9 unique local food specialties in Portugal and where to find them

Portugal is a culinary paradise. It is easy to find delicious national dishes all over the country and delicious international dishes in many cities. What we like most are the local food specialties. These are dishes or treats specially prepared in a region, town or small village. Some of them have become so popular that you can find versions of them outside their native country. Every bite tells a story. So, we would like to share with you some of our favorite unique local food specialties in Portugal and where to find them.

Pastéis de nata Belém in Lisbon

Image credit: Sue Riddell and Diana Lascaris

1 – Pastéis De Belém (Pastels De Nata)

Probably the most famous pastry-loving Portugal is Pastél de Nata (plural is pastéis). These mini egg pancakes are a passion for locals and visitors alike. Pastéis are what are known as monastery sweets, originally made in monasteries and convents when sugar became plentiful and egg production in Portugal was (and still is) huge. Egg whites were used for many purposes, including the starch for the nuns’ habits. The result was plenty of egg yolk and sugar, which cleverly turned into sweets of countless varieties. While only the original producer could use the Belém name for the Lisbon region where he resides, pastries called Pastél de Nata have spread elsewhere across the land.

Where to try Pastéis De Belém (Pasteis De Nata)

To try the original, head to Pastéis de Belém in Lisbon. The original recipe for this bakery was sold when the nearby Jeronimos Monastery had to raise funds. Just a warning that there can be long queues at peak times. For another Pastél de Nata we love, visit Lisbon’s Fábrica de Nata where you can even see it.

Pro tip: Go inside and get a table at one of the many dining areas instead of waiting in line. You can enjoy pastries as well as beautiful tile work.

Francesinha at Café Santiago in Porto, Portugal.
Francesinha at Café Santiago in Porto

Image credit: Sue Riddell and Diana Lascaris

2. Frenchy

Not to be outdone by Lisbon, Porto has distinct food specialties, too. Francesinha is undoubtedly one of the most unique local food specialties in Portugal. If you’ve ever imagined a sandwich that would satisfy even the most craving diner, then “Little Frenchie” should be it. Honestly, there’s nothing to say about that. Francesinha was created by Daniel da Silva, who lived in France for a while before returning to Portugal. He had seen a croque monsieur (a French ham and cheese sandwich) there and wanted the ‘Portuguese’. The result is a huge meal between two slices of bread. What is in it? Fresh sausage, steak, smoked sausage, ham and cheese. but that is not all. On top of the sandwich is melted cheese, beer, garlic, tomato sauce, and topped with fried eggs. This is a better sandwich for sharing or what we call “gut toss”.

Where to try Francesina

You can find Francesinhas in many parts of Portugal, but I would suggest having one in Porto. Opinions differ as to what is best, so do not add fuel to the fire. Try a popular place like Café Santiago, Lado B Café, or Francesinha Café. This is just one of the best sandwiches in Portugal.

Limpets in Faja dos Padres in Madeira, Portugal.
Limpets at Fajã dos Padres in Madiera

Image credit: Sue Riddell and Diana Lascaris

3. Labas (limpets)

Madeira Island has something special that seafood lovers will love. Lapas, the Portuguese word for duck, are single-shelled mollusks that cling to coastal rocks. With a sweet and light flavour, lapis sauteed in garlic butter and served with fresh lemon. As an appetizer or side dish, another specialty in charming Madeira is pollo de caco. Soft, chewy bun shaped bread made with sweet potatoes. It is often served warm with garlic butter and is the perfect complement to papas.

Where do you try Labas

If you are able to visit Madeira, we highly recommend stopping by for lunch at a beachfront café called Fajã dos Padres. You will get a gondola down the hill with stunning views all around. You can also try lapis at some locations on the mainland, such as Marisco na Praça in Cascais.

Travesseiros at Piriquita in Sintra, Portugal.
Pillows at Piriquita in Sintra

Image credit: Sue Riddell and Diana Lascaris

4. Quejada and Traveros of Sintra

Sintra is known for its many castles and winding roads that make it a favorite day trip from Lisbon. But it is also known for two unique sweets. The first is Quejada de Sintra. This little “cheesecake” is amazing because the crust is thin and crunchy. The filling is made with a cheese similar to ricotta and baked to get a thin crust on top. Another noteworthy Sintra specialty is Travesseiro. Travesseiro means pillow, so it’s no surprise that it’s made with puff pastry surrounded by egg yolks and almond cream and then dusted with sugar. These are among our favorite pastries in Europe.

Where to try Quejada and Traveros de Sintra

Arguably the most famous bakery in Sintra is Piriquita. It has two locations in the small town, which shows how popular it was, especially for Traviseros. Another popular Sintra spot is Dona Estafânia.

Piglet pork sandwich.
baby pig sandwich

Image credit: Sue Riddell and Diana Lascaris

5. Piglet

Roast suckling pig (asado) whole until the skin is crispy and the meat is tender and open is called Leitão. This dish is celebrated all over the country, especially in the beer specific wine region. Leitão assado is a passion that permeates the small towns of the area. Cooking Leitão takes patience with a spit and roasts it whole for hours in a wood-fired brick oven. Many places serve Leitão whole in large pieces, such as pulled pork on a plate, or in a sandwich.

Where to try Leitão

Leitão is so popular, especially around the holidays, that it can be found just about everywhere, even in grocery stores like Pingo Doce. For a true Leitão de Bairrada experience, visit the small town of Mealhada, which has more than 30 restaurants serving the dish known as the “Seven Wonders of Portuguese Gastronomy”. A popular restaurant called Pedro dos Leitóes has been serving it for over 75 years.

6. Fried chocolate

Across the bridge south of Lisbon, Setúbal has gained fame and popularity. An ancient city that was inhabited by both the Phoenicians and the Romans. Currently, the city has a growing artistic community. A special local dish is Choco Frito (fried squid). Squid is similar to squid and the city displays funny statues of it. Choco Frito has chicken finger-like pieces that are boiled soft, then coated with seasoned cornmeal and fried until the outside is crispy while the inside remains soft.

Where do you try Choco Frito?

Setubal has a wide range of Choco Frito options. The locals have many better views, so ask those around you for more ideas. Casa Santiago, King of Choco Frito is a good place to start.

7. Nuts and sand

Cascais is not only a great resort just 40 minutes by train from Lisbon, but it is also a paradise for foodies. There is unique seafood, such as baby lobsters found in the area, as well as the famous Santini ice cream. Two of our favorite desserts are the Cascais specialties. Nose means nut and these little balls are a mixture of sugary egg yolks covered in a transparent candy shell and topped with walnuts. Arias are delicious little cakes that pop in your mouth with butter wrapped in sugar, giving them their name, which means “sand.” We love arias so much that we came up with a recipe to make at home.

Where to try Nozes and Areias

There are plenty of bakeries making these Cascais specialties, but we love Bijou and Saculinha so we can take it with us while watching the fun action in downtown Cascais.

Sao Miguel cheese in the Azores, Portugal.
Sao Miguel cheese in the Azores

Image credit: Sue Riddell and Diana Lascaris

8. Azorean cheese

The Azores are the other independent islands of Portugal (Madeira is the first). Much of the industry there revolves around agriculture, especially the dairy type. We were surprised when we moved to Portugal to discover that a lot of mainland cheese is made from sheep and goat milk. The Azores encourage happy cows to graze in the fertile lands resulting in an abundance of dairy products. Among the best Azorean cheese. Each island produces its own varieties that are enjoyed all over Portugal and beyond. Two of our favorite cheeses are São Jorge and São Miguel cheeses, which are produced on the islands with these two names.

Where to try the Azorean cheese

Fortunately for us mainlanders, Azorean cheese is freely available in our local markets. However, if you have a chance to visit these wonderful islands, we recommend taking a trip there and tasting them fresh as well. They go perfectly on a cheese board with some fresh bread and fruit.

Black pig at Botequim da Mouraria in Évora, Portugal.
The black pig at Botequim da Mouraria in Évora

Image credit: Sue Riddell and Diana Lascaris

9. Black Pig

The food and wine in the Alentejo is second to none. The area has a lot to see and do from seeing ancient ruins to tasting wine, olive oil, cheese, and more. One of its prized products is porco preto (black pork) which is produced from black Iberian pigs that are fed on acorns from the many oak trees in the area. When you see it undercooked, borco preto is like marbled Japanese-Cuban beef. That’s where the flavor settles, and why porco brito is so delicious. It is used to make bacon and sausages as well. When we visited Évora in the Alentejo, we enjoyed porco preto in almost every form.

Where to try Porco Preto

Porco preto is available in many restaurants throughout Portugal. For a real treat, head to Évora and enjoy it at Botequim da Mouraria in the historic city center or 5Amendoas off the beaten track.

One of the best things we learned after moving to Portugal is that there are unique local food specialties across the country waiting to be discovered. This is a start, but there is definitely more to come.

For more information on traveling to Portugal, check out these articles:

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