In my experience, Lisbon isn’t a particularly exciting food destination. I’m sure there are people who disagree, but personally, I enjoy discovering great new food and eating in Lisbon was a little disappointing. It just didn’t blow me away.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the food is bad; it’s just there aren’t many amazing flavour bombs that are special to this particular region. I’ve eaten well during the time I’ve been here, but for the most part, the food is quite similar to what I would eat at home.
What makes Lisbon food special?
Lisbon – and I assume, Portuguese food as a whole – lacks exciting and special characteristics to really make its dishes stand out, like the special colour of Mediterranean cuisine, the warmth and richness of Spanish dishes and the buttery richness of French cooking.
On the whole, Lisbon food is very simple and practical, reminding me very much of food back in Ireland, but with a strong emphasis on fish instead of beef and lamb. Traditional local dishes seem more functional than anything – sensible combinations of rice, vegetables and some form of protein that serves to keep you alive rather than excited.
It’s food for the belly rather than the soul.
Eating in Lisbon: Food to try
I know I’m not painting a terribly exciting picture, but there are a few local specialities that are worth trying when you visit.
Pasteis de Nata
Pasteis de Nata, Pasteis de Belém, Pastel de Belém; these custard tarts have a few different names but they all amount to the same thing – a pretty tasty snack. You’ll find pastels in most bakeries around Lisbon, but I recommend you shun them for the originals in Belém. Often, Pasteis de Belém will have a queue out on the street, but I promise it moves quite quickly and you’ll be glad you spent five minutes standing in line. This bakery has the original secret recipe and makes a mean custard tart nestled in filo pastry. Best when still warm, you can then top with a sprinkling of cinnamon or icing sugar.
Salted cod is popular here in Lisbon and locals can list 100 ways to prepare it just off the top of their head. Nearly every restaurant you visit will have a variation (or three) of the salty fish and it’s definitely worth trying. My personal favourite is the pastel de bacalhau, which is basically a cod croquette and is typically served as an appetiser or starter. Hot or cold, these bad boys are tasty.
Beans and rice
Ok, this one sounds a little dull, but trust me. Many restaurants will serve a rice-and-beans concoction as a side dish, with each kitchen putting their own personal spin on it. My favourite was at a restaurant called Zé dos Cornos – the place doesn’t look much from the outside, but the food is great and has a cool home-cooked vibe if you’re looking for a proper Portuguese experience. Anyway, this side dish was AMAZING and I ate it all (plus some of my companion’s) even though I was quite full. I skipped dessert so I could eat it – that’s how good it was!
In that same restaurant (seriously, this place is a local gem), my Portuguese friends recommended I tried ‘black pig’ skewers. I never got the Portuguese word for it, but that’s how they described it to me and explained that it was something you’d see in a number of Lisbon’s restaurants. Because I’m a digital nomad and trying to be sensible with money, I only eat out once a week and always try to get something new, so while I only ate it that one time, it was SUPER tasty and definitely worth ordering if you see it.
This is a cherry liquor that is very popular in the regime. It’s a little on the sweet side, so I couldn’t spend a whole night drinking it, but it’s nice after dinner or to start your night off. If it’s served right, it should come with a cherry in the bottom. You can also find places that serve it to you in chocolate cups – a little messy but very tasty.
TIP: Caldo Verde is a green soup that’s incredibly popular in Lisbon (and Portugal as a whole). I’ve had a few versions, but it’s a little bleak-and-bland for my liking. Fine as a starter, but don’t plan on making it your lunch.
Favourite place to eat in Lisbon
This is an easy one. While you’ll get a decent feed in most of Lisbon’s restaurants (once you avoid tourist traps), the best place to go is Mercado da Ribeira down beside the Cais de Sodré train station. Locals admit that it is a little touristy, BUT it’s an exception because it features stalls from some of the city’s best restaurants and chefs. Here, you’ll find something for everyone and get the best variety of Lisbon cuisine in one handy place. My friends loved it so much when the visited me for a long weekend that I had to bring them back a second time and I’ve been there numerous times myself, trying something very different every time I order.
Favourite place to grab a drink in Lisbon
If you want a big night out, Bairro Alto is the place to go for bar-hopping. Personally, I’m not one for crazy nights out and much prefer a quiet drink with friends somewhere we can chat and not have alcohol spilled on us. My favourite place for this isn’t where you’d expect.
There’s a theatre/acting school in the Alfama called Chapitô (which also trains clowns!) and this hidden gem has the best bar in the city. The place has a labyrinth feel to it and the drinking area is designed to look like a circus tent pitched in a fairy forest. There’s always something odd and exciting happening at this venue, but feel free to just enjoy a drink or meal.
Lisbon Brunch: What’s the deal?
It breaks my heart a little, but Lisbon doesn’t really have a brunch culture. Dublin LOVES brunch, as do I, so that was a little difficult for me, but I soldiered on through. *dramatic sigh*
I did find one restaurant with a brunch vibe and it’s a place I’ve visited a few times with friends and also alone because it’s the ideal location for anyone who wants to kill a couple of hours with a book, coffee and cake. The staff are very laidback, the décor is relaxing and the seating is very comfortable.
It’s called Pois Café and is on a quiet street around the corner from popular tourist stop, Sé Catedral de Lisboa on the 28 Tram route. It’s a local spot, not a tourist spot though and there happens to be a really nice Fado bar a little further down the street.
What about grocery shopping?
As a digital nomad, grocery shopping is my main food source. Minipreço are the local convenience stores and will usually serve your basic needs. Local bakeries and fruit & veg stores are also plentiful in most residential areas. Living in Graca, my personal favourite was Pingo Doce, which always had a ready supply of avocados and black tea (and tonnes of other things, but those were my priorities). Pingo Doce is bigger than Minipreço, boasts meat and fish counters, and tends to have a better selection if you want to do a full grocery shop.
If you want the ULTIMATE GROCERY SHOPPING EXPERIENCE, find yourself a Continente. It’s huge and I often popped into the one in Centro Comercial Colombo whenever I visited. Oh and in case you’re interested, Centro Comercial Colombo is one of Europe’s biggest shopping centres.
So there you have it – a rather broad view of eating in Lisbon for both tourists and nomads.