Portugal isn’t new to the international foodie scene. The petite European country boasts wine traditions that have been carefully protected for centuries and a melting pot of cuisine that ranges from ancient smoked meat recipes to fishing practices that have been passed down for generations.
From the rugged northern plains to the vineyards south of the Tagus and the Azores islands, Portugal’s cuisine varies with each distinct region. This guide to wining and dining throughout Portugal — from Braganca to Faro the must-visit destinations in between — will leave you with a new taste of what makes this country so special.
The World Heritage-listed city of Oporto, known simply as “Porto” among North Americans, is famous for its 2,000 years of history. It’s no wonder historic Porto and the plains, coastline and mountains of Northern Portugal are home to some of the most carefully crafted ingredients in the country.
Porto’s famous Tripas à Moda do Porto (Porto tripe) is a dish that dates back to the 14th century, when Henry the Navigator asked Porto locals for food supplies for his ships. The people were left only with offal, and were forced to make the most of ingredients like tripe. Thus, the city’s characteristic bean- and tripe-based stew was created.
Head to the Trás-os-Montes region and stock up on famed Trás-os-Montes’ olive oil and some of the best wheat bread you’ll ever taste. Smoked meats, including the famous Portuguese sausage alheira, will pair well with your other findings.
Find yourself in the Vinho Verde region of Northwest Portugal, and there’s no passing up a bottle of Alvarinho, made from white wine grapes found in Monção and Melgaço. And you won’t want to leave Northern Portugal without tasting the exquisite Port Wine from the oldest demarcated wine region on earth — the picture-perfect Douro Valley.
The Centro Region of Portugal, or Centro de Portugal, is the heart of the country, stretching from the Serra do Buçaco mountain range to the North Atlantic Ocean. This region, littered with UNESCO World Heritage Sites and stunning natural scenery, is known for flavours that are as diverse as its climates and landscapes. Signature eats range from decadent cheeses to traditional desserts, and of course, Centro de Portugal offers an array of regional wines that must be tasted.
Snack on Serre da Estrela cheese made only with milk from sheep bread in Bordaleira or taste the most distinct flavour of the region, Castelo Branco cheese made from pure sheep’s milk. Bouillabaisses, sausages, roast suckling pig and the sweet Ovos Moles of Aveiro are all must-try items when dining or sipping wine in the region.
The Dao River wine region, spanning Centro de Portugal’s mountainous area, produces full-bodied reds that only grow better with age. And for more to taste near the sea, the Bairrada wine region boasts some of the country’s best sparkling wines with grapes that thrive in the cool, moist climate.
When you find yourself in the historic capital city, it’s time to delight your tastebuds and senses with petiscos (tapas) and luscious wines amidst some of the country’s most iconic cultural sites and picture-perfect coastal scenery.
Portuguese locals don’t like to stray too far from their centuries-old recipes, but the capital city boasts a long list of award-winning eateries that serve up the classic, must-try dishes with modern flair. Fill your belly with torrada (thick, buttered Portuguese toast), several varieties of bacalhau (cod prepared one of thousands of ways), bitoque (steak with fried egg), and pay a visit to Pasteis de Belem for Portugal’s famous custard tart pastries.
Try a red from the subregion of Colares, a white from Bucelas or taste Ginjinha, a sweet Ginja cherry liquor, which originated in the nearby town of Obidos. Lisbon locals are also known to have up to five espresso drinks (bicas) per day, so don’t hesitate to pop in one of many hole-in-the-wall cafes for a little extra kick.
Portugal’s Alentejo Region is known for its plains that appear to stretch the edge of the earth and a sunny southern climate that encourages cool drinks and lighter fare. The vastness of the region means the cuisine and local wines are as wildly varying as the beaches, marshlands and pastures.
Good food is the source of much pride in the Alentejo Region, and you simply can’t leave without tasting the Alentejo black pork, ensopado de borrego (lamb stew), gaspacho and açorda Alentejo style, a traditional soup-like dish made with poached egg, bread, garlic, olive oil and herbs. Regional cheeses, clams, barnacles and fresh fish from the sea are other common menu items that you shouldn’t resist.
The Alentejo Region is known for its wines rich in colour and aroma. Areas that were once occupied by wheat fields as far as the eye could see are now lush vineyards. Visitors can taste wines from eight wine producing areas, including Portalegre, Evora, Moura, Borba, Redondo, Reguengos, Vidigueira and Granja/Amareleja. White wines from the region are characteristically fresh and aromatic, while the reds are known to be full-bodied and intense yet smooth.
Portugal’s Algarve Region is known for its ideal climate, postcard-worthy beaches, secluded islands and towering seaside cliffs. To say the area is scenic isn’t giving its beauty enough credit. The flavors that come from this region are just as bright as its blue ocean waters.
The star of most plates when visiting the Algarve is the seafood that’s caught just off the coast every day. You’ll see locals dining on fresh clams, gooseneck barnacles and percebes. Octopus, crabs, lobster, dorada and grilled sardines accompany fresh local vegetables to create entrees at restaurants overlooking the sea.
The Algarve Region’s desirable climate and quality soil make it an exceptional location for vine growing. The region’s roots in wine production are said to date back to 2000 B.C., and for that reason, you shouldn’t leave without trying the nationally and internationally-acclaimed wines at Quinta dos Vales, which showcases Touriga Nacional, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Viognier and Aragonez grapes.
The deep blue Atlantic Ocean may separate Madeira and the Azores from mainland Portugal, but these two island regions, characterized by panoramic ocean views and sugar sand beaches, are not short on places to wine and dine.
You may even find that Portugal’s unrivaled seafood and regional wines taste better when enjoyed among volcanic lakes, geysers, levadas (aqueducts or irrigation channels), and the world’s largest Laurisilva forest. Portugal’s islands are among the most exotic in the world, whether you’re hiking, boating, beachcombing, wining or dining.
These island regions of Portugal are famous for seafood feasts loaded with tuna steaks, scabbard fish fillets, octopus, limpets and other seafood gathered straight from the Atlantic. Beef kebabs, crunchy fried corn, garlic- and wine-marinated beef and homemade couscous are traditional favourites for those who aren’t as passionate about seafood as the islanders.
If you’ve ever heard of Madeira wine, you know why the Portuguese island of Madeira is a must-visit destination for wine aficionados. Madeira Wine is known as a favourite among explorers, kings, generals and the likes of William Shakespeare, and there’s no better place to taste it than on the island for which it’s named.
When visiting the Azores, you can taste the wine heritage of the region on Pico Island. Winemaking in the region dates back to the mid-15th century, when Franciscan friars introduced the verdelho grape to the area. Once winemakers on Pico Island found the grape, the area became known as one of Portugal’s top wine destinations. Now, the “Landscape of the Pico Island Vineyard Culture” is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that must be seen before or after tasting the island’s iconic wines made from verdelho, arinto and terrantez grapes.