Tossed on the grill or straight from a can, everyone loves sardines in Lisbon!
Tied to the Atlantic, the Portuguese have always turned to the water to feed our nation. In Lisbon, there’s grilled fish in pretty much every restaurant and a one-month festival dedicated to a single fish: the sardine. We’re sharing everything you need to know about sardines in Lisbon.
Why Are Sardines Such a Big Deal in Portugal?
It all started with Saint Anthony, Lisbon’s patron saint.
During one of his expeditions, he was having trouble converting the people, so he turned to the fish. Legend says that the fish listened to his sermon and he took it as a sign of God.
Now every year Lisbon throws a party in his honor that lasts for a whole month!
Sardines are the star of these festivities. There’s even an annual competition where you can design your own sardine.
Why Some Portuguese Are Passing on Sardines
Here in Portugal, we love our sardines. Some find it hard to imagine a world without them.
Unfortunately, in the last decade, the sardine population has dropped, mostly due to climate change and excessive fishing. In 2006, fishermen caught 106,000 tonnes of sardines, versus 22,000 tonnes in 2016!
Sardines like cooler waters, so as the temperature rises in the Atlantic, they’ve retreated up north. This means that more and more, your “local” sardines might be coming from the UK or France.
The young sardines are especially vulnerable to these changes and, without them, it’s hard to replenish the population.
Every year locals are faced with the possibility that they might not have enough sardines. The government has put limitations on fishing, so most of the sardines you find in Lisbon are frozen to keep up with the demand.
Where to Eat Grilled Sardines in Lisbon
We get it: you’re in Lisbon and you want to try sardines! And if you visit in summer, the smell of grilled sardines is going to be tempting you everywhere you turn. Served between slices of bread or straight on a plate, however you eat them, sardines are a beloved dish in Portugal.
The best time to order sardines in Lisbon is between June and October. If you order outside these months, they’ll probably be frozen. Make sure to ask before you order!
In June, there are food stalls everywhere around Lisbon where you can order cheap sardines and local street food.
If the festival season is gone and you still want to try grilled sardines, we recommend going to Farol de Santa Luzia in Alfama or Último Porto. This last one has a great selection of grilled fish all-year-round.
Where to Find Canned Sardines in Lisbon
You can find canned sardines all over Lisbon! From the colorful vintage packs at Conserveira de Lisboa to the ordinary cans at the local supermarkets (look in the canned goods section), there’s something for every taste.
But it’s not just sardines that come in a can. There’s also mackerel, octopus and even the famous codfish.
Canned fish got so popular recently that more shops emerged like O Mundo Fantástico das Conservas Portuguesas and Loja das Conservas. Wherever you get them from, the cans make for a great Lisbon souvenir!
If you’re curious to try it in a dish, just pop by Sol e Pesca in Cais do Sodré, where canned fish is the highlight of the menu.
Alternative Choices to Sardines: Carapau & Cavala
Worried about the declining populations of sardines, and looking for the best alternatives? Carapau (horse mackerel) and Cavala (chub mackerel) are your best bets for responsible seafood choices in Lisbon.
Mackerel is slightly larger than a sardine, but still quite tasty and full of Omega-3s. Plus, the stocks are much healthier locally, so there are more chances that you’ll get it fresh rather than frozen!
As with sardines, you can have them straight off the grill or in a can. One dish that locals love are Carapauzinhos Fritos, tiny fried mackerel usually served with delicious tomato rice.
If you’re coming to Lisbon in the summer, you might find some places that serve both sardines and mackerel, so it’s up to you to choose.
Where to try them:
- Páteo 13: this typical restaurant in Alfama serves a variety of grilled fish, including mackerel.
- Ponto Final: take the ferry from Cais do Sodré to Cacilhas and enjoy your Carapauzinhos with a view of Lisbon.
How to order responsibly-sourced seafood in Portugal
So you’re ordering fish at a Portuguese restaurant or buying it straight from the market. How do you make sure it comes from a sustainable source?
The best way to know is to ask your waiter or fishmonger. Ask them what they recommend, what is the freshest fish available and if they caught it locally or not. This way you’ll be able to make more informed decisions before digging in!
If you need help, check out this Portuguese Seafood Guide to know more about the best seafood options in Portugal.
Join our Tastes & Traditions of Lisbon Food Tour to get the inside scoop on more of Portugal’s most iconic foods. We’ll take you behind the scenes to try the best bites at the places we take our own friends and family!
Joana is a Portuguese travel writer based in Lisbon. On her blog City Odes, she writes about the hidden gems of Portugal, fun road trips and train rides worth taking. When she’s not typing away on her laptop, you can find her drinking an IPA on one of Lisbon’s latest craft beer bars.