Food, Wine, and Dining in Portugal

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My husband and I recently returned from a two-week trip to Portugal. Each of the last several years, the country had record numbers of tourists. And once you visit, you’ll see why—it has a lot to offer. Warm and welcoming people. Stunning landscapes and over 1,000 miles of coastline and picturesque beaches. It also has an interesting history, quaint towns, beautiful cities, and many medieval structures still stand. And oh yes—delicious wine and food. And all for a reasonable price compared to other popular European vacation destinations. I enjoyed every minute of this adventure—especially seeing gorgeous Baroque churches, visiting historical sites, and sampling the local fare. Here is a quick look at how to enjoy food, wine, and the dining experience in Portugal.

What is naturally available largely dictates Portuguese food (with some notable exceptions), along with the country’s history of sailing to find and conquer new lands in the 1400s. Although largely influenced by Mediterranean staple dishes, it’s easy to note the influences of Africa, Asia, and Brazil. Some of the most common dishes and beverages include:


Seafood rules along the country’s coast, and bacalhau (dried, salted codfish) is one of the most popular choices. The Portuguese penchant for salted cod stems from the mariners’ need for a food source that could last a long time and provide a good source of protein. I had tried bacalhau before and found it overpoweringly salty. But in Portugal, they rehydrate and rinse it many times, resulting in cod that very closely passes for fresh. Most interestingly, cod isn’t even caught in the waters around Portugal. Originally imported from England beginning in the late 1400s, it currently comes from Norway. Octopus is also very popular (often served with potatoes), as are sardines, prawns, clams, and oysters. The seafood is usually prepared simply, to let its natural flavors come through—although plenty of garlic may be involved!


Pastries pop up everywhere in Portugal, and there are bakeries on every block, and in every city and town. As a fan of anything made with puff pastry, I was delighted by the Portuguese pastry habit. I ate pastries every day of our vacation, often at breakfast and sometimes as a snack. And nearly all of them were divine. Many incorporated nuts, but I observed that only a few featured fruit. Custard is a popular pastry ingredient, often flavored with extracts or cinnamon. The most famous egg custard pastry in Portugal is pastel de nata, which is like a small custard tart.

Found primarily in Aveiro, ovo moles is another well-known pastry. While gliding along the city’s canals on a boat tour, a generous fellow traveler shared some of hers with us. The filling is just eggs and sugar, and very thin rice paper creates the pastry encasing it. Ovo moles have an interesting history involving nuns who wanted to use up egg yolks. But the pastry itself was not my favorite—very sweet!


Coffee culture is alive and well in Portugal. Coffee is typically an espresso and costs less than one Euro. Sitting outside and lingering over a coffee isn’t just for tourists. In fact, everywhere we looked (and at all hours of the day), locals were enjoying their tiny cups of espresso. We marveled that they all seemed to have time for leisurely coffee breaks. Later we learned that getting coffee at a restaurant or café is typical, rather than making it at home. Coffee is also very inexpensive in Portugal, which is something they pride themselves on (no $4 lattes here).


Portugal is a wine-producing country, with vineyards dating back more than 4,000 years. By some counts, the average per capita wine consumption is 72 bottles per year! We enjoyed several bottles while we were there (purchasing wine by the glass isn’t really a thing there, we found). We also savored plenty of delicious sangria made with fresh, local fruit.

And then there was the port. True port wine comes from grapes grown in the Douro River Valley. Port is named after the city of Porto, where trading with England began in the 1600s. It’s a fortified wine, meaning that it has other alcohol added to it—in this case, brandy. (The English found that the brandy helped preserve the wine during the long voyage from Portugal to England.) England’s involvement and dedication to making and shipping port is why many port companies in Portugal have English names.

What to Expect When Dining as a Tourist in Portugal

The food of any place I’m visiting is always one of the highlights of the travel experience for me. There are always things to learn about the foodways and customs of different countries, but it helps to be prepared. Here are some tips.

Late-Evening Dinners Are Typical

Residents of both Portugal and Spain tend to eat dinner late (10 PM is not unheard of). But restaurants do open for the evening meal earlier if you’d rather not eat that late. Even when visiting a popular restaurant, you’ll often get a table if you show up at 7 PM. You may not even need a reservation since the locals won’t be there yet.

Food Is Generally Inexpensive

Even at the more popular, well-known restaurants, the prices were reasonable, compared with what you’d experience in the U.S. Happily, that allowed extra funds for trying more new foods and drinks. Also, we found servers to be most appreciative of tips, probably because Portugal doesn’t have a strong “tipping culture.” At most restaurants, a 10% tip is plenty.

Splitting Your Food with a Pal Isn’t a Big Deal

When in a new locale, I like to try a number of dishes that are new to me. In Portugal, I noticed many others ordering multiple entrees and splitting them with their dining partners. In the U.S., this might result in an upcharge, or way too much food for just two people. But entrees in Portugal are not oversized and often don’t come with a lot of adornments (such as vegetables), and no additional charges appeared on the bills. So this approach works well. Add an order of whatever vegetables they’re serving that day and you’ll be in good shape.

Waiters Take Their Time

In Portugal, an easy pace of dining is the norm. This also extends to the pace of the waitstaff, we found. It’s not unusual to wait 15 minutes before anyone comes to your table to take a drink order. Initially this perturbed me but, since it happened nearly everywhere, I realized that’s just the way things are. I took it as a lesson in developing patience. It was also a good reminder to treasure our meals, the views as we waited, and the fact that we were blessed enough to be traveling in a wonderful country.