Lisbon is melancholy fado music, the philosophical poetry of Fernando Pessoa and intricately tiled buildings. But Lisbon’s nostalgic secrets can also be found in its flavors. The diverse tastes you’ll encounter in the Portuguese capital reflect a true melting pot of a nation; in fact, Lisbon labels itself as the City of Tolerance.
It’s also known as the city of seven hills, so you’re bound to get a good dose of exercise as you explore the sights. Although there are always funiculars or trams, like the historical #28, ready to huff and puff up the hills so that you don’t have to. You can even rent a Segway if you dare.
But after a long day of cobblestone underfoot and photo sessions in front of Pessoa statues, take a break to do like the locals do and linger over a tiny coffee at an esplanada, a small plaza that usually features a kiosk selling drinks and snacks.
What to eat in Lisbon: Cakes and coffee
One of the liveliest esplanadas is unquestionably the centrally located Praça Luis de Camoes, right by Pessoa’s famed haunt, Cafe Brasiliera, now a tourist haven. Quickly pick your way through the tight crowds surrounding the cafe and catch your breath up at the esplanada. Save a seat at one of the tables, and then hop over to the tidy little kiosk to order yourself a tiny Portuguese-style coffee, like a pingado (espresso with a drop of milk), meia de leite (similar to a cappuccino) or a basic bica, which, delightfully, comes with embedded instructions: “bica” is an acronym for bebe isto com açucar, or “drink it with sugar.”
Of course you can’t have a coffee without something sweet on the side and it would be a shame to leave Lisbon without tracking down the pastries at Sao Nicolau Cafeteria (Rua Augusta 110), whose tempting window displays will make you want to lick the window glass clean. Instead of just drooling, pop in and point at whatever tickles your fancy. Besides the rich and irresistible pastel de nata, the custard-filled king of Portuguese pastries, you may want to munch on a broa de mel, a heavy, honey-licious fruitcake-type treat or a bola de coco, a heaven of coconut flakes and custard.
What to eat in Lisbon: Snack time
But cafes and bakeries in Lisbon also cater to the savory side of snack time, so be on the look out for a fresh, hot pao de chouriço, chorizo and melted cheese tucked inside chewy, rustic bread. Or even better, when you see a sign for a “Snack Bar,” know that here you will encounter savory delights that should be tried with a dash of piri piri (local chili pepper) oil on the side to really heat up the experience.
For a petisco (snack) you won’t forget, ask for a rissol de camarão (shrimp croquette), ground beef samosa, a simple but juicy bifana (steak sandwich) or pastel de bacalhau (cod fish cake). Actually, bacalhau (cod fish) may as well be Portugal’s culinary mascot, since dried and salted cod has been used for centuries by the Portuguese and can often be seen—and smelled—along the market-filled streets. The salt is rinsed from the cod before its use in many traditional dishes, like bacalhau a bras, a hearty dish of cod, scrambled eggs and fried potato sticks.
Lisbonite Katrine Rypeng owns a food shop in the historical marketplace known as the Time Out Mercado da Ribeira (Av. 24 de Julho 49), where she sells, among other items, homemade pastel de bacalhau. “This is my favorite snack, preferably enjoyed with a glass of beer,” Rypeng says.
Indeed, you can wash down the greasy goodness of your snack with an imperial, which is a .2 liter beer on tap. Or, if you’re lucky, the bar will offer you a draft pour of vinho verde, a young, fizzy wine, literally meaning “green wine.”
But there’s another extremely popular snack that must be tried for an authentic Lisbon experience: caracois. Caracois, or snails, can be slurped up wherever you see this ubiquitous sign: “Ha caracois”, which means “We have snails.” The caracois are cooked whole in a deliciously fragrant broth of oregano and garlic and several other herbs. Feeling squeamish? Don’t worry—all you really taste is the broth.
Native Lisbonite Nuno Balsa says his absolute favorite snack is caracois and cold beer.
“It’s the best. If I’m having this snack, I know I’m surrounded by good friends and it’s summer time. The ones that people rave the most about are at Julio dos Caracois.” (Rua Vale Formoso de Cima 140 B)
What to eat in Lisbon: Cabo Verdean cuisine
The cuisine, like the city itself, reveals a blend of African and Indian flavors, inherited from the days of Portugal’s colonial empire. The African island nation of Cape Verde, known here as Cabo Verde, is strongly represented in the local restaurant (and music) scene.
Restaurant Sao Cristovao (Rua São Cristóvão 30) is a tiny, family-run eatery tucked away in the ethnically diverse Mouraria neighborhood and serves as an excellent introduction to the traditional flavors of Cabo Verde. You and your lucky companions will be presented with an enormous, steaming pot of cachupa rica, a traditional stew of beans, hominy and sometimes meat, served with a side of simple but tasty polenta. Let the owner persuade you into trying a shot of her homemade guava liquor, a richly sweet and thick amber-colored spirit. And if she’s in the right mood, you might even be honored by a Cabo Verdean folk song or two.
What to eat in Lisbon: Seafood
No matter which neighborhood you’re wandering through, Lisbon’s restaurant windows will often confront you with the toothy grin or wide glossy eye of freshly caught fish and seafood. When you’re ready to move on from snacking to some serious dining, you may have already realized that feasting on seafood is an obligation when you come to Lisbon.
In Alfama, the city’s oldest and most lively bairro (neighborhood), locals and tourists can be seen having happy, sunny lunches of codfish, fresh and wonderfully chewy octopus salad, or grilled sardines. Grilled sardines are an Alfama classic and can be smelled for miles during the festivities of Santo Antonio throughout the month of June. The sardines are usually prepared on a tiny charcoal grill placed out on Alfama’s skinny sidewalks, right at the feet of hungry passersby. No need for advertising—this is as good as it gets.
If you’re not ready for a fishy lunch, you can always indulge in the soup of the day. A couple popular options include caldo verde, a traditional, creamy kale soup with a big chunk of chouriço at the bottom, or feijoada, a comforting lentil stew.
Once it’s dinner time, seek out a seafood spot and order the arroz de marisco for a generous jumble of crab, mussels, clams, shrimp, prawns and maybe even some lobster in a beautiful tomato-rice base. The endless two-person pot is often served straight from stovetop to tabletop. Be sure to pair your seafood stew with a delicate bottle of vinho verde or vinho branco (white wine).
Sebastião Braga, a native Lisbonite and co-owner of cafe-bar A Viagem in Cais do Sodre, points out that “there are many marisqueiras (seafood restaurants) to be found along the less touristy Avenida Almirante Reis.”
If you’re interested in discovering a more modern twist on traditional dishes, Rypeng recommends Tasca da Esquina.
“I really like this restaurant of chef Vitor Sobral. He has reinterpreted the Portuguese cuisine. Try the tasting menu, which includes items like black pork ham, bacalhau, cabidela (chicken stew cooked in its own blood), octopus salad and the fish of the day.”
If you’re ever unsure of where to eat during your time in Lisbon, just do as the locals do and you’ll be in for an unforgettable culinary adventure in the City of White Light.
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