Ajuda, The hilltop of surprises
On crossing the rust-red bridge Ponte 25 de Abril into Lisbon, the Ajuda neighborhood slides into view, a sprawling palace crowning its highest point. At the foot of and extending into Monsanto Park, this neighborhood has one of the oldest Botanical Gardens in Europe and the first in Portugal, safeguarding a 400 year-old tree. These gardens surrounded the royal palace built on the hilltop for Dom Jose after the 1755 earthquake destroyed the center of Lisbon. The palace was basically a 'royal barracks' protecting the royal family, built of wood and fabric, and subsequently burned in 1792. Today, the Palácio Real da Ajuda stands in its place and is a major landmark and cultural center. Views across the Tagus take in the Cristo Rei statue and bridge. The rich and varied heritage of many generations passing through Ajuda unfolds around its narrow, hilly streets, offering a maze that winds up and down. Families enjoy this quiet neighborhood that is mostly residential with a few local shops. It's also walking distance to the waterfront, passing through the Belém neighborhood.
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It’s always a pleasure to visit the Ajuda neighborhood, where we receive a warm welcome from the local residents. People in this neighborhood like to make conversation, readily talking about their "problems". Only the shyest ones keep their silence. While Ajuda is often described as a neighborhood for the elderly, we found much more than that.
One of the wonders of this area is the view over the Tejo River. From various spaces and streets, as well as from many homes, you can enjoy a magnificent view over Lisbon and the river. But it isn’t just the view; you’re so close to the Tejo estuary that you can stroll the waterfront and breath the clean air. For many, this is a prime reason for choosing to live in Ajuda.
Just beyond Ajuda’s hilltop perch lays Parque de Monsanto, another key attraction. As our largest expanse of green parkland, this is the ‘lung’ of Lisbon, offering acres of updated spaces for sports, sightseeing and fresh air, right next door.
Ajuda is, above all, a quiet neighborhood. There are no large shopping centers, nor subway, cinemas, theaters or nightlife. There is no problem finding a place to park. It is a calm and parochial area offering an escape from the bustle of the city.
Yet everything you need to live well is here, in the local shops, markets, pharmacies, cafes, bakeries, post office and schools. Everything is nearby and getting anywhere is done quickly.
Since 2006, the Mercado da Ajuda has guaranteed “the least expensive fresh food goods”. Attracted to the variety of fresh products daily, it’s no surprise that restaurants across the Lisbon get their supplies from this morning market.
It is the most beautiful neighborhood.
Maria Augusta Almeida, 73
Beautiful monuments dot the hill and offer memorable views, from the Palácio Nacional da Ajuda, to the Jardim Botânico and the Igreja da Memória.
Residents happily confirm they enjoy a good life in Ajuda!
We found a friendly neighborhood of residents, most who have lived here for many years, yet also their children and grandchildren. The largest part of the population has averaged 70 to 80 years of age, many of whom were lower, middle-class workers.
Residents know each other well, with long-standing friendships among neighbors and merchants. Residents are loyal to their favorite merchants, trading and living in the same circles, ensuring everything remains the same. This might be why those who have moved away are eager to return to this neighborhood, the place where they spent their childhood, the place that retains a special feeling.
Yet Ajuda is undergoing considerable change and growth. New residents in their 30s, famous artists and public personalities, as well as families with young children are moving into the neighborhood. They are attracted by the area’s character as well as a wave of older homes under renovation.
The Pombalino district is especially appealing due to the views, access to Belém and number of restored buildings.
This new wave of residents is growing and has the potential to house a greater number of younger people. Ajuda may become an increasingly interesting place due to the proximity of the river and the historical interest brought forth by the National Palace and the Botanical Garden, among others.
It is changing—for the better!
Cassiana Rodrigues, 49 anos
Ajuda is comprised of three major areas:
The Calçada da Ajuda is the main street linking Belém and Ajuda, well known among the general Lisbon population and around which is the largest trade zone. On this street everyone turns to face the river for one of the most stunning views. At its top is the imposing Palácio Nacional da Ajuda and on the western side of the street is the Jardim Botânico, two important monuments in Lisbon’s history and both worth visiting.
Parallel streets running toward Belém form the Pombalino Subdivision. This historic and characteristic district was recently reclassified. The high number of beautiful homes being restored here has attracted a significant increase in residents and fueled demand for more restoration.
The busiest area is Boa-Hora because of its morning market. Built in 2006, this modern market incorporated some of the former street vendors and today offers some of the best prices in Lisbon. Fish, produce and clothing are all available and the vendors tend to be locals. Residents and restaurant owners from across Lisbon shop here.
The third and newest zone is Polo Universitário da Ajuda. This university includes three colleges in a large, open green space that attracts students. The university’s exceptional location next to Parque de Monsanto offers what some call "one of the best sunsets in Lisbon" due to the high plane on which it lies.
This is wonderful, with the Tejo River...
Some say that the neighborhood has no secrets, but some knowledgeable residents offered a few:
It is really easy to talk to long-time residents. Friendly people who help each other and enjoy whatever it takes to improve their community, they might comment that new residents don’t know Ajuda as well as they could; this is important, they explain, to retain the strong sense of community here. Ajuda maintains the tradition of local festivals, which some say is the biggest secret in the neighborhood!
Few people in the neighborhood know that the Mercado da Ajuda has a terrace with a view over the TejoRiver, a view that spans from the 25th of Abril bridge to the island fort of Bugil.
For me the best part, and what makes a difference, is to have found a place where we could enjoy the beautiful view over Lisbon.
Isabel Silva, 29 anos
And, speaking a little more about history:
According to legend, a shepherd passing through this area saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary. The news spread and soon believers arrived in growing numbers. A hermitage to Nossa Senhora da Ajuda was constructed in honor of the Virgin, surrounded by homes and huts for the new settlers. The small shrine quickly gave way to a larger church as the number of pilgrims grew each year. Even the most respected members of society lent devotion to the church, including Queen Catherine, wife of King João III. The nobility’s reverence for this area brought wealthy inhabitants to Ajuda.
The Marquis of Pombal moved to Ajuda shortly after the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, although destruction included and reached beyond Ajuda. From here, the fate of Lisbon and her restoration was determined.
In 1768, the Marquis of Pombal established a botanical garden in an area called Horta da Quinta de Cima, near the wooden barracks and tents into which the royal family and court had been moved. The garden was intended to grace the new Palácio da Ajuda, but the Napoleonic Wars—and France’s invasion of Portugal—forced the royal family to flee to Brazil. The palace construction begun in 1795 was abandoned, to be completed in the mid-19th century. The Palácio became the official residence of King Carlos.