LISBON The Low-Down on Alfama - Lisbon’s Oldest Neighbourhood

Spend time in Lisbon and it won’t be long before you find yourself weaving through the cobblestone streets of Alfama.


The Low-Down on Alfama - Lisbon’s Oldest Neighbourhood

Spend time in Lisbon and it won’t be long before you find yourself weaving through the cobblestone streets of Alfama.

 The oldest neighbourhood in Lisbon, it was the only part of the city to survive the 1755 earthquake and subsequent tsunami, leaving intact a labyrinthine web of tiny streets where long-time locals live in a tight-knit community. Regarded as the birthplace of Fado – passionate laments of longing passed orally from the 1820’s – umpteenth music bars and restaurants offer nightly live performances. Then come June, it’s many secret squares erupt with the sizzle of freshly grilled sardines and jugs of wine shared at communal tables set under the orange trees as the whole city descends to this tiny pocket to celebrate the patron saint Santo Antonio.

While Alfama’s resolute charm is far from secret, the beauty of this neighbourhood comes alive when you let yourself getting lost.  While its main through-fares bustle with tourists taking pictures from striking view-points overlooking the Tejo, slip just a few steps of the beaten track and you can find yourself in tiny squares where neighbours gossip over washing and at each turn, a picture perfect vignette of traditional Lisbon character stands firm in the wave of the city’s fast-growing popularity.

It is this intimate atmosphere that has drawn an increasing number of creatives, among them Yves St Laurent and Monica Belluci, to purchase properties in the area, adding an undercurrent of bobo-chic to the smiling senhoras selling home-made ginja (cherry liqueur) from their front porch. If you find yourself confused in Alfama, you aren’t the only one – the divisions from one section of Alfama to the other are notoriously unclear. While most first-timers flock to Baixa Alfama, thanks to its Fado Museum and multitude of restaurants and viewpoints, the sprawling neighbourhood is set over 4 sub-sections, from Se Cathedral close to Baixa, to the Church of São Vincent and across to the majestic Pantheon (built as a Temple to the Gods) and the Market of Santa Clara, set below the bohemian neighbourhood of Graça.

It’s here, on Tuesdays and Saturdays, that the streets bustles with the city’s most colourful flea and antiques market, where you can pick up everything from antique ceramics crafted in Portugal’s former colony of Macau to vintage furniture from the 50’s at rock-bottom prices and rare vinyl records dotted amongst the everyday tat.

As a rule of thumb, if you are looking to rent or buy a property in Alfama, Baixa Alfama (Lower Alfama) tends to be busier and better known by travellers, making it great option for buy-to-let apartments, while Alta Alfama (Upper Alfama) is characterised by larger, more noble buildings and stunning views across the river.  From an investment perspective, buying a property in Alfama and the neighbouring districts of Graça and São Vincent is an interesting option. Very few properties have been renovated and most are comprised of 6-8 apartments.

The area is a bit of a jewel that’s still being discovered, so price increases here have yet to hit the same intensity as the likes of Chiado, Barrio Alto and Principe Real, yet it retains serious growth potential due to its unique atmosphere, popularity and proximity to the centre. You can get to Cais do Sodre and Time-Out’s Mercado da Ribeira in 10 minutes by bus, and you are within walking distance to the national train network at Santa Apolonia, which means easy weekend trips up to Porto and down to the Algarve.

As Lisbon’s loveliness continues to draw an increasing influxes of travellers, much of making the most of the city is learning how to avoid the tourists crowds and slip into the local flow, so Alfama’s many secrets make for a wonderful place to start.