Things to do in Alfama District - Lisbon Old Town
Lisbon and it’s historic Alfama district was the part of our two week Portugal tour that we were most looking forward to. We recently had friends and family members visit the city over long weekends and feedback about Portugal’s hilly capital was all positive. We’d booked to stay in Lisbon old town because we’d heard it’s the best area to stay in Lisbon. Having 5 nights in the area to explore, we had plenty of time to discover our top things to do in Alfama district.
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Our hopes were high for Lisbon but we were not disappointed. As soon as we arrived we could tell we were going to love Lisbon and it’s Alfama district. As our private taxi transfer drove through the bustling streets to our accommodation, we could already see it’s beauty. The white domed cathedrals, grand plazas, old castles. cobblestoned lanes, gorgeous waterfronts and Roman ruins. Lisbon is just so pleasing to the eye.
It’s one of those cities that combines the old and new so perfectly well. The ancient streets look frozen in time. Worn paintwork, laundry washing lines and ancient trams clatter through the streets. But inside you’ll find new hipster cafes, stylish restaurants, art galleries and boutique shops.
It’s Lisbon old town, known as the Alfama district, that’s the star of the show here. The Alfama district spreads on the slope between the São Jorge Castle and the Tejo river. The name comes from the Arabic Al-hamma, meaning “hot fountains” or “baths”. It’s the oldest part of the city and the only district to survive the huge 1755 earthquake. You can see it’s showing it’s age with cracked and chipped tiles, worn paintwork and a few derelict buildings but it still manages to look so beautiful.
Things to do in Alfama District
The big tourist attractions in Lisbon old town are the Cathedral and Sao Jorge Castle. But here are our less obvious things to do in Alfama that you might not find in other guides. The area is great for walking around and discovering everything yourself or book a local private guide in Lisbon to show you around.
1 – Walk the Alfama District Streets (Without a Map)
What’s so great about the Alfama district is that you can spend hours and hours wandering its streets without having to spend a penny. It’s a wonderful medieval maze, a village within a city, the historical soul of Lisbon. On every street and around every corner you come across another discovery. It’s a photographers paradise.
Book your Alfama 3 Hour Walking Tour here!
As you walk through the old-fashioned residential neighbourhood of Lisbon old town, it feels like you’ve stepped back in time. You’ll find narrow shady cobblestoned streets, clattering old trams, mini-plazas, grand churches, steep staircases and wrought iron balconies graced with elderly women hanging washing out to dry.
Don’t bother trying to find your way around the maze with a map. It’s almost pointless and getting lost is half the fun. You never know what you might find while trying to get your bearings. Maybe more things to do in Alfama that aren’t in this guide or any other.
As a walking alternative, book your Alfama 1.5-Hour Segway Tour here!
2- Book Alfama District Accommodation – The Best Area to Stay in Lisbon
What is the best area to stay in Lisbon? I’m glad you asked. The Alfama district would be our confident answer. The area has been going through a phase of redevelopment over recent years. Investors have been buying up most of the derelict properties and turning them into boutique hotels and trendy apartments. They’ve done this tastefully and have been careful to keep the building’s historic character to fit within the Lisbon old town surroundings.
We used AirBnB to rent an awesome 1-bed apartment right in the centre of the Alfama district. Staying in the area was a fantastic experience and would be our number one of things to do in Alfama. It’s important to know that Lisbon old town is in no way a Disney-esque tourist site. It’s a place where locals live, work and enjoy. Right on our doorstep, we could see residents buying custard tarts at their local bakery. Watch them go to church on a Sunday. Early morning dog walks and evening catch ups over a tiny bottle of beer.
It’s a peaceful neighbourhood so we slept easily at night. If you choose the right street as we did, you could be on your balcony listening to the sounds of Portuguese chatter, church bells and traditional Fado singing. The Alfama district is such an atmospheric and romantic place to stay. By far the best area to stay in Lisbon.
Recommended Alfama Accomodation
If you want to rent your very own apartment in the Alfama district, then CLICK HERE to see our full list of recommended apartment options in the area! Or check out these three excellent hotels below if you’d prefer a hotel.
Inn Possible Lisbon Hostel – Located on the borders of both the Alfama District and the Rossio area, this friendly hostel is in a great location to explore all of Lisbon’s hot spots on foot. Accommodation includes super clean dorms and excellent double rooms with balconies. Book this popular traveller hang out now!
Hotel Convento do Salvador – Located just a 6-minute stroll from the iconic São Jorge Castle, the Sé Cathedral and the National Pantheon, this hotel is set in a former convent. Rooms offer picturesque panoramas over the city to the Tejo River and the iconic Tram 28 (see below) passes right by the front door.
Solar do Castelo – Thi special place is set around an inner courtyard of an 18th-century mansion and is located within the walls of St. Jorge’s Castle, one of the most popular things to do in Alfama District! In the evenings, the elegant lounge/bar area with original stone walls is a relaxing place to retire.
3 – Enjoy the Views Across Lisbon Old Town
You’re never far away from a stunning viewpoint anywhere in Lisbon. With views of terracotta rooftops set against bright blue waters. If you’re looking for things to do in Alfama that don’t cost you a penny then add this to your list.
Our favourite viewpoint was Miradouro das Portas do Sol. A large open balcony offering an undisturbed picturesque postcard of Lisbon old town from above. With a backdrop of the glorious Monastery of Sao Vicente and Rio Tejo.
With equally stunning vistas is Miradouro de Santa Luzia. You’ll find it by the church of Santa Luzia on Rua do Limoeiro. A romantic gardened terrace with sweeping views of houses, churches and the Tagus River. On an outside wall of the church are two storytelling tile panels. One of Comercio Square before the earthquake and another showing Christians attacking St. George’s Castle in 1147.
4 – Sunset drinks at Portas do Sol
While we’re on the subject of amazing views, let us recommend Portas do Sol. A great bar/restaurant just below Miradouro das Portas do Sol. The bar has a huge open terrace offering more views to compete with any of the city’s Miradouros.
Portas do Sol has an extensive wine, cocktail and beer list at very reasonable prices. We spent many hours there relaxing in the late afternoon sun. The easiest of things to do in Alfama 🙂
5 – Enjoy the Evenings and a Live Fado Music Performance
After the sun has set and the daytime tourist coach loads have left, Alfama district is utterly charming. With the dimly lit street lanterns, cosy candlelit bars, authentic old restaurants and the sound of Fado music echoing through Lisbon old town squares, it’s about as romantic as romantic can be.
Fado is a traditional Portuguese form of music. Performed by a female or a male vocalist, typically to the accompaniment of one or two guitarists, is renowned for its expressive and profoundly melancholic character.
Many of the Alfama district restaurants invite Fado artists to perform at no extra cost to guests. A performance lasts about an hour and is a great way to enjoy a meal or round of drinks.
In the summer, when restaurant doors are left wide open and restaurant terraces are full of dinners, Fado music can be heard and watched throughout the streets. The sound creates such a wonderful atmosphere so unique to Lisbon old town.
Book your Fado & Alfama Tour here! Or check out two of the best live Fado performances in Lisbon below!
6 – Board the Tram Number 28
There are many ways to get around Lisbon and it’s Alfama district but there’s nothing more memorable and fun than doing it via Tram 28. Tram 28 is a vintage yellow tram. A hop on hop off that plies various routes in Lisbon. It clatters all over the city centre, crossing many touristic attractions. But the best part of its route is when it navigates along the winding and very narrow streets of Lisbon old town.
Tram 28 is cheap and very popular with tourists so expect to be squeezed in with many other people. It’s better if you can wait for a time when there are fewer people onboard. This way you can truly relax and enjoy the ride. We found the quietest times to be early morning and evening.
7 – Breakfast at Pois Cafe
We couldn’t write this post without a mention of this unique and cosy cafe. Open all day for breakfast, lunch and dinner, Pois Cafe is a must of things to do in Alfama while in the area. We visited Pois Cafe on a couple of occasions, once for breakfast and another for their epic sized hot chocolates!
The dining room is tall and airy with mismatched tables and chairs. Books and magazines are freely available and the couches and coffee tables give the place a relaxed coffeehouse feel. The food was simple, fresh, and full of flavour. Plus the drinks list is extensive with a range of coffees, shakes, smoothies and even wines and beers. If you’re not hungry then it’s relaxed approach allows you to sit back and simply enjoy a coffee while reading a book. Good coffee it is too! Easily the best in Lisbon’s historic Alfama district.
You cannot complete a trip to Lisbon without a visit to it’s delightful Alfama district. As we mentioned before, it’s the best area to stay in Lisbon but be careful because once you enter, it’s hard to leave!
Don’t forget the rest of this awesome European city. We strongly recommend booking the following tours.
- Lisbon Essential Tour: History, Stories & Lifestyle
- 2-Hour Sunset Cruise on the Tagus River
- Lisbon 3 Hour Walking Tour with Food & Drink Tastings
- Fátima Full Day Tour
- Sintra and Cascais Full Day Group Tour from Lisbon
- Lisbon Sunset Fado & Dinner: Small Group Walking Tour