Portugal’s capital is one of the best cities on earth for fish and other delicacies from the sea. Don’t leave Lisbon without sampling some of the specialties.
Portugal has a long coastline and a long history being seafarers. It’s no surprise that the Portuguese know all the best ways to cook fish and seafood. The best seafood in Lisbon is some of the best anywhere. While the country’s beloved cod comes to Lisbon preserved in salt, it’s still as essential as, say, tuna or clams caught just off shore. The shellfish and octopus from the south of the country are some of the world’s best. The traditional recipes tend to be simple, but wildly effective at bringing out the best flavors. Here are some of the best seafood dishes in Lisbon.
1. Polvo à lagareiro
This style of octopus, which does not have a tidy English translation, is pure simplicity. It pairs a few legs, or sometimes an entire baby octopus (boiled or cooked in a pressure cooker), with roasted potatoes and an olive oil-based sauce that is heavy on the garlic.
Where to find it: Marlene Vieira’s stall at Mercado da Ribeira turns out a consistently delicious version. And while it doesn’t it make on to top-ten lists or into guidebooks, the polvo à lagareiro at Pharmacia is fantastic, and made even better by the garden dining area with tremendous views in the summer.
2. Amêijoas à Bulhão Pato
While not necessarily a seafood dish, the garlicky bread stew known as açorda is often served with shrimp, prawns, or mixed seafood. It originated as peasant food for farmers in the Alentejo, so you can expect it to stick to your ribs. That’s especially true when it’s prepared with a poached egg or raw egg yolk on top.
Where to find it: Chef Miguel Castro e Silva does a great shrimp açorda at O Mercado at the Lumiares hotel. The version with prawns at Henrique Sá Pessoa’s casual restaurant, Tapisco, is another standout. And unsurprisingly it’s also quite delicious at Pap’Açorda, which serves a shrimp açorda and a “royal” one with all sorts of seafood.
4. Bacalhau à Brás
Even though it’s not remotely local, cod (bacalhau) is beloved across Portugal. That tradition dates from the days of the Portuguese “discoveries,” when the salt-preserved fish kept the sailors fed on their long journeys. Some Portuguese will tell you there are 365 ways to cook cod, one for each day of the year. One of the most common and satisfying is bacalhau à Brás, which pairs flaked fish with eggs and potatoes. It’s one of Lisbon’s favorite comfort foods.
Where to find it: The new Casa Lisboa from chef Luís Gaspar serves an upscale version on Lisbon’s main square. And given cod’s prominence in Lisboetas‘ diet, there are several restaurants devoted to the fish. A Casa do Bacalhau and D’Bacalhau are among the standouts.
5. Arroz de marisco
Lisbon’s answer to risotto is seafood rice. Soupier and less creamy than its Italian cousin, the Portuguese version has a base of fish stock, white wine, olive oil, and tomatoes. It usually contains mussels, prawns, and regular and razor clams, and can also have monkfish, crab claws, or anything else that’s fresh and delicious.
6. Gambas com alho
This simple appetizer is exactly what it sounds like: shrimp with garlic. The trick to making it is finding the freshest ingredients and cooking them just enough—but not too much. The trick to eating it is allow yourself to get messy. The shrimp come to your table with heads, tails, legs, and shells—all bathed in a light sauce—and you’re expected to peel them with your hands. The Portuguese like to rip off the heads and suck out what’s inside.
Where to find them: All the old-school seafood halls do these well, including Cervejeria Ramiro, O Palácio, and Pinóquio. To try them in a more refined setting, head to Páteo within the Bairro do Avillez complex.
This dish takes its name from its cooking vessel, a copper steamer. Chefs use it to slow-cook shellfish and fish (and sometimes sausage) in a way that retains their aromas and flavors. This being Portugal, a cataplana usually includes onions and peppers and a sauce of white wine, fish or shrimp stock, olive oil, and garlic.
Where to find it: Aqui Há Peixe serves a delicious and beautiful rendition. Other restaurants that specialize in cataplana include Cataplana da Gina, where it comes seven different ways (not all seafood), and Peixaria da Esquina serves four versions with fish and seafood.
Symbolic of Lisbon, sardines are absolutely everywhere during the Santos Populares festival in June. Typical restaurants forget their regular menus and set up grills and tables on the street, and locals show up in droves to eat grilled sardines and bell pepper salad with copious amounts of red wine. The party is the point, so we don’t think it’s worth much effort to seek out grilled sardines during the rest of the year. For that, the ones in tins can be surprisingly good.
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Where to find them: In June, on almost any main street of Lisbon’s traditional neighborhoods, such as Alfama, Mouraria, Bairro Alto, Cais do Sodré, and Santos. The rest of the time, a fun spot to sample sardines and other tinned foods is Can the Can, right on the central square, with waterfront seating and fado music.