The smell of sardinhas wafts through the streets of Lisbon’s oldest neighbourhood, Alfama.
‘Why sardines?’ I ask, while ordering three at a grill set up outside Restaurant Republica Portuguesa on Rua dos Cegos.
‘For St Antonio, our saint,’ the chef tells me, throwing the silvery fish onto the barbecue and sprinkling coarse salt.
‘When he went to preach in Rimini, he didn’t have the best time because everyone ignored him, so he went to preach to the sea and the sardines swam over to listen.’
Kate Wickers explores the gastronomy of Lisbon, and finds that food tourism in the city has boomed post pandemic
He tells this story in such a straightforward way that it has to be true. And the fish, once cooked, with salad and a salted baked potato, is bang-on perfect.
Food tourism in Lisbon has boomed post pandemic with Jose Avillez’s Michelin-starred Belcanto the hottest seat in town.
It must be pricey and so I head to his more accessible and less expensive Bairro do Avillez, housed in what was once the Sao Luiz Municipal Theatre.
Among its multi-eating options, Minibar, a gourmet bar hidden behind a bookcase, is the most intriguing. ‘See if you can find a drink within the flower,’ the waiter says, presenting me with a long-stemmed rose.
Like a magic trick, within the folds of its petals I discover an edible cocktail — a lychee and rose margarita-infused coil of apple.
Kate says that the smell of ‘sardinhas’ wafts through the streets of Lisbon’s oldest neighbourhood, Alfama. Above, the fish features in a traditional Portuguese spread (file photo)
Another unusual restaurant is found at Museu da Farmacia, where I wander among an exhibition of apothecaries through the ages, which includes a collection of medieval medical implements and linen condoms. It is almost, but not quite, enough to put me off my lunch — testament to the deliciousness of the orange and duck croquettes and melon gazpacho, which I enjoy on Restaurant Pharmacia’s lawn terrace with views down to the river Tagus.
A bike tour with Cycling Lisbon begins at the grand Praca do Comercio square and continues along the Tagus, past old wharfs reimagined into nightclubs and attractive restaurants. We pedal past the brick red 25th of April Bridge (the longest suspension bridge in Europe) and on to the Belem Tower, a 16th-century fortification which was an embarkation point for Portuguese explorers, ending the tour at the Time Out Mercado da Ribeira, a gourmet food hall and produce market on the Western Waterfront.
Here, 24 of Lisbon’s top chefs offer their food at a fraction of restaurant prices and €11 gets me a seaweed black risotto with scallops from chef Alexandre Silva.
Kate dines on orange and duck croquettes and melon gazpacho in the restaurant that’s housed in the Museu da Farmacia, pictured
For dessert, it’s a pasteis de nata (Portuguese custard tart) from the Manteigaria bakery, where butter is pounded into the pastry before it is rolled and folded over and over to create the flakiest bite.
I’m staying at AlmaLusa Hotel in one of the capital’s loveliest squares — the historic Praca do Municipio — which occupies what was once the navy arsenal. Its restaurant-cum-fine food deli Delfina specialises in Portuguese classics, so I order what is the country’s ultimate comfort food bacalhau a bras — shredded salted codfish fried with matchstick potatoes, onion and egg.
‘You can come back for some more tomorrow and the next day and the one after that,’ the waiter jokes when I tell him how delicious it is. ‘There are 365 ways to cook it so you’re good for a year.’
A bike tour with Cycling Lisbon takes Kate past the brick-red 25th of April Bridge (above)
Kate stops by Belem Tower, a 16th-century fortification that was an embarkation point for Portuguese explorers
Kate tries a pasteis de nata (Portuguese custard tart) from the Manteigaria bakery, pictured
The Time Out Mercado da Ribeira, a gourmet food hall and produce market on the Western Waterfront
For an evening combining Fado music (traditional songs from the 1820s that are characterised by mournful tunes and lyrics,) and dinner, I wind my way back to Alfama to Real Sociedade.
A bottle of Torre de Vila Nova (a young green wine) characteristically light, and often with a slight sparkle, proves perfect with arroz de marisco (seafood rice) — a wetter version of Spanish paella made with a thick tomato sauce, prawns, clams and mussels.
The heartfelt songs (with lyrics pertaining to lost love and hard lives) continue into the small hours, until shots of Ginjinha, a sticky cherry liqueur that locals swear by as a quick ‘pick-me-up’, are downed to give energy for the journey home.
Kate’s base is the AlmaLusa Hotel, pictured, where double rooms are priced from £142
AlmaLusa Hotel sits in one of the capital’s loveliest squares — the historic Praca do Municipio
AlmaLusa Hotel’s restaurant-cum-fine-food deli Delfina (pictured) specialises in Portuguese classics
Final word must go to chourico (pronounced shoo-ree-zoo), Portugal’s favourite sausage. Made with pork shoulder, with less paprika than its Spanish rival and more garlic.
Served at breakfast with eggs, appearing in soups and stews, and starring in the traditional cataplana de marisco (a monkfish, seafood and sausage casserole), the most theatrical way of serving it is a bombeiro (on fire), when the sausage is set alight at the table with a whoosh.
In the tree-canopied courtyard of Restaurante Lautasco, while my chourico are ablaze, I give thanks to St Antonio that I’m still in possession of my eyebrows.