Much of Portugal's capital was razed to the ground by the earthquake of 1755, resulting in a city centre which is essentially 18th-century. To one side, though, lies Alfama where steep cobbled streets form an atmospheric maze around Lisbon's fortified, Moorish castle and its twin bell-towered Cathedral. For the Moors in the 12th century, Alfama was their city, and despite few houses surviving from that date there is a kasbah-like feel to the neighbourhood. It comes alive as dusk falls, particularly with the strains of Fado, that mournful, heady music as much a part of Alfama as its endless steps, its red roofs and its church spires.
Alfama is the second hotel in the Memmo group after its cool, white, outpost on the south-western tip of the Algarve, Memmo Baleeira. The name means "memory" and reflects the aim of the brand to impart the flavours, sounds and smells of their locations to their guests. At Memmo Alfama, the watchword is authenticity. It is housed in a beautifully renovated 19th-century building and lies at the end of a tiny street. My taxi driver told me he had never been down that street in the 50 years he has spent navigating the city. On the way there, our headlights caught a piece of street art by Vhils, a renowned young Portuguese artist; he has created for Memmo a former resident's face, magnificently weathered with age and wisdom.
Step inside the hotel and calm, muted colours surround you. "Make yourself at home", it says on the wall of the reception, "take your time, go to your room and we'll talk later."
The reception leads on to a little room, crowned by a domed brick ceiling, which once housed a bakery and where books on Lisbon and its history provide insider knowledge. Beyond is a sitting room which doubles as a breakfast room (mugs not cups, local pastries), complete with an honesty fridge. Stairs lead up from it to the rooftop wine bar, with a good selection of Portuguese wines and petiscos (tapas) such as octopus salad or smoked ham. Doors open on to a stunning terrace where red chairs and umbrellas dot the wooden deck with its stylish red pool, blending in with the roof tops all around.
At the far end of the terrace, sofas surround a fire pit for chilly winter evenings. The views are magnificent, from the dome of the Pantheon on one side to Lisbon's Cristo Rei, inspired by the statue in Rio de Janeiro, on the other.
Alfama faces the water, with cruise ships now docking regularly here. It is the oldest district of Lisbon and was once the most desirable address in the city. But in the Middle Ages, fearful of earthquakes, the wealthy moved out. They abandoned property to fishermen. Ironically, this was the one area that survived the devastating earthquake and tsunami of 1755. It is a charming warren of streets and steps, churches and squares filled with orange trees and beautifully tiled fountains.
Three minutes from the hotel by foot takes you to Lisbon's Cathedral (Se), built in 1150 to celebrate the recapture of Lisbon from the Moors. It is a rather austere church relieved by a beautiful circular Rose window. A further two minutes will take you up to the Castelo do Sao Jorge, citadel to the Moors, residence of the Portuguese Kings and from its battlements the best viewpoint from which to see the city. The hotel organises free, guided walking tours every day. Take one on your first day, so you can get your bearings.
Taxis are cheap in Lisbon and €5 will get you from the hotel to the city centre, either Chiado for shopping and restaurants, or Bairro Alto for the cafés, sights and raucous nightlife. Don't miss the 16th-century Sao Roque Church with its richly ornate interiors.
The 42 rooms are split into seven different categories. The calibration is in the views rather than the space. Views vary between overlooking the inner flower-filled patio, the Tagus River, the houses of Alfama, or both of the latter.
All rooms have free Wi-Fi and crisp Egyptian cotton on ultra comfortable beds. There are en-suite shower rooms, with polished cement walls, Portuguese Saboaria bath gels and shampoos – and yellow loo paper to echo Alfama's famous yellow tram, No 28. Floors are pale bleached wood, covered with hand woven rugs from the Alentejo. Rough wooden cubes act as bedside tables, topped with iPod docks. while framed retro record sleeves of famous Fado singers decorate the white walls. It's authentic Portugal, writ large.
Memmo Alfama, Travessa das Merceeiras 27, Lisbon, Portugal (00 351 210 495 660; memmoalfama.com).
Doubles start at €130 (£105), including breakfast.