We moved to Lisbon in 2019. Now we’re sharing our top tips for eating in Portugal. These tips will help you eat well during your trip and focus on more important things… like wine.
You bought the plane ticket and planned your Portugal itinerary. But have you thought about eating in Portugal during your vacation? If so, great. If not, the time to start is now.
Most people aren’t familiar with Portuguese food like they are with Italian, Japanese and even Spanish food. (While Spain and Portugal food have their commonalities and close geography, there are definitive differences between the two cuisines.) And, as we all know, eating local food is one of the best things to do while traveling.
Dive into Portuguese food with a food tour.
Since moving to Lisbon, we’ve learned how to eat like Portuguese locals. We often cook at home but we eat out frequently too. Both have their challenges and rewards.
Despite what you may have read elsewhere, there’s such a thing as bad Portuguese food. While food is one of our favorite aspects of living in Portugal, not everything we eat is great here. The key is to know what to look for, and more importantly, what to avoid.
Discover our Portuguese food favorites.
Eating In Portugal – 14 Do’s
Eating in Portugal can be either wonderful or disappointing depending on what and where you eat. It also depends on how you eat.
We’ve eaten a lot of Portuguese food since we moved to the Iberian country in 2019 and we’ve learned more than a few things along the way. These are our top tips on how to eat well whether you’re planning a trip for a few days, a few weeks or even longer:
1. Learn A Few Key Portuguese Phrases
Learning the Portuguese language, a latin-based idiom filled with phonic challenges, is a worthwhile project that takes both time and effort. Luckily for travelers, most Portuguese people speak English at either a basic or advanced level. This is especially the case with those who work in the hospitality industry.
That being said, while mastering Portuguese isn’t feasible in a couple weeks or months, it’s certainly possible to learn some key phrases to use at restaurants. Here are a few to get you started:
You will find the following word translations helpful as well:
Check out Practice Portuguese if you want learn Portuguese in a meaningful way. It’s the best way to learn the European language regardless of where you’re located in the world.
2. Make Restaurant Reservations
We get the desire to be spontaneous while on vacation. Making plans is something we expect to do while working, not playing.
However, after decades of travel, we also know that better European restaurants require reservations, particularly on weekends and during busy travel seasons. Portugal is no exception to this rule especially in Lisbon and Porto.
Don’t expect to walk into a restaurant that told you it’s “full”. When a Portuguese restaurant is full, it’s really full.
To be clear: You should make reservations at restaurants where you really want to eat in Portugal. Otherwise, you may end up eating at McDonald’s, Burger King or a local kebab shop. And, FYI, those two American fast food chains are far better in their homeland.
It’s not too soon to make reservations at Portugal’s 37 Michelin-starred restaurants. Most take online reservations or you can also call. We recommend using a Skype account for international calls. It’s an inexpensive way to call restaurants directly if you don’t have international phone service.
3. Start Your Mornings With A Pastel de Nata
We still remember the first time we ate our first pastel de nata breakfast in Portugal. We felt like we discovered something really special. But, as it turns out, we weren’t unique. It’s something that all tourists do whether they’re in Porto or on an island in the Azores. However, the smartest tourists do this in Belém where Portugal’s signature pastry was invented by crafty clergy in the 18th century.
You won’t have any problem finding a pastel de nata in Portugal. Not only are the sweet, creamy, yolky tarts in bakeries (pastelarias) in every Portuguese city, but they’re also at cafes, hotels and even airports. Eat many to find your favorite. You’ll be walking and traversing endless hills during your trip which will help negate the calories.
Discover our favorite pastel de nata shops in Lisbon.
4. Order Locally And With The Season
Eating local, seasonal food isn’t just good for Portugal’s environment. It’s also good for the taste buds.
Seasonal eating in Porgugal goes beyond munching on fruits and vegetables. We love eating sardines (sardinha) in June and July as well as snails (caracóis) in May. You won’t have to look hard to find either – both are spring and summer staples at neighborhood restaurants (tascas) throughout the country.
From a local perspective, we’re talking about eating limpets (lapas) and bananas (bananas) in Madeira where both abound. While you’ll want to eat limpets covered in garlic butter, Madeira bananas, which we believe to be the best in the world, are great on their own.
And, of course, you’ll want to eat tripas à moda do Porto in its home city of Porto unless you’re not into eating offals. However, the dish is a must for adventurous diners to try at least once.
Attend the annual Lisbon sardine festival honoring St. Anthony if your Portugal trip is in June. The city becomes a ginormous sardine restaurant during the festival which has to be experienced to be believed.
5. Dine At Neighborhood Tascas
Tascas aren’t fancy and their menus typically feature hearty dishes served with two different carbs. They’re the kind of places where tablecloths are made of paper, wine is served in jugs and walls are adorned with quirky memorabilia. And, yet, tascas are some of the best places to eat Portuguese food in Portugal.
Typical tasca dishes include salt cod (bacalhau) boiled meat (cozido) which is the Portuguese version of France’s pot au feu and grilled fish. We often order Iberian black pork (porco preto) and octopus rice (arroz de polvo) when we chow down at tascas in Lisbon. We also order sparkling water (água com gás) and wine (vinho) to wash the food down.
Check out the tasca‘s daily special (prato do dia) before you place your order.
6. Order The Prato Do Dia
Cheap eats fans will love this tip which involves ordering the prato do dia at tascas. Often handwritten on the menu or a blackboard, these daily specials are wonderful values that are big in size but small in price. Sometimes, they’re even big enough to share.
Some pratos do dia are multi-course affairs which include soup, wine and dessert. Others are just a big plate of food. Either way, they’re typically filling meals that will take you all the way to dinner.
Some pratos do dia are served on specific days of the week.
7. Carry Cash
We like to pay our restaurant bills with credit cards unless it’s not possible. That’s when it’s clutch to have a Portuguese debit card or cash. Since most tourists don’t have Portuguese debit cards, carrying cash is probably your best option.
You won’t need a lot of cash. You’ll just need enough to cover your check if a restaurant doesn’t take credit cards or if a credit card machine is suddenly not working. Yes, that happens every once in a while.
Interestingly, we’ve noticed more-cash only establishments in the Algarve compared to big cities like Lisbon and Porto. We don’t know why but it’s good to know.
Choose euros when given the choice between paying your credit card with euros or dollars. You’ll likely be charged an unfavorable exchange rate if you don’t follow this pro tip.
8. Eat All The Sandwiches
Many countries have a signature sandwich. Portugal isn’t one of those countries. Instead, Portugal has multiple sandwiches in its culinary coffer.
The bifana, braised pork slices on a roll, is probably the easiest sandwich to find in Portugal but it’s not the most famous. That honor goes to the francesinha, a monster of an open-faced sandwich that’s filled with steak, ham, chourićo and sausage before it’s covered with melted cheese, tangy tomato sauce and a fried egg.
Other popular Portuguese sandwiches include the medium rare, sliced steak sandwich called prego, the pressed, grilled hot dog called cachorrinho and the pernil com queijo which pairs slow-cooked pork leg meat with ooey-gooey Serra da Estrela cheese. Just thinking about these sandwiches makes us hungry.
9. Embrace Eggs
Eggs are ubiquitous in Portuguese food.
They’re in savory dishes like bacalhau à brás, the iconic salt cod dish made with potatoes, and they’re served on top of steak (commonly referred to as a cavalo or on horseback). However, eggs take center stage when it comes to Portuguese desserts.
We can’t over-emphasize the prevalence of eggs in Portuguese desserts. But why?
It all goes back centuries when egg whites were used to starch habits for the country’s many nuns. To avoid waste, the leftover egg yolks were added to a myriad of pastries known as conventual sweets.
The pastel de nata may be the the most famous conventual sweet but it’s not the only one. You won’t want to miss tasting ovos moles, a dessert so eggy that its name translates to soft eggs. Though its roots are in Aveiro, people eat ovos moles throughout Portugal.
Aveiro isn’t just famous for its ovos moles pastries. It’s also famous for colorful boats (barcos moliceiros) that sail on its canals.
10. Love The ‘Pus
True story – We have friends who visited Portugal and ate octopus every day for two weeks. That, in a nutshell, is how strong Portugal’s octopus game is. And no Portuguese octopus dish is more popular than polvo à lagareiro.
Nothing short of a show stopper, polvo à lagareiro consists of large roasted tentacles atop a bed of roasted potatoes. Beyond octopus (polvo), potatoes (batatas) and olive oil (lagareiro), the dish’s other ingredients include onion, garlic, bay leaves and salt.
Don’t just eat polvo à lagareiro in Portugal. You can also eat octopus that’s grilled, in salads and mixed with rice (arroz de polvo). We recommend trying them all.
11. Try Salt Cod And Tinned Fish
We get the temptation to eat fresh seafood in Portugal. It’s a no-brainer for Americans who can’t get enough octopus (see above) as well as shrimp, mussels, clams and crabs.
But fresh seafood isn’t the only seafood to eat in Portugal. You also need to try salt cod (bacalhau) and tinned fish (conservas). Ironically, these two Portuguese specialties are local favorites despite the country’s abundance of fresh seafood.
Bacalhau has been an integral part of the Portuguese diet for centuries, dating back to the days before refrigeration was a thing. While those days are over, Portuguese people still have a thing for salt cod as well as for preserved fish stored in tins.
Sardines (sardinhas) are the most popular tinned fish in Portugal. Other conserva options include tuna (atum), mackerel (cavala) and codfish (bacalhau).
Buy colorful fish tins as edible souvenirs of your time in Portugal.
12. Spice Things Up With Piri Piri Sauce
Most Portuguese food, as is the case with most food in Europe, isn’t spicy (or picante as they say in Portuguese). There are some exceptions but those usually involve global cuisines like Indian or Sichuan Chinese food. The takeaway is to request piri piri sauce when you dine at tascas and other casual eateries in Portugal.
With roots in Africa, piri piri sauce has a long history that involves Portuguese explorers who traversed the world and Mozambican immigrants who brought the spicy sauce along for the ride. While chili peppers originated in the Americas, it’s unclear whether it was the Portuguese or Spanish who originally brought them to Africa.
We first encountered piri piri hot sauce in Cape Town where Portuguese food is popular. Apparently, it’s also available at Nando’s which isn’t a surprise since Nando’s is a South African restaurant chain.
Piri Piri translates to Pepper Pepper in Swahili.
13. Drink Wine At (Almost) Every Meal
A meal without wine in Portugal has a name and that name is breakfast. We’re kidding, sort of. That’s how popular and cheap wine is in Portugal. But, make no mistake, Portuguese wine is a pleasure to sip both with food and on its own.
You may have encountered Vinho Verde outside of Portugal but that green wine produced from Alvarinho grapes is far from the only Portuguese wine varietal. The country has 14 distinct wine regions including the Algarve in the south, Alentejo in the east and Douro, Dão and Minho in the north.
While you can order a cheap pitcher of house wine during lunch at a tasca, you’ll want to dive deeper into Portuguese viticulture by ‘splurging’ on a bottle from one of Portugal’s 14 wine regions at dinner. If you have two weeks, you can hypothetically try them all.
14. Save Room For Dessert
We saved our sweetest ‘do’ for last as is often the case with dessert (sobremesa). However, we won’t judge you if you eat desserts all day long in Portugal. It would certainly be easy to do considering the vast number of pastelerias in the country.
Plus, since egg yolk is a key ingredient in many Portuguese desserts and pastries, you could argue that Portuguese desserts count as protein. Your argument would be a stretch considering the vast amounts of sugar in Portuguese sweet treats. However, we’d commend you for your effort.
Discover our favorite Portuguese desserts.
Eating in Portugal – 8 Don’t’s
Now that you know our top tips regarding how to eat in Portugal, it’s time to learn our top tips for how not to eat in Portugal. In some ways, the following tips are our most important tips starting with an explanation of Portugal’s tipping protocol:
1. Don’t Feel Compelled To Leave A Tip
We get that Americans are accustomed to tipping. It’s part of America’s restaurant culture and is an absolute must from sea to shining sea. However, in case you didn’t get the memo, Portugal is in Europe, not America.
Unlike American servers, Portuguese employees are paid a higher base wage and receive other government benefits like universal healthcare and college tuition. This means, unlike in the USA, restaurant guests don’t pay the bulk of a server’s salary. Accordingly, tipping is not customary with Portuguese people or with European nationals like the Germans, Swedes, Dutch and Swiss.
However, there’s nothing wrong with leaving a little something extra in recognition of excellent service. We recommend leaving a couple euros or rounding the bill up to the nearest 0 or 5. There’s no need to leave a 20% tip in Portugal. There’s also no need to feel pressure when servers flat-out ask for tips after hearing your American accent. It’s fairly well known among European restaurant workers that Americans love to tip generously wherever they travel.
Don’t look for a tip line on Portuguese restaurant bills. It’s typically not included since tipping is not customary in Portugal.
2. Don’t Assume Starters On The Table Are Free
Portuguese restaurant workers are friendly folks who greet guests with smiles and keep the wine flowing. However, don’t overestimate this friendliness when it comes to starters (couvert) that magically appear on most restaurant tables.
Portuguese starters aren’t free. While they’re not usually expensive, there’s typically a cost for each pad of butter (manteiga), piece of bread (pão) and bowl of olives (azeitonas). You’ll want to approach items like cheese (queijo) and dried ham (enchidos) with extra caution as they can be pricey.
It’s perfectly acceptable to ask the price of the starters that appear on your table if you didn’t order them. It’s also perfectly acceptable to send some or all of them back. It’s comes down to your budget and hunger level.
3. Don’t Order Tap Water At Restaurants
Portugal is a free country and you certainly can order tap water at restaurants. But should you?
Ordering water by the bottle seems to be a long-running trend all over Europe as well as in other parts of the world. But wait, you say: “Does that mean the tap water in Portugal is bad for you?” No! As a member of the European Union, Portugal is required to offer its citizens clean, treated drinking water.
We’re unsure how the trend of ordering bottled water in European restaurants became the acceptable behavior standard. It may have been born of a desire to increase profit margins or maybe the beverage industry marketed bottled water more effectively in Europe. Whatever the case, it’s considered normal to order and drink bottled water in European countries like Portugal.
Specify if you want sparkling (com gás) or still (natural) when you order water at Portuguese restaurants. We prefer sparkling water since that’s how we roll but there’s no bad choice between the two.
Feel free to order tap water if that’s your preference. Be aware that you may get a funny look in addition to the requested tap water.
4. Don’t Fear The Francesinha
We often describe Porto’s francesinha as a heart attack on a plate. It’s the kind of sandwich that you don’t want to eat too often considering its ingredients which include steak, ham, chourićo, sausage, cheese, tomato sauce and a fried egg. And that’s not counting the fried potatoes that complete the dish.
We also describe the francesinha as delicious because that’s also what it is. It’s usually big enough to share and, unlike most sandwiches, requires utensils.
Discover more special sandwiches to eat around the world.
5. Don’t Confuse Squid And Cuttlefish
Squid and cuttlefish are cephalopods with tentacles and large heads. Both, when cleaned and prepared, make for an excellent fried feast. But it would be a mistake to confuse the two as the same.
Squid (lulas) are comparatively small when compared to their cuttlefish cousins. They can be stuffed or chopped up and served in rice dishes. The Portuguese also like to eat squid in cans.
Cuttlefish (choco) has become a food favorite in Portugal especially when its fried. You’ll find cuttlefish that are as large as a basketball or even larger in the Setúbal region, just across the Tejo from Lisbon. Locals like eating choco frito, large thick strips of cuttlefish, breaded with a thin coating and fried golden brown.
We’ve also eaten uncleaned grilled cuttlefish, which can be served with the ink sack and bones still intact. The cuttlebone, a large, hard, oval shaped bone which helps the fish float, is one of nature’s curiosities.
The ink from cuttlefish is used to color and flavor all manner of Mediterranean dishes. It’s also something you’ll want to keep away from your shirt.
6. Don’t Assume That Caldo Verde Is Vegetarian
Vegetarians may be delighted at the thought of caldo verde, Portugal’s popular kale soup that literally translates to green broth. However, most bowls of caldo verde come with a slice or two of chouriço.
While we appreciate the smokey flavor that the chouriço provides, we get that vegetarians won’t feel the same way. The same applies to people who follow a kosher diet.
Discover more of the best soups in the world.
7. Don’t Say No To After-Dinner Drinks
Dessert isn’t the only sweet option at Portuguese restaurants. The other option is liquid and comes in small glasses.
You may assume that we’re talking about port wine and you would be partially correct. However, port wine isn’t the only fortified wine produced in Portugal. If you stick with port wine, you’ll miss out on Madeira’s excellent fortified wine as well as wonderful fortified moscatel produced in the Setúbal region near Lisbon.
Other sweet Portuguese after-dinner drinks include ginjinha, a cherry liqueur produced in Óbidos and amarguinhua, an almond liqueur produced in the Algarve. Both are fine meal enders, especially when they magically appear on the table.
Unlike unrequested starters, unrequested after-dinner drinks are typically complimentary. However, feel free to confirm this if you’re on a budget. Note that you’ll need to order and pay for better glasses of port, madeira and moscatel.
8. Don’t Rush
Most Portuguese meals are leisurely affairs involving multiple courses and a glass of wine or two or three. Servers don’t rush patrons out the door, partly since that’s against the country’s culinary culture and partly because they’re not working for tips.
Use this situation to your advantage. Put away your phone and/or laptop. Eat slowly. Savor every sip. It may seem weird at first but you’ll quickly appreciate the simple pleasure of relaxing while you dine.
Let your server know if you’re in a rush. You may even want to request the bill when your food arrives if you’re dining with young children.
Eating In Portugal FAQs
Yes, food in Portugal is good. The cuisine features fresh seafood, local products, sweet desserts and wonderful wine.
Bacalhau, i.e. salt cod, is the most popular Portuguese food. It’s served in various ways, many of which involve potatoes.
The pastel de nata is the most popular dessert in Portugal. It’s basically a cream tart baked with plenty of sugar and egg yolk.
No. Tipping in Portugal is appreciated but not compulsory.
Hungry For More In Portugal?
About The Authors
Daryl & Mindi Hirsch
Saveur Magazine’s BEST TRAVEL BLOG award winners Daryl and Mindi Hirsch share their culinary travel experiences and recipes on their website 2foodtrippers. Since launching the site in 2012, they’ve traveled to over 40 countries in their quest to bring readers a unique taste of the world.
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Original Publication Date: March 20, 2023