Gastronomic dexterity and Portugal go hand-in-hand. You might think the food scene is simply cod bakes and pastéis de natas, but dive a little deeper and there’s much more going on in the fine dining scene. Portuguese food draws heavily from its ocean (lamprey, crab, trout, lobster, sardines) and is defined by subtle yet well-paired flavors as well as plenty of innovation.
Along with spoonfuls of pride and passion, what sets the fine dining scene apart from many others around the world is the total lack of pretension. Service is smart but low-key and the servers are well-versed about what’s on the plate and in your glass. Expect knowledgeable waiters, multilingual sommeliers, and chatty chefs, whittling off foodie facts with a smile over your dinner, with plenty of behind-the-scenes kitchen visits, too.
And the prices? They are hard to beat. Set menus at a Michelin-starred spot in the north of Portugal with courses that head into the dozen will rarely set you back over €200 (a similar offering in London or New York is often double that). And at the moment Michelin stars in Portugal are shining bright. The world-famous gastronomy guide awarded five new stars to restaurants in Porto and Lisbon in 2023 and recently commissioned the Michelin Portugal 2024 guide, marking (somewhat unbelievably) the first time ever in which Portugal’s gastronomy has been celebrated in its own right. Previously, Portugal’s restaurants were relegated to the back pages of the Spanish guide.
There’s a lot to uncover in the North. In Porto, the Unesco-listed old town along the waterfront, Riberia, has bars overflowing with patrons clutching porto tonicos (a popular sweet cocktail from the region made up of just white port and tonic), and busy tascas (casual Portuguese eateries which were once for the working-class), on cobbled streets. Porto is also a boundary point for exploring the natural diversity of the region. The lush Douro Valley region, accessible by cruise or train, boasts steep terraced vineyards and fertile mountains on which sheep, cattle and pigs graze. It’s no wonder this region is also known for an array of mouthwatering meats such as the alheira sausage (made from pork and garlic) and sarrabulho (pork and rice cooked in pig blood). And of course there’s the seafood. Portugal boasts some of the best in the world, renowned for freshness, quality and the skilled chefs who know how to bring it to life. Yes there’s cod aplenty, but lots of other well-cooked fish dishes that will excite even the most refined palette.
3 of the best food experiences in Porto and the North
Tuck into sardines at Mercado Do Bolhão, Porto
To first get your foothold on the foodie scene in Porto, head to its most famed food market, Mercado Do Bolhão, which first opened its doors more than 200 years ago and has undergone a recent renovation. It’s not fine dining, but here is where you’ll see market-sellers hawking cabbage and kale to restaurateurs for their Calco Verde soup, as well as a great selection of smoked meats, creamy cheeses and sardines – both canned and fresh.
Where to try it: Set up shop in the Bolhão Wine House and watch the world go by as you sample fresh sardines – lightly battered, salty and warm – with a side of cornbread. Wash it all down with a €3 glass of vinho verde (green wine).
Chow down on a francesinha sandwich
Porto is a city famed for not just port wine, but also the artery-busting francesinha sandwich. The traditional recipe layers toasted white bread with steak and ham, over which sliced cheese is melted with a tangy tomato-and-beer sauce (molho de francesinha), topped with egg and served with a side of fries.
Where to try it: Lado B is a laid-back cafe-restaurant, which is so confident that it serves the best francesinha in the world, it has trademarked the expression. Wash down your sandwich with a cold beer.
Relax with a vineyard picnic in the Douro Valley
What could be better than spending a relaxed afternoon shaded by olive trees in the warm Douro Valley sun while enjoying a selection of fresh breads, cheeses, pastries and meats, alongside a chilled glass of white? Probably not much.
Where to try it: Symington Family Estate, leading producers of port and wine, and owners of a sprawling vineyard in the Douro Valley, offer a picnic on the grounds, which goes very well after taking a tour of the winery (around €55 per person).
3 of the best places for fine dining in Porto and the North
This elegant barn-like restaurant overlooking the rolling hills of the Douro Valley combines impeccable flavors with effortless style on the Symington Esate. Run by Michelin-starred Chef Pedro Lemo whose eponymous restaurant in Porto has been a hit since opening in 2009, at Bomfim 1896, he’s replicating his magic touch with a menu that’s homely, yet incredibly high-standard. Large wood-burning ovens sit at the heart of the kitchen, with Lemos using traditional recipes that showcase the best of Portugal’s cuisine with patrons sitting in a whitewashed high-ceilinged room that feels fit for a banquet.
What to try: Everything here is outstanding, but entrée-wise don’t miss the smoked eel brioche topped with apple and radishes; a light, perfectly-balanced bite of heaven that looks almost too good to eat. For the main, the lobster rice – a cross between a risotto and a stew – is creamy and topped with generous chunks of tender lobster. The wine focuses on Symington bottlings from both Douro and Alentejo with a fantastic selection of ports, too. Expect to spend around €100 per person for three courses without wine.
Haute cuisine in Portugal doesn’t come much more sophisticated than at The Yeatman, a two-star restaurant in Porto within a hotel of the same name, which offers a dazzling tasting menu of 14 immaculately-presented dishes and a sweeping panorama of the Douro river to feast on too. Ricardo Costa, a Portuguese Masterchef judge, is at the helm here, the youngest Portuguese recipient of a Michelin star.
What to try: The tasting menu is a dazzling display of Costa’s culinary prowess, with plenty of fish dishes paying homage to his Aveiro roots – a city along the Atlantic coast 50 miles south of Porto. Bite-sized stand-out morsels include a tiny seaweed tart adorned with tapioca pearls, kimchi and ginger, draped with a slither of salty seabass. The nitro zamburina, creamed Galician scallops fashioned into a shell and served with a berry confit, is a burst of mild and sweet flavors. And the spider crab, extracted from its shell and served in a light tomato-based sauce, is insanely good. The fixed seasonal tasting menu is €250 per person without wine.
At Euskalduna Studio in Porto, guests can experience truly immersive dining, with a marble counter, with space for just 16 people, overlooking the kitchen where the dynamic head chef Vasco Coelho Santos and his young team prepare dishes in front of patrons. Food is inspired by Vasco’s time working in the kitchens of Spain's Basque region and Japan, with all dishes feeling fun, innovative and fresh yet free from any pretentiousness.
What to try: The tasting menu of around ten exquisite courses or "moments" is what earned Vasco his one Michelin star. And while you might find several sauces and ingredients popular in Japan (sea cucumber for one) the menu still feels distinctly Portuguese. The oyster cream tacos are light, crunchy and moreish. Then there’s the amberjack fish (which Vasco sliced in front of us) drizzled with XO sauce. The trout confit was also a real highlight and Vasco himself is a joy to watch. The set menu cost is €145 per person.
Vegans and vegetarians
While a meat-free francesinha is impossible to find, when it comes to fine dining, vegetarians will fare almost as well as their meat-loving counterparts. Bomfim 1896, for example, offers a few delicious veggie options, such as spiced cauliflower and purple artichokes whereas The Yeatman boasts a fully-vegetarian 14-course tasting menu, with dishes such as sweet potato with lupine and salicornia to courgette noodles and celery as well as curried eggplant. Vegans on the other hand, may struggle to find suitable options.