Portuguese food has long been in the shadow of more famous European cuisines like the Italian and French. Even Spanish cuisine has gained an international reputation with its tapas dishes. So what do they eat in Portugal?
Portuguese cuisine was strongly influenced by the Age of Discovery when explorers like Vasco de Gama and Henry the Navigator crossed the Atlantic, discovering new lands. As a result, Portuguese cuisine is a base of Mediterranean spiced up with African and Brazilian flavours. On the coast, fresh seafood is on top of the menu, while hearty pork dishes are served inland.
Much like its neighbour, Portugal also serves small portions of food but doesn't use the Spanish word, tapas. In Portugal, they are called petiscos and are perfect if you want to snack on something with your drinks or taste different things to share.
With such a meat and seafood-based cuisine, there are still some naturally vegetarian and vegan dishes to have had in Portugal, and you will find gluten-free food. Generally, it is easier to find food with food restrictions in the bigger cities like Lisbon and Porto, and the bigger towns in the Algarve. However, you will usually find something wherever you are, or the chef might cook up something that is not on the menu if you ask nicely.
Restaurants have tables and it is customary to wait to be seated.
Bread, olives, or another snack is served with the meal without asking, but you will be charged for it if you eat it.
Most restaurants take both cash and credit cards. However, smaller, more local bars and restaurants might only take cash. Unless you are in a touristy area, asking up-front is a good idea.
Do not order fish on a Monday. Since Sunday is a rest day, fishermen do not go out fishing which means Monday fish will not be fresh.
It is customary to spend 1-2 hours eating at a restaurant, depending on the group size.
It is not expected to tip waiters in Portugal. However, rounding up the bill and telling them to “keep the change” is customary when paying in cash. E.g. If the bill comes at 27 Euros, tell the waiter to keep the change of 3 Euros. However, it is not customary to leave a tip on a credit card even though the machine might allow it. Instead, leave a couple of Euros on the table. Locals would never leave more than 5 Euros unless it is for a big party.
Menus show prices, including service charges, so what you see is what you pay.
The Portuguese are strongly bound to their mealtimes, especially when it comes to lunch and dinner. It's helpful to know when these eating hours are so you do not end up going hungry.
That said, in large cities like Lisbon and Porto, you will always find someplace that is serving food outside meal times, especially fast food.
Typical kitchen opening times:
*Note that these times can vary by 1-2 hours, give or take.
To get the full Portuguese experience, dinner at a fado restaurant is a unique experience. Especially in cities like Lisbon and Porto, you find many, but also in the Algarve and smaller places, you can have dinner accompanied by fabulous performances. Many of these can be complete tourist traps, so it is worth reading reviews on the different establishments to ensure the best experience.
If you're looking for the best seafood, grab a table at a Marisqueira, but note that they might not have grilled fish. For that, you must go to a Churrasqueira where they specialise in grilled meat (and fish.) If you want a more informal place to eat with a few beers, pop into a Cervejaria (Beer House).
Here are a few of the typical dishes you might want to try when you visit Portugal. While most of the traditional Portuguese food is either meat or seafood-based, some of these dishesare naturally vegetarian/vegan and others can be ordered vegetarian/vegan.
Also, note that Portuguese food is not necessarily the prettiest food to look at, but do not let that fool you!
Bacalhau: dried, salted fish is served in thousands of ways in Portugal. Among the most popular dishes are Bacalhau à Brás, bacalhau à Gomes de Sá, and Bacalhau com natas.
Polvo à Lagareiro: roasted octopus in olive oil and garlic accompanied by roasted potatoes.
Porco Preto: Iberian black pork served in many different ways from grilled to packed into sausages. The best place to try Porco Preto is the Alentejo region.
Açorda: stale dry bread soaked in broth and stuffed with seafood, this is a dish that tastes a lot better than it looks.
Sardinhas Aassadas: grilled sardines are a traditional summer dish and can usually be found from June to October.
Francesinha: typical to the Porto region, this is a hearty sandwich drowned in a hot tomato and beer sauce and topped with an egg. While it usually contains a lot of meat, you can find vegetarian options.
Arroz de Marisco: a risotto-like dish stuffed with different seafood.
Pastel de Nata: likely the most iconic sweet in Portugal, the custard tarts are a must-try. In some places, you find vegan Pastel de Nata too, especially in Lisbon and Porto, but you might be lucky in other places in the country too - especially if there is an international clientele.
Arroz Doce: translated to sweet rice, this is a delightful rice pudding topped with cinnamon.
Serradura: crushed cookies and cream are layered in this simple, yet delicious dessert. Often topped with berries.
Caldo Verde: this hearty green soup mainly of cabbage and potatoes is traditionally served with chorizo. In some places, they cook the chorizo with the soup, while in other places they add it when it is served, so you can ask for it without chorizo. Make sure you ask beforehand if it is veggie or not.
Pimentos Padron: grilled green peppers often served as Petiscos.
Tremoços: preserved lupini beans usually served with beers in bars just like olives.
Cenouras à Algarvia: marinated carrots served with asparagus.
Ovos com Espargos: scrambled eggs with asparagus.
Portugal is home to delightful wines and port wines. Here are some traditional drinks you might come across and want to try:
Vinho Verde: despite the name (green wine,) Vinho Verde can be found in red, white, and rosé. It is a wine produced in the Vinho Verde region in northern Portugal and is a staple of Portuguese wines.
Ginja: a sweet cherry drink in a blend of spices and sugar.
Port wine: the Porto region is world-famous for its exquisite port wines.
Every foodie loves a good food festival. Here are some of the best ones in Portugal:
Festival Nacional de Gastronomia - Santarém - takes place at the end of October every year. During 10 delectable days, master chefs and small local restaurants give you a taste of traditional regional foods and contemporary takes on these.
Chefs On Fire - Estroil - a fairly new food festival taking place in September where renowned chefs from all around the country use their skills on wood fire while you can enjoy live music events.
Festival Internacional de Chocolate de Óbidos - Óbidos- this is a dream for chocolate lovers as the country’s best chocolatiers get together to give you the best of the chocolate world, including chocolate sculptures and live music events.
Feira do Fumeiro de Vinhais - Vinhais - meat lovers will love this fair dedicated solely to smoked meat, mainly of Bísaro pigs.
The average cost of eating dinner at a restaurant in Portugal is around 30 Euros for two people but can vary greatly depending on where you go. An upscale seafood restaurant can charge way over that per person.
A typical Portuguese breakfast consists of a sandwich or a croissant with ham and cheese accompanied by a cup of coffee with milk or freshly squeezed orange juice. This typically costs 2-5 Euros.
A lunch or dinner can cost you anything between 10 and 20 Euros including drinks. However, some meat and seafood dishes can easily double the price.
A glass of beer starts at 2 Euros and a glass of wine can cost 4-5 Euros depending on how touristy the area is.
A black coffee usually costs 1 Euro, but in some places, it is less.
Note that restaurants in central tourist locations often cost a lot more than local restaurants, so prices might be higher depending on the area.
Portugal might not sound like a dream destination for vegans, but while most traditional dishes are based on seafood and meat, the country has a lot of vegan options.
There is a wide variety of vegan restaurants in Portugal, not only in the biggest tourist hubs. Besides, you find great vegan options in supermarkets from vegan cheese, plant-based milk, and products like tofu, Beyond Meat, and other meat substitutes.
Being a vegetarian in Portugal is not necessarily much easier than being a vegan. As most dishes are meat and seafood-based, there is not much room for vegetarians to eat traditional foods, except desserts that usually contain eggs.
On the other hand, vegan and vegetarian restaurants are easy to find in the big cities and the coast around Lisbon as well as the Algarve. Other lesser-tourist places might also surprise you. In supermarkets, on the other hand, you will find anything you desire.
In touristy areas and big cities like Lisbon and Porto, there are usually gluten-free options on the menu. When you travel to lesser-touristy places, you should make sure that they understand what gluten-free means so that they do not use the same knife for your food and non-gluten-free food.
To be on the safe side, you might rent a place with a kitchen so that you can cook at least some meals yourself. There are also several supermarkets with many gluten-free products of their own brand, like Continente, Pingo Doce, and Jumbo.
Also, the Spanish supermarket chain Mercadona has many stores spread between Lisbon and Braga in the north where all gluten-free food is marked.
Planning a trip to Portugal? Read our other travel guides.
Last Updated 14 October 2023