Bairro Alto

High above the central city, to the west of the Baixa, the Bairro Alto – meaning upper town – has a sleepy, residential feel during the day, its maze of narrow streets enlivened by a few bohemian boutiques. At night, however, it comes to life as many of the city’s best bars, restaurants and fado clubs open for business. Many of the Bairro Alto’s most interesting thoroughfares lie west of Rua da Misericórdia, a confusing grid of streets, whose buildings are often liberally defaced with graffiti. Traffic is restricted to residents only, and though dodgy characters offering hash still lurk on the corners round the market building on Rua da Atalaia, it’s essentially safe at any time if you keep valuables out of sight.

What to see in the Bairro Alto

Igreja de São Roque

Built by Jesuits in the sixteenth century, the Igreja de São Roque has a bland Renaissance facade that gives no hint of its interior riches. Inside, impressive azulejos and marble decorate the side chapels, while the Capela de São João Baptista is thought to be one of the most expensive and lavish chapels of its era. Dom João V commissioned the papal architect to design and build the chapel in Rome, with no expense spared. It was shipped to Lisbon in 1749, but its intricate array of ivory inlays, gold, lapis lazuli and mosaics of John the Baptist took some four years to reassemble and the result is truly remarkable. The most valuable treasures of the church are kept in the adjacent Museu de São Roque, which also displays sixteenth- to eighteenth-century paintings and a fairly uninspiring collection of church relics.

Convento and Museu Arqueológico do Carmo

The pretty, enclosed Largo do Carmo holds the entrance to the Convento do Carmo, whose beautiful Gothic arches rise majestically above the ruins. Built between 1389 and 1423, and once the city’s grandest church, it was badly damaged by the 1755 earthquake. Today it houses the splendidly capricious Museu Arqueológico do Carmo, home to many of the treasures from Portugal’s monasteries, dissolved after the 1834 Liberal revolution. The nave is open to the elements, with columns, tombs and statuary scattered in all corners. Inside, on either side of what was the main altar, are the main exhibits, centring on a series of tombs.

Praça do Príncipe Real

North of the tight Bairro Alto grid, the streets open out around the leafy Praça do Príncipe Real, one of the city’s loveliest squares. Laid out in 1860 and surrounded by the ornate homes of former aristocrats – now largely turned into offices and boutiques – the square is the focal point of Lisbon’s gay scene, though by day it is largely populated by children in the play park and locals playing cards under the trees.

Museu da Água Príncipe Real

Praça do Príncipe Real’s central pond and fountain are built above a covered reservoir that houses the Museu da Água Príncipe Real. Steps lead down inside the eerie nineteenth-century reservoir, where you can admire brick and vaulted ceilings, part of a network of underground water supplies that link up with the Aqueduto das Águas Livres Tours – not for claustrophobics – take you along one of these, a humid 410m tunnel that exits at the viewpoint of Miradouro de São Pedro.

Jardim Botânico

Beyond the Museus Nacional de História e da Ciência, the entrance to the enchanting Jardim Botânico is almost completely invisible from the surrounding streets. Portuguese explorers introduced many plant species to Europe, and these gardens, laid out between 1858 and 1878, form an oasis of twenty thousand exotic plants from around the world. There’s also a butterfly house, called the Lugartagis, which is a greenhouse for breeding butterflies.

Transport to the Bairro Alto

To reach the Bairro Alto, you can simply climb the steep Calçada de Glória, but it’s more fun to approach via one of the quirky funiculars, which were originally powered by water displacement, and then by steam, until electricity was introduced. Most conveniently, the Elevador da Glória built in 1885, trundles up from the Praça dos Restauradores, dropping you at the top of the hill on Rua de São Pedro de Alcântara: the adjacent gardens here provide a superb view across the city to the castle. The Elevador da Bica drops you on Rua Loreto at the foot of the Bairro Alto, while the Elevador de Santa Justa, brings you out beside the Convento do Carmo.

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Mani Ramaswamy

written by
Mani Ramaswamy

updated 26.04.2021

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