Living Well in Lisbon, Portugal

Laundry is hanging in vivid, postcard style above bougainvillea-draped walls. Built on one of Lisbon’s seven hills, this is Alfama, my favorite Lisbon neighborhood.

Walking through the old becos, the slim cobbled alleyways that lead me up and down ancient hills, I hear fado, the beautifully melancholic, traditional music of Portugal, from a neighbor’s window.

The capital of Portugal is all about romantic views, secret neighborhoods, and faded grandeur. The houses here are clad in intricate tiles to reflect the sun’s heat, and it seems as if the city here wears its beauty inside out.

Originally from Texas, I moved into the heart of the old Moorish part of the city at the beginning of 2011, renting a small apartment with a tiny balcony on a narrow street in Alfama. I paid about $550 a month, and it was the perfect introduction to the city.

Alfama is reminiscent of the North African heritage of southern Spanish cities like Seville and Granada. Lisbon’s central neighborhoods sweep down to the old port in elegant boulevards, rebuilt after the 1755 earthquake in an elegant style known as “Pombaline.” Into the mix you have late Gothic architecture as well, and the city is home to one of Europe’s largest plazas, Terreiro do Paço.

Yellow trams from another era climb slowly past medieval cathedrals, delicious pastry shops, and haphazard stacks of bacalhau—dried, salted codfish—outside traditional grocers. My head is constantly turning to take in the rich array of markets and boutiques, esplanades and plazas, fado singers and street performers. But there are so many cathedrals around Alfama, around Lisbon, around Portugal—I always know what time it is by the bells.

The city’s wild, river-ocean atmosphere has affected the children here so that they never tire, and they rocket up and down these steep hills and stairs, yelling with smiles. Built by the Moors to create natural air conditioning, the buildings in Alfama are clustered together over narrow streets, and the sun has a hard time finding its way into the apartments. Unless you’re on the top floor of the building, the interior spaces can be dark.

To combat the lack of indoor sun, locals sun themselves on the miradouros (“lookout points”), several of which can be found in Alfama. The people of Lisbon, known as alfacinhas (“little lettuces”) are proud of the miradouros and their cinematic views of the city and the Tagus River. In Alfama I recommend the Portas do Sol, with a nice esplanade and a kiosk selling pastries and coffee.

There is a wonderful rhythm to life in Alfama. Old men gather to smoke every morning at tiny hole-in-the-wall tascas (“bar/cafés”). You’ll know when you’re at an authentic tasca—an espresso will cost you just 65 cents…

In the current issue of International Living magazine, I share more of what I’ve learned since moving to Lisbon—including a budget, a guide to the best markets, where you should rent, and more.

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