Behind the Bite: Ginja

This post is part of our Behind the Bite series, deep dives into the dishes that we can’t stop thinking about.

Lisbon’s legendary liqueur is sweet, strong and totally traditional. Learn the story of ginja—and why it’s so much more than a souvenir.

It seems that every southern European country has its own iconic liqueur (or several). Limoncello in Italy, ouzo in Greece, licor de hierbas and crema de orujo in Spain… and in Portugal, ginja. You’ll find this deep red liqueur on every list of must-try local specialties in Lisbon—and at countless shops, bars and street stalls around the country.

You can't leave Lisbon without trying ginja, Portugal's famous cherry liqueur.

Photo Credit: CMLisboa/Lojas com História, Text Overlay: Devour Lisbon Food Tours

Ginja is a tourist favorite, and for good reason; it’s tasty, affordable and undeniably emblematic of Portuguese culture. But beneath the surface of its obvious appeal, there’s much more to discover about this iconic drink. Once you know the full story of ginja, you’ll have even more reason to savor every sip.

What is ginja?

Ginja is a Portuguese liqueur made from aguardente (brandy or fortified wine) that’s been infused with sour cherries, sugar and cinnamon. It’s dark red, super sweet and surprisingly strong, with an ABV of around 18-24%.

It’s important to note that the word ginja also refers to the fruit itself, which resembles a small red berry and is highly acidic. In English, it’s formally known as a Morello cherry. The drink is sometimes also called ginjinha (your best bet at pronouncing it correctly is to mimic a local speaker). But you don’t need to be able to say it to recognize it at every turn; from street festivals to upscale eateries, in Portugal ginja is never far out of reach.

Ginja in Lisbon is made with Morello cherries, which are smaller and more acidic than regular cherries.
Ginja is made with Morello cherries, which are smaller and more acidic than your average cherry.

Where did it come from?

You could say it all began when the Romans brought ginja trees to Portugal in the first place. But just like the iconic pasteis de nata, the ginja drink owes its existence to the church. Several centuries ago, a friar at Lisbon’s Igreja de Santo António decided to combine sour cherries, aguardente, sugar and cinnamon and let it sit for a while—the same simple recipe used today.

Ginja was first sold to the public by a Galician named Francisco Espinheira at his bar in Lisbon—which you can still visit (more on that later)! It quickly became a local favorite, and was even used as medicine to cure minor ailments. In no time at all, it achieved its status as a symbol of the city and the country as a whole.

How do you drink it?

When I was last in Lisbon, I stayed at a hostel where they gave every new guest a glass of ginja upon arrival. As they slid it across the reception desk, they warned, “It’s not a shot!” They even sold t-shirts proclaiming this philosophy: despite the fact that it’s served in what seems to be a shot glass, ginja is meant to be drunk in small sips.

Not everyone agrees on this point. I’ve seen locals drink it both ways, so perhaps it’s a matter of personal preference. But if you ask me, something this delicious deserves to be enjoyed slowly. It’s not as harsh as hard liquor, so there’s no need to throw it back. And unlike actual shots, it’s socially acceptable to drink it at any time of day—including first thing in the morning.

Fermented cherries are commonly served with ginja in Lisbon.
If you order “ginja com elas,” you’ll get one of these tart treats in your glass.

At ginja bars in Lisbon, they’ll ask if you want it Com ou sem elas?” or Com ou sem fruta?” (with or without cherries/fruit). If you want your drink to be served complete with a fermented cherry, go for “com elas.” Just make sure to watch out for the pit!

Ginja with a modern twist

The classic ginja recipe is pretty perfect in its simplicity. But although it’s usually consumed on its own, there are plenty of other ways to serve it. The most common was created in Óbidos, a town just north of Lisbon that’s become widely famous for its locally produced ginja. A few years ago, someone there had the bright idea to start serving it in edible chocolate cups, to be devoured immediately afterward. This may not be very traditional, but it’s definitely delicious.

A sign in Lisbon's Alfama neighborhood advertises ginja served in a chocolate cup.
A sign in Lisbon’s Alfama neighborhood advertises ginja served in a chocolate cup.

According to the official website of Óbidos, ginja should be served “as an aperitif or a digestive after-dinner drink, at a temperature between 15º and 17º (C) or on hot days, slightly chilled,” and adds that it “may be used in cocktails and in cooking.” Many places in Portugal have started doing just that, coming up with their own takes on ginja-based mixed drinks. My personal favorite resembles a mojito, with mint, crushed ice and soda water to balance out the sweetness. Another common variation is a ginja tonic, which is exactly what it sounds like: gin, tonic and ginja.

Where to try ginja in Lisbon

The first place I tried ginja was at a local street festival in a small rural town—not a bad way to be introduced to it. You can also buy bottles of it at pretty much any supermarket or food shop; it’s one of Portugal’s most popular souvenirs. But if you’re visiting the capital, there are a few essential spots that you have to hit up.

You can go to Espinheira’s original ginja bar, A Ginjinha on Largo de São Domingos, for a truly authentic experience. Right nearby around Rossio Square, two other bars offer a similar atmosphere: Ginjinha Sem Rival and Ginjinha Rubi. All of these places are the real deal, passed down through several generations and still family-owned. Check out our guide on where to try ginjinha in Lisbon for more recommendations!

A Ginjinha, pictured here, is one of the best bars in Lisbon to try ginja.
The smiling faces that’ll greet you at A Ginjinha, Lisbon’s oldest ginja bar. Photo credit: Rosino

A glass of ginja in Lisbon only costs around one or two euros, making it especially hard to resist. Easy on the wallet, dangerously tasty and entirely authentic… it’s not hard to see why everyone from Lisbon locals to international tourists are in love with this liqueur. Try it once, and you’re likely to join them.

To learn the stories behind more of Lisbon’s best bites, join our Tastes & Traditions of Lisbon Food Tour! You’ll leave with a deeper connection to the city’s food culture—and the people who are a part of it.

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