightly packed becos (alleyways) and tiny squares comprised the whole city.

The Moors took advantage of Alfama’s slopes, building the fortified Castelo de São Jorge on the crown of the hill and turning the city into a defensive stronghold. But even that couldn’t hold off the crusaders forever. The city was captured by Afonso Henriques in 1147, and the seeds of Alfama’s decline were sown in the Middle Ages when wealthy residents moved west for fear of earthquakes, leaving the quarter to fishermen and paupers.

Many of its buildings survived the 1755 earthquake – although no Moorish houses still stand – and the quarter retains its kasbahlike layout. Compact houses line steep streets and stairways, their façades strung with washing, and daily life still revolves around local grocery stores and small, cellarlike taverns.


Towering above central Lisbon, this Moorish citadel is one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks. Though much of the present castle dates from a 1930s restoration, visitors still flock to the top of the hill to seek out traces of the city’s history and enjoy the spectacular views laid out below.

Following the recapture of Lisbon from the Moors in 1147, Dom Afonso Henriques transformed their hilltop citadel into the residence of the Portuguese kings. In 1511, Manuel I built a more lavish palace in what is now the Praça do Comércio and the citadel castle was used variously as a theatre, prison and arms depot.

After the 1755 earthquake, the ramparts remained in ruins until 1938, when António Salazar (p46) began a complete renovation, rebuilding the “medieval” walls and adding gardens and wildfowl. The castle may not be authentic, but the gardens and the narrow streets of the Santa Cruz district within the walls make a pleasant stroll, and views from the observation terrace are some of the finest in Lisbon. Other attractions on-site include the city’s only camera obscura and the Casa do Leão restaurant, built within part of the former royal residence. Book a table for dinner; the restaurant is also open at lunchtime to those with a ticket for the castle.

2. Museu de Artes Decorativas

Also known as the Ricardo do Espírito Santo Silva Foundation, the museum was set up in 1953 to preserve the traditions and increase public awareness of the Portuguese decorative arts. The foundation was named after a banker who bought the 17th-century Palácio Azurara in 1947 to house his fine collection of furniture, textiles, silver and cera mics.

Among the 17th- and 18th-century antiques displayed in this hand some four-storey mansion are many fine pieces in exotic woods, including an 18th-century rose wood back gammon and chess table. Also of note are the collec tions of 18th-century silver and Chinese porcelain, and hand-embroidered wool carpets from Arraiolos. The spacious rooms still retain some original ceilings and azulejo panels.

In the adjoining building are workshops where artisans pre serve the techniques of cabinet-making, gilding, book-binding, wood-carving and other traditional crafts. Temporary exhibitions, lectures and concerts are also held in the museum.

3. São Vicente de Fora

St Vincent was proclaimed Lisbon’s patron saint in 1173, when his relics were trans-ferred from the Algarve to a church on this site outside (fora) the city walls.

Designed by Italian architect Filippo Terzi, and completed in 1627, the sober, off-white façade is in Italian Renaissance style, with towers either side and three arches leading to the entrance hall. Statues of saints Augustine, Sebastian and Vincent can be seen over the entrance. The adjoining former Augustinian monastery, reached via the nave, retains its 16th-century cistern and vestiges of the former cloister, but it is visited mainly for its 18th-century azulejos. Among the panels in the en trance hall off the first cloister there are lively, though historically inaccurate, tile scenes of Afonso Henriques attacking Lisbon and Santarém.

Deeper into the monastery, floral designs and cherubs illustrate the fables of La Fontaine. A passageway leads behind the church to the old refec-tory, transformed into the Bragança Pantheon in 1885. The stone sarcophagi of almost every king and queen are here, from João IV, who died in 1656, to Manuel II, last king of Portugal. Only Maria I and Pedro IV are not buried here. A stone mourner kneels at the tomb of Carlos I and his son Luís Felipe, assassinated in Praça do Comércio in 1908.The church now operates as a museum, with access to the Bragança Pantheon.

4. Feira da Ladra

The stalls of the so-called “Thieves’ Market” have occupied this site on the edge of the Alfama for over a century, laid out under the shade of trees or canopies.

As the fame of this flea market has grown, bar gains are increas ingly hard to find among the mass of bric-a-brac, but a few of the vendors have interesting wrought-iron work, prints and tiles, as well as second-hand clothes. Evidence of Portugal’s colonial past is reflected in the stalls selling African statuary, masks and jewellery.



5. Santa Engrácia

One of Lisbon’s most striking landmarks, the soaring dome of Santa Engrácia (officially known as Panteão Nacional) punctuates the skyline in the east of the city. The original church collapsed in a storm in 1681. The first stone of the Baroque monument, laid in 1682, marked the beginning of a 284-year saga that led to the invention of a saying that a Santa Engrácia job was never done.

The church was not completed until 1966. The interior is paved with coloured marble and crowned by a giant cupola. As the National Pantheon, it houses cenotaphs of Portuguese heroes, such as Vasco da Gama (p114) and Afonso de Albuquerque, Viceroy of India (1502–15) on the left, and on the right Henry the Navigator (p328). More contemporary tombs include that of the fadista Amália Rodrigues. A lift up to the dome offers a magnificent 360-degree panorama of the city.

6. Museu do Fado

Alfama is considered the true home of fado and this museum portrays the influence that this ever-popular and intensely heartfelt genre of music has had on the city over the past two centuries.

A permanent display traces the genre’s history from its origins in the early 19th century to the present day, from Maria Severa, the first fado diva, to more contemporary singers like Amália Rodrigues and Mariza. Regular temporary exhibitions take place during the year on a range of musical themes, along with the occasional live fado concert.

7. Museu Militar

Located on the site of a 16th- century cannon foundry and arms depot, visits here begin in the Vasco da Gama Room, with cannons and modern murals depicting the dis-covery of the sea route to India.

The Salas da Grande Guerra dis play exhibits related to World War I. Other rooms focus on the evolution of wea pons in Portugal, from flints to spears to rifles. The courtyard, flanked by cannons, tells the story of Portugal in tiled panels, from the Christian Re conquest to World War I.

The Portuguese artillery section displays the wagon used to transport the triumphal arch to Rua Augusta.

8. Casa dos Bicos

Faced with diamond-shaped stones (bicos), Casa dos Bicos (House of Spikes) looks rather conspicuous among the other 69buildings in the Alfama area. It was built in 1523 for Brás de Albuquerque, illegitimate son of Afonso, Viceroy of India and conqueror of Goa and Malacca.

The façade is an adaptation of a style that was popular across Europe during the 16th century. The top two storeys, ruined in the earthquake of 1755, were restored in the 1980s, recreating the original from old views of Lisbon in tile panels and engravings. In the interim the building was used for salting fish (Rua dos Bacalhoeiros means street of the cod fisher men). Following an extensive renovation in the 20th-cen-tury, Casa dos Biscos now plays host to the head quar-ters of the José Saramago Foundation.

It is also home to a permanent exhibition dedicated to the life and works of this Nobel Prize-winning author, who died in 2010. A variety of cultural events often take place here; these include concerts, plays and book releases, along with a range of seminars, debates and lively talks.

9. Museu do Aljube – Resistência e Liberdade

This fascinating museum was once used by António Salazar – who ruled Portugal as a dictator from 1926 until the revolution of 1974 – to imprison his political oppon-ents. It is dedicated to those who were prepared to fight for democracy, both in Portugal and in its former colonies. Three floors are filled with evocative photos, posters and radio broadcasts, with labelling in English.

There are also harrowing personal accounts from people who were incarcerated and often tortured for views that were considered contrary to those of the state; many of these inmates were later deported to Madeira or the Azores. Their cramped, windowless cells can still be visited. The basement houses archaeological finds from beneath the building, which date back to Moorish times, while the top-floor café offers fine views over the river.

10. Santo António da Sé

The popular little church of Santo António allegedly stands on the site of the house in which St Antony was born. The crypt, reached via the tiled sacristy on the left of the church, is all that remains of the original church destroyed by the earthquake of 1755. Work began on the new church in 1757 headed by Mateus Vicente, architect of the Basílica da Estrela (p100), and was partially funded by donations collected by local children with the cry “a small coin for St Antony”. Even today the floor of the tiny chapel in the crypt is strewn with coins and the walls are scrawled with devotional messages from worshippers.

The church’s façade blends the undulating curves of the Baroque style with NeoClassical Ionic columns on either side of the main portal. Inside, on the way down to the crypt, a modern azulejo panel commemorates the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1982. In 1995 the church was given a facelift for the saint’s eighth centenary.

It is traditional for young couples to visit the church on their wedding day and leave flowers for St Antony, who is believed to bring good luck to new marriages. Next door, in the building thought to be were St Anthony was born, the small Museu Antoniano houses artifacts, relating to the saint, along with goldand silverware that used to decorate the church. The most charming exhibit is a 17thcentury tiled panel of St Antony preaching to the fish.

11. Sé

In 1150, three years after Afonso Henriques recap tured Lisbon from the Moors, he built a cathedral for the first bishop of Lisbon, the English Crusader Gilbert of Hastings, on the site of the old mosque. Sé is short for Sede Episcopal, the seat (or see) of a bishop. Devastated by three earth tremors in the 14th century, as well as the earthquake of 1755, and renovated over the centuries, the cathedral you see today blends a variety of archi tectural styles.

The façade, with twin castellated bell towers and a splendid rose win dow, retains its solid Romanesque aspect. The gloomy interior is simple and austere, and little remains of the embellish ment lavished upon it by King João V in the first half of the 18th century. Beyond the renovated Roman esque nave, the ambulatory has nine Gothic chapels. The Capela de Santo Ildefonso contains the 14th-century sarcophagi of Lopo Fernandes Pacheco, companion in arms to King Afonso IV, and his wife, Maria Vilalobos.

The bearded figure of the noble man, who is holding a sword in his hand, and his wife, clutch ing a prayer book, are carved onto the tombs with their dogs sitting faithfully at their feet. In the adjacent chancel are the tombs of Afonso IV and his wife Dona Beatriz. The Gothic cloister (closed for renovation until 2020) has elegant double arches with some finely carved capitals. One of the chapels is still fitted with its 13th-century wrought-iron gate. Ongoing archaeo-logical excavations in the cloister have unearthed various Roman and other remains.

To the left of the cathedral entrance, the Franciscan chapel contains the font where St Anthony was baptized in 1195 and is decorated with a tiled scene of him preaching to the fish. The adjacent chapel contains a Baroque Nativity scene made of cork, wood and terracotta by Machado de Castro (1766). The treasury is at the top of the staircase on the right. It houses silver, ecclesiastical robes, statuary, illustrated manuscripts and a few relics associated with St Vincent, which were transferred to Lisbon from Cabo de São Vicente in southern Portugal 1173.

Legend has it that two sacred ravens kept a vigil over the boat that transported the relics. The ravens and the boat became a symbol of the city of Lisbon, still very much in use today. It is also said that the raven’s descendants used to dwell in the cloisters of the cathedral.