Lisbon on a Plate

Freshly grilled octopus at Restaurante Leao d’Ouro in Lisbon

By Sharon Hudgins
Photos by the author

Some people travel to climb mountains, swim in the sea, lie on beaches or devour museums. While I’m partial to mountains and museums, I really travel to eat. One of the delights of visiting a new place is discovering its cuisine—from restaurants to home cooking, from street stands to picnic fare, from little food shops to bustling open-air markets that assault your eyes with bright colors and tickle your nose with unexpected aromas.

Pastries of Lisbon
King’s cakes and custard tarts at Confeitaria Nacional

Although Spanish food gets all the limelight these days, the cuisine of next-door Portugal is well worth exploring, too. It’s not just a variation on Spanish cooking, but a different cuisine on its own, influenced by Portugal’s history, geography and religions. And the best place to begin your culinary journey of discovery is in the capital city, Lisbon.

Shopping at the Mercado de Ribeira

Seafood is supreme in this seafaring country, from fresh sardines and salt cod to octopus and clams. At the Mercado da Ribeira, the largest of several covered food markets in the city, you’re likely to see fish and shellfish that you never dreamed existed. The market also has large sections featuring fruits, vegetables, freshly slaughtered meat and preserved meat products such as sausages and hams. Go early on Saturday mornings for the liveliest action. By noon the vendors are already packing up their wares.

Lisbon clams Lisbon olives
Roasted chestnuts are a popular street food in Portugal (left); herbed olives and country bread often accompany meals.

The best way to discover Lisbon’s culinary treasures is to wander through the different districts into which the city is divided, concentrating on one district at a time. In the Baixa commercial district, on the landmark Praça da Figueira square, Confeitaria Nacional is a classic pastry shop that has been selling sweets on that site since 1829. Taste their pasteis de nata (custard tart) or their signature Bolo Rei (King’s Cake), along with a cup of rich coffee. The tea room upstairs also serves a light, reasonably priced lunch. Nearby is a classic old-fashioned food shop, Manuel Tavares, which has been selling hams, sausages, cheeses, wines and confections since 1860. And from this same square, walk up Poço do Borratém Street toward the Martim Moniz tram stop, where you’ll find an excellent kitchenware store with hundreds of local and imported products.

Back at Figueira Square, walk along Rua D. Antão de Amada to visit Manteigaria e Bacahoaria Silva, another classic old shop purveying salt cod, dried beans, hams, cheeses and Portuguese canned products. At the top of that street, on Largo de São Domingos 8, an even smaller shop sells nothing but bottles of ginginha, classic Portuguese cherry liquor. For only one euro, you can taste before you buy.

Lisbon seafood market
Fresh fish offered at Restaurante Leao d’Ouro

Signboard for Icelandic cod, a popular fish in Portugal
Fishmongers at the Mercado de Ribeira

Around Rossio Square, the hub of the Baixa district, several sidewalk cafes will tempt you to while away the day over a coffee drink (choose from at least eight different types that the Portuguese make). Indulge in excellent gelato at Fragoleto, a couple blocks off the Rua Augusta shopping street that leads into Rossio Square. And just across the street from the main train station near Rossio Square, the Restaurante Leão d’Ouro, built in 1842, serves simple, well prepared Portuguese food (especially seafood), at reasonable prices, in a delightful dining room with walls covered in beautiful blue-and-white ceramic tiles.

Fancy Lisbon restaurant
Restaurante Largo (photo courtesy Restaurante Largo)

The tony Chiado shopping district, adjacent to Baixa, is another good place for palate pleasers. Stop for a freshly made juice drink or your choice of coffees at Quiosque de Refresco, a little old-fashioned iron kiosk in Camões Square. Sip a foaming beer at Cervejaria Trindade, the oldest brewery in Portugal, with its woody interior and beautifully tiled walls. Perk up with an espresso at A Brasileira, one of the city’s most famous old coffeehouses, decorated in Art Nouveau style. And for fine dining make a reservation at Restaurante Largo, a modern restaurant located inside part of an historic convent in the Chiado district. Celebrated Chef Miguel Castro Silva has a refreshingly no-nonsense attitude toward cooking: he prepares good, honest food with an emphasis on traditional Portuguese dishes updated for today’s tastes and artistically plated, but never pretentious.

Restaurante Panorama, on top of the Sheraton Hotel in Lisbon (photo courtesy Sheraton Hotel)

The proprietor of As Marias com Chocolate makes cookies at her shop in Lisbon

Portuguese chefs are making a name for themselves in other parts of the city, too. At Bocca, an intimate, friendly little restaurant that has garnered rave reviews, one of Lisbon’s top young chefs, Alexandre Silva, presents ultra-modern dishes made from seasonal ingredients and arranged like miniature works of art. On the top floor of the tall Sheraton Hotel tower, the Restaurante Panorama lives up to its name, with stunning views over the city. The five-course “Temptation Menu,” with matching wines, showcases Chef Leonel Pereira’s specialties, which include fish and meat dishes that combine traditional ingredients with contemporary techniques.

Pastry shop
Pasteis de Belem in the Belem district of Lisbon

Custard tarts from Pasteis de Belem

Outside the central part of Lisbon, in the Belém district along the coast, a magnificent Hieronymite Monastery was built in the early 16th century with money made from the spice trade after Vasco da Gama’s historic voyage around the southern tip of Africa to the lucrative pepper markets of India. A block from the monastery, the Antiga Confeitaria de Belém has been serving its famous custard tarts, pastéis de Belém, since 1837. Farther along the same street, other small pastry shops sell their own special sweet little tarts, one made with beer, another with fresh white cheese and ground almonds. Try them all.

Portugese desserts
Sweet Portugese tart (left) and carmelized orange custard

Finally, foodies should also head to the Alfama district (the old Moorish quarter), where they’ll find the 19th-century Mercado Municipal de Santa Clara behind the São Vicente church. The city’s first covered food market has now been transformed into an educational center for culinary arts (in the interior), with several little shops around the outside, including As Marias com Chocolate, a tiny shop specializing in tempting handmade chocolate drinks and desserts. I dare you to eat or drink only one.

As they say in Portugese, bom apetite! Enjoy your meal!

NOTE: Portuguese meal times differ somewhat from neighboring Spain. Breakfast is any time after 7:00 a.m., when many people just stop at a pastry shop for a little custard tart or sweet bun and a galão, a big glass of hot coffee liberally laced with milk. Lunch lasts from 12:30 to 2:00 p.m., and dinner is usually any time from 8:00 or 8:30 p.m. until 10:00 p.m., although fashionable folk are known to arrive at a restaurant at 10:00 p.m. and dine until midnight.

● Lisbon Tourist Office, Rua do Arsenal 23

● Mercado da Ribeira, Avenida 24 de Julho, near the Cais do Sodré train station,

● Confeitaria Nacional, Praça da Figueira 18-B

● Fragoleto, Rua da Prata 80

● Restaurante Leão d’Ouro, Rua 1 de Decembro 105

● Quiosque de Refresco, Camões Square

● Cervejaria Trindade, Rua Mova da Trindade 20-C

A Brasileira, 120 Rua Garrett

● Restaurante Largo, Rua Serpa Pinto 10-A

● Bocca, Rua Rodrigo da Fonseca 87-D

● Restaurante Panorama, Rua Latino Coelho 1

● Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, Rua de Belém 84-92

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