You could easily survive four solid days in Lisbon on pastéis de nata and vinho verde – the iconic custard tarts and the sharp ‘green’ wine are everywhere in the Portuguese capital, and are well worth the indulgence. They were the only items I had on my to-eat list when I arrived on a late night flight to spend a long weekend in some much needed sunshine. But Lisbon’s food scene is vibrant yet still traditional at its heart; very much flourishing and I completely underestimated it. Unlike my usually heavily researched and curated finds on a trip, many of these places were lucky finds which really is a testament to the quality of the food you’re likely to eat there. Here’s the places I loved the most:
Copenhagen Coffee Lab
You’re going to visit Alfama, let’s not deny it. The home of the famous tram 28 line which squeezes the iconic cars through the paper thin streets, and the area you’ll get that beautiful view over endless terracotta roof tiles, it’ll pull you in and tire you out, so it’s best to set yourself up with a decent breakfast. Copenhagen Coffee Lab and Bakery has a wonderful mix ’n’ match plate with a yoghurt and granola pot, boiled egg and cheese, a selection of breads with butter and jam, plus a pastry of your choice. With a strong coffee to wash it down, I didn’t need to eat until I next stumbled up on a pastels de nata after a late morning’s meander around the Feira da Ladra flea market.
Find it at: Copenhagen Coffee Lab, Escolas Gerais 34, 1100-213, Lisbon
Mercado da Baixa
When I asked my Instagram followers for recommendations for Lisbon, around 90% said I had to go to Time Out Market. We headed there after a day at LX Factory and honestly, I found it overwhelming, far too loud and a bit overhyped. We bought a bottle of vino verde and a pastéis de nata (are you seeing a pattern here?) and headed back to our hotel to watch Netflix. However, the next day we stumbled upon what looked like a giant marquee, which turned out to be the Mercado da Baixa, a food market that’s been on the same site since 1855, serving food and selling goods to locals in the Baixa Rossia area of the city. We bought breakfast from one of the stalls cooking a variety of meats on an open grill and I had a plate of chicken, sausage, chorizo, bacon, black pudding and corn bread, eaten with a toothpick and finished it off with a….well, you know.
Find it at: Mercado da Baixa, Praça da Figueira, Lisbon
Let’s put a pin in this once and for all. The pastéis de nata in Lisbon exceeded all my expectations. When I had a good one it was buttery soft, a light sweetness that would make Shirley Temple blush and a pastry surely made with divine intervention. Some were much more ‘meh’ and I didn’t make it all the way out to Belem to join the queues at the store that supposedly invented them, but I did stop at as many places as I could to pick one up to eat along the way. My favourites? I’m glad you asked:
Oh, Manteigaria. So good in fact that I went there twice (and on the second time I bought two). Sunspots of caramelised sugar on the top and a brown sugar crispness that melted away as soon as it hit my tongue. If I was any good at poetry, this would be the dessert I would create sonnets about. How they get that pastry so delicate without it totally falling apart, I will never know.
Find it at: Manteigaria, Rua do Loreto 2, 1200-242 Lisbon
Fabrica da Nata
Breakfast at Fabrica da Nata set me up for our day trip from Lisbon to Sintra and being a stone’s throw from the main train station it was pretty busy. However, we managed to nab a couple of stools and bought a breakfast meal deal: a standard (machine) coffee, a pre-made but not-bad ham and cheese croissant, and the silky, sweet custard filling of a pastéis de nata. This was where I first realised I could sprinkle a touch of cinnamon on top and that extra punch was a game changer in my pastéis adventures.
Find it at: Fabrica da Nata, Praça dos Restauradores 62-68, 1250-110 Lisbon
Maybe this was one of my favourites because it followed a very disappointing meal at the highly recommended Taberna do Avillez. Bad food abroad is absolutely guaranteed to put me in a bad mood, so I knew I had to seek out a pastéis de nata to reinstate my faith in Lisbon’s food scene. Pastelaria Alcôa is a calmer outfit than the previous two and more of a patisserie than somewhere solely dedicated to the iconic tart. Although tempted by other cakes and treats, I perched on a tall stool in the window and sprinkled a little cinnamon and icing sugar on my delicately warm pastéis de nata – the first bite just as reaffirming as the next few, my love of Lisbon food back and fighting fit.
Find it at: Pastelaria Alcôa, Rua Garret, 37-39, Chiado, Lisbon
If you’re lacking in a soul and pastéis de nata aren’t your thing, you can still satisfy your sweet tooth. Beyond the eccentric freak shakes and delicate chocolate cake I had at LX Factory, I also found two wonderful, tiny outposts for a sugary snack on the go.
It had been humid and drizzly on our first day but as the weather started to fine up, we found Gelateria Nannarella. A hole-in-the-wall around the corner from the Portuguese government, the Assembly of the Republic, the gelato here is spectacular. They have 18 fixed flavours as well as 10-daily changing and four seasonal – thankfully the server spoke some English and was able to help direct us amongst the huge variety of offers and give us some little tasters. I had three scoops: fresh strawberry, pistachio and stracciatella (a milky flavour with fine chocolate shavings throughout) and it was only €2.50!
Find it at: Gelateria Nannarella, Rua Nova da Piedade 68, Lisbon
Fabrica Do Pastel Feijão
Back in Alfama, Fabrica Do Pastel Feijão serves up the lesser know Portuguese pastry, the pastéis de feijão. No queues around the block or Instagrammers flocking here, and to be honest, it’s because this particular pastry just doesn’t have the sugary kick of its more famous cousin. Similar to desserts in Asia, this is made with a white bean paste (rather than red bean) and ground almonds, a soft but slightly grainy texture wedged between two very thin, flaky and crisp slices of pastry.
Find it at: Fabrica Do Pastel Feijão, Rua dos Remedios 33, 1100-441 Lisbon
When Lisbon’s hills have defeated you and you need a little something to go with your glass of vinho verde, there are two places that I wouldn’t hesitate to return to on my next trip. In fact, I might even have a next trip because of these places.
A Nossa Casa
Eating during primetime in Bairro Alto is a challenge made all the more difficult with swathes of tourists and every restaurant owner trying to tempt you inside. A Nossa Casa translates as Our Home and it was the most welcoming and friendly experience I’ve had in a restaurant in quite some time. The owner and server both spoke with us about the menu with such unpretentious enthusiasm and genuine love of the dishes; I felt like I was talking with friends.
We started with jaquinzinhos: little mackerel fried in cornflower with gazpacho dip; followed up with succulent shredded pork cheek tacos with sriracha mayo and red cabbage, and sticky soya & ginger chicken wings with peanut and tamarind cream & crispy peanut powder. The highlight was the confit codfish loin with sautéed onion, thin potato, slow cooked egg yolk and black olive dust, mixed together at our table. A relaxed, homely and wonderful food experience.
Find it at: A Nossa Casa, Rua da Atalaia 31, 1200-037, Lisbon
And finally, dinner at potentially the best known restaurant in Lisbon thanks to being recommended by our food lord and saviour, Anthony Bourdain. In the underrated Intendente area (where we ended up staying in a great aparthotel after our Air BnB in Alfama cancelled last minute), the queue for Cervejaria Ramiro is absolutely obscene, but you can book a table if you’re savvy enough (which I was, of course). The tables are packed, the servers are absolutely rushed off their feet, but they are attentive, kind and hilarious. It’s nothing fancy inside, but you don’t come here for frills, you come here for seafood and they have that in abundance.
We ordered langoustines and crab, both salty fresh, the former smothered in garlic and the latter mixed with brown butter and a quick dash of pepper. I followed in the steps of Bourdain and ordered barnacles – they looked disgusting and had the texture of a tyre on the outside, but pulling the meat out it tasted like the smell of the ocean and I was grateful my fiancé didn’t like them so I could finish the lot.
Find it at: Cervejaria Ramiro, Avenida Almirante Reis 1 – H, 1150-007, Lisbon
It was five days of mostly hits and hardly any misses. We got the timings wrong for a couple of places that don’t open on Sundays and Mondays, and had only one main meal which was genuinely dire, but Lisbon is a capital city after all and really, our ratio of good to bad was a pretty successful and delicious one.