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Portugal for Vegetarians: A Survival Guide

Last updated: December 2019*

Even by European standards, Portugal is not an easy country for vegetarians. With the exception of fish dishes, meat features in almost every dish: even dishes that could be vegetarian often have meat added for flavour. 

Vegetables aren’t really a focus in Portuguese food. In fact, with the exception of some boiled frozen vegetables, a lot of Portuguese main courses don’t really have vegetables in them. The Portuguese usually have soup before the main course and this is where they get their vegetables. 

But Portugal is becoming more accommodating to vegetarians and vegans. There are some fantastic vegetarian and vegan restaurants throughout the country but especially in Lisbon, Porto, and the Algarve, and many restaurants are adding vegetarian and vegan options to their menus. Some restaurants have even gone as far as to create meat-free versions of typical Portuguese dishes like the traditionally meat-packed Francesinha.

Self Catering, the easy option

fruit-and-veg-section-of-Portimao-market28065429
Fruit and veg section of the market in Portimão

Portugal may not have many vegetarian dishes, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get great fruit and vegetables in Portugal. You can. 

The markets in Portugal are incredible and, unlike markets in other countries, they’re very affordable as well. In fact, the fruit and vegetables you’ll find at the markets are usually cheaper and better quality than what you get in the supermarkets. 

Depending on the season, you’ll often find some unique fruits that you mightn’t have seen before there such as diaspiros and nesperas.

It’s a fantastic country to cook in, so get on Airbnb.com and find yourself somewhere with a nice kitchen. That way, you’ll have the option of eating out or in. 

(It’s also worth looking out for somewhere with a BBQ, if you’re staying outside of the cities. Unfortunately BBQ isn’t a filter on Airbnb, so you’ll have to read the descriptions and look at the pictures to see if it has one).

Other shopping tips

  • If you’d prefer to go to the supermarket, I find Lidl to be the best for fruit and vegetables.
  • Health food shops are common in Portuguese cities, especially in larger cities like Lisbon and Porto. They are usually quite expensive, but you can get plenty of meat-free products there. 
  • Chinese supermarkets can be a cheaper alternative for some things like tofu. You won’t find Chinese supermarkets in rural parts of Portugal, but you will find them in the larger cities. 
  • Supermarkets like Continente and Pingo Doce usually stock lactose-alternative milks like almond milk and soya milk, if you don’t drink milk. This isn’t always the case in the smaller metro supermarkets that you find in the city centres, but you’ll definitely find some options in the larger out-of-town supermarkets. 
  • Most large supermarkets, and even some of the smaller ones, will have a health food aisle. 

Vegetarian & Vegan Options of Typical Portuguese Dishes

For a long time, trying traditional Portuguese dishes like the bifana or pastel de nata just wasn’t an option for vegetarians and vegans.

Thankfully, that’s all start to change. Many Portuguese cafés and restaurants have created their own vegetarian and vegan versions of some of the most common Portuguese dishes.

Vegan pastel de nata

pasteis de nata

Although pastéis de nata are vegetarian-friendly, they’re not vegan-friendly. Thankfully, a lot of bakeries in Portugal have begun making vegan-friendly natas.

Lisbon

  • Pastelaria Batalha (map)

Porto

  • Vegana By Tentugal (map)

Vegetarian francesinha

Francesinha with chips

Traditionally made with sausage, ham, and steak, this Porto sandwich is anything but vegetarian-friendly. A few restaurants in Portugal are breaking the mould, though, creating recipes that substitute milk with mushrooms, tofu, seitan, and other vegetarian-friendly products.

Porto 

  • Francesinhas Da Baixa (map)
  • Lado B Café (map)
  • Lupin Restaurante (map)
  • Moment’ Um Pão de Chocolate (map)
  • Em Carne Viva (map)
  • ‘O Oriente No Porto (map)
  • Gauleses (map)

Lisbon

Braga

  • Taberna Belga (map)

Bulhão Pato Mushrooms

Porto 

  • Em Carne Viva (map)

Pescatarian? You’re in luck

Grilled robalo – A typical daily dish in Portugal.

If you don’t eat meat but you do eat fish, you won’t go hungry in Portugal. The Portuguese eat a lot of fish and seafood – the national dish is bacalhau (salt-dried cod) after all – and you’ll find fish options on just about every menu in Portugal. This does change if you go inland in Portugal, but you’ll usually always be able to find some fish options. 

Some fish dishes to look out for include:

  • Bacalhau – There are apparently more than 365 different recipes for bacalhau
  • Cataplanas – A cataplana is a kind of light stew that’s typical in the Algarve, and many cataplana dishes are fish or seafood based e.g. cataplana de peixe (fish cataplana) or cataplana de marisco (seafood cataplana). 
  • Sardinhas assadas – These are a common feature on Portuguese menus during the summer months when they’re in season . These have a much stronger taste than other fishes like robalo or dourada, and may not be for everyone. Avoid ordering them outside of season as they’ll be cooked from frozen rather than fresh. 
  • Arroz de Marisco – A seafood rice stew. 
  • Amêijoas à Bulhão Pato – Clams cooked in olive oil, garlic, and coriander. 

Eating fish isn’t either, definitely in comparison to a lot of other countries. Fish dishes are normally priced the same or only €1-2 more expensive than most of the meat dishes on the menu. 

On weekdays, many traditional restaurants will have a menu do dia or menu of the day. This is an affordable weekday lunchtime menu (usually around €10 or less) and it’s usually easy to find one that contains grilled fish of some kind. 

This is normally robalo (seabass) or dourada (bream), and it’s normally served with boiled potatoes and maybe boiled vegetables as well. Both of these are mild-tasting white fish.

Marisqueiras

Tiger Prawn

If you do eat seafood, treat yourself and visit a Portuguese marisqueira. This is a specialist seafood restaurant where you can order things like tiger prawns, lobster, crab, mussels, etc. It’s something that’s very typical in Portugal, and something you won’t find so easily in the rest of the world. 

It’s also more affordable than you might expect. Yes, it’ll be more expensive than a normal Portuguese restaurant but much, much more affordable than ordering seafood in most other Western countries.

Vegan? Not so much

If you don’t eat dairy or eggs, it will be that little bit harder – especially if you want to try the different cakes and desserts in Portugal. 

Almost every Portuguese dessert or cake has egg in it. That’s true of most cuisines, but in Portugal it’s taken to new extremes. Eggs aren’t just used to bind, but are a focal part of the recipe.

As for savoury snacks, it’s incredibly difficult to find something that doesn’t have either meat or cheese.

Tip: One cake that doesn’t use eggs is

Traditional Portuguese Dishes That Are Vegetarian

Ignoring fish dishes for a second, you won’t find many meat-free dishes on a traditional Portuguese menu. That said, there are a few things that you can look out for.

Couvert

Algarve carrots and olives

When you sit down at a restaurant in Portugal, the waiter will normally bring over some bread, along with olives, and maybe butter, sardine or tuna paste, cheeses, and sliced ham. In the Algarve, it’s also common to get a small plate of sliced carrots. 

This is known as the ‘couvert’ and, while it’s not free, it’s usually very affordable. You don’t have to accept all of it or any of it (just say no thanks), so it can be vegetarian: the bread, olives, butter, cheese, and carrots (cenouras à algarvia) are all vegetarian-friendly.

Starters 

Caldo verde

This can be a vegetarian dish.

A lot of articles I’ve read say that the chorizo is added at the end, so just ask them not to add chorizo, but that’s not quite true: it depends on the recipe.

Some recipes don’t add chorizo until the very end, but a lot boil chorizo with the potatoes and cabbage, remove it while everything gets mashed up, and then chop up a few slices of chorizo and place them on top. 

Asking for it without the chorizo on top doesn’t really make a difference if it has already been cooked with chorizo.

Main Dishes

Migas

Migas, which is kind of like a type of dumpling, is another dish that often gets recommended as being Portuguese and vegetarian. While most migas recipes are vegetarian, this isn’t really a main dish in itself.

In the Alentejo, where this dish comes from, migas is normally served with pork. If you do see it on a petiscos menu, definitely order it, but most of the time you won’t see it by itself. You’re also unlikely to see it outside of the Alentejo very often.

Desserts

Molotov
Molotov – a dessert made almost entirely from egg whites.

Desserts in Portugal obviously don’t contain meat, but they do usually contain eggs. In fact, some desserts, like flan or molotov, are almost entirely made of eggs.

If you don’t eat eggs, some desserts to look out for are:

  • Maçã Asada – This baked apple dish typically just uses apples, cinnamon, sugar, and port wine.
  • Peras Bebedas – Similar to Maçã Asada, peras bebedas are pears that have been poached in wine along with sugar, cinnamon, lemon, and aniseed.

Otherwise, most dessert menus in Portugal also have fresh fruit as an option.

Petiscos

Petiscos is the Portuguese equivalent of tapas, and you can usually find enough options on the petiscos menu to make something of a meal – especially if you have some bread and cheese. 

A few vegetarian-friendly dishes to look out for include: 

  • Azeitonas – Olives.
  • Cenouras à algarvia – Slightly marinated carrots served with coriander. 
  • Pão – Bread. 
  • Tábua de queijos – A cheese board. 
  • Queijo fresco – Fresh cheese. 
  • Pimentos padron – Grilled peppers. 
  • Salada mixta – Mixed salad.
  • Ovos com espargos – eggs with asparagus. 
  • Tremoços – Lupini beans that are preserved in brine and usually eaten as a small snack with beer.

If you eat fish and seafood, a fish common dishes that you’ll see include:

  • Salada de polvo – Octopus salad. 
  • Choco frito – Fried cuttlefish. 
  • Salada de ovas – Fish roe salad. 
  • Camarões/gambas à la guilho

Street Food

roast chestnuts

Street food isn’t a major part of Portuguese culture – people prefer to sit down in a café or restaurant to eat rather than walk around – but one thing that you’ll come across in Autumn and winter is roast chestnuts.

They’re tasty, seasonal, and a big part of Portuguese culture. If you see someone selling them, be sure to order a “meia dúzia” or even a full “dúzia.”

Snacks

If you want a snack during the day, head to your nearest café or pastelaria. In the counter, you’ll find a mixture of savoury snacks and cakes and there are usually a few things that you can order from the menu as well e.g. sandwiches (sande) or toasties (tosta). 

It’s always worth asking if they have any soup, and also what it is, as it’s quite common that you can order soup throughout the day. Whether or not it’ll be vegetarian is another thing, but it’s always worth asking as you may get lucky and it might be vegetable soup that day (sopa de legumes). 

If you eat dairy, you won’t have any problem getting a snack. First, you have all the many wonderful cakes and sweet pastries that Portugal has. You can usually also order a sande de queijo (cheese sandwich) or toast with butter (torrada com manteiga). 

pasteis de bacalhau

If you eat fish, you may see pastéis de bacalhau (called bolinhos de bacalhau in the north) in the counter. These are fried fritters made with bacalhau and potatoes, and they’re definitely worth trying. 

You may see chamuças (samosas) as well. These often contain meat, but it’s possible that they might be vegetarian either. It’s always worth asking.

Breakfast

Breakfast in Portugal is typically bread of some sort, usually with ham, cheese, or both. If you’re vegetarian, just skip the ham but, if you’re vegan, it can be hard to find something that doesn’t have dairy products of some kind.

Other cuisines

Non-Portuguese restaurants, particularly Indian restaurants, are often easier for vegetarians and vegans. 

Most cities in Portugal will have a handful of international restaurants, including Indian or Nepalese, Chinese, Arabic (kebab shops), Italian, and burger restaurants. Almost all have some kind of vegetarian option. 

In more rural parts of the country, particularly places that aren’t popular with tourists, you’re probably only going to find Portuguese restaurants and being a travelling vegetarian is going to be a little trickier and you may have to do a little more self-catering.

A few extra tips

  • Mixta means mixed. If you see salada mixta, this is just a simple salad with lettuce, tomatoes, and onions. If, however, it’s next to sandwiches or the options before were ham (fiambre) and cheese queijo (cheese) then mixta means it’ll be both ham and cheese. 
  • Don’t be afraid to ask if something is vegetarian or if they have any vegetarian options. Some restaurants are more accommodating than others, it has to be said, but many places will try and come up with something if they don’t have anything on the menu. 
  • Supermarkets don’t have a lot of grab and go food options, but you will find a few things like soup and salads.

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