Portugal: Day One: Exploring the Historic Alfama District

That’s right, we’re back to day one. Plot twist, bitchesss. While Spain was fun and this was technically all the same trip, my Portugal itinerary was so packed that it already feels like an entirely different trip.

I’d taken an overnight bus from Madrid to Lisbon and arrived at the bus station at 5 in the morning. [I booked my ticket with GoEuro for around €20] Since my hostel, Lisboa Central, didn’t allow check-in until the afternoon, I left my bags with them, ate a delicious breakfast there, and then went on to do a free walking tour with some friends I’d met from the hostel, all without so much as rinsing off my face or brushing my teeth. Yuck. I’d originally planned to do another Sandeman’s tour, but the hostel does their own walking tours, so I just tagged along. This turned out to be only day of exploration in Lisbon itself, so I was determined to see as much as I can.

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Our starting point was Rossio Square, otherwise known as Praça Dom Pedro IV. From there, we went on to explore the historic Alfama district by foot. It’s the oldest part of Lisbon largely because the rest of the city was destroyed in Lisbon’s 1755 earthquake. Whoops.

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We got the opportunity to see a bit of Igreja de São Domingos, a church that’s been damaged by earthquakes and lit on fire a bunch of times and is allegedly cursed. I’m not sure about curses, but the carved out, still slightly singed interior does feel a bit spooky.

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One of the first things you’ll notice while walking through Lisbon are the buildings’ façades. Although many are slightly worn down, they remain colorful and bright, either due to pretty paints or those famous tiles. Okay, yeah, so I took a lot of pictures of buildings and am trying to justify myself, don’t judge me. 

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Alfama is pretty notoriously hilly, but I feel like you don’t really notice how much your thighs are burning when the stairwells look like this:

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Escadinhas de São Critóvão is a worthwhile stop in and of itself, largely because it’s home to the Fado Vadio mural, a tribute to the origins of fado, or Portugal’s melancholic musical answer to the blues. The street art in Lisbon is generally incredible, but this little square in particular is striking.

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I’d been wanting to try ginja, Portuguese sweet cherry liquor, since before I’d even left Paris. In the end, I cheerfully dished over two Euros at our next stop and gulped it down right in front of Castelo de São Jorge. [“Not worth the entry fee,” our guide assured us of this ancient stone fortress. “If you want the view, there are better places to go for free.”]

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Ginja tastes like cough medicine, but in a good way?? Some places offer it with boozy cherries at the bottom of the shot for you to eat, and others serve it in edible chocolate cups, so there’s really no way to go wrong here. If you’re not a fan of the way alcohol tastes, it’s probably better to avoid it, although one shot couldn’t really hurt. Sadly, I can’t for the life of me find out the exact store we got it from, but the famous institution A Ginjinha isn’t too far off.

We made our way up to Miradouro das Portas do Sol, which offers a fantastic view of the city’s terra cotta rooftops and the sprawling blue waters. One of the disadvantages of walking tours are the time crunch; you don’t get more than a couple of minutes and a quick explanation at each stop, which is why they’re best for a first-day excursion, as a means to get your bearings in a new place.

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For more street art, we walked around the perimeter of the castle and to Pátio Do Fradique. It’s a section of the castle that’s badly in need of renovations but has managed to make the best of it. Local artists [and possibly local kooks] have transformed it into a quirky little space for their art.

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If you hadn’t noticed already, Lisbon is covered in art. That’s one of the things that struck me the most as I walked through this city—it feels very cultural, despite a noted lack of popular museums and pretentious art galleries. The culture here lives in the streets, in the run-down, historical buildings, in the people. It doesn’t need or desire to be put behind glass cases and auctioned off for thousands of dollars; it simply wants to be shared and appreciated by anyone who happens to stumble across it. There’s nothing else quite like it.

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The second viewpoint of the day was Miradouro Santa Luzia. More stunning views, more breathtaking sights. Whatever, Lisbon. [Just kidding, holy shit.]

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Thanks to the perpetually sunny weather, Lisbon has a distinct beach town, almost California-esque vibe. That might be part of the reason why I liked it so much—it reminded me of the very best parts of home.

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One of the last stops on the tour was Sé de Lisboa, a very distinctly Notre Dame-looking church. Our tour officially ended here, but we ended up grabbing lunch with our tour guide. [I’m super frustrated that I never caught the name of the restaurant we ate at, because I had a baked cod & potato dish that was incredible, and they gave us both free shots and free easter almonds, it was wild. Everyone in Portugal is super welcoming and will SHOWER you with free food and warm smiles.] After that, we parted ways with our guide and ended up deciding to find the Bairro Alto district and explore it on our own.

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As we walked along, various sights and sounds vied for our attention. One of the brightest stores I saw around Rossio was O Mundo Fantástico da Sardinha Portuguesa, which sells sardines but looks like a circus. There wasn’t time to do anything more than take a quick snap, however, because before I knew it, we were on the move again.

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The next spot we hit up was Carmo Convent, a ruined Catholic convent from the 14th century. As an American, it sometimes freaks me out how old shit in Europe is.

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Anyway, there was an entrance fee. It wasn’t much [€4] but I was out of cash and perfectly content to hang back and relax while the other half of our group headed in to take a look at the ruins.

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This little stand right outside the church turned out to be the perfect place to sit for a bit, rest our tired feet, and wait on the others.

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It was also the perfect place for me to try my first pastel de nata, a sweet Portuguese custard pastry that just melts in your mouth. They say that the original pastéis de nata, found in Belem, is the best in the city, but for those of us who don’t have the time to make the trip, any of the many bakeries in Lisbon will have to suffice.

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I ate my pastry, ascended to heaven, and then we were off again! We spent a good several hours just wandering around this area and trying to figure out where Bairro Alto was. It took a few tries, but we got there eventually, and we got to see more of Lisbon on the way—always a plus.

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Again, Lisbon’s tiles are a pivotal part of the city. Most of them are blue, but the non-conforming ones were my fave.

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I can’t find the name of this Miradouro in Bairro Alto, and I think it’ll eventually drive me to insanity, so if any of you lovely readers happen to know the name of it, please leave a comment!

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This picture is pretty much a summary of Lisbon: cheery yellow tram, steep hill, water in the distance, and flowers peering out of windows. You can peep this view at Ascensor da Bica. You’re welcome.

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For anyone looking for a chocolate fix, Chocolataria Equador has you covered. The craziness of their flavor selection was overwhelming, and the shop is cute, too!

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At long last, we found the Pink Street, or Rua Nova do Carvalho. This was, at one point, the Red Light District of Lisbon, although it’s considerably tamer and more of a tourist trap as of late, playing up the ‘danger’ factor for visitors. Since it was still light out, almost every establishment was closed, although the signs for strip clubs and bars were still prominently on display. Also, almost immediately, a man came up to our little group and offered us a handful of weed, asking how much we’d pay. I guess it lives up to its reputation?

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Our final stop on this long, long day was the Praça do Comércio, just in time to catch the sunset. Not to brag or anything, but golden hour + the dignified architecture in this square made my photographs look hella good.

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There was also an evening concert on display in the form of lively street musicians. We stopped and watched them for a while, before turning around and heading back home.

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After cleaning up and grabbing a quick bite to eat at hora h, a restaurant near the hostel, I headed back to my [incredibly comfy and clean?!?!] bed and passed out. At this point, I hadn’t slept in over 24 hours, but I wasn’t tired—Lisbon had 5 Hour Energy’d me back to life.

Locations

What are your favorite areas in Lisbon? Do you have any recommendations for the city?

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21 thoughts on “Portugal: Day One: Exploring the Historic Alfama District

  1. Dacian says:

    Amazingly beautiful! Superb Lisbon!
    They just won Eurovision haha and I plan on going next year over there! So happy that now I have another push to finally go and see that beautiful country.
    Amzing post, thanks for sharing such spectacular photos!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Annika says:

    Lisbon is so pretty! I was there in (I think) 2010 or 2011 and the economic crisis had hit it hard though, and it was heartbreaking to see so many homeless people. Hope they are recovering well.
    Also, love the My Map at the bottom – great idea, I might steal it!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Barbara says:

    I always drink ginja in Sintra and always in a chocolate cup. So good! And you didn’t have time to go to Pasteis de Belem?! 😱 They are good everywhere but there’s just something about them there.

    Liked by 1 person

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