As many of you know, food has long been one of my passions. When I travel, I love to try local dishes, go to local spots, and really get a feel for what makes a particular food culture unique. Some places have the reputation for being specific foodie destinations – Italy and France jump quickly to mind, as does Japan or Singapore. But Portugal, and specifically Lisbon? Not for most people.
Well, it should. Portuguese cuisine is not underrated per se, it is just unknown to most. But it is good, really good, largely composed of seafood and basic staples like rice. It is simple, but flavorful, and will absolutely delight you as a tourist. It is also very reasonably priced in relation to the US and most of Western Europe, with a casual sit down meal averaging less than €15 per person, and less for some really great to-go delights.
So what are my recommendations? Here is just a partial list, focusing on specific dishes, and places I’ve enjoyed those dishes. It is my no means exhaustive, and I hope to hear from others about your favorites.
You’ll find versions of this everywhere in traditional Portuguese establishments all over the city. Basically, take a seafood stock (fish or specifically shellfish), add some sort of seafood, add rice, and slow cook to bring out flavor. Top with cilantro and serve. It is simple, but brilliant!
Two places in the Baixa (the central old city) have to-die-for editions of seafood rice. Marisqueira Uma makes theirs with a rich shellfish stock, with langoustine, shrimp, and mussels. It is slightly spicy, and brilliant. In fact, at lunch time, it is all they serve. Just a block up the street, A Merendinho do Arco Bandeira makes an octopus rice for €8. It is succulent, though needs a bit of hot sauce. (You can also get it to go – it lasted me two meals.)
Seafood rice at Marisqueira Uma
Bacalhao is cod, often specifically dried cod, and it is said that there are more than 1,000 ways to prepare it. You can get it fried with eggs and potatoes (bacalhao à brás), as fritters (with or without cheese), baked whole, made into sandwiches, or really anything else you can imagine. Try it!
Lots of seafood here, huh? Sardines are what would be referred to as a “junk fish,” something to be thrown back most places. Well, not in Lisbon. Fresh sardines are grilled and cooked in any number of restaurants, but the fun comes with canned sardines, something that makes most Americans’ stomachs turn. These tinned delights can be found in all supermarkets in different varieties, and even have entire shops dedicated to them as souvenirs! I bought a tin packaged with spicy chilis and cut them up into pasta. Delicious!
Looks like a candy store, but these are all sardines!
Pastel de Nata
We move from fish on to what Portugal is perhaps best known for culinarily: the egg custard tart known as the pastel (plural pasteis) de nata. These are everywhere, from the grocery store to Starbucks to hole in the wall pastry shops to large chains specializing in the famous treats, and they will cost about €1-1.50 to buy fresh.
Obviously, for the original, go to Belém, a neighborhood in the west of Lisbon, where they were invented with extra yolks the monks of the Jeronimos Monastery had after using the whites to bleach their robes. For perhaps the best deal, Fabrica de Nata is a chain found all over, and offers a €2.50 pastel and a port, along with numerous other incredibly priced combos.
Pastel de nata
Speaking of port, it is the national beverage, and you’ll want to taste it. Port is fortified wine, so it’s more alcoholic than normal table wine, and comes in different varieties. Ideally, you’d go port tasting in Porto, where it all comes from. If you can’t make it north to Portugal’s second largest city, here in Lisbon you can try port at most restaurants, with a pastel as mentioned above, or at the Time Out Market by the Cais do Sodre station, where Taylor’s, one of Porto’s most well-known wineries, has a tasting stall.
Port tasting at Taylor’s
Also called ginjinha, this is a liquor made from sour cherries. It is strong, but tasty. Many places offer it, but in front of the Time Out Market is a stall offering shots in chocolate (white or dark) shot glasses for €1 each. Have one before you taste the port, since after you might be a bit intoxicated.
My Favorite Snack
Cafe Gelo, on Praça Dom Pedro IV, has all sorts of awesome baked goods, like coconut pastries for €.95. But their best – in my opinion – quick snack to go is a €1 baguette filled with cheese and chorizo. Just keep in mind that the place is cash only under €5.
One other quick note about food in Lisbon. When you sit down at a restaurant, the waiter will typically bring bread and butter. This is not free. If you don’t want it, decline politely.
While not known as a foodie destination, I found the food in Lisbon to be delightful, unique, and reasonably priced. Add it to your list of culinary trips to make!
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