The Mouraria neighborhood in Lisbon has remained under the radar for centuries, and is only just starting to be discovered even by Lisboetas - most don’t venture so far. So before the city’s best-kept secret gets out, head to Mouraria to experience life like a local - if you can untangle the maze of narrow cobbled streets that wind their way uphill. Despite its history-rich credentials, multi-cultural Mouraria in Lisbon has managed to keep itself hidden from the tourists heading to neighboring Alfama to experience the city’s medieval past, as this is the only area of the city that wasn’t destroyed by Lisbon’s infamous earthquake. You won’t find wide boulevards, artistically paved squares, or grand fountains, but you will find a culture-rich enclave packed full of local character. It’s well worn, but that’s why I love this Lisbon neighborhood so much. If you are wondering what to see in Mouraria, here’s how and where to eat, drink and do Mouraria like a local.
When it comes to food, Mouraria is Portugal's hidden gem. My favorite spot? There is a little restaurant on the number 28 tram route which looks a lot like someone’s back yard - which is probably how it has managed to keep itself hidden. Blink and you’ll miss it, but for authentic local food before things get a little more touristy near the castle, keep an eye out for Santo André where you’ll find delicious grilled meat and fish. The tiny stone-walled terrace has a brick barbecue, so pull up a chair and enjoy some sangria and the smell of sardines and swordfish cooking over the charcoals. It’s not fancy, but the mismatched chairs and wooden benches clustered around plastic tables, along with the locals who pop in to chat with the old guys manning the grill will have you feeling right at home, and the no-frills sides of salad and potatoes let the grilled dishes do all the talking.
Alternatively, you could wander the streets of Mouraria, where Lisbon's food culture spills out onto the streets, and discover the best Portuguese tapas in the area. I would recommend Chapitô à Mesa, which is actually a circus school, but their restaurant alone is worth visiting. You’ll want to order the whole menu, so settle in for a long lunch enjoying the stunning views over Alfama, the bohemian atmosphere and order as many dishes as you can - don’t miss the rustic potatoes, grilled octopus, cod fishcakes and platters of Iberian ham and local sheep’s cheese.
Thanks to its culturally diverse heritage, the tiny restaurants that you’ll find dotted throughout the Mouraria neighbourhood will take you around the world and back, and since it’s such a local place, you’ll find yourself squeezed into tiny eateries where there’s hardly a tourist in sight. The best Mouraria neighbourhood spot to try Angolan cuisine is Shilabo's, a restaurant hidden in plain sight on Mouraria’s main street. It might be small, but the dishes of funge (cassava porridge), grilled fish and traditional stews that emerge from the tiny kitchen are incredible, and you’ll be greeted like family by the staff. The area is also home to a Chinese community, and there are a small number of Chinês Clandestino, or ‘illegal’ Chinese restaurants around, although they come and go like the wind. So called since these eateries are in locals’ homes, they’re the best places to head if you truly want to eat like the locals do and try the most authentic Chinese dishes in Lisbon. A couple to look out for were at 59 Rua do Benformosso, and 40 and 43 Rua do Terreirinho - there are no signs, but some have a Chinese lantern hanging in the window.
In Mouraria, Lisbon drinks abound! Head down the cobbled Rua Cavaleiros, following the tram lines until you reach Praça Martim Moniz, the largest square in the area. For great cocktails and the best view as the sun goes down as well as after dark, cross the square and take the lift up to the top floor of the Centro Comercial to Topo. I love Mouraria for its narrow streets and tight-knit, local vibe, but to get above it all and get a unique view of the Castle (all the more stunning when lit up at night), there’s no better place than this. Enjoy the views, glass of wine in hand before you plunge back into Mouraria. Stroll through the Mouraria neighbourhood and you’ll find Praça Martim Moniz and a little cluster of pop up bars, known as the Mercado de Fusão, at the north end of the square. This is where locals hang out from early evening until well after midnight. Enjoy the breeze, grab a cold beer or get involved in a game of ping pong at one of the table tennis tables! You won’t find many tourists here. In Mouraria, Portugal's tourists tend to flock to the famous Bairro Alto, which is quite a distance away, but I love the relaxed atmosphere and gazebos that are grouped around the fountains and small stretch of grass - perfect for a laid back evening.
All things fado
It might be a contentious subject with rivalling Alfama, but Portuguese fado music was born in the Mouraria neighbourhood. This traditional music has a haunting, blues-like quality and is part of the spirit of the community - you’ll hear throughout this Lisbon neighbourhood, not just in a casa de fado. If you do stop by one these spots you’ll pay a fixed price which includes a drink, or you can make an evening of it and have dinner too. In Mouraria prices have stayed low so shouldn’t set you back more than around 10 euros, although the more touristy fado houses in Alfama will charge a lot more to foreigners. My pick would be Maria da Mouraria, which you’ll find in what was once the home of legendary fadista Maria Severa.
One of the best ways to experience fado is to check out Associação Renovar a Mouraria, a Lisbon neighbourhood association which aims to integrate minorities into the local community, and amongst their program organize fado evenings. But you may also stumble across locals jamming together in the street or outside bars, so the most authentic way to experience fado like a local is to head to a tiny bar and wait for someone to start playing, or to check out one of the live outdoor concerts.
In Mouraria, Lisbon’s most famous tram lines (the 28) runs up the steep Rua Cavaleiros which snakes its way through the heart of the neighbourhood and up to the Moorish Castelo de São Jorge. If you want to use the tram, it’s best to go very early in the morning otherwise you could queue for hours. But the best way to experience the historic charm and local character of Mouraria, and Portugal, is to walk the streets, get a little bit lost in the narrow alleys and back streets, listen to the fado which wafts out of back yards and open windows and uncover some treasures of your own.
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