We’re brand-new to the travel blogging ‘scene’. That’s not a secret. But we recently stumbled upon a thread in one of our travel blog groups where someone was talking about how they didn’t like Lisbon because of how ‘touristy’ it is. After typing and deleting and re-typing and re-deleting our rage-filled rebuttal (it’s really ridiculous how defensive we’ve become over this place after a month) we decided to take the high road and, instead of shaming them via Twitter, we’d share with you why that person was so terribly, terribly misinformed.
We’ve spent the last month living in the heart of the medieval maze that is Lisbon’s Alfama neighborhood. A quick tram ride out of the heart of downtown, here you’ll get a real glimpse of local life. We are by no means self-proclaimed experts on Lisbon– a month isn’t nearly enough time really know everything– and we aren’t deeming these places as the best spots to eat or things to do in Lisbon, but they’re some of our favorites in the neighborhood.
[details on hours, prices and contact information listed below]
Breakfast at Quase Café
This tiny piece of heaven is on one of Alfama’s typical back-alley streets that you would never be able to find on purpose. We stumbled upon it one morning, and were immediately drawn in by the giant sign saying “crepes” outside. If you’re a new reader and don’t yet know about my crepe obsession, suffice it to say that they are one of my regular food groups.
It really is tiny, though. With only about 10 seats, including a couch, it can fill up quickly. The two lovely ladies behind the counter could not be more delightful. We’ve become regulars here over the weeks, and they’ve even tutored us in Portuguese! To be honest, you could come here at any time of the day, as they have a full menu of tapas and sandwiches (and a wine list!) but we prefer it for breakfast. They also have a huge selection of smoothies and fresh-pressed juices.
Our go-to breakfast (which will run you about €10-12):
- Housemade scones with jam and butter: These are literally the greatest scones on the planet. They cook them fresh so sometimes it takes a while, but it’s hot out of the oven every time and they are the. best. ever.
- Crepe misto: crepe with ham and cheese
- Strawberry, banana smoothie
It’s also worth noting they have free and fast wi-fi, so if you’re one of those ‘digital nomad’ types trying to get some work done, it’s a great option.
Explore the Mosteiro de São Vicente de Fora
A short walk from Quase Café sits the Igreja de São Vicente de Fora, also referred to as the Mosteiro de São Vicente de Fora, or “Monastery of St. Vincent Outside the Walls”. The present building dates back to 1580 under the rule of King Philip II of Spain. Much of the original façade was heavily damaged in the 1755 earthquake, but you can still see large parts of the original structure throughout your tour.
Inside, you’ll see beautiful blue and white azulejos tiles depicting various scenes of Portugal’s history and an extensive collection of jewels, clothing and other items from the earliest royals.
You can climb all the way up the bell tower to the roof of the building where you’ll find fantastic panoramic views of Alfama and the Tagus River. This was our favorite part.
Entry fees are €5 per person, and you can easily spend one to two hours here, depending on how much you like to read.
Lunch at Focaccia in Giro
It’s got to be feeding time again, right? We’ve mentioned this place in a previous blog post, but we had to include it as our go-to lunch spot in Alfama. It’s a 5 minute walk from the Monastery, and overlooks the National Pantheon (which we’ll get to later) and has a great view of the Tagus River. We consider it to be an “Italian cafe with a Portuguese twist,” and true to its name, they serve up a variety of toasts and sandwiches on some of the best focaccia bread you’ll ever have. From prosciutto and other cured meats to mushrooms and brie, there is something for every palette. Our favorite is the prosciutto with cream cheese and arugula, and the Portuguese pear with nutella.
A mix of Italian and Portuguese Bruschettas, daily pastries, cheese plates and charcuterie round out their small, but eclectic menu. They also have a variety of morning juices (cucumber melon is our favorite) and, of course, excellent coffee. We’ve been here an embarrassing amount of times, too, and have become good friends with the crew behind “Clementine”, a cute little orange van that sits inside where they take your order, so make sure to tell them we sent you!
This place has a serious lunch rush, but they do offer takeaway (in giro!) and a solid amount of tables inside and out on the patio.
Discover the Thieves’ Market (Tuesdays and Saturdays)
If it happens to be a Tuesday or a Saturday, you can’t miss the Feira da Ladra, Alfama’s famous flea market. Literally, you can’t miss it. It’s on the street right outside Focaccia in Giro.
It’s the largest market of its kind in the city and has been around since the late 1800s, although its origins are said to go all the way back to the 12th century. It’s a… colorful… collection of hand-me-downs and anything else the gypsies could get their hands on. It’s all haphazardly strewn around the sloped hill of Campo de Santa Clara. There aren’t any food stalls in the market other than a couple of produce stands, and you’d be hard pressed to find anything of real ‘value’ here, but it’s worth a quick stroll to see it and take in the atmosphere. Just keep a close eye on your wallet.
Igreja de Santa Engrácia-Panteão Nacional
Famous for its unmistakable chalk-white dome, the Igreja de Santa Engrácia (Church of Santa Engrácia) sits just below the Campo de Santa Clara, and is recognizable in pretty much every picture you’ve ever seen of Alfama.
The church took 284 years to complete, and is dizzyingly impressive on the inside. It was classified as a national monument in 1910, and chosen as Portugal’s National Pantheon some years later. It houses cenotaphs of notable Portuguese explorers and royalty, as well as tombs of former presidents, famous writer Almeida Garrett and Amália Rodrigues, a celebrated fado singer.
We spent most a lot of time on the roof soaking in the sun and views, but you can get the visit done in a half hour or so. It’s free on the first Sunday of the month, otherwise the entry fee is €3.
The Happiest of Hours
Not sure about you, but we tend to organize our days based on where our next meal will be, so next up is a selection of some of our favorite happy hour spots:
Portas do Sol
A little pricey, but totally worth it for the view and comfy couches. Portas do Sol is a terrace cocktail bar overlooking the Tagus River, and it’s great option for happy hour snacks or a late lunch.
Since we’re here in the off-season (January/February) it’s not very crowded, but I imagine it could be difficult to get a spot during the summer. The menu is great for lighter fare, with a selection of tapas, salads and sandwiches. Our favorites are the couscous salad with roasted vegetables and chopped parsley, seasoned with olive oil, lemon and coriander, and their bruschettas – smoked salmon, cream cheese and capers, and smoked ham, fresh mozz and sun-dried tomato. Top it off by splitting a half-carafe of vinho verde, or try one of their signature cocktails. Being the wine-lovers we are, we haven’t tried them, but they look pretty.
Memmo Hotel Alfa Wine Bar & Terrace
Again, slightly spendy, but what’s happy hour without a great view? The terrace bar is incredibly elegant with white marble tables surrounding an infinity pool overlooking all of Alfama. With an extensive wine, beer and cocktail list, it’s the perfect place to have a drink and enjoy the view. They have a fairly extensive menu, but we opted for a croquette snack to go with our Espumante and Vinho Verde. Delicious.
Sunset Stroll at Castelo de São Jorge
Castelo de São Jorge is one of Lisbon’s most popular tourist attractions, and thus can get incredibly crowded during peak hours of the day. To avoid the crowds and have an amazing sunset view of Lisbon, we recommend the Castle as the last sightseeing item on your Alfama agenda.
The entrance fee will run you €8.50 per person, but it’s one of those ‘must do even though it’s touristy’ / ‘so we can say we did’ kind of things. As far as castles in Portugal go, this one isn’t the most interesting or impressive, but like I said, the view is the main reason to go.
You guessed it – feeding time again! If you take our advice on going to the Castelo in the early evening, you’ll be perfectly positioned to enjoy dinner at Claras em Castelo. It’s a little hole-in-the-wall place right outside the main entrance to the castle. You would think it’s a tourist trap, given it’s location, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. It seats maybe 12-15 people, so it’s a good idea to get a reservation if you’re there in peak season. There was no English on the menu and we were doing our best to ‘Google Translate’ what we could, but the server quickly came over and explained every option to us. A mother-daughter duo does the cooking, and they would run out to the store every 15 minutes or so to get more ingredients. Talk about fresh and organic. The menu was small– maybe 10 items or so– and completely handwritten. Dishes ranged from traditional Portuguese fish plates to roasted chicken and braised veal cheeks. Pat ordered the cod with shrimp, which was simple but very good. The cod was cooked perfectly with sautéed peppers, pickled onions, shrimp and garlic olive oil on top, with a side of roasted potatoes. I had the chicken with ground chorizo, roasted golden potatoes and a side salad. Not super fancy, but a great option for an authentic Portuguese experience.
Our other favorite, Le Petit Cafe, is a cozy option in the heart of Alfama just a few minutes’ walk down the hill following the famous “28 Tram” tracks. Another place where we recommend reservations, as it’s small and gets packed after 8 o’clock. It’s one of the most popular places in the neighborhood, so it’s a touch touristy, but the quality of food and presentation is well worth it. It’s moderately priced, with entrees ranging from €18 – €30 and HUGE portions. For starters, we had chicken samosas – curried chicken fried in a pastry, served with curry mango chutney – and pan fried goat cheese with picked onion. Good flavor on both, and a great start to the evening. For mains, I had the Top Sirloin “Brazilian Style”, served on a cutting board with sides of black beans, rice, and grilled pineapple and orange segments. I don’t eat red meat very often, but this was great and the steak was cooked perfectly. Pat ordered the octopus, as he had heard great things about it and wanted to judge for himself. It was served on a simple set of parsley roasted potatoes, sautéed peppers and shallot, with a roasted garlic oil drizzle. He loved it, and I even tried a few bites and liked it, too. That’s saying a lot – I’m about as far from ‘adventurous’ as you can get when it comes to food. The service was a bit unorganized to start with, but they quickly got it together and it was smooth sailing the rest of the evening.
Overall, there’s no better place to get a real feel for the heart and soul of Lisbon than Alfama. If you find yourself in Lisbon anytime soon, we hope you’ll use this guide for your journey to the ‘Old Quarter’ and enjoy our favorite spots as much as we have.
Open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Rua do Salvador 14, Lisbon, Portugal
Tel: + 351 92 932 6800
Mosteiro de São Vicente de Fora
Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed Monday
€5 per person to enter the monastery buildings, but it’s free to enter the church
Largo de São Vicente, Lisbon, Portugal
Tel: + 351 21 882 4400
Focaccia in Giro
Open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Campo de Santa Clara 141, Lisbon, Portugal
Tel: +351 91 287 6646
Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed Mondays
€3 to enter, free on the first Sunday of the month
Campo de Santa Clara 1100-471, Lisbon, Portugal
Tel: +351 21 885 4820
Portas do Sol
R. São Tomé 84A, Lisbon, Portugal
Tel: +351 21 885 1299
Memmo Alfama Wine Bar & Terrace
Travessa das Merceeiras, 27 – Alfama, Lisbon, Portugal
Tel: +351 21 049 5660
Castelo de São Jorge
Open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Nov. 1 – Feb. 28
9 a.m. to 9 p.m. March 1 – Oct. 31
€8.50 per person (adult)
R. de Santa Cruz do Castelo, Lisbon, Portugal
Tel: +351 21 880 0620
Claras em Castelo
Open 10 a.m. to 1 a.m.
Rua Bartolomeu de Gusmao 31, Lisbon, Portugal
Tel: +351 21 885 3071
Le Petit Cafe
Open 12 p.m. to 12 a.m.
Largo de Sao Martinho, 6, Lisbon, Portugal
Tel: +351 21 888 1304