How to visit Alfama, Mouraria, and Graça responsibly
Suppose you ask any local for the authentic Lisbon old quarters. They will point you in the direction of Alfama, Mouraria, and Graça. Terracotta sun-bathed rooftops and colorful tile façades are Lisbon’s postcard-perfect image.
Medieval earthquake-survivor Alfama, the old Moorish quarter and birthplace of Fado Mouraria, and former industrial workers’ neighborhood Graça are Lisbon’s old town. Still, few signs of the city’s authentic cultural identity remain.
Gentrification and the tourism boom took over Lisbon at the turn of the century. Most of Alfama and parts of Graça and Mouraria have become an impersonation of a city for sightseers.
Despite the swarms of 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’re listening) – there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy these quarters.
These are my tips on how to explore them responsibly.
About Alfama, Mouraria, and Graça
The three are close — you will quickly go from one to the other without realizing you are already in a new neighborhood.
The three are rivals — when the time comes on June 13th to determine which is the best marcha during the Popular Saints festivities, the locals will 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 neighborhoods are under the pressure of real estate speculation. Most of the buildings are entirely or partially listed in short-term rental platforms.
Alfama (Arabic Al-hama, that means fountain) is a village inside the city where everybody knows each other. Disorganized but organic, it has a mix of styles and houses in unlikely places. Nothing in Alfama is an eyesore. Despite the lack of planning, everything is fresh, laid back, and welcoming. Don’t try to understand it. Embrace it and let go.
Mouraria, the old Moorish quarter, is the birthplace of Fado and the most culturally diverse Lisbon neighborhood. Most tourists won’t venture beyond the commercial hub of Martim Moniz, closer to Praça da Figueira at Baixa Chiado. But it’s safe to wander the streets of Mouraria.
Graça, built on top of one of the city’s highest hills, 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. It’s a part of the city’s industrial heritage.
What to do in Lisbon old town
Walking is the best way to explore Alfama, Mouraria, and Graça. Of course, the steep streets that take you up to some of the viewpoints are a challenge (for locals, too), so make use of the public network of trams, buses, and elevators.
Start at Alfama before 9.30 in the morning (that’s when most of the guided tours start, and the narrow streets crowd up fast). From there, go up to Graça to the Senhora do Monte viewpoint. Then make your way down to Mouraria.
Suppose you’re not planning on visiting monuments and museums. In that case, 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, 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. It includes top sights and landmarks, recommended 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 in 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 real adventure.
The cobblestoned streets twist and turn so many times that it’s not unusual to find yourself in a dead-end or inside someone’s backyard (which looked remarkably like any other little square).
Alfama has the largest concentration of landmarks and sights of the three neighborhoods. 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 uphill.
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. It’s an alternative to beat the crowds and perfect for those not fond of walking uphill.
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. It’s one of a kind considering that that natural disaster destroyed most of the buildings.
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. 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 when apartments in Graça were low-priced because most of them didn’t have elevators, rooms were too small, and the buildings lacked maintenance. It was one of the students’ favorite areas to live, and I remember 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. This old suburb built by factory owners for their employees (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. I still believe the Miradouro Senhora do Monte is one of Lisbon’s best viewpoints (despite being one of the windiest).
The National Pantheon and the São Vicente de Fora monastery are must-sees. 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 (or church of Santa Engrácia) took almost 400 years. That started the Portuguese saying, “it’s like the construction of Santa Engrácia!”. We use it to refer to something that seems to be taking too long to finish.
- The São Vicente de Fora is also a National Pantheon 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 torn 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
More than visiting or sightseeing, take the time to feel Mouraria.
Viewpoints, landmarks, and museums aren’t part of its appeal. Most tourists don’t see the point of spending more than a couple of hours here. That means you’ll likely only see tourist crowds around Martim Moniz. As you walk up Avenida Almirante Reis, those crowds will be behind you.
It’s 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 neighborhoods, Mourtaria has been able to dodge gentrification. Still, 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 range from typical Portuguese cuisine to places where you can experience the neighborhood’s diverse culture 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. But tram 28 is public transportation, so treat it as such. Locals need it to travel across town.
- Please don’t describe Mouraria on social media, your blog, or to your friends as “Lisbon’s Chinatown.” No matter how much 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.