Lisbon old town: exploring Alfama, Mouraria, and Graça Responsibly
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Ask any local for the authentic Lisbon old quarters, and most will point you in the direction of Alfama, Mouraria, and Graça. After all, terracotta rooftops, sun-bathed views, and colorful, tiled buildings is Lisbon’s most famous postcard-perfect image.
All three neighborhoods are, in fact, known as Lisbon old town – medieval, earthquake-survivor Alfama, the old Moorish quarter and birthplace of Fado Mouraria, and former industrial workers’ neighborhood Graça – but, these days, you’ll find very few signs of the city’s authentic cultural identity here.
Gentrification and the tourism boom seem to have taken over Lisbon in the last few years, and most of Alfama and parts of Graça and Mouraria have become an impersonation of a city for sightseers.
Despite the hordes of just-out-of-the-cruise-ship tourists, red-faced, huffing and puffing from walking uphill as they try to keep up with their tour guide (who doesn’t give a crap if they heard the explanation about the Aljube Museum or not), there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy these quarters and I want to share my tips on how to explore them sustainably and responsibly.
About Alfama, Mouraria, and Graça
The three are close — you will quickly go from one to the other without realizing you are already visiting a new neighborhood.
The three are rivals — when the time comes on June 13th to dispute the best marcha during the Popular Saints festivities the locals will show their claws and defend their ground; don’t worry it’s all peaceful battling. We have a word for that, it’s bairrismo.
The three share common traits — the Arabic influence on architecture, the clothes hanging out to dry, the façades covered in tiles, some abandoned buildings here and there.
Unfortunately, the three are also pressured by real estate speculation and most of the buildings are entirely or partially listed as short-term rental units.
Alfama (the origin of the name is Arabic, Al-hama, that means fountain) is like a village inside the city where everybody knows everybody. It’s disorganized but organic with a mix of styles and sizes and houses built in unlikely places. Nothing in Alfama is an eyesore. Regardless of the lack of planning (nobody worried about it back in the day) everything is fresh and laid back and welcoming. You’re not meant to understand it. You’re expected to embrace it and let go.
Mouraria, the old Moorish quarter, is also known as the birthplace of Fado and today it’s still pretty much a city inside the city and the most culturally diverse neighborhood in Lisbon. Most tourists won’t venture beyond the commercial hub of Martim Moniz, closer to Praça da Figueira at Baixa Chiado. Be adventurous. Wandering the streets of Mouraria is safer than riding tram 28 (and much more exciting experience, too).
Graça, built on top of one of the highest hill of the city, is famous for its lookouts (miradouros are one of Lisbon’s most famous attractions). This quarter started as a suburban residential area for factory workers in the late 19th century, and it’s a part of the industrial heritage of the city.
Advice on the top things to do in Lisbon old town
The best way to explore Alfama, Mouraria, and Graça is to walk (and get lost, often) as much as you can. Of course, tackling the steep streets that take you up to some of the viewpoints is sometimes a challenge (for locals, too), so make use of the network of public trams, buses, and elevators.
Start with Alfama before 9.30 in the morning (that’s when most of the guided tours start, and the narrow streets crowd up fast), then make your way further up to Graça, and from the Senhora do Monte viewpoint make your way down to Mouraria.
If you’re not planning on visiting monuments and museums, it shouldn’t take you more than one day to explore the three neighborhoods, combining walking with the occasional tram or bus ride. If you include visitable landmarks on your itinerary, then set aside an extra morning or an extra day to visit appropriately.
I’ve put together a handy map of these three Lisbon old quarters, including top sights and landmarks, recommended locally- or family-owned restaurants, and public elevators (blue is for Alfama, green is for Mouraria, and purple is for Graça).
Getting lost in medieval Alfama
After 20 years of Lisbon and about a dozen times exploring Alfama, I still get lost. Which is a good thing because it makes exploring this old medieval quarter a true adventure.
The cobblestoned streets twist and turn so many times that it’s quite usual to find yourself in a dead end or inside someone’s backyard (which, in your eyes, looked remarkably like any other little square).
Alfama has the largest concentration of landmarks and sights of the three neighborhoods (as you can see on the map), so naturally, it attracts the most tourists.
Usually, people walk up from Baixa Chiado to the St. George castle and visit all the top sights in Alfama on their way.
If you’re planning to visit only Alfama and skip the other three quarters, take bus 737 from Praça da Figueira all the way up to the castle and walk down to Alfama. It’s an alternative to beat the crowds and perfect for those who are not fans of walking uphill.
Visit Sé de Lisboa (Lisbon’s old medieval cathedral), Museu do Teatro Romano for the archeological findings of different ages (not just the Roman Empire), and Museu do Aljube to understand the democratic revolution of 1974 (also known as Carnation Revolution). Although it hasn’t opened yet, I already added the future Jewish Museum to the map.
Santa Luzia is my favorite viewpoint, mostly because Portas do Sol is the crowded one where all tourists go to.
There’s a tiny house in Alfama that managed to survive the 1755 earthquake and it’s one of a kind considering that most buildings pre-earthquake were destroyed.
How to be a responsible tourist when visiting Alfama:
- It’s a residential area that’s been struggling with the tourist invasion and real estate speculation that followed (or started it?), so instead of choosing a short-term rental in the area, choose a hotel in Alfama or elsewhere in the city;
- It’s not an open-air museum and locals aren’t props for your photos;
- If you choose a guided tour, make sure they don’t allow more than 10 people per group;
Late 19th-century industrial heritage in Graça
Graça went from purely residential area to tourist spot in a blink of an eye. Or at least it felt like that to me.
I remember a time when apartments in Graça were inexpensive because most of them didn’t have elevators, rooms were too small, and the buildings were in urgent need of fixing. It was one of the students’ favorite areas to live and I recall how helping friends move in or move out was a pain in the ass (but a great workout).
Times change and the cities change with it.
Lisbon became a tourist hotspot and this old suburb built by factory owners to house their employees (who were, mostly, former farmers from Alentejo) was suddenly quirky and “authentic” enough to attract visitors and gated communities for wealthy Portuguese.
I think there’s still a faint trace of authenticity in Graça and I still believe the Miradouro Senhora do Monte is one of the best viewpoints in Lisbon (despite being one of the windiest).
The National Pantheon and the São Vicente de Fora monastery are must-sees and both have spectacular views (not free, though) from the top. Fun facts about the two (in case you need to choose between them): building the National Pantheon (also known as the church of Santa Engrácia) took close to 400 years to complete (which originated the Portuguese saying “it’s like the construction of Santa Engrácia!” when we want to refer to something taking too long to be finished). The São Vicente de Fora is also a National Pantheon but for the last Portuguese royal family.
How to be a responsible tourist when visiting Graça:
- No matter the bargain, don’t buy old tiles at Feira da Ladra (most of them were ripped off historical buildings, illegally);
- Graça is not just a block of photogenic colorful tiled buildings, look into the industrial history of the neighborhood for a sense of place;
Multicultural influences in Mouraria
Mouraria is a place to experience, not for visiting or sightseeing.
Viewpoints, landmarks, and museums aren’t part of its appeal, which is why, I think, most tourists don’t see the point of spending more than a couple of hours here. This means tourist crowds will only be a problem in and around Martim Moniz but will significantly decrease as you go further up Avenida Almirante Reis.
This is the most culturally diverse neighborhood of Lisbon, with, reportedly, people from close to 100 different nationalities living here. There’s a reason why I called it a city inside the city.
Of all three, this is still the neighborhood that’s been able to fence off gentrification, but locals fear it’s just a matter of time.
Keep Mouraria in mind as your lunch break area, and you will not be disappointed. The restaurants I pinned on the map above range from typical Portuguese cuisine to places where you can experience the multiculturality of the neighborhood through food (is there a better way?).
How to be a responsible tourist when visiting Mouraria:
- Tram 28 starts here, at Martim Moniz, and it’s one of Lisbon’s most advertised “cheap” tours, except it’s not a tour. It’s public transportation so treat it as such and give priority to the locals;
- Please don’t describe Mouraria on social media, your blog, or to your friends as “Lisbon’s Chinatown,” as much as you feel compelled to (or as much as someone “sold” it to you like that). That would be undermining the neighborhood’s cultural diversity;
- Although known brands and chains are more convenient (and, usually, more central), try to support smaller locally-owned cafés and restaurants;