Foodie travelers hardly gave Portugal a second glance until recent years. Those lucky enough to know the delights of traditional Portuguese dishes benefited, while the rest of the world focused on France, Tokyo, and other dining destinations. But now the capital city of Lisbon has risen to the top of culinary adventure lists, attracting the growling bellies of tourists near and far.
The restaurants below aren’t the pricey Michelin eateries on other “best” lists. I’ve instead compiled what locals love — just good ole grandma-approved Portuguese cooking. For more options, including the best places to eat food from former colonies like Goa and modern interpretations of local cuisine, try our complete guide to Lisbon.
If you want authenticity with each bite, here’s what to order and where to find it.
Top 10 traditional Portuguese dishes in Lisbon
Bacalhau, i.e., salted codfish, is the national dish of Portugal and locals claim that over 1000 recipes exist with this unique ingredient. Starting in the Age of Exploration, Portuguese navigators began catching cod in Norweigan waters and heavily salting it until it became like fish jerky. This way, it wouldn’t rot during long journeys — similar to the inception of port wine, which was fortified to last for over extensive trips. Whether at home or at sea, they could rehydrate the fish and eat it. People developed a taste for it, and bacalhau remains a staple on most menus. You’ll have plenty of options, but my personal favorite dish is pataniscas de bacalhau (salted cod fritters).
Where to eat bacalhau in Lisbon
Polvo à lagareiro
When I returned to Lisbon, I ate polvo (octopus) every damn day. It’s on almost all menus and it comes straight out of the sea. Generally, it’s boiled and baked, then smothered in garlicky olive oil and served with smashed potatoes. If polvo à lagareiro is the signature dish of the house, order it.
Where to eat octopus in Lisbon
While sardines are a year-round staple, there’s no better time to eat them fresh-off-the-grill than during the Feast of St. Anthony in June. Vendors set up stands along the ruas during this holiday for the patron saint of Lisbon and the whole city celebrates. It’s one huge outdoor party with tons of amazing street food. You’ll get the fish salted and grilled whole on toasted bread, and can balance out the saltiness with a sweet fartura covered in cinnamon and sugar (similar to a Spanish churro).
If visiting any other time of year, take the 10-minute ferry from Cais do Sodré to Cacilhas to sit outside at Atira-te ao Rio for sardinhas and a stunning view of the city.
Alternatively, you can stay in the city and try El-Rei Dom Frango.
I’ve never found a dish quite like açorda outside of Portugal. This hearty stew is made of bread, seafood, and garlicky herbs with a fresh-cracked egg stirred in tableside. It’s served piping hot and often with spcy piri-piri sauce on the side. My two favorite variations are açorda de mariscos (a variety of seafood) and açorda de gambas (prawns). Order it at a seaside tavern and then take a nap on the beach.
Where to eat açorda in Lisbon
Porco a Alentejana
Pork and clams? Why not! The wild boars that roam the Portuguese countryside are often butchered, stewed, and served with steamed clams. It’s a unique take on surf-and-turf. The pigs live off a diet of mostly cork tree acorns, which makes their meat extra special. So special, in fact, that they’re used to produce highly-prized Jamon Iberico that’s cured and served by the slice across Spain.
Where to eat porco a alentejana in Lisbon
Frango no Churrasco
If perfectly juicy whole grilled chickens with crispy skin, hot sauce, and fries sounds like your jam, you need to get your paws on some frango no churrasco. We would eat this dish twice a day when we lived in Lisbon. Sadly, our absolute favorite spot in the city, Churrascuria Xiluba, has closed. But, there are still plenty of other charcoal grills and housemade piri-piris for you to sink your teeth into that are almost as good.
Where to eat frango no churrasco in Lisbon
Prego no pão
I can’t say that prego no pão, or beef on bread, is my favorite among traditional Portuguese dishes. However, it’s a beloved utilitarian snack that provides truly local flavor. Some people order a prego for dessert, but sweet tooths will be sorely disappointed — it’s essentially a simple beef sandwich. If you prefer pork, get the bifana instead.
Where to eat prego and bifana in Lisbon
Say hello to Portugal’s answer to hangover food: bread, cheese, sausage, egg, steak, ham…It’s the greasy, delicious cure for a few too many Sagres beers and port wines. All the meet goes between the slices of bread and the egg and melted cheese goes on top. Originally from Porto, you’ll still find plenty of fans nursing their headaches with a francesinha in Lisbon.
Where to eat francesinha in Lisbon
If you visit Portugal in winter and especially around the holidays, you’ll see vendors pushing around metal carts that emanate plumes of smoke towards the sky. Inside, chestnuts are roasting over coals (castanhas = roasted chestnuts). You eat them out of a rolled-up newspaper and suddenly feel toasty warm, no matter the temperature outside.
No particular recommendation for where to get your castanhas. Simply wander downtown to the Baixa Chiado area in winter and find a friendly vendor. They cost about two euros for a dozen.
Pastéis de nata
You won’t find a more traditional Portuguese dish for dessert than this, though they’re just as popular on the Chinese island of Macau, a former colony. The pastéis de Belém are certainly the most famous form of this egg custard pastry, but they’re not necessarily the best. You can order delicious pastéis de nata from a number of bakeries who make them just as well, if not better.
Where to eat pastéis de nata in Lisbon
Still hungry? The delights of Portuguese cuisine don’t end here. From soups like caldo verde to duck dishes like arroz de pato, I couldn’t possibly fit all the culinary history of this country into one blog post. I included my favorites here, but I recommend eating everything that looks good (as always).
Suggestions for other traditional Portuguese dishes or restaurants? Let us know in the comments below!
Images courtesy of creative commons.