Portuguese food is little-known outside southern Europe, which seems remarkable to anyone who’s spent any time in the country. Vegetables always make an appearance, but traditional meals are dominated by high-quality seafood and pork, expertly paired with a small number of herbs and spices. There’s rich regional variation for such a small nation.
Many centuries of exploration and experimentation have resulted in a number of classic dishes that are well worth seeking out during even a short trip to the country.
While several of these popular dishes come from Lisbon and surrounding areas, others originated elsewhere in the country. That’s ideal for visitors, who get a chance to try flavors from around Portugal without having to visit every small town and region to do so. Here are seven of the best to track down during your stay in the capital.
01 of 07
The most well-known dish is a small, oily and delicious fish that’s impossible to ignore during summer months. The humble sardine is ubiquitous in Lisbon, appearing on everything from flags to murals, and in every souvenir stand you walk past.
Sardine season runs from June to September, when the fish are at their fattest and tastiest. Outside this time, they’ll likely be from a can or the freezer, not fresh from the market.
As with the rest of their dishes, Lisbonites don’t like to over-complicate their sardinhas. Typically cooked over a charcoal grill, the fish is served whole, with a little salt and olive oil, and perhaps a side of boiled potatoes or bread. It doesn’t sound like much, but your taste buds will beg to differ.
If you visit in June, you’ll coincide with the sardine festival that honors Lisbon’s patron saint. Locals set up simple seats and tables, alongside impromptu grills to cook for passers-by, and the city fills with the smell of grilling fish.
Every evening and weekend... throughout the month, the Alfama neighborhood teems with hungry locals and tourists alike. Find a table if you can, or just order sardines and beer from the sidewalk vendors and eat wherever you can find a space.
The biggest night of the year is June 12th, the eve of Saint Antonio’s official day. The locals party through til morning, and the sardines and beer never run out!
02 of 07
It’s said you could cook salted cod differently every day of the year in Portugal without running out of recipes, and restaurant menus in Lisbon give no reason to doubt that statistic. Invented by sailors looking to preserve their catch on the long journey home from north Atlantic fishing grounds, you’ll find bacalhau absolutely everywhere.
Don’t make the mistake of assuming all cod dishes are similar. With so many ways to use this fish, you’ll find it in everything from stews to scrambles, as well as being boiled and served alongside potatoes and vegetables.
Typical variations worth seeking out include bacalhau a bras, where cod and potatoes are shredded and scrambled with onions, eggs, olives and parsley, and pastéis de bacalhau, where the same ingredients are fried into crispy balls or cakes, much like a croquette.
Keep an eye on menus as you’re wandering round the city, especially outside local, family-run restaurants. It’s hard to find a bad bacalhau dish, so it’s worth taking a seat... even if you don’t know exactly what you’re going to get ahead of time!
03 of 07
Often available as both starter and main course, chicken giblets typically arrive in a rich, delicious stew of tomato, onion and garlic. You’ll find them throughout Lisbon and the rest of the country, in both high-end restaurants and more modest establishments.
Don’t be put off by the contents – despite gizzards, livers and hearts not appearing on most restaurant menus in the United States, they’re perfectly safe and delicious to eat. The biggest danger is likely to be to your face, fingers or the tablecloth, as they’ll all end up covered in sauce by the end of your plate of pipis.
04 of 07
Like Spain to the east, Portugal has a fine tradition of small, tasty snacks to line the stomach with while drinking. Designed to be shared, petiscos come in endless varieties, with one of the more interesting options being a plate of small snails.
Usually cooked in a broth of garlic, onions, tomatoes and herbs, heaped bowls of the mollusc are a common sight in Lisbon during warmer times of the year. Not as large as France’s more-famous escargot, they’re designed to be picked out of their shells with a toothpick and eaten in a single bite.
Look for the word caracóis as you pass small cafes and bars, or just check out what the patrons are eating. A table full of beers, snails and noisy conversation is your cue to head inside.Continue to 5 of 7 below.
05 of 07
Perfected by grandmothers over many generations, caldo verde is about as Portuguese as it gets. This small bowl of soup rarely costs more than a couple of euros, and while it’s the perfect comfort food during the short Lisbon winter, it’s equally delicious at other times of year if you can find it.
The ingredients are few and simple – kale, onions, potato, garlic and olive oil – but I’ve never had two bowls taste exactly the same. You’ll typically get a few slices of pork sausage thrown in, and as with many other dishes in Portugal, a side of corn bread.
It’s so common that it’s not always listed by name on restaurant menus, often just called sopa or sopa do dia (soup of the day). Ask if you’re not sure what kind of soup you’re going to get, although it’ll likely be very tasty regardless.
06 of 07
Speaking of comfort foods, if you’re after a meal that’ll leave you warm and completely stuffed, look no further than Portuguese cozido (stew).
It’s very much a winter dish, and if you’re not a meat lover, you’d be advised to choose something else on the menu. Long before Portland and other hipster cities started boasting of nose-to-tail dining, the Portuguese were using every part of whichever animals they could get their hands on.
You’ll get the standard accompaniment of boiled vegetables and potatoes, or potentially rice, along with pork, chicken and beef. Any part of the animal could find its way onto your overloaded plate.
This stew is found all over the country, but with many regional variations, the version you’ll have in Lisbon could be very different to what you’ll find elsewhere.
Because it’s such a traditional family dish, don’t expect to find it on offer in tourist places or fancy restaurants. You’ll need to head somewhere much more local, likely outside the downtown area, to... track it down.
07 of 07
Portugal’s most famous dessert, pastel de nata, has spread around the world, but it’s a few miles from downtown Lisbon that you’ll find the original. Monks at the Jerónimos Monastery in Belém had been making the pastry in the 1700s, and sold the recipe to a local sugar refinery in the 1830s. The refinery opened a shop to sell pastais de Belém to the public soon after, and the rest is history.
If you choose to buy your firm, sugary egg tart from its original location at Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, expect a long wait (the takeout line is somewhat shorter). You’ll also see them in literally every single bakery in Lisbon, but quality does tend to vary.
If you don’t want to wait forever for your dessert, or aren’t taking a day trip to Belém, check out Pastelaria Aloma instead for an excellent version of the sweet treat. Alternatively, ask any local where they’d buy from – they’re guaranteed to have a strong opinion on the subject!
No matter where you get them, don’t expect to pay more than a... euro or two… although beware, you’re highly unlikely to be able to get away with eating just one!