Having just spent a whole month in Portugal, eating and drinking my way through every city I went to, I’ve decided to compile a list of what what I think are the essential must-try Portuguese dishes. Not every dish here is going to be everyone’s favorite, but I do think they’re all worth trying. I’ve also tried to include recommendations on where to try each of the below, but these will be a lot more detailed in Porto (as that’s where I spent most of my time).
I almost didn’t include this one, because I honestly don’t love the cooked version of sardines (I just have a weird thing about fish bones). However, it’s one of the most traditional Portuguese dishes: locals make it at home, and all traditional mom-and-pop spots grill these all day. So you’ve got to at least give it a try.
My preferred version is actually the canned one! I know, it seems weird to recommend canned food, but canned sardines (as well as other canned fish) have a long history in Portugal — being popular both at home and as an export. There are entire museums and stores dedicated to just canned seafood. If nothing else, try the sardines in a spicy tomato sauce!
Where to eat…
Most traditional restaurants and cafes in Portugal serve these. You’ll often see them being grilled right out front (or on the grill in the front window) — so you can follow the smell. 😆
For the canned version, some recommendations: In Lisbon, visit the Conserveira de Lisboa. It’s like a canned fish museum (worth seeing even if you don’t take anything home). The Fantastic World of Portuguese Sardines (“O Mundo Fantástico da Sardinha Portuguesa”) in Lisbon is also a really fun store that looks like a circus. In Porto, the Mercado do Bolhão — currently in its temporary space — is a great place to try the canned fish. Walk up to the stand with all the tins and ask to buy a sampler platter (2nd photo here is from there). Another spot I liked for buying these to take home in Porto was at WOW Porto (specifically at the shopping center near their History of Porto museum). You can buy just the cans, or really cute packages of all sorts of local Portuguese goodies, including sardines.
2. The Francesinha (Sandwich)
Meet the famous Francesinha — a Portuguese “sandwich” popularized by a Frenchman in the 1950s when he tried to adapt the croque-monsieur to Porto. (You’ve got to watch the video of it being cut open on my instagram post.) It usually includes a slab of steak, fresh sausage and/or cured sausage, ham and/or other sliced meats like mortadella — all between two slices of bread, covered with melted cheese, topped with an egg, and smothered with spiced tomato & beer sauce. Served with fries. It’s not something you can eat every day — but I’ll be damned if it’s not the stuff my brunch dreams are made of.
Where to eat…
They have these all over Portugal, but it’s definitely more prominent around Porto. In Porto, I recommend 2 places right across the street from each other: Café Santiago and Lado B Café (the latter supposedly has a good vegetarian version, too). Brasão has 3 locations and is a little more upscale, offering slightly better steak cuts (and also has a vegetarian option). And Com Cuore near São Bento does a gluten-free version.
3. Tacos de Birria Chanfay
This street cart has been around since 1972 and is widely known as one of the best birria spots in Old Town. It’s also got a bit more of a sitting area with lawn chairs and an awning. They’re also the only place you’re likely to find beef birria (if pork, goat, and lamb aren’t your thing).
4. Cataplana (Seafood Stew)
I think of this as the Portuguese Cioppino. The name “Cataplana” technically refers to the cookware used to make this Algarve-origin dish (two large, metal clam shells clamped closed during cooking). However, you’ll often see it on menus referring to a flavorful stew of mixed seafood with potatoes, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, garlic, herbs, white wine, etc. Supposedly, a Cataplana can be made with pork, too, but I haven’t seen it.
Where to eat…
Like most traditional Portuguese dishes, Cataplana can be found in a lot of restaurants. Since it originated in the Algarve, I feel like you must try it there if you go (but I didn’t go to that region). In Porto, I had the Cataplana shown here at Lagostim (I liked that they had a version with octopus instead of fish).
5. Polvo (Octopus)
I’m not sure I saw a single menu in Portugal without octopus on it (“polvo” in Portuguese). I think Spain is the only country in Europe that eats more octopus than Portugal. The most traditional preparation is boiled, then grilled, then brushed with olive oil and paired with potatoes. My favorite restaurants added more creative sides (not that I don’t love potatoes, but I started missing other vegetables after awhile). And I also loved the Galician/Galego style octopus (thinly sliced, topped with olive oil and paprika).
Where to eat…
Pretty much anywhere in Portugal. Some highlights for me included: Vinhas D’Alho in Porto (shown here, available as a Galician-style appetizer, or beautifully-plated entree on top of spinach — all with gorgeous views overlooking the river). In Coimbra, Refeitro da Baixa was actually one of my favorite restaurants overall in Portugal, and they had a very elegant one with lots of baby vegetables. For the traditional preparation, food halls like Time Out in Lisbon or Mercado Beirario in Porto always offer that version — and you can try a bunch of other things from the variety of stalls if you don’t like it.
6. Bifanas (Pork Sandwiches)
A Bifana is a traditional Portuguese sandwich filled with marinated/simmered pork that’s perfect for a quick lunch. The pork is usually very thinly sliced (before cooking) — but can sometimes be a little thicker, depending on location. It usually comes inside Papo Secos (Portuguese bread rolls with crispy crust). The Bifana can also contain a slice of melted cheese and is often served with mustard on the side. My favorite places also add Piri Piri (the local hot sauce) when simmering, but you can always ask for this when eating, too.
Where to eat…
These are super easy to find all over Portugal, usually at the more casual cafes or little mom-and-pop spots. In Lisbon, a tiny little spot called O Trevo does thick, juicy ones — but be prepared for it to be packed. In Porto, a chain called Conga is pretty well-known and does my favorite version (super thinly sliced and with a bit of Piri Piri spiciness). They also offer a platter of just meat and fries (if you like to avoid bread).
7. Chanfana (Goat or Lamb Stew)
Chanfana is a traditional Portuguese farmer’s recipe of marinated and slow-cooked goat (sometimes lamb). It’s an incredibly tender, flavorful stew that’s a must-try if you come across it.
Where to eat…
This dish is native to the Coimbra area, so you’ll probably have to head up that way to try it. A Cozinha da Maria is a great traditional restaurant right in the center of Coimbra where you can get this goat version for lunch or dinner.
8. Tripas à Moda do Porto (Tripe Stew)
Fun fact about Portugal: the people of Lisbon are called alfacinhas (little lettuces), and the people of Porto are called tripeiros (tripe-eaters). One theory behind the origin of the term tripeiros is that during the height of Portuguese shipbuilding and exploration in the early 15th century, meat was used to supply the fleets — and organ meats like tripe were left over for the people of Porto. As these maritime expeditions became increasingly successful and a source of pride for the Portuguese, the people of Porto began to take pride in “taking one for the team” — so to speak. They recently celebrated 600 years of making “Tripas à Moda do Porto.”
Where to eat…
Look for it at traditional Portuguese restaurants in Porto. My personal recommendation is the slightly more expensive (but better) version at Adega São Nicolau near the river. It just tasted better sourced, better seasoned, and slower cooked (with large chunks of pork in there, as well). If you’re just looking to dip in your toe and not get a whole pot of stew, Dama Pé de Cabra does a tiny little pot of it mixed with other meats.
This seemed a little pedestrian to include at first, because everyone everywhere does charcuterie these days — but bear with me. Yes, the local prosciutto is a must try (just like in Italy and Croatia) — but there are also some amazing local sheep cheeses in Portugal that are definitely unique. Some are served in thick slices for breakfast at little cafes, with just a little salt on top. Others are served as whole little wheels with a little spoon to eat the soft cheese right out of the middle — usually at places like wine bars. And there is always pumpkin jam! (If there’s not, ask for some.) I don’t know why pumpkin, since we have lots of pumpkins in America and very little pumpkin jam — but it was delicious!
10. Rabo (Oxtail)
Perhaps rabo isn’t traditionally Portuguese, but I certainly saw it a lot of traditional Portuguese restaurants. If I had to venture a guess, it’s because oxtail has historically been a cheaper cut of meat, even though I think it’s the most flavorful of beef cuts. It takes a long stew to get the best out of it, but it’s worth it.
Where to eat…
I often saw oxtail dishes at the more upscale, but still traditional, Portuguese restaurants. I can personally vouch for a few specific spots in Porto where I had oxtail. The one shown is actually an oxtail and beef cheek mix from a beautiful riverfront restaurant in Porto called Bacalhau. Just a few steps away, slightly up the hill, is another little restaurant called Adega São Nicolau — and they do a great traditional stew with it. Sagardi is technically Basque, not Portuguese, but they also have delicious stewed whole oxtail pieces there.
11. Bacalhau (Cod)
When you first walk around Portugal, you will probably be struck by the fact that you keep seeing the word “bacalhau” on all restaurant signs. It literally means “cod” in Portuguese — and the locals truly have a special relationship with this fish. I heard there’s even a book with 1000 Portuguese cod recipes in it. I honestly don’t get it: it’s one of the least flavorful of fish, it has a very basic texture, and it doesn’t even come from Portugal (today, most of it comes from Norway, often salted or dried first). But the Portuguese have a history with cod going back to the 14th century, when they would trade salt for it with England — and then throughout the 19th century and during the dictatorship, there were large-scale government campaigns to promote cod when meat was too expensive. And even though they no longer have to eat it, the Portuguese still consume something like 20% of the world’s cod. So give it a try once, wherever you see it. And next time order some robalo (sea bass).
12. Pastel de Nata (Custard Tart)
Last, but definitely not least, we hit on dessert. These little egg yolk custard tarts are everywhere in Portugal. They were created in the 18th century by Catholic monks at the Jerónimo Monastery, because they used large quantities of egg whites for starching friars’ and nuns’ habits — and something needed to be done with the leftover yolks. It’s why traditionally, a lot of Portuguese desserts contain egg yolk.
Where to eat…
You can’t throw a rock in Portugal without hitting a Nata shop. Heck, they sell these at Trader Joe’s in America now! But not all are created equal, and I’ve indeed had some bad ones (cold, runny, burnt, or oily). Some of my favorites are below:
If you’re history nerd and want to try the original, you’ve got to go to The Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém (near Jerónimo Monastery in Lisbon) — which opened in 1837. Fabrica de Nata is a chain with locations all over the country that is consistently good and usually has nice dining rooms, too. Manteigaria is another consistently good chain, but often doesn’t have seating. My favorite is actually a little spot in Porto on the river called Nata Sweet Nata. Not only is the view beautiful, but they also always have perfectly-warm, fresh, flaky, gooey-but-not-runny tarts. The selection of delicious coffee and tea options is also inordinately large in a country that usually only offers espresso or port with your Nata. And of course I found a gluten-free version in Porto at Com Cuore.