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Essential food guide for your first holiday in Portugal

So you have your holiday to Portugal all booked, you know the sun will be shining, the beach will be perfect and your accommodation is highly recommended, but do you still have that little niggle about what you are going to eat?

It doesn’t matter if you are going for a beach holiday to the Algarve, a city trip to Lisbon or Porto, or a cultural experience in the Alentejo or Central region, food and what you are going to eat, is probably one of the most important aspects of your holiday.

Whether you are cooking for yourself or planning to eat out, food is an amazing experience in Portugal, however there are a few things to consider.

Here are our insider tips for eating in Portugal:

Try to learn a few words of Portuguese before you arrive for your trip, just simply hello, please, thank you, very good and can I have the bill. If you are not good with languages, write them down. Trying to speak, even a few words of Portuguese, goes a long way.

A guide to restaurants for your first holiday in Portugal; 

When you sit at a restaurant you will normally be presented with olives and bread (sometimes even pate, cheese and butter) these are not usually free! And can sometimes cost more than your actual meal. Always ask if they will cost extra, if you do not want them just ask for them to be removed from the table, you will not offend the staff and this is not a problem.

Prato do Dia; You will often see this advertised, this is the special dish of the day and comes at a set price (which is often quite low at lunchtime), it may or may not include a drink, always check.

Menu do Dia: this is a set meal and usually includes the olives and bread, a main dish and a desert and a drink but again check what is included.

Many restaurants have the menu translated, this is a literal translation, so beware, the food you receive may not be what you are expecting, an example of this is bacalhau bras, this is a traditional cod dish that is a mix of tiny French fries, and bound with egg, we have seen this translate to cod, chips and egg (you will not have the meal, the English translation conjures).

Not all foods will look like their description, this is salada de polvo (octopus salad, as you can see there is not much salad in there).

Salada do polvo (octopus salad)
Salada do Polvo (Octopus salad, as you can see not much salad, but very tasty)

When ordering food, look around you, if you see something you like with another customer, ask for that, as you may not notice it on the menu.

In Portugal, people use olive oil, a lot, many dishes come with additional olive oil, including on the salad.

An example, grilled cuttle fish, you would expect a dry dish but as you can see from the photo there was a lot of oil. It tasted amazing, but if you are not expecting a dish swimming in oil you may be disappointed.

grilled Cuttlefish (as you can see there is a lot of olive oil in this dish)

Food looks like food, if you are planning on having a fish dish, your fish will often come out as a whole fish, not a fillet.

Sea bass (a whole seabass)

If you are vegetarian, double check the ingredients, if you can ask then great, but we have seen a vegetarian franceschina, that had in small writing on the menu, cooked in a meat based sauce!

Be adventurous, the food in Portugal is fresh and delicious.

When ordering a desert, choose the one you like the look of, again when translated you may miss out on something amazing, an example is baba de camelo (an almond sweet desert) we have had this translated to camel spit by Portuguese friends, this was not very helpful, and again if you ask what it is, it is condensed milk, sugar and eggs, not very appetizing, but actually tastes amazing.

Baba de Camelo


A food guide to Cafes and Bars on your first holiday in Portugal

Many cafes will have specials available, such as a coffee and a pastel de nata, or an orange juice and a croissant, these are usually on a board or a small card on the counter.

Tostas are very popular, this is two pieces of toast with a cooked filling, always check what is going to be on it, as you may find olives or other additional ingredients added.

If you are ordering a coffee, be clear what sort of coffee you would like, but remember that in a small café, there will not be much choice. A coffee is usually a small shot. If you would like a larger cup make sure you ask for more water or you may just get 2 shots of coffee. The same goes for milk, if you want milk you must ask for it as this will not be included.

Be prepared to wait for service, if it is busy, it may take some time to serve you, you have not been overlooked. Enjoy your surroundings and slip into the relaxed way of life.

Tipping is a difficult one, as this will depend on where you are, if you are not in a big tourist location, tipping is not that common, and if you do tip it is usually only the coins that make up the price to next full figure.

If you are at one of the world wide fast food restaurants, a hot drink does not come with your meal, keep your receipt and take it to the counter when you have finished to get your coffee. Though you can have a beer as part of your meal deal, just not a coffee.

If you are ordering an alcoholic spirit drink, be aware that the size of your drink may be larger than you are used to.

Depending on the time of year you are visiting, Caracóis may be available, as with the bread and olives these are often brought to your table, if you do not want them, just politely say so and they will be taken back (in case you are wondering what Caracóis is, it is a bowl of snails).

Caracóis (a bowl of snails, do not mistake them for the French dish of escargot)


Food guide for Shops/supermarkets on your first holiday to Portugal

There are all different types of shops in Portugal for food shopping, from the big supermarkets that sell everything through to the speciality butchers and bakeries.

If you are in a supermarket, there will be fishmongers, these will have a great selection of fresh fish, but if you are of a delicate disposition, these fish will be whole and come in a variety of colours and shapes.

Fresh fish at the supermarket, yes they are looking at you!

If you are buying fresh fish, the fish monger will descale, gut and clean the fish if you ask them to.

Supermarkets will also have a butchers counter, this is not filled with prepacked pieces of meat (though you can often find this in the cold isles) there will be whole rabbits, lamb, chickens and pieces of meat you may not be used to seeing.

The cuts of meat will often be different to your home country, this doesn’t make it wrong, just different.

Butchers will usually cut the meat to your preference, for example if you are buying a chicken for the BBQ, you can ask to have the head, neck and feet removed and then have it spatchcocked ready for the BBQ.

Remember to say that you do not want the head, feet etc or they will be packed in the bag with your chicken (you will pay for them whether you have them or not).

If you are looking for food from your home country, you will often find the big supermarkets will have an international isle, but beware, the price for this food is often a lot more than it is in your home country.

Many of the larger supermarkets have an ever growing selection of bio (organic) food and vegan/vegetarian foods.

Most milk is UHT, it is not always easy to find fresh milk, but it is very easy to find soya or almond milk.

A food guide to Markets on your first holiday in Portugal

The markets are a great experience and often sell fresh veg, cheeses, meats, plants and clothes plus many other items.

Spice stall at a festival market

The fruit and veg is usually very fresh and excellent quality.

Be prepared to see things you may not expect, such as live poultry and fowl for sale. Olhao-market
Olhao-market. You will often see live poultry at local markets

Portugal is hot and as such there will be flies, these may go on the food, and may buzz around you when you are buying fresh food, just swat them away and carry on.

A few overall tips for your food guide on your first holiday to Portugal:

Never rely solely on credit/debit cards, many restaurants and cafes still take cash only.

Be adventurous with your eating experience, the food is usually fantastic.

If you do need to buy food that you are used to, the bigger supermarkets will often sell a selection.

Learn some Portuguese words before you visit

Hello ------------------------------ Olá
Thank you ----------------------- Obrigado (if you are a man) Obrigada (if you are a woman)
Please ---------------------------- Por favor
Goodbye ------------------------  Adeus
The bill please -----------------  A conta por favor
Can I have the menu ---------  Posso ter o menu

If you enjoyed this article the following articles may be of interest to you

Learn to cook like a local in Lisbon

A vegan in Tomar

Top 10 foods you must try on a visit to Portugal

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