Today the Mouraria, a maze of narrow alleys, cobblestone squares and decrepit buildings strung with washing at the heart of Lisbon, is known more for drugs and prostitution than as a tourist stop.
But the neighbourhood, one of the capital's oldest, is also where Portugal's melancholy national song style, the fado, was born in the 19th century -- a bit of history that locals want to tap in a district long neglected by city hall where even Lisbonites rarely venture.
To do so, a grassroots group called Renovate the Mouraria has set up a programme of free "singing" tours, accompanied by fado artists, to show off this working-class area now home to a jumble of Portuguese, Indians, Pakistanis, Africans and Chinese.
"The goal of this initiative is to make the neighbourhood more alive, to make people visit -- both Portuguese and tourists," said Ines Andrade, president of the group, first started in 2008.
The two-centuries old genre has seen an explosion of new "fadistas", as the singers and musicians are called, and styles in the last decade.
Meaning fate or destiny, fado is said to embody the nostalgia that shaped the Portuguese experience, back to its famed 15th-17th century navigators who found new lands and trade routes that made the small European state a power with colonies on three continents.
It embodies the "saudade", roughly translatable as longing or melancholy, for those who scattered across the empire or died at sea.
The hour-long tours take place every Friday to Sunday until the end of September.
Volunteers meet visitors at a small white chapel with a black iron cross called Nossa Senhora da Saude then guide them through the colourful "bairro", or neighbourhood, named for the Moors who settled there more than nine centuries ago.
"For centuries this neighbourhood has been unjustly forgotten," said one guide, 54-year-old Nuno Franco. "Fado was born here, from traditional African songs. It quickly became the song of sailors and the working class.
He points out a guitar-shaped stone monument erected to remind all "we are in the cradle of the fado", then heads to a small house on one of the narrow alleys where Severa, the first great fado singer, was born in the 1820s.
In a nearby square that bears her name, the tourists are treated to a "fado a desgarrada", a sort of fado battle in which two singers face off.
The tour ends with a fado made famous by the late, legendary diva Amalia Rodrigues as the crowd joins in and residents lean out windows to watch: "Cheira bem, cheira a Lisboa" -- "Smells nice, smells like Lisbon".
"It's a very original way to discover a neighbourhood," said Italian tourist Pasquale Rubino.
A woman who slipped into the tour midday through, meanwhile, said: "I've lived here for more than 50 years and I learned so many things!"
Lisbon city hall has backed the program as part of efforts to promote fado after the UN cultural organisation UNESCO last year recognised the genre as an "intangible cultural heritage".
"Our goal is for those who live here to rediscover their pride, to attract new people and to help the neighbourhood's economy," said Lisbon's socialist Mayor Antonio Costa, who last year moved his own offices to another neglected district right near Mouraria.
"We think fado can contribute to that."