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 this northern city’s glorious church architecture, hand-painted tiles, and Harry Potter pilgrimage sites initially drew me here, 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 along the Douro River.

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

Francesinha (sandwich)

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 sticks 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)

Portugal has historically been a seafaring nation, so it should come as no surprise that fish makes up a big part of the country’s cuisine, especially cod. Most bacalhau you will find is salt cod, or fresh codfish that has been preserved in salt, a centuries-old tradition that allowed both inland residents and sailors to enjoy this simple, healthy fish at any time. After soaking for a day or two in a bucket of water, 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 to the plague), 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!” This humble combination of a round bread roll, grilled pork, and a little mustard is a simple, filling snack that you can easily order if a Portuguese-only menu intimidates you.

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. Jessica over at Curiosity Travels tipped me off to this place, and I 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 would be 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 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 make their espresso with torrefacto coffee, or beans roasted with sugar, a preservation technique that dates back to the Spanish Civil War that’s 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!

Porto, April 2014

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