On the Gentrification of Lisbon

I had heard about Lisbon Sustainable Tourism on a documentary by Fabio Petronilli called “You’ll Soon Be Here” and Joana took time off her busy schedule to meet me at Renovar a Mouraria, a timely location to talk about the gentrification of Lisbon and how the city would survive the wave of mass tourism.

Behind us, children were playing at a kindergarten playground while waiting for their parents to pick them up. It was past 5 pm on a Monday and while waiting for her, I had witnessed a parade of fathers, grandmothers and older sisters picking up kids. A completely normal daily routine, except we were in one of the oldest and most typical (how I hate this word now…) neighborhoods of Lisbon, one that dangerously tries to balance itself out on the fine line separating what’s authentic from what foreign visitors perceive as authentic.

At the bottom of the stairs, occasional groups of tourists stopped and looked up, wondering if there would be something to explore up there. Brief seconds later, they decided there mustn’t be and moved on.

Despite welcoming foreigners and tourists, those who, like Joana, work in sustainable tourism don’t want Lisbon to become a giant attraction and privacy is sacred. They’re glad that hoards of tourists don’t invade the tiny alleys of Mouraria, yet.

I thought to talk to Joana was like having a nice chat on the topic, having her answer some of my questions, and a lovely post would come out of it. I was wrong, in the most wonderful way possible.

Talking to her was like pulling an endless thread. One that led to more emails, will lead to more meetings, and a long list of other tourism professionals who feel Lisbon (THE Lisbon) under their skins and who are willing to show tourists a different side of the city. One full of charismatic persons, of local business owners who strive to keep their heads above water on their struggle against foreign franchises or hipster-centric new businesses.

On the Gentrification of Lisbon, By the Numbers

2017 marks my 20th anniversary of living in Lisbon, maybe it’s why I feel so nostalgic. I have a handful of memories of places that no longer exist or that have completely changed.

The first bar where I witnessed a fight in Avenida 24 de Julho? Boarded up.

The House of Horror that gave me the fright of my life at Feira Popular? Demolished. It’s now a vacant lot.

Intendente, the place in town everyone told me not to go alone at night? A popular nightlife hangout these days.

I’m not naive. I know cities aren’t carefully curated museums. They grow, and breathe, and go to die if no one is there to nurture them.

Lately, it seems like every other day a new story about an old place closing pops up on my Facebook feed. Then a petition follows. Then the City Council comes to the rescue (sometimes). Have any of those people signing the petition been there in the last month? Probably not. Heck, there are places even I had never heard about! It’s impossible to keep track of every cafe, shop, and restaurant that’s opening, or closing, or remodeling. I should know. That’s part of my job.

This first informal conversation with Joana opened the way to more questions. Which companies are focusing on giving back to the community (one of the things I believe in that became one of the pillars for this blog)? How to you tell the difference between a tour company practicing the values of sustainable tourism in Lisbon when they all seem to be selling the same authentic experience over and over? Are you being disrespectful to the locals if you choose a tour wrongly? Do you care? Should you care?

I do believe some of the people are misinformed, or they genuinely believe they’re making the right choice. I’ve been in a couple of the so-called tourist traps myself. No matter how hard you plan, you can’t control every single detail when you’re trying to adjust to a new culture, a new language, a new climate; a reality you’ll only experience for a few days.

One year ago, a Portuguese newspaper published a comprehensive guide of the shops that were closing soon in the Baixa quarter of Lisbon. Increasing rents they can no longer afford, evictions because the landlord decided to sell the property to the highest bidder, a business model or a product that doesn’t attract new customers – these were the most common reasons behind every single boarded door and window you see downtown.

What businesses take their place? Cheap souvenir shops, hostels, cafés catering tourists exclusively (where an espresso no longer costs the average €0.60 / US $0.64).

I hadn’t seen Baixa this lively in 10 years, but at what cost? Are we losing character or is it natural for every European capital to have a tourist-y spot? Hadn’t those new businesses been there, would locals spend time (and money) in Baixa on a weeknight? Or a Friday evening? Or a Sunday morning?

Gentrification is the dirty word that’s been on the table for, at least, 5 years now.

The average rent, in Lisbon, has increased 7.6% (compared to 0.8% in the rest of the country) in 2015.

In 2015 there were 12,000 more apartments listed on Airbnb than in 2014, a 60% increase.

Every month, there is an estimated 200 more apartments or buildings listed as local accommodations in Lisbon.

In just three years, Lisbon climbed 11 spots on the list of most expensive cities in the world.


Active Airbnb rentals in Lisbon, Lisboa (March 2017). Source: www.airdna.co

To be clear, we don’t blame the gentrification of Lisbon on tourists. When in 2011 tourism began to increase, Portugal was going through a severe economic crisis – the unemployment rate kept rising and people emigrated to where they could find work. Listing their house on short-term rental sites was a way to secure their property while having a side income (that allowed them to keep up with the mortgage payments).

The people in Lisbon are hospitable and they welcome tourists with open arms. Ask anyone and they’ll be very clear about it: Lisbonners do not blame tourists.

What needs to be dealt with, urgently, is the need of balance between residents and tourists.

In 2015, Lisbon was ranked the 145th most expensive city for expats. In 2016, it was ranked the 134th. If it’s becoming expensive in the eyes of expats, can you imagine how the locals see it?

Lisbon’s best feature: hidden alleys.

A post shared by Sandra (at Tripper) (@tripprblog) on

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3 Comments

  1. 1

    Very interesting post Sandra! Funny enough, just a few days ago my husband and I were looking at the rooftops and streets from Castelo S. Jorge and he said “Where are the locals going about their daily lives? All I see are tourists.” I find gentrification very conflicting, because it cleans a place up but then undoubtedly changes the social landscape along with it. While I’m sure a lot has changed in Lisbon, from my outsider’s perspective it looked to be a city that has given a few areas over to tourism (Baixa, Chiado, Bairro Alto) but maintained some for itself (Alfama, Mouraria, and beyond). I hope it stays that way because I loved Lisbon!

    • 2

      Thank you Tamar! I’d say Alfama is now 30% authentic, 70% staged for tourists (in Baixa, Chiado, and Bairro Alto that ratio would probably be 10% to 90%). Mouraria is not too taken by gentrification yet, but it’s bound to happen. There are some companies (real estate companies) in the city that try to balance things out, but the appeal of short-term rentals is huge. Doug Lansky, a journalist and travel writer, does conferences on sustainable tourism and just visited Lisbon (which he hadn’t for a long time). He has some interesting suggestions on what should be done and, to be frank, I think the kind of Government we have now is more open to finding that balance between locals and visitors.

  2. 3

    The locals see it as a dead end. And knowing how the power works in Portugal there is a reason for that, indeed. The government will do nothing because it this a small country and there are conflict of interests everywhere, everyday among the ‘leaders’ of our country. There is a relatively small group of very rich and powerful families that own and rule this country and have little interest in making this an equal country where gentrification in cities is seen as an issue. Portugal is one of the most unequal countries in Europe. The cities are just a reflection of that.

    Gentrification is perfect for Portugal. Lisbon will become in 3 years what Barcelona would have become if they didn’t stop it (with Ada Colau and the people of Barcelona). A tourist amusement park with no locals. And you will not hear a thing about it, because the locals are already living outside in the suburbs of Lisbon and tourists don’t use cars, so it’s all good because as long as they can bring the car to work in Lisbon, nothing pisses them off.

    We are 10 million today. In the end of the century we will be 6 million (this is mind blowing, look it up on the statistics). The country will be sold to foreigners and the rulers will be the same, the sons and cousins of the old rulers, left to rule a country with no Portuguese and a lot of Airbnb apartments.

    • 4

      First of all, thank you for your comment, Pedro. I completely understand your point and view (and the way things are right now is frustrating) but I’m also an incurable optimistic. Yes, there need to be boundaries. I’ve lived in Lisbon for almost 20 years now and I’ve seen a lot of changes, some better than others, but changes nevertheless. I don’t think all is lost, though. Tourism is the quickest way to grow the local economy right now and, despite the fact that housing is a huge issue right now for those who’d like to afford to live in the city, I’ve met small business owners who are able to make a profit from tourism now. It’s not just the big families and big corporations. If you take a look at projects like Res-do-Chao at Poço dos Negros, some people still believe the balance is possible.

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