Where to Eat like a Portuguese King on a Cheapskate’s Budget in Lisbon (And Other Local Travel Tips)
Tacos are not Portuguese. Say it with me, folks, “Tacos are not Portuguese.”
Good. So let’s find out where you could be eating delicious, authentic, mouth-watering food in Lisbon like a Portuguese King, on a pauper’s budget.
Note that it’s “the Alfama,” like “the Bronx.”
If you’re seeking an authentic Portuguese vacation, no doubt you’ve read all the tourism pamphlets telling you that the Alfama — Lisbon’s oldest neighborhood, and where Lisbon was born — is a must-see.
It’s a pity the Alfama is so filled with inauthentic Portuguese restaurants — and a new hamburger joint, too.
Those restaurants which were once authentic (and affordable — all authentic restaurants in Portugal are affordable) have jumped on the tourist bandwagon and started charging higher prices, as well as posting a dude in a waistcoat outside their door to lure you in. (More on this guy later.)
Incidentally, there’s also a big taco place in the Alfama. You can’t miss it. It stares down at you with all the imposing power of a big investment in a tiny village.
Do not eat at the taco place! Sheesh.
(In all fairness I have no personal experience with this taco place. It’s probably quite delicious.)
No, if you want a taste of the real Portugal in the Alfama— both in price and in atmosphere — you need to head over to Zip-Zip.
This restaurant is so obscure that I had to use Google Street View to “walk the road I stayed on” in 2016 to find it again. They have no website. The tables are covered with paper tablecloths (the surefire sign in Portugal that the food is both truly local and delicious). When I first went there, there were four rough-looking dudes standing outside shooting the shit, drinking beers, at least one of them with missing teeth.
Do not feel afraid if you see these men! They will not harm you! They are just friendly locals relaxing!
Trust me on this. It’s another sign of the honestly local, affordable place. Again — no waiter with a waistcoat and a menu in his hand standing outside. (Run for the hills if you see this guy! His restaurant will rip you off and steal your wallet!) No posh sign outside the door. Just a bunch of guys hanging out, wanting some affordable grub. Just a chalkboard outside with the day’s specials on it.
If I recall correctly, they spoke no English. (I speak Portuguese, so I didn’t check this specifically.) But the lady in the kitchen (the owner’s wife) spoke some French.
The food is effing incredible.
Don’t worry about not understanding the handwritten menu. You will like everything. It is all good. It is all plentiful. And it is all so affordable.
I ate there almost every night for sixteen days during a book research trip in 2016, missing only the nights when I got home too late (or when I was invited to eat even better food at my aunt’s house — but she doesn’t run a restaurant, hence no further mention of her in this article).
Price at Zip-Zip? In November, 2016, I payed €6.00 for a meal fit for two, bread, and a glass of wine.
Six. Freaking. Euros!
Zip-Zip is tiny. It looks like a coffee shop. (All the best Portuguese eateries do — they skip the frills.) And you will save so much cash that you’ll have money left over to stay in the city a few extra nights!
Eating in the “Baixa” neighborhood — Downtown Lisbon
It’s pronounced “buy-sha,” and it means literally “at a lower level.” It’s short for “Cidade Baixa” (“See-dahhd buy-sha”) because it’s the part of Lisbon which sits in the basin between the panoramic views from the Alfama on the east, and the “Bairro Alto” (literally, the “High-up Neighborhood”) on the west.
You’ll recognize the Baixa by all the right-angled city blocks and plenty of space, as opposed to the meandering warren of streets in the Alfama.
Downtown Lisbon is really small. You can walk from one end of it to the other in twenty minutes. And you can walk from the Alfama to the Bairro Alto in about thirty-five minutes.
“But those hills!” you say.
Yeah, bring sneakers.
Walking those cobblestoned hills is all part of the charm. You could take a tram or a bus. But why skip the opportunity to build up an enormous appetite when you’ll be eating at a place where you can ACTUALLY AFFORD THE FOOD?
In the Baixa (see? the Baixa), the trick is to look for the café-style spots off the beaten path. Let’s remind ourselves of this vital tip to saving you money: Avoid all places with a dude standing outside in a waistcoat holding a menu! That smile he wields is the smile of a wolf! These places will charge upwards of thirty or forty Euros per plate (if not more), not to mention the cost of the wine, the desert, and then the freaking tip.
No self-respecting Portuguese person ever pays that much for good food!
These places are tourist traps, every one of them. You must remember that the Portuguese have a long, experienced history as fishermen. As a tourist, don’t become the new fish.
I am teaching you survival skills here.
Of particular threat to your bank account is the Rua Augusta. That’s the gigantic walking street you get to when walking through the Rua Augusta Arch.
The street has chairs in the center of it — chairs of people eating food which they paid their life savings for!
Do not be fooled. Turn left (east) and go four blocks instead, to a place called:
Pastelaria Eva Cafetaria
Typical Portuguese food, great prices.
Best of all, no hills!
I don’t think they speak English, but I’m not entirely sure. I saw lots of local construction workers there, plenty of other locals as well. This is always a good sign for an awesome local restaurant.
If you don’t speak Portuguese, just ask for “Bacalhau à Brás com vinho tinto.”
“Vinho tinto” is red wine (and no Portuguese meal is complete without a glass of red wine), and “Bacalhau à Brás” is a traditional dish of cod fish, cream, eggs, and some other secret stuff I don’t know about. It’s absolutely delicious.
“Armazéns do Chiado” — the Crème de la Crème of incredible, cheap food
Just look at this plate:
Or at this one:
Okay, okay, I know you’re probably hungry now. You might get even hungrier when I tell you that both of those plates, including the wine and a coffee, were less than 8 Euros!
I kid you not. Imagine all the additional vacations you could take to Portugal with that extra money. Hell, you might even consider visiting Spain.
“Armazéns do Chiado” means (more or less) “Chiado Department Store.” It’s a tiny mall with a food court on the top floor. Chiado is the neighborhood you’d be in if you went to the Pastelaria Eva Cafetaria. Here’s the link to the mall on Google Maps.
But the mall is at the top of a steepish incline so, yeah, you’d have to climb another hill, albeit a small one. Welcome to Lisbon!
The food court also has a McDonald’s.
McDonald's, for those of you who do not know, is not a Portuguese restaurant.
Steakhouse Sabor Gaucho
One of the meals pictured above was from the Steakhouse Sabor Gaucho self-serve restaurant, situated inside the Armazéns do Chiado mall. (The restaurant also has seating inside if you prefer to be waited on.) Actually, this restaurant used to be called something else but the food is so similar that I wonder if it isn’t owned by the same people and simply went through a re-branding.
That re-branding upped the prices by about a Euro. One Euro is considerable when it comes to us cheapskates — but the food is totally worth it.
Unlike the other restaurants on this list, this one doesn’t include the wine in its price. But the entire meal comes to about €8.00 with wine and coffee (by which I mean an espresso). You just can’t beat that.
I normally order the “Prato Misto” (“Mixed Plate”) which contains a little bit of every kind of meat they serve.
Sr. Frango da Guia
These guys don’t have a website, but they have a Facebook Page. (This is a very Portuguese thing to do, by the way.)
“Sr.” is short for “Senhor” or “Mister.” (And not “señor,” people. “Señor” is Spanish, and Portugal is not in Spain, for those of you who didn’t know.) “Frango” means “broiled chicken.”
Now you know.
When I’m not scarfing down the enormous plates at Steakhouse Sabor Gaucho in the Armazéns do Chiado mall, I’m at Senhor Frango where the food is both authentic and plentiful. I think the guy at the counter spoke English. If not, just point to the pictures on the menu and remember “cerveja” (pronounced “servayzha”) for beer.
Always take the coffee (by which is meant an espresso, of course — don’t blame the server for your own misunderstanding of the culture if you actually wanted an “Americano” instead) for the additional 50c. Because, hey, it’s only freaking 50c!
Other Good Restaurants at the “Armazéns do Chiado”
There are other good restaurants in the food court. If you’re not a total miser like me, “Portugália Balcão” is one that has always looked great. But, yeah, I think they want to charge as much as €9 (I don’t recall the price exactly) for a deliciously massive meal including a wine and including a coffee. Well, y’know, why pay nine when you can pay eight, is what I say?
But maybe you’re not as stingy as I am on the budget.
The truth is, the food court is packed at lunch time. These guys could charge €12 and still fill up. But, yeah, when your shoe-soles have holes in them, like mine do, you’re okay with standing in line a little longer to save that one Euro.
The Mouraria — The “Moorish” Quarter
The way to find local places in Lisbon is to walk the roads less traveled and look for “Cafetaria” or “Pastelaria” (which actually means “pastry shop” — but who’s counting?) signs with a bunch of metal or red plastic “Sagres” chairs outside, bustling with locals talking so loudly you could hear them in Andorra. That’s how I found this next place.
The meal was a little small but, heck, it only cost me four Euros…
Yes. Four Euros.
I asked for a “meia doze” (pronounced “may-yah dozz”) which is a half portion. (Foolish of me — I forgot how hungry those damn hills can make you!)
Hey, for four Euros I could’ve just ordered another one. But I didn’t. Maybe I had somewhere to go. Maybe I was counting my pennies. I’m not saying.
There’s a bit of a hill-climb to get there (what did you expect in Lisbon?) or, depending on the route you chose, there might also be a massive flight of stairs.
I took the stairs.
Build that appetite!
The place is called “Pastelaria Violeta,” and they do have a Google Maps listing, although no one has claimed the business. Why would they? It is completely filled with locals at lunch. The restaurant is too busy serving delicious, overflowing plates of food to waste time fiddling with that thing called the internet.
They were so busy I had to sit at the counter. (And I was too hungry after climbing those stairs to go anywhere else.)
It’s right outside the historic Hospital de São José.
The Cheapest (and best) place to eat in Belem — an absolute steal!
Last but not least, you will likely visit the iconic city of Belem to eat the original “Pastel de Nata” whose ingredients are top secret. (We can only hope they use only FDA-approved ingredients.)
FYI, my wife prefers the “non-secret” versions of these pastries which you can find all over Lisbon—and for far less money. But, hey, you’re a tourist, you’re in Lisbon, swim toward the nets!
The biggest net of all is undoubtedly Belem. The tourist prices at every single museum there are enough to stop you eating for a day just so you can afford to visit the Belem Tower and take a photo of yourself inside the dungeons.
A little friendly advice from your caring tour guide here: You will be severely disappointed at your wallet’s emptiness once you see the dearth of space inside the tower compared to what you paid to see it. Rather visit the Coach Museum. At least there you’ll get your money’s worth. (WARNING: Do NOT try and scrape any of the gold off the gilded carriages in this museum so you can pay for your next meal. You WILL be arrested by the Portuguese Police!)
The Maritime Museum is also quite spectacular.
But! Visiting all these museums builds up an appetite! And before you dish out your last Euro to fill your belly and thereby strand yourself at Belem for lack of train-money to get back to the downtown, go to this local place I found where you will eat like a nobleman for the price of a peasant.
It’s called TORRE Sandwich Bar Café
Folks, this is no sandwich bar. This place sells FOOD! Gigantic, massive plates of saliva-inducing Portuguese food which you will pay virtually nothing for. I mean, we’re talking of ginormous, mouth-watering dishes for absolutely ridiculous prices like €3.50 or €4.00.
It’s insane! I go there every time I visit Belem.
Look at this Google Maps listing. This place shouldn’t have a solitary Euro symbol for Price, it should have a half-Euro symbol!
In case you haven’t guessed it already: No waiter standing outside in a waistcoat here, no sirree. You’ll see metal chairs outside and a chalkboard. Hell, you might even afford that walk up the Belem Tower after all, and have enough cash to get home without having to sell your body over at the Cais do Sodré docks.
One man’s dive is another man’s five-star restaurant
“Lisboetas” (people from Lisbon) can be summed up as a chilled, relaxed, easygoing people. I think it’s because of all that sunshine.
Adopt this attitude when you walk into a place which looks, to you, like a dive.
It likely isn’t a dive. It’s a local joint with paper tablecloths, red wine by the jug-load, free olives and bread slices, a man at the counter who has been there since 5:30 A.M., his wife in the kitchen who has been there just as long, and a homemade plate of food so yummy that you will find yourself coming back to this “dive” night after night.
You’re in Portugal, enjoy it. Maybe you’re on vacation because you needed to destress, or to meditate on your life, or perhaps to get away from all those damn taco places. We know how you feel!