Tucked away near the mouth of the Targus river, Western Europe’s oldest city offers visitors an experience like no other in Europe. Just try to liken it to Europe’s more ‘European’ cities like Madrid or Vienna, or to the more International locations like Barcelona or Paris and you’ll be hard-pressed to make your case. Certainly, you’ll find a lot of overlap on restaurant menus with the food of its distant Mediterranean cousin, and the grand plazas and vistas rival many other European cities. But this is a fully Portuguese town. A city with a feel that is all its own.
Readers should know up front to bring comfortable shoes because the terrain is comprised of steep hills. In fact, certain streets in the city aren’t car accessible at all but are comprised of a series of steps with businesses on each side. On the Calçada do Duque for instance, visitors can climb the steep steps, resting on each small plateau for a glass of wine or a nibble before continuing up the next flight. If you choose this route you may just be a little full and slightly intoxicated when you make it to the Bairro Alto (the neighborhood above) at the top, though you’ll be far less winded than if you take the stairs all at once.
The people of Lisbon are a friendly, but no-nonsense bunch. You get a sense that they are just getting used to this tourist destination thing. The inhabitants of this lovely city have a vibe that ranges from edgy to weathered. In any given square you’re as likely to see pierced and tattooed youth sharing a glass of wine as you are weathered older folk sipping beers and telling stories. And shares the traits of its people, from its creaky old tram cars covered in gravity to the stately old buildings also heavily decorated in spray paint lying quietly under beautiful bright orange roofs.
Unlike some of its bigger European counterparts, Lisbon isn’t chock full of famous landmarks and museums. In fact, visitors often leave the city proper and venture further out of town to get the full experience. This fact works in the favor of a traveling foodie who loves to wander city streets and taste their way through a new locale without the pressure to sightsee.
At first glance, Lisbon’s culinary offering appears to be decidedly Mediterranean. You’ll find many dishes similar to those along the sea coast of Spain — Paella, fried squid, salt cod and chorizo abound. But look a bit closer and you’ll find the dishes and styles that set Portuguese food apart.
One immediately noticeable difference is the type of fish you’ll find. Its location on the Atlantic Coast means that the markets and local restaurants are teeming with fish found less frequently on the Mediterranean — tuna, mackerel, hake, sardines, and cockles are all very popular here. The Portuguese pride themselves on the seafood that they produce. And no fish is more sacred than the salt cod or ‘Bacalhau.’ This salt-cured fish has been a staple of the Portuguese diet for centuries upon centuries and has spread far and wide to Scandinavia and North America. Don’t be turned off by the name, however. The fish isn’t as salty as it sounds — at least not if prepared properly.
The perfect way for a first timer to try it is in fritter or ‘Buñuelo’ form. Shredded portions of the fish are mixed with mashed potato, rolled in bread crumbs and fried to crispy, salty perfection. They pair quite well with a cold beer or glass of Vino Verde, the crisp white wine from the north of Portugal. But don’t stop with the fritter. Wherever you find Bacalhau on a menu, try it —poached, pan seared or battered and fried ala fish and chips. You’ll be glad you got past the name.
Another popular seafood dish is clams served in the Bulhão Pato style. Named after an acclaimed Portuguese poet who was known for his love of gastronomy, the simple preparation of this dish belies the sublime flavors it produces. Fresh local clams that burst with the flavor or the sea are cooked in white wine, olive oil, garlic, and cilantro. The cilantro not only flavors the broth but becomes a meltingly tender green. The dish is served with crunchy bread for sopping up the broth. Let yourself eat the whole basket, or until the broth is gone — whichever comes first.
In addition to seafood, the denizens of Lisbon treasure their meat sandwiches. Two of the most popular are the Bifana and the Prego. Both these hearty sandwiches offer a delectable food experience, but their ingredients and the way they are eaten are very different.
The Prego sandwich is so called because it is eaten as a dessert. That’s right — after a meal of cockles, prawns and salt cod, it’s traditional to enjoy a sandwich of thinly sliced sirloin cooked with garlic, onions and red wine served on crusty bread. The most famous just might be at Cervejeria Romiro the popular food hall known for its excellent seafood as well as the exceptional Prego.
The Bifana, on the other hand, is typically the star of a meal. Slowroasted cutlets of pork are served on a chewy Portuguese roll. Diners can add cheese (recommended) and top the piles of meat with yellow mustard that is no slouch in the condiment department. It may look like a run of the mill supermarket product, but this tasty, slightly sweet sauce bears little resemblance to its American counterpart. Choose to add a dash of hot sauce or chili oil and this simple sandwich will transport you to heaven. Two spots are well known for their Bifana. Both are institutions popular with locals and have served generations of Lisbonites. Casas das Bifanas near Rossio square features a bun that is similar to a whole wheat product. And while they tend to add just a bit more meat to the sandwich, the sandwich a few blocks away at O Trevo can’t be beat for flavor. Both locations can be recommended, and any visitor with the time is encouraged to try both and judge for themselves. But if your schedule only allows for one, head straight to O Trevo and don’t look back.
The last national treasure to address is the dessert the Portuguese are most proud of — The Pastel de Nata. Don’t let the name fool you. This ‘Christmas Pastry’ is enjoyed year round and can be found in every bakery you stumble across. A stop at Manteigaria in Bairro Chiado is essential in the hunt for the National Dessert.
The little tarts contain custard filling with a lightly browned top similar to Creme Brûlée, but lightly spiked with cinnamon and citrus. The pastry itself is more akin to a croissant than pie crust. To test this fact, take the Pastel between your thumb and forefinger and squeeze lightly. The crust doesn’t crumble but instead flexes with an audible crunch that is music to the ears of a dessert lover. Many of these shops lay claim to the ‘best in Lisbon,’ but Manteigeria just might be justified in that declaration. But don’t take this writer’s word, visitors are encouraged to try several different bakeries per day — just to be certain.
Lisbon’s culinary scene isn’t limited to Portuguese tradition. A new generation of chefs is taking the mantle and using local ingredients to create delicious, modern cuisine that still echoes the soul of Portugal.
Perhaps the most renowned of them is Jose Avillez, the award-winning chef-owner of several Lisbon restaurants. The latest project from this Michelin-starred master is Bairro do Avillez. The concept contains four distinct restaurants — Taberna, a relaxed, vibrant dining room with a creative menu full of shareable dishes; Páteo, a high-end restaurant where seafood is king and the prices are just a bit higher; and Cantina Peruana, a contemporary Peruvian restaurant.
Settle in at Taberna and sample dishes across the menu such as the Portuguese Cozido pie — similar to an empanada and bursting with flavor from the combination of pork cheek and belly combined with a bevy of vegetables described by one server as a whole traditional Portuguese meal condensed into a tiny pastry. Don’t miss the Spicy Horse Mackerel Cone wrapped in seaweed and topped with pickles and smoked mayonnaise, a delicious nod to a sushi bar standard. Move on to the Crispy Cod Alfacinha, a piece of deliciously fried cod wrapped in a lettuce leaf and topped with garlic mayo and spicy tomato sauce that can best be described as Patatas Bravas prepared with fish and made into a lettuce wrap. Order a few because this is one of the stars of this amazing menu.
Another chef who is doing incredible work with modern cuisine, though so far with less notoriety than Avillez is Rui Rebelo at Oficina do Duque. This cozy restaurant with a chic modern decor has a fresh menu that will surprise with twists on more classic dishes like Confit of Lamb with couscous and mint sorbet, Cuddlefish Sliders on squid ink buns and Braised Oxtail with pear puree and yellow split peas. The beautiful menu at Oficina is perfect for sharing or enjoying an entree on your own with one of the Portuguese wines on the list.
Avillez and Rebelo’s chef-driven concepts are just two examples of a culinary scene that is blossoming with possibility in Lisbon. The city is not only coming into its own as a tourist destination but as a foodie’s dream.
Tram Ride & Alfama Tour
A quintessentially Lisbon experience is riding a cable car called a ‘tram.’ A beautiful afternoon can be had by taking the Number 28 line up to the top of the mount that contains the centuries-old São Jorge Castle. You’ll be afforded incredible views of the city. Be forewarned that in true Lisbon spirit, the tram may be replaced on any given day with a modern air-conditioned bus for no apparent reason. If you’re in the mood for a bit of history, the building and the grounds are open for tours. Otherwise, hop off the tram at the top of the mount and head to the south side where the old town of Alfama sits.
Alfama mostly survived the 1755 earthquake that destroyed much of Lisbon. This charming neighborhood is quieter than the city center and is dotted with shops and restaurants. As you wander the streets opportunities present themselves left and right to stop for lunch and a glass of Portuguese wine, nibble on a pastel and or appetizer hop as you wind your way down. At the bottom, busses can be caught that will whisk you back to the city center.
Tucked away on a quiet street almost at the bottom of the mount is a quaint restaurant named Mestre André. With only four tables perched out front, you may have to wait a bit to be seated, but you can always put your name in and enjoy a glass of wine inside or at the restaurant bar next door. Fresh seafood abounds on the menu of this hidden gem including their incredible Codfish Cakes (a Lisbon staple) with lime aioli, Bruschetta with tomatoes and sardines, and the ever-popular Clams Bulhão Pato.
Chiado/Bairro Alto Walk & Calçada do Duque
A great way to spend a day is to start with lunch at the aforementioned O Trevo for a Bifana and a beer. After filing yourself to satisfaction, stroll a block up the street for a fresh, warm Pastel de Nada and espresso at Manteigeria, then walk off your feast by taking the Chiado streets behind O Trevo up to the Bairro Alto. This neighborhood is a bit quieter than the bustling Chiado and filled with parks and stately buildings. Stop to take in the amazing view at the tiny park known as Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcanara. This overlook provides some of the most stunning views of Lisbon from the river to the castle and beyond. Settle in for a glass of wine at the little kiosk cafe, take a deep breath and soak in the beautiful vista.
After resting your weary legs, head a block down to the top of Calçada do Duque and work your way down the previously mentioned steps. It should be almost happy hour by this time, so allow yourself the luxury of stopping into the Little Wine Bar where the owner knows his Portuguese wine regions as well as he does Portuguese food. He’ll happily help you taste wines from all over the country, a lesson that anyone wine lover will appreciate. As you sip and learn, indulge in some light bites such as the huge prawns braised in garlic and oil or the impressive flambéed chorizo. It’s not only a great way to spend a few hours but after all the hills you’ve walked, you just might be glad to be working your way down the steps instead of up.
Lisbon is a city with a rich food history rooted in a love of seafood and filled with culinary treasures and surprises. Sure you may not find a lot of famous landmarks to visit, but you’ll be reminiscing about the flavors you experienced for days if not weeks after leaving this lovely Atlantic gem.