Discover Lisbon’s surprising and tasty culinary delights

The mouth-watering smell of grilled sardines fills the air in the streets and alleys of Lisbon’s old historical district, Alfama.


June is the month to come to Alfama. The locals celebrate their city patron Santo Antonio each year during this month with a special festival – and the sardine is the guest of honour.

But the tiny fish is actually only the beginning of a trend that is quickly raising the profile of this country on the Atlantic Ocean. Portugal’s creative chefs are conquering the world – the Michelin Guide in 2015 awarded the country’s restaurants with a total of 17 of its coveted stars.

Those stars, of course, went to expensive and exclusive restaurants. But visitors can also enjoy tasty and traditional dishes in more down-to-earth venues. The Portuguese take pride in their food, and they are not afraid to say so. “Our sardines are the best in the world,” says José Borralho, president of Aptece, the umbrella organisation for Portugal’s culinary tourism.

During the festival in Alfama, music can be heard coming from every window and colourful garlands decorate the old balconies. The high point comes on the night of June 13, when grills are set up in virtually every alley and a sardine grilling competition gets under way – a citywide event with each district vying for the title of having the tastiest sardine.

But when it comes to culinary adventures in Lisbon, it is not just about the sardine. The country’s most famous chef, José Avillez, has garnered two Michelin stars for his restaurant located in the heart of the Chiado, the city’s oldest and most fashionable district.

The restaurant’s name is Belcanto, located as it is diagonally across the street from the Sao Carlos opera house. The restaurant is a regular haunt for Lisbon’s celebrities and is booked out weeks in advance.

“Like our ancestors, we are constantly heading to sea. But now, instead of searching for new lands, we are looking for new tastes,” Avillez says.

For something a little more affordable, the simple fish restaurants along the harbour are the culinary heart of the city. Plus, for those in need of a quick snack, there are street food stands everywhere.

Filipa Paquita Valente is so enthusiastic about Lisbon’s cuisine that she has made it into her profession – leading visitors on twoto three-hour tapas tours.

There are seven culinary stopping points, generally starting at the traditional Manteigaria Silva, located right behind the central Rossio Square. It is arguably one of the best delicatessen shops in the city.

After this stop, Filipa’s group will climb a hill to the Mouraria, the city’s erstwhile Moorish neighbourhood, which borders with Alfama.

It was in the narrow, winding alleys of Mouraria that the city’s poor and downtrodden used to live. Today, artists are moving to this area, which has the feeling of a small village, a place where the locals greet each other on the street.

Good vibes await Filipa’s group at the Os Amigos Da Severa tavern, named after the city’s first Fado singer, Maria Severa, who was born on the same street in 1820. Fado is known for its melancholy mood, but the atmosphere in the tavern is anything but.

“With Fado music it’s best to drink a ginjinha,” says Senhor Antonio, the owner of Tasca, as he pours a glass of Lisbon’s traditional sweet-tasting cherry liqueur.

“You should come back here in the evening,” Antonio advises. “That’s when we grill sardines.” Tapas tour guide Filipa needs no further convincing: “I’ll definitely be back. The sardines are the best in this quarter.