Seafood galore, simple daily dishes (the prato do dia), and the constant availability of an excellent glass of wine – roaming the kitchens and cellars of Portugal is sure to, quite literally, fill you with joy. I’d even go so far to challenge if there is any other country that can combine scenery, surf and culinary specialities in such a compelling way… in your face France! However, priorities: Since traveling for food is totally justifiable, this guide will provide you with all you need to know about Portuguese food. Weave your entire itinerary around the famous classics and well-kept secrets of local delicacies, from the seductive vineyard-covered hills around Porto and the North to the Algarve’s breezy coastline.
An Introduction to Portuguese Food Culture
Like in many South European countries, a meal is not just a meal, but an entire chapter in itself. While breakfast is rather secondary, lunch takes up 1-2 hours, and dinner easily spans three hours late into the evening.
But none of us want to end up in the overcrowded main tourist hotspots where you’ll get some lukewarm potatoes after waiting an hour, right? So first of all, when it comes to choosing the right place to feast on highlights of the Portuguese cuisine, look out for the well-attended restaurants, even if they might look less inviting at first. Upon entering, you’ll be seated by a waiter – the best opportunity to ask for the sugestão do chefe, the chef’s recommendation. Sometimes, you’ll find bread, butter, olives and cheese on the table already but if you decide to consume those, they’ll be put on your bill additionally. It is common to order at least two or three courses, most restaurants even put together a cheaper-priced tourist menu. However, if you’re rather after some in-between snacks, petiscos, the Portuguese version of Tapas, are always a safe bet to try out a few new tastes, bite-size.
Unfortunately, vegetarians and vegans will have a rougher ride finding a good meal, since most restaurants still only offer salads or omelets as an alternative in a fish and meat-dominated culinary landscape. At least it’s a changing trend, and especially in the north and larger cities, I’ve come across a few exclusively vegetarian restaurants, for example “Cultura Dos Sabores” in Porto.
But generally speaking, if grilled gilthead, hearty pork stews and fine wines sound like your thing, I promise you’ll never want to leave again!
Portugal’s best dishes and where to get them
A main ingredient in Portugal’s pots and pans is fish, coming fresh from the Atlantic and being dished up in countless variations not only in marisqueiras (fish restaurants), but all over the country. Of all these options, cod (or bacalhau) is easily national dish number one, affectionately nicknamed o fiel amigo, faithful friend. Upon catch, the fish is dried only by wind and sun for several weeks, losing up to 80% of its liquid – this is even protected as a traditional Portuguese food procedure. When used for cooking, the dried pieces will be soaked in water for a couple of days, and are then used in one of supposedly at least 365 different variations of recipes. But most commonly, bacalhau will be eaten grilled with a few vegetables like potatoes, carrots and broccoli on the side.
Where to get it: Restaurante Inácio in Braga
Price: Around 30€ for two persons with drinks and bread
It barely gets more Portuguese than with a good traditional cataplana, a hearty comfort stew that you’ll basically see on any menu across the country. In the end, it’s always a little surprise what ingredients it will feature, even if you go to the same place twice. What ends up in the pot depends on the day’s catch and kitchen stock. The dish is cooked and served in a closed copper pot (cataplana) that rather resembles an extraterrestrial flying object; with potatoes, paprika, onions and other vegetables, sausage (chouriço) or meat, while the variation with fish and seafood is named caldeirada. Your visit to Portugal won’t be complete without!
Where to get it: Chico Neto in Lourinha
Price: Around 18€ for Cataplana with starters and wine
Arroz de Marisco
Rice with seafood is always a safe bet and a pretty common dish throughout the country, although there are local variations. In the North, you’ll find a lot of arroz de lampreia (rice with lamprey), while the South rather adds prawns and shells.
Where to get it: Marisqueira Rui in Silves
Price: Around 10€ on the daily menu
A less traditional but truly compelling meal are Lagos’ fish tacos. I mean, everyone can do fish and chips (which you can find in abundance here as well). And tacos are not really exotic either. But combine the two, a little spice here, a little sweetness there, with a refreshing beer cocktail on the side – voilà! Not to miss on a hot summer’s day in the Algarve.
Where to get it: Ol’ Bastards in Lagos
Price: Around 14€ for 3 Tacos with chips
Ready for a beautiful Portuguese mess across the table? Amêijoas are fresh delicious clams, cooked in white wine with plenty of garlic and coriander. The majority of Portugal’s supply comes from the Algarve region, from where they are transported across the entire country. As a starter or delicacy in between, best enjoyed with a cool vinho verde, they’re pure enjoyment.
Where to get it: Restaurante Castelejo in Vila Do Bispo – amazing sunset location as well!
Price: Around 11€ for a full plate
Sure to make just as much of a mess, but a delightful surprise for the more daring foodies, percebes really were a highlight for my taste buds – even though the English translation goose barnacles may raise many doubts.
Where to get it: Restaurante Da Praia in Arrifana
Price: Around 16€ for a big serving
In the mood for a less fancy meal, or a quick snack? What might sound like a simple toasted sandwich, is in fact a day and night option among locals and tourists alike – with very varying quality. Seek out a place using fresh local ingredients, and suddenly, ham and cheese between two slices of toast become nothing short of a tasteful revelation.
Where to get it: In any of the cute little snack bars on the market in Praia da Luz
Price: Around 2€
If bacalhau is Portugal’s national fish, then bifana easily is its national sandwich. You could make a challenge out of finding a place that doesn’t sell bifana; from food courts to tiny snack bars that are barely more than a hole in the wall. Portugal’s McDonald’s branches gave the McBifana a try a few years back, but frankly it’s nothing but a sad imitation. Well prepared, the thin slow-cooked pork slices are marinated in garlic, spices and white wine, put into a bun, and in fact considered a proper meal.
Where to get it: Cervejaria Ramiro in Lisbon
Price: Around 3€
Good, cheap and widely popular: grilled sardines (sardinhas assadas), marinated only in coarse sea salt and grilled over charcoal. They are often served at the end of local festivities, an event then called sardinhada.
Where to get it: Restaurant Sebastiao in Ingrina, Vila Do Bispo
Price: Around 6€ for a starter size
For the sweet tooth
No Portuguese menu would be complete without its desserts. From the classic pastel de nata (a sugar syrup based custard tart), an almendrado (almond pastry) to arroz doce (rice pudding), along with a hot galão (local milk coffee), the Portuguese love their sweets – and pride themselves of over 200 different pastries and cakes.
Where to get it: Pastelaria Gamba in Lagos
Price: Around 2€ for a pastry and a coffee
A last word on Portuguese drinks
If you still need another compelling reason to fall in love with the Portuguese kitchen, have a look at their art of combining each meal with the right beverage. To begin with, there’s the mother of all Portuguese wines, the vinho verde, or green wine. Which, confusingly, doesn’t have to do anything with its color, its name rather derives from its first origin: The Minho region in the north is much greener than the rest of the country. Also the age of vinho verde plays a role in its name, since green wine is consumed at a very young age, and thus typically tastes very fresh and fruity – not only as a white, but also red or rosé wine.
Lisbon 📷: @annabel_dcr
Then there is of course port wine, whose variations can pretty much bracket an entire meal from aperitif to dessert wine. A 20 years old Tawny port will taste like vanilla and nuts, a younger one rather like coffee and chocolate. Ginjinha, meanwhile, is a local liquor made from sour cherries (ginjas) that is commonly served in a small edible chocolate glass. Even if you’re less of a wine lover: the beer “Sagres” from the southern city of the same name should appeal even to more sophisticated beer enthusiasts. Cheers!
Well – if you haven’t started looking for the next flights to Portugal, I’d say it’s time now. Don’t forget to book a hostel in Portugal if you need to lie down after eating. What dish are you going to try first?
About the author:
Christina is a full-time traveling psychologist from Germany, who does her origin justice by passionately exploring any local beer she can get hands on. A dangerous mix of curiosity and clumsiness leading her on (mis)adventures around the world, she writes about her experiences, reflections and the psychology of travel on her blog Birdwinks.