No one in Lisbon rushes a meal, even during busy lunchtime. It’s not just about eating. It’s a complete cultural experience.
Ask any local where to go for lunch or dinner, and you’ll walk out of the conversation with a long list of places that’s good enough for one week even if you’re only staying for three days. That’s how important food is for the Portuguese. To get you started, we at Devour Lisbon have put together this handy guide of the best food in Lisbon and where to eat it.
1. Grilled sardines
Seasoned with nothing more than rock salt, fresh grilled sardines are a typical summer dish. However, high demand has led a lot of restaurants to include them on the menu regardless of seasonality. Off season, sardines will be frozen so beware if the restaurant advertises them as fresh. Most family-owned restaurants, the typical tascas, will be upfront about it.
Grilled to a light golden color, a sardine should be eaten on top of a slice of bread, moistened by the fish’s dripping fat. Optional side dishes include grilled bell peppers, a tomato, lettuce and onion salad, or boiled potatoes.
If you’re in Lisbon in June for the Santos Populares festivities, any improvised tasca in the streets of the Alfama neighborhood is a great place to eat grilled sardines. The rest of the year, look for places that serve only Portuguese cuisine—none of those restaurants in touristy areas with laminated menus serving Italian, Indian, and Portuguese food all in one place!
Insider tip: Do as locals do and leave the fork and knife aside and dig in with your hands.
2. Bacalhau à Brás
Legend has it that a Bairro Alto tasca owner invented a dish with shredded salted codfish, fried potatoes, thinly sliced onions, and scrambled eggs topped with a handful of parsley and roughly the same amount of black olives. The bacalhau à Brás (or Braz) was born.
It’s a typical dish of special lunch menus, but there’s only one place in Lisbon that will cook it upon request even if it’s not listed as a daily special: Varina da Madragoa (Rua Madres 34). Most locals agree they serve the best bacalhau à Brás in the city.
Insider tip: The perfect bacalhau à Brás is the right mix of crisp and moist, so stay away from dishes where the egg looks overcooked and the fried potatoes too soggy.
Not quite a full meal, not quite a snack, petiscos are great at every time of the day, except breakfast. There’s a temptation to call them “Portuguese tapas” as a way to simplify the concept and explain it to foreigners. However, at Devour Lisbon we believe that’s an oversimplification of what’s both a type of food and a lifestyle.
In a nutshell, petiscos are simple dishes, flavorful and quick to cook, meant to be shared and preferably paired with a great house red wine or a cold beer. Some are finger food and some are not, but all are a great complement to lingering conversations at the table.
It’s hard to narrow down what petiscos to try but top contenders for best food in Lisbon include peixinhos da horta (deep-fried tempura green beans), picapau (bite-sized chunks of beef, typically fried with lots of garlic), and pastéis de bacalhau (deep-fried salted codfish cakes).
Insider tip: Look for a place that lists petiscos as such on their English menu instead of the translation “Portuguese tapas.” A Maria Não Deixa, at Cais do Sodré, is a good place to start.
4. Pastéis de Nata
The most famous pastry in Lisbon, you’ll find pastéis de nata in practically every café in the city. The easiest, most affordable mid-morning or mid-afternoon go-to snack is an espresso and the custard-filled pastel. Despite the name (nata is the Portuguese word for cream), the main ingredients in this pastry are egg yolks, milk, and sugar.
It’s a sweet treat of many versions and many recipes, some of them secret, but with only one perfect way to eat it: sprinkled with powder cinnamon and sugar. The question of where to eat the best custard tart in Lisbon divides locals as much as a soccer match between Sporting and Benfica. Some will vouch for the famous place in Belém, while others will swear Manteigaria has the best pastéis in the city. The best way to solve this feud is to taste as many as possible.
Insider tip: to make sure your pastel de nata is really handmade, look for the spiral in the bottom. The pastry of a handmade pastel is carefully thumbed down into the mold, one by one, before being filled with the custard.
Counting down the days to your trip to Lisbon mainly so you can start devouring all the Portuguese food in sight? We feel you—that’s how we travel too.
Let’s hang out while you’re in town, preferably on our food tour! Let us feed your curiosity and show you our Lisbon.
Sandra Henriques Gajjar is a freelance web content writer and travel blogger born in the Azores and based in Lisbon for 20+ years. Since 2014 she’s been blogging about travel, culture, and the people she meets in between at Tripper, a blog on sustainable cultural tourism.