What to Eat in Porto, Portugal

When I went to Portugal for Easter break this spring, my first stop was the country’s second-biggest city, Porto. While the northern city’s glorious church architecture, hand-painted tiles, and Harry Potter pilgrimage sites drew me here in the first place, Porto’s rich and tasty cuisine kept me firmly in one place (the table, that is). Read on to learn what dishes to hunt down when you visit this beautiful, crumbling city on the Douro River.

Porto, Portugal
Porto’s old quarter seen from the Torre dos Clérigos

Francesinha (sandwich)

What to Eat in Porto, Portugal
Heart attack on a plate
If there’s anything that every tourist and their mom eats when they come to Porto, it’s the francesinha sandwich. Pronounced “fran-say-ZEE-nyah” [fɾɐ̃.seˈzi.ɲɐ], this sandwich-you-eat-with-a-fork puts ham, various sausages, and steak between two slices of bread, melts cheese on top of everything, and then goes swimming in a peppery broth made of beer and tomato sauce. Often cooks will throw a fried egg on top, and if your heart didn’t hate you already, they garnish the sides of the bowl with a bunch of french fries. People either love it or hate it; I thought it didn’t taste too bad at all but it’s definitely not something you should be eating every day!

The name for this sandwich literally means “little French one,” referring to the croque-monsieur, the ham-and-cheese sandwich that inspired the Portuguese creation.

Bacalhau (cod)

What to Eat in Porto, Portugal
(Source: kathy)
As Portugal was historically a seafaring nation, it should come as no surprise that fish makes up a big part of the country’s cuisine, with cod being the most beloved. Most bacalhau you will find is salt cod, or fresh codfish that has been preserved in salt, a centuries-old tradition that dates back well before refrigeration, and one that allowed both inland residents and mariners to enjoy this simple, healthy fish at any time. After soaking for a day or two in a bucket of water to remove the salt, the de-salted salt cod is ready for cooking, be it crispy cod fritters or the bacalhau à Gomes de Sá casserole.

Tripas (tripe stew)

What to Eat in Porto, Portugal
(Source: Jessica Spengler)
Tripas à moda de Porto or Porto-style tripe is just what it sounds like, but even though cow stomach takes the spotlight in this stew, many other ingredients round out the dish, including butter beans, ham, sausage, chicken, carrots, and onions. While tourists might flock to Porto’s restaurants to try their luck with a francesinha, you’ll often find locals here warming up over a plate of tripas—after all, residents of Porto aren’t called tripeiros for nothing.

As the armies of Castilla were at the gates of Lisbon in 1384, hoping to put a Castilian on the Portuguese throne, folks in Porto decided to subsist on tripe and various organs and send their meat down to their starving brothers and sisters in Lisbon. The Castilian siege was ultimately broken (thanks, Black Death!) and Portugal remained independent, and Portuenses have also been known as tripeiros ever since.

Caldo verde (soup)

What to Eat in Porto, Portugal
(Source: epa!)
Caldo verde or “green broth” reminded me a lot of the caldo galego soup that is so traditional in Galicia where I work. Although the Galician version is much more substantial and thicker, both country’s recipes involve boiled potatoes, greens, and sausages. This simple broth makes a nice first course to warm you up on a chilly winter evening.

Bifana (sandwich)

What to Eat in Porto, Portugal
I took this photo in Lisbon…judge me
Although the bifana sandwich didn’t originate in the Porto area, everywhere I looked I saw signs in restaurants that said “há bifana” or “we have bifanas!” Basically, this is a humble combination of a round bread roll and grilled pork, with a little mustard inside to round things out. It’s a simple, filling snack that you can easily order when a Portuguese-only menu (or none at all) can be intimidating.

Éclairs at Leitaria da Quinta do Paço

What to Eat in Porto, Portugal
All the noms
Right around the corner from the Carmo and Carmelitas churches—or a few minutes north of the famous Clérigos bell tower—you’ll end up at a classy café-bakery with a sprawling terrace, the Leitaria da Quinta do Paço. It can be hard to find a seat inside or out, but it’s definitely worth fighting for your place to try the best éclairs you’ll ever have. I was tipped off to this place by Jessica over at Curiosity Travels, and was so glad I made the effort to splurge for an afternoon snack here. In contrast with American éclairs, which can often be dense and heavy, the ones that Quinta do Paço serves are light and crispy with a delicious icing, usually sliced down the middle and filled with whipped cream. They haven’t changed their recipe since they opened in 1920! I recommend trying chocolate preto (dark chocolate) and limão (lemon).

Pastel de nata (egg custard tart) at Café Majestic

What to Eat in Porto, Portugal
The perfect afternoon pick-me-up
While you’re hobnobbing at the Art Nouveau-style Café Majestic and sipping coffee at a table where J. K. Rowling might have written Harry Potter, make sure you order a pastel de nata—an egg custard tart that you can find all over the country from the most basic roadside stops to the fanciest, centuries-old bakeries. The crust is crispy and flaky and doesn’t do a good job of keep the sweet, gloppy custard filling from oozing out once you’ve taken your first bite, so keep some napkins handy. You may want to order more than one!

Bolas de Berlim (custard-filled doughnuts)

What to Eat in Porto, Portugal
(Source: Mary Fefireis)
Portugal’s a dangerous place to go if you’re trying to go “low carb,” as pastéis de nata tempt you from patio tables and bolas de Berlim call your name from behind streetside bakery windows. The name of these pastries is literally “Berlin Ball” and their closest American equivalent is a jelly donut. A simple, round, bun-shaped donut is sliced in half and then filled with the same rich, creamy custard you find in a pastel de nata…and then the whole thing is doused with (powdered) sugar. So sinful, yet so very good.

Uma bica (shot of espresso)

What to Eat in Porto, Portugal
(Source: Clara Alim)
If you’re coming to Portugal via Spain, you’re in for a real treat, because the quality of the coffee here is leaps and bounds above Spanish stuff. This is mostly because (as far as I know) Portuguese baristas don’t use torrefacto coffee to pull an espresso with, that is, coffee beans that have been coated with sugar before roasting, a preservation technique that dates back to the Spanish Civil War, but is still used today despite the harsh flavor. Most folks in Spain mask the “burnt” flavor with milk and sugar, as in the cortado or café con leche, but a typical Portuguese might simply order a shot of espresso: uma bica. I loved savoring these tiny cups of rich, thick, coffee goodness and tried to soak up as much quality coffee as possible before returning back to Spain.

What are you hungry for now? If you’ve been to Porto, what would you add to this list? Tell me in the discussion below!

For more pictures, check out my album on Flickr.

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