A 1755 earthquake ravaged Alfama, Lisbon’s oldest district. One can debate whether the area was somewhat saved or partially destroyed by the natural disaster. Gritty but incandescent, its inhabitants come alive in June to celebrate religious icons and fish. With the stevedores (fishermen) perhaps out to sea, these varinas (fishwives) seem representative of the area as a whole —stalwart yet somewhat shaken.
Lisbon – Been There

Alfama is where you'll find 19th-century Lisbon

Photo by Jochem Wijnands

Lisbon – Been There Alfama is where you'll find 19th-century Lisbon

With its stylish hills and slippery paving stones, Lisbon feels like an obstacle course at times – and the area of Alfama is the most difficult to navigate.

Daphne Huineman
Daphne Huineman Travel Writer

A chaotic layout; confusingly familiar little streets; stairs; doorways; dead ends – you can’t really avoid getting lost in Alfama. But the confusion is worth the reward – true, there’s no cultural highpoint per se, but this is the oldest and most beautiful area the city has to offer.

The fishwives screaming in the morning market on Rua de São Pedro, the old couples on the miradouros and the fish taking their last breath in the overheated and overcrowded windows of little restaurants…this is Lisbon just as it was 50 years ago. One hundred and fifty years ago, even. A little unnerving, but you find yourself whisked back to the 19th-century.

The Alfama district’s authentic aura tempts the young nouveau-riche, who would love to snap up three or more of its old houses and build lofts behind the old façades. Thankfully, the area isn’t about to succumb to the wants of yuppie-dom.

The original owners of these damp, obliquely-set doll houses don’t want to give their places up. In the middle of a city of one million people, this is one of the few places that still supports a neighborly feel – a place where the idea of a community has active support. Two of the local women chatter away on their balconies just over the square from the São Miguel Church, between piles of freshly-washed underpants and bed sheets that need to be delivered to a lady up the street. Close by, a pair of old sisters listen with baited breath; they’ve just hung their panties out to dry.

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