Last week I told you how I found Lisbon in May, we wandered its streets covered in “calçada” and lined with jacaranda trees in blossom, we crossed the bridges over Tagus river and we stopped at Pasteis de Belem, to enjoy the tasty egg tarts – pasteis de nata. And if all that did not convince you that Lisbon deserves a visit, in this new post I will give a few more reasons.
Our virtual tour today will start right in the heart of Lisbon, in the neighborhood that no visitor should miss, even if your visit to the capital of Portugal is a short one.
Alfama – this is the neighborhood I am talking about, is a place full of history, a mixture of labyrinthine streets and squares, whose charm can not leave you indifferent. Moreover, it is almost impossible to talk of Lisbon, without mentioning Alfama, because it is the oldest district of the city. Its name is of Moorish origin (in Arabic Al-hamma means “hot springs”), because of its location in an area pierced by numerous springs. The district has expanded considerably after the end of the Arab domination and became par excellence a place inhabited by fishermen and by the poorest families of Lisbon. Alfama is also the district that remained standing after the earthquake of 1755, year in which most of Lisbon fell to the ground. The poor neighborhood image was not removed from Alfama until today. Paradoxically, though, it is considered one of the safest neighborhoods in the city, and visitors flock to the small restaurants in Alfama and especially to the fado clubs, where the passionate voices of fado singers delight the audience until early morning. As the song says “Alfama não cheira a fado. Mas não tem outra canção” – Alfama does not smell like fado, but it has no other song.
The Fado clubs
During the four days I spent in Lisbon, I visited twice Clube de Fado, one of the most popular locations, standing right in the heart of Alfama, a magical place where you can both enjoy local delicacies and taste the wines of Portugal while listening, almost in the dark, to the Portuguese fado.
This song full of nostalgia and resignation is perhaps the most honest expression of the soul of Portuguese people. Born in the poorest suburbs of Lisbon, fado is like a sincere confession, a mourning full of emotions and feelings in their purest state. Fado, which derives its name from “fatum” (fate in Latin) sings about the hard fate of the people, the departed seamen whom might not come back, and their beloved ones who remain to cry after them. Fado depicts in verses full of melancholy stories about Lisbon’s great conquerors, but also about the poverty that is often rampant in the Portuguese homes. The voices of the fado singers (the so-called fadistas) are extremely powerful inflections that pierce your heart. They sing without a microphone, in the shadow, accompanied only by a Portuguese guitar and a classical guitar. I can only say that the result is sublime, and here I leave you the proof!
Another district of Lisbon that no tourist should miss is Bairro Alto or in translation “the Upper District”. Lisbon’s expansion in the second half of the 15th century led to the emergence of this conglomerate which overlaps a rectangular street network, with the main axes perpendicular on the Tagus and the secondary ones parallel with it. The Medieval touch can still be perceived in the entire neighborhood, although over the years, many architectural styles made their presence felt. Bairro Alto enriched itself with many Renaissance facades, Manueline, Baroque or Rococo. The Pombal era (rebuilding Lisbon after the earthquake of 1755) is also represented by buildings quite sober, but something wider and higher (usually 4 floors).
Bairro Alto is very easy to reach by public transportation. Tram 28 is the most famous route of Lisbon. It runs every 11 minutes and a pass for 24 hours costs about 6 EUR. The tram also covers the longest transit route in Lisbon and some of the most beautiful neighborhoods of the city, including Baixa, Graça, Alfama and Estrela.
Traveling by Tram 28 is a “must do” given that the Remodelado trams produced since 1930 are the only ones able to climb and descend the narrow and steep streets of Lisbon.
Sao Jorge Castle
One of the most spectacular views of Lisbon will unfold, undoubtedly, from the Sao Jorge Castle, very easy to access from the route of Tram 28. The tram does not stop at the castle, but a short walk will reward you with an unforgettable panorama. Research shows that the first fortifications of the castle date from II BC, but they have undergone many restorations over time. Among the most important moments that have marked the history of the castle is its rebuilding in the tenth century when it was occupied by the Muslim Berbers and later, its reconquest by the Christians, led by Afonso Henriques in 1147. In the XIV century, the castle resisted numerous attacks of the Kingdom of Castile, during which it also was dedicated to St. George.
One of the busiest pedestrian streets of Lisbon is Rua Augusta. A myriad of souvenir shops and famous European fashion chains such Zara, Mango and H & M are to be found here. Rua Augusta ends with the Augusta Arch in front of Praça do Comércio (Commerce Square). The arch was built starting in 1755, to commemorate the beginning of the reconstruction of Lisbon after the earthquake which took place the same year. Its construction lasted for about 120 years.
Santa Justa Lift
Another top attraction in Lisbon is Santa Justa elevator, which has been connecting for more than 100 years the Santa Justa Street in Baixa (Lower Quarter) with Largo de Carmo (Carmo Square). Sometimes mistakenly attributed to the French engineer Gustave Eiffel, the elevator Santa Justa is the work of the Portuguese engineer Raoul Mesnier du Ponsard. The structure and the elevator equipment used are original, only its windows were replaced over time. Although often there’s a big queue to climb the elevator, the experience is worth it. Moreover, history seems to support the fact that for over more than a century, here there has been no fatal accident here. The cost of a ticket is 5 EUR.
Rossio Train Station & Rossio Square
Estação de Caminhos de Ferro do Rossio ( Rossio Station) in Lisbon is one of the most impressive train stations I have ever visited along my travels. Situated in one of the most important squares of Lisbon (Praça do Rossio), Rossio Station was opened in May 1891 and it was designed by the architect Jose Luis Monteiro. Trains enter the station through a tunnel of about 2600 m long, which is why Rossio remains to date one of the most large-scale civil engineering projects of the nineteenth century. Beyond technological challenge, the monumental facade with Manueline Neo-Romantic accents can not be overlooked.
Avenida da Liberdade
For those who love luxury shopping, but also for curious tourists eager to ride, Avenida da Liberdade is another target not to be missed. Lisbon’s most expensive boulevard is flanked by cafes and restaurants, as well as boutique shops of famous fashion house like Luis Vuitton, Emporio Armani, Trussardi, Burberry, Escada and more. Prices? Do not expect any bargain, because you will not find it here, for sure!
Parque das Nações
One of the newly created districts of Lisbon (2012) is Parque das Nações (Park of theNations) which overlaps largely over the area used for Expo in Lisbon in 1998. Many tourists arrive in Parque das Nações, especially to visit the Oceanarium, one of the largest aquariums in the world, or to admire the Vasco da Gama Tower. Here you can also find the futuristic Oriente Station, the work of Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. For the shopping lovers here you can spend an entire day in one of the major malls in Lisbon – Vasco da Gama Mall.
Whether visiting a palace or an average home, a school or a church, a restaurant or a bar, a subway station or a train station, Portugal will fascinate you with its beautiful azulejos which are nothing more than painted ceramic tiles. The term derives from Arabic, from az-zulayj, meaning “polished stone”. In the XIII century, Seville was the undisputed center of this craft, and after a visit by King Manuel I in Seville in 1503, azulejos reached Portugal. For a while, the Portuguese continued to import them from Spain, until the late XVIIIth century, when Portugal entered the Golden Age of Azulejos with renowned local artists.
The ceramic tiles worked painstakingly decorate floors, facades, walls and even the ceilings of the Portuguese homes, churches, and palaces. The tiles are painted with geometric, floral and religious motifs depicting the history of great Discovery Era when the Portuguese had a very active role. Most of the Azulejos are monochrome, painted in blue, but you will also discover beautiful polychrome tiles in shades of green, red, yellow and brown.