When people ask me how I chose my honeymoon destination, I tell them it came down to the food.
My new husband and I agreed that our two-week honeymoon needed to be filled with culinary adventures, and we decided to explore the rich food history of Portugal. We quickly found that compared to some of the more famous European cuisines, Portugal’s food is undeservedly overlooked.
Here are some of my learnings from several weeks there, plus must-visit gems for food and drink:
Introducing Portuguese cuisine
Since its founding, Portugal has enjoyed the unique geographical advantage of sitting at the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea. For hundreds of years, it has served as the gateway to European ports.
But the real question remains: what exactly is Portuguese cuisine?
With inherently multicultural ingredients like grains from North Africa, codfish from the North Atlantic, black pork from the Iberian peninsula and saffron from Southeast Asia serving as foundational elements of local cooking traditions, Portuguese food has lots of different parts.
The country is also blessed with fresh seafood access, ideal grape climate for local wine production and an arid southern climate allowing for year-round produce seasonality.
Lisbon’s food scene
Any culinary tour of Portugal should begin in the capital city of Lisbon where you’ll find some of the top chefs and trendiest restaurants, but also the traditional tavernas and long-time local favorites.
If you’re short on time in Lisbon, the most important stop you need to make is at the Ribeira (TimeOut) Market. This place is an aggregation of 24 restaurants, 12 shops, 8 bars, and a music venue in one of the city’s oldest market structures. From pan-Asian flavors to traditional Portuguese wood fire cooking, you’ll be bombarded with a delicious array of aromas and sounds as you wander through the market.
Regardless of whether you’re a grazer or sit-down eater, TimeOut Market is definitely a place worth dedicating a few hours. I loved it so much I visited it on three (!) separate occasions during our four days in Lisbon, just so I could get a feel for the different vibes it had at different times.
During the day, TimeOut is a bustling spot for tourists and locals alike to eat high quality food at reasonable prices. But at night, it feels more like a nightclub with live music, funky lights and designer cocktails.
With more time in Lisbon, there are plenty of other restaurants you must explore. Part butcher shop, part tavern, part patio, Barrio de Avillez is a progressive culinary experience created by one of Portugal’s most prominent chefs — Jose Avillez. He owns famed Belcanto down the street but Barrio serves as a more approachable and laid-back ambiance.
Pasteis de Belem has been a local favorite over 100 years and remains the birthplace of Lisbon’s most famous sweet treat, the Pasteis de Nata. Visitors flock to this spot to taste the city’s best sweet custard tart, and the flaky caramelized crust and cinnamon topping sure don’t disappoint.
Meanwhile, Cervejaria da Esquina is a shrine to the sea, serving up fresh fish from around the region. Prepared in a multitude of styles (grilled, marinated, pickled or braised), there is a fish dish here for everyone.
Portugal’s coastal gems
Once we had thoroughly gorged ourselves on the cuisine of Lisbon (and added a few inches to our waistlines), it was time to head towards Porto, with a few coastal village stops along the way.
Literally hanging off the edge of a cliff, a stop at Restaurante Esplanada Furnas is a must for seafood lovers. The nautical themed interior looks out floor-to-ceiling windows to give you a panoramic view of the Atlantic Ocean. Dishes rotate daily based on the fresh catch, and you can pick out the exact fish you want from their salt-water baths at the front of the restaurant. My husband and I opted for a simple grilled turbot which was deliciously fresh.
If you’re looking for some beach-side dining, don’t miss the adorably trendy Restaurante Noah in Santa Cruz. We spent an entire afternoon relaxing at this kid-friendly eatery in their indoor and outdoor patio seating. On certain days of the week, they offer a small farmer’s market where you can learn about local produce and chat with farmers about their favorite ways to prepare various ingredients.
Another place I can’t recommend highly enough is the restaurant at Areias do Seixo Hotel. The restaurant focuses on seasonal and sustainable cuisine grown onsite at their organic garden in composted soil. Play nice with the staff and you might even get a tour of the greenhouse!
If you’re up for it, choose the chef’s tasting menu – a three-hour, 12-course tasting menu with locally-produced wine pairings. Memorable dishes such as smoked clams on a bed of pine needles, braised rabbit risotto and beef tenderloin with a cauliflower puree still make me salivate when I think about them.
It was the most memorable dining experience of our honeymoon, and coming from two Chicago-based foodies, that’s saying something.
Porto’s food scene
An up-and-coming culinary destination in northern Portugal, Porto’s food scene is full of hidden treasures.
Porto still retains a lot of the grit you’d expect from a port city. You’ll see fishermen and food stall owners buzzing through graffiti-clad street food markets that sit right next door to Michelin-starred restaurants and 100-year-old Port Wine cellars.
First and foremost, educate yourself about the region’s proud export — Port Wine — at the cozy wine bar Portologia. They offer a variety of port tastings (up to 12 different pours) and the fantastic staff will help make suggestions while also teaching you about the key differences between different port wines such as Tawny vs Ruby or Vintage vs LBV.
Alternatively, Restaurante Traca, is a unpretentious spot in the heart of Porto that dishes up some plates of perfectly prepared Portuguese favorites such as bacalau, crispy prawns or blood sausage risotto.
For a more upscale yet approachable dining experience, you must go to Pedro Lemos Restaurante in the Foz do Duoro neighborhood in western Porto. This Michelin star eatery proved to be one of the top five meals I’ve ever had in my life.
Their specialty is flavorful and decadent sauces poured over simple but perfectly executed dishes. Each plate reflects the country’s rich culinary heritage while exploding with simplicity and flavor. With impeccable service and incredible wine pairings, this 2-3 hour dining experience will blow you away. Highlights from my meal include beef three ways, foie gras with passion fruit sauce and a Portuguese take on bananas foster.
Not looking for anything fancy? Don’t miss Porto’s strange and iconic sandwich, the Francesinha. Stuffed with four types of deli meat and covered in melted cheese and a hot tomato and beer gravy served on a bed of french fries, it’s fair to say it’ll leave you full. The best place to get it is the original Cafe Santiago, a no-frills cafe that is filled with locals and tourists alike.
Regardless of where you end up in Portugal, you are bound to have culinary adventures. Despite the curious looks people give us when we say we went to Portugal for our honeymoon, my husband and I couldn’t have imagined a better way to start off our marriage than eating our way through the most underrated food destination in Europe.
Do you want to see what all the fuss is about in this beauty country? Check out our range of small group adventures in Portugal.
(Image credits from top to bottom: iStock x2, Megan Arzbaecher, iStock x2, Megan Arzbaecher x3, Restaurante Pedro Lemos FB page)