Lisbon, Portugal, is the oldest city in Western Europe and it exudes Old World charm against a bohemian backdrop of colourful street art and modern tapas bars. Amongst the live rock music, hipsters, and sushi restaurants, tradition shines through. There’s a man to polish your shoes on the sidewalk and older people wear smart, conservative clothing they’ve likely had for decades.
What I liked most about Lisbon was the way people walk into their local cafe and the server knows their coffee order. Lisbon’s unassuming cafes are bursting with life, with chatter, with the sound of coffee cups clinking on the counter.
Under the typical cafe counter, where people stand to drink their morning coffee, there are displays of Portugal’s food triumphs, including pataniscas de bacalhau (salt codfish fritters), pastéis de nata (egg-custard tarts), and bolos de arroz (rice muffins).
After spending one week in Lisbon, I understand why the Portuguese cling to their food and wine traditions like the colourful buildings cling to the slopes of Lisbon’s Bairro Alto: Lisbon is a gourmet kaleidoscope of ‘green’ wine, yellow custard tarts, and deep red-coloured cherry liqueur. Here is a peek into that kaleidoscope.
1. Pastel de Nata (Portuguese Egg-Custard Tart)
The egg-custard tart called pastel de nata looks simple but it is a divine treat. My first taste of one in Lisbon was memorable. The pastry was crisp and almost toffee-like and the sweet custard filling warmed my whole mouth like something made by your grandma, something filled with love. Pastéis de nata were traditionally made by monasteries and convents and the most famous one is the pastel de Belém, which was first sold in the 1830s by the Jerónimos Monastery, the recipe of which is used today at the Pastéis de Belém cafe.
2. The Port Wine Institute
For a cosy evening, the Port Wine Institute (Solar do Vinho do Porto) in the trendy Bairro Alto is perfect to enjoy some Port with cheese and bread. There is a wide selection of Port wines so this venue is suitable for the Port aficionado as well as those who don’t usually drink Port, since there’s likely to be something they’ll like, such as a dry white Port.
3. Bacalhau (Codfish)
Apparently the Portuguese say there are 365 recipes for bacalhau—one for each day of the year—and in Lisbon it is clear how much the Portuguese love bacalhau. Bacalhau appears on most restaurant menus in different forms, but I saw it most as pataniscas de bacalhau (salted codfish fritters or cakes). It seems that when in Lisbon, one must eat codfish fritters, especially with rice and beans, and this dish typifies the kind of simple, flavoursome cooking I love in Portugal.
4. Green Wine
Green wine is a (typically) fresh, effervescent, and fruity wine from the region in the north of Portugal called Vinho Verde, which means green wine. The wines in this region were traditionally produced from grapes grown on vines around corn and potato crops and, because they didn’t get enough sun exposure, the grapes did not reach full maturation. So although these wines were once produced from unripe grapes, this is not the case today. Green wine includes young white, rosé and red wines that are easy drinking and food friendly.
5. Eat and Drink by the River
There are restaurants and open-air markets along the Tagus River where one can relax with some cold wine and take in the sun. There is a holiday feel by the river as seagulls fly by and ships sound their horns. Musicians fill the air with joyful rhythms and there is of course plenty of bacalhau to eat paired with wines from the Duoro.
6. Wine and Cheese in a Castle
The Palácio Chiado is a palace with a long history, which was re-stored from 2014. The grand interior staircase leads to a modern bar with a backdrop of old paintings. The blend of old and new exemplifies Lisbon and is a good place to indulge in some Portuguese wine and cheese.
7. Share Tapas
Sharing tapas and other dishes is a great way to taste Portugal’s cuisine and try some Portuguese wines. The tapas culture in Lisbon is rich and lively. In addition to meat dishes, seafood features heavily on tapas menus, such as prawns in garlic oil, clams in broth, marinated squid, and of course, bacalhau.
8. Ginginha Liqueur (Sour Cherry Liqueur) in a Chocolate Cup
Ginginha, which originated in Lisbon, is a fortified wine infused with sour cherries. It is a sweet liqueur served straight or in a chocolate cup, which is a delicious way to start a day of Lisbon sight-seeing. This liqueur was traditionally drunk to treat ailments and can be tasted in small street bars, such as Ginginha do Carmo.