When we planned our honeymoon in Portugal, we mostly selected the destination based on the drinks (i.e., port wine). What can I say? We’re easy to please.
What really sealed the deal, though, was that Portugal is a phenomenal destination for eating. Portugal has some of the best food we’ve had, and certainly the best food we had on our 3-week Europe trip (forgive me, Italy—our restaurant selections were not on point).
While just about anything you choose to eat in Portugal is likely going to be delicious, I wanted to provide a jumping-off point so you know what foods are absolutely must-eat in Portugal. Of course, eat whatever sounds good to you, but you’ll be remiss if you leave the country without trying:
Bacalhau (Salted Cod)
Salted Cod is the national dish of Portugal, so of course it qualifies as a must-eat food in Portugal. The salt is traditionally used to preserve the cod which is fished in Norway, Iceland, or Newfoundland, since the waters around Portugal are overfished.
Bacalhau is a traditional part of Christmas dinner and Easter dinner, so be aware that prices on salted cod may rise around these parts of the year. And, of course, the fish is well-preserved, so if you happen to need a cod for these holidays, it’s smart to buy it in advance.
There are literally hundreds of preparations for salted cod, and everywhere you go, you’ll find a different one. We had cod that was more of a fillet, cod that was shredded up, cod with breadcrumbs, cod with veggies, and on and on.
Despite the name, salted cod doesn’t have a salty flavor. While, yes, it is preserved in salt, they soak the cod in water for 24 hours to remove the salt, so you just end up with a cod flavor, not saltiness (though I probably wouldn’t mind—I’m a salt fiend).
We enjoyed amazing cod in both Porto and Lisbon. In Porto, try the cod at Cantina 32 (€€ & I suggest you make a reservation). In Lisbon, check out Tapisco in Principe Real (€€) or Frade dos Mares (€€€ & by reservation only).
Octopus can be a subject of contention. My mother once read that octopi are very smart creatures, so now she doesn’t like to eat them. My argument is that if you’re going to eat one kind of animal (or fish), you’re already eating a living thing, so get over it and enjoy the food. (Or stop eating animals altogether, of course.)
I also happen to love octopus, whether or not they happen to be intelligent creatures. Lucky for me, so does Portugal. Most of the octopus we saw was served either in octopus salad, or in the style of Polvo à Lagareiro.
Polvo à Lagareiro is just octopus that is grilled or roasted, drizzled with olive oil, and served with potatoes. Of course, different restaurants will have different interpretations, though generally the octopus really shines with just the addition of some garlic, onion, and coriander on this dish.
My favorite octopus that we had was at the Time Out Market in Lisbon (€). One stand, Sea Me, was offering a “hotdog de polvo.” I was so excited to try it, but they told me they were out of them.
Then, a woman next to me ordered octopus. I asked, and it turned out they were just out of the buns, so they made me a bunless version, and it was wonderful, in the traditional grilled style but with a slightly spicy sauce and served on a bed of greens.
Headed to Porto? The octopus at Cantina 32 (€€) is completely amazing as well!
You’ll see sardines absolutely everywhere in Portugal. All of the tourist shops sell things with sardines on them and you can buy tins of sardines everywhere. We brought home a little painted sardine as a souvenir.
It makes sense—Portugal loves sardines. Once a food of the poor, sardines have now become celebrated as something quintessentially Portuguese. And of course, they’ve become a must-eat food. Artists create colorful versions of the bony fish, and they are served grilled or fried at all kinds of local festivals.
Personally, I wasn’t into the fried sardines we tried. They were just too bony and salty for me, but I’m glad I tried them! You can find sardines just about anywhere, but I won’t recommend a specific place for sardines because we only ate them once, at a random stand on the street.
Pastel de Nata
Sardines may not have been my jam, but pastel de nata absolutely was—I was crazy about it and we had them every day in Lisbon. I’d say that qualifies them as a must-eat food in Portugal, if only because that means you can eat them in my honor. (Just don’t rub it in.)
These are yummy little egg tarts that have a crust made of the same dough as croissants, filled with a sweet custard filling. They are bruleed, so the top gets brown, but they’re creamy, not crispy.
As the instructor for our cooking class told us, this is what all the fat kids (his words not mine!) buy on the way to school each morning with a euro from mom and dad. I say, I wouldn’t mind being a fat kid if I got to eat custard tarts every day.
After you buy them, you can top them with more sugar or some cinnamon, but I would suggest tasting them on their own first. For me, they were plenty sweet enough without added sugar, but I liked the cinnamon on top for a little added flavor.
In Lisbon, be sure to get pastel de nata at Manteigaria (€). There is also a Manteigaria in the Time Out Market, so you don’t have to make another trip if you’re headed there. If you go to the store, you can watch the bakers churn out these pastries from behind glass while you eat yours and sip a coffee.
Unfortunately, I think these are more of a Lisbon thing because we didn’t see pastel de nata as much in the north, outside of our hotel breakfast buffet. I’m sure you can find them, though! If you’ve had great pastel de nata in Porto, tell me in the comments where you got them!
Not to worry, Porto-goers! Porto has wonderful food as well, and the francesinha is one such item. Porto has a lot of cured ham, sausage, pork, etc., and we joked that it seemed like pork was a vegetable in Porto, and we of course ate lots of salads. 😉
Francesinha is a sandwich with layers of ham, sausage, steak or roasted meat, and bread. Then, it is covered in cheese and a thick tomato or beer sauce, and you can also get it with an egg on top. Needless to say, this is not health food, but it is delicious!
Seek out your francesinha at Cafe Santiago in Porto (€).
I have no idea why chocolate mousse is such a thing in Portugal (I guess it’s just popular!), but they have it everywhere. No complaints here!
Nearly every restaurant at which we saw the dessert menu featured chocolate mousse, and the ones we ordered were deliciously rich, creamy, and fluffy all at once. So, be sure to try chocolate mousse somewhere in Portugal.
Again, I don’t have a specific suggestion because it was pretty much everywhere.
Must-Eat Foods in Portugal
I hope I’ve given you an idea of some of the foods you might enjoy in Portugal. Of course, this is by no means an exhaustive list—instead, I hope you see it as a starting point for your foodie adventures in Portuguese cuisine.
If our experience is any guide (and I like to think it is), you can’t go wrong as long and you’re eating in Portugal!
Have you been to Portugal? Tell me your favorite foods you ate there in the comments!
P.S. Love to eat? Check out my Cheese Guide to NYC!