Lisbon is known the world over for its historical sites, iconic buildings and sprawling views of the Tagus. However, the Portuguese capital is also an important center for the country’s culinary heritage and is known for its many food tours. Influenced by its colonies and celebrated by its people, Lisbon’s food is a melting pot of diverse, unique and gratifying dishes hard to find anywhere else.
Good food in Lisbon is not confined to elite restaurants or rich family homes. Although there is no dearth of hip fine diners, Lisboans love to eat on the streets, stalls and mercados. From highly touristy places like Placa de Commercio to the and Mercado da Ribeira, to hidden slopes of Alfama and shores of Belem, good food in Lisbon can be found a few steps away.
Here are some things we recommend you to try when in the sunshine city:
Pastéis de Nata: The first thing to taste in Lisbon has to be this palm-sized pastry. Filled with gooey custard, layered with butter, and charred on top, nata pastry is Lisbon in a tart shell. While it can be found everywhere in the city (including supermarkets) the best place for nata remain its birthplace, Belem. Invented in the convent of Jeronimos, the custard tart is now sold from a neighboring shop, Pastel dé Belem, which claims to use the same centuries-old recipe of the nuns. Manteigaria, in Chiado district in the city center, is another legendary tart bar known for its light, thin, and flaky crust, with a thick cream and the right hint of sweetness. All Lisbon food tours are not complete without sampling this delicacy.
Pastéis de Bacalhau: Bacalhau Cutlets are to Lisbon what bagels are to New York. Made by mixing salted cod with potatoes, onion, garlic and local cheese, these patties are almost a staple in Lisbon and go perfectly well with Lisbon’s traditional espresso and a shot of milk. Made here since the early 20th century these cutlets do not often find a place in posh lists but let that not deter you: Cheesy, fishy, starchy and garlicky, they are all things delicious. Remember to insist on getting them fresh and hot when you go on any walking tour of Lisbon, as touristy places sometimes pass on cold cutlets to unsuspecting tourists.
Bacalhau à bras: No Lisbon food tours can have just one cod dish. So deeply ingrained is the fish in its cuisine that every second preparation uses cod here. The cod used in Lisbon however is almost always salted and cured. Large pieces displayed in grocery stores and outside restaurants act as magnets for travelers. Bacalhau à bras is listed almost on all menus across the city. A popular Portuguese comfort dish, it is made with pan-fried cod, finely sliced potatoes and scrambled eggs, and served garnished with local black olives, and parsley.
Bifana: This Lisboan sandwich is the mother of all sandwiches. Made with sliced pork that has been slow-cooked in a rich sauce of white wine and garlic for hours, Bifana is assembled fresh from the pan on thick rustic slices of local bread and eaten with mustard or piripiri. It is traditionally washed down with house wine or local beer . A wonderful and fulfilling meal on the go, Bifana is found everywhere here and is an integral part of all Lisbon food tours, but for the best version, try one at Casa das Bifanas. It’s a sumptuous meal to end a day of sightseeing, especially after those long walking tours.
Sardines: No place celebrates Sardines like Alfama, the oldest neighborhood of Lisbon, which was once a fishing village. Smoked over open fire, dressed in sea salt, served on its own or with a pao, sardine understandably is the most important fish here. It is also the most celebrated. Throughout summer residents put out tables in their courtyards and grill sardines on charcoal for hours while the locals throng the neighborhood for their share of fresh and smoky sardines night after night.
Chinese Meals: Lisbon’s list of unregulated Chinese restaurants is legendary, and a tourist attraction on their own. Tucked in deep alleys and apartment complexes, they are often unmarked and quiet from the outside. Inside, however, you find full-fledged restaurants run by immigrants. The best way to find them is on a GPS map since most are listed there. The best food to eat here is the signature bowl of soup filled with meat, vegetables, broth and seasoning that satiates your craving for comfort and spice in a city devoted to salted cod.
Ginghina: You cannot go to Lisbon and not have Ginjhina. Sweet, strong, scented, sticky and very heady, this concoction has been Lisbon’s favorite drink since the 1600s. Traditionally made at homes with Morello Cherry, the liqueur is drunk in shot glasses and can be served with or without the cherry (which is delightfully potent). You can also opt to have it in a chocolate cup and eat the cup afterwards. The best places to taste—and buy many bottles as souvenirs—are from tiny old bars in the Rossio area, like A Ginjhina, or the locals in Alfama who sell home-brewed versions in jugs outside their homes. Almost all Lisbon food tours end on a high with a visit to these old bars.