Grilled sardines, known in Portuguese as sardinhas assadas, are Lisbon's quintessential meal. They are so representative of our local food culture, that you will see a lot of souvenirs and paraphernalia with colorful sardines depicted on them. Furthermore, grilled sardines are one of Portugal's 7 gastronomic wonders, having been voted as such by the population across the country.
Because many travelers look forward to eating this typical meal when visiting the Portuguese capital, you will often come across restaurants advertising them independently of the time of the year. But this is precisely the first thing you should keep in mind if you are interested in tasting the freshness that us Portuguese associate with this kind of meal: sardines are not something we actually eat all year round! (more on this below…)
If you are lucky enough to travel to Lisbon during June, you won’t certainly be able to ignore the Santos Populares festivities. These are a collection of popular street parties hosted to celebrate Saint Anthony and, because eating sardines during these days of the year is so incredibly popular, the festival has become known amongst tourists as “the sardine festival”.
Eating sardines in Portugal is a ritual. Local people eagerly await all year long, until sardines are available during warmer months. We certainly do not take this meal for granted, as it's not something we can have all the time. As such, as simple as they may seem, sardinhas assadas are to be treasured as a true gem of Portuguese cuisine.
If you have never tried sardines before, of you’re simply curious to learn more about how to make the most of your sardine related experiences here in Portugal, we gave some tips for you:
When is sardine season in Portugal?
Portuguese sardine season happens in the warmer months, approximately between late May and early October. Because this species is mostly abundant during summer months, sardinhas assadas are often regarded as a typical summer meal. The fact that our favorite way of eating sardines involves grilling them with a sprinkle of coarse salt, allowing them to absorb the smoky flavors of the charcoal they are grilled over, contributes even more to this association. When the weather allows and the fish is in season, locals like setting up their outdoor grills to prepare sardines and let the skin get charred and crispy, while the flesh remains moist and succulent. Restaurants do so too, and usually serve this omega 3 packed fish with rather straightforward side dishes, such as salad with lettuce, tomatoes and onions (salada mista) or roasted bell peppers salad marinated with olive oil and vinegar (salada de pimentos). Potatoes are the starch of choice to bulk up a sardine meal, and the most common ways of cooking these tubers as a side dish for sardinhas are boiled (batata cozida) or roasted in the oven, slightly smashed and drizzled with olive oil (batata a murro).
Even though summer is indeed the best time to eat sardines in Portugal, you will see that they are available all year around, even though to a much lesser extent. It would be safe to assume that, outside season, if you order sardinhas assadas at a restaurant in Lisbon these will be frozen. Of course there is nothing wrong with eating them frozen but you must keep in mind that these will be quite different from their fresh counterparts. So if you want to experience proper sardinhas assadas like Lisbon so dearly loves you must be patient and wait until summer time!
Best places to eat sardines in Lisbon
It may sound simplistic, but the very best place to eat sardines while in Lisbon, are the streets! Even though the festival of Saint Anthony officially happens on the 13th of june and the days building up to it, the truth is that there are street parties going on in the most traditional of Lisbon neighborhoods (think Atlfama, Graça, Madragoa, Bica and more) ALL month long! This festival is the best time to eat sardinhas assadas with no fuss: grilled right in front of you in outdoor set-ups, while the smoke and scent of fresh fish takes over the city… We don’t need to suggest a specific place on the street to eat sardines, as they will be literally all around you as you walk and explore the most iconic bairros of our city.
Besides the streets, the next best place to eat grilled sardines with the customary sides of potatoes and veggies, are tascas. This is a Portuguese term which refers to humble tavern style eateries which usually focus on serving good home-style food in a simple setting. Tascas are the opposite of fancy restaurants: they care more about food than they do about the decor or ambiance, the staff is like family (which means that they can be friendly or in a mood), the portions are big and the prices are friendly.
Portuguese folks are quite rigid when it comes to reinterpretations of their most classic dishes. This means that, most of the time, we eat sardines like we have been doing for many, many years. But, as Lisbon's dining scene is so vibrant, there are plenty of chefs who dare to reinvent traditional foods and create brand new dishes. We would still encourage for you to eat sardinhas assadas but, after you are done trying these typical Lisbon meal, choose to sample great sardine dishes at some of these recommended restaurants in Lisbon:
Tasca do Jaime
Fo traditionally prepared grilled sardines at a tasca with live Fado music
📍Rua de São Pedro 40, 1100-551 Lisbon
For a meal al fresco (pictured above)
📍Calçadinha de Santo Estêvão N°13, 1100-502 Lisbon
Taberna do Mar
Sample a popular sardine nigiri which has its own hashtag! #niguiridesardinha
📍Calçada da Graça 20 B, 1100-266 Lisbon
Can The Can
Immerse yourself in the intense aromas and umami packed flavors of garum, an ancient fermented fish sauce produced since the days of the Roman empire in Portugal, about 2000 years ago!
📍Praça do Comércio 82 83, 1100-148 Lisbon
To munch on a satisfying sardine sandwich with roasted peppers nodding to tradition and basil mayonnaise for a fresh contemporary touch
📍Rua de Belém 36, 1300-083 Lisbon
Ao 26 Vegan Food Project
To try a plant-based version of sardines. True story! This vegan restaurant has created a 100% vegetable dish called “melancholic sardine” which is meant to encapsulate the flavor and essence of Lisbon style sardines
📍Rua Horta Seca 5, 1200-213 Lisbon
How do you eat sardines?
We know that, depending on where you come from, you may not be used to eating fish which is served with skin and bones. No judgment in that - we’re here to help! Deboning your fish with a fork and knife once platted is no easy job, and when the fish in question is a sardine, which is rather tiny and has many bones, the task can be even harder.
There are essentially two ways of typically eating fresh sardines in Portugal: atop a slice of bread (sardinha no pão) or on a plate with side dishes. We eat sardines on top of bread when we are on the go, namely during the street parties of St. Anthony and other popular festivals. This is something that is supposed to occupy just one of your hands as, in theory, the other hand would be busy holding your drink. If you are skilled and have enough practice, you will be able to eat your sardines just by getting your mouth close to the fish. You eat one side, then turn it around (you might need to ask someone to hold your drink to do this) and then eat what’s on the other side, always around the central bone. If this feels too advanced, make sure you have both your hands available to do this. Hold your slice of bread with one hand and with your most able hand tear the flesh of the sardine, pulling it away from the central bone. When the fish is super fresh, the flesh will come out easily. Keep in mind that we normally eat the skin - it’s delicious! It should be slightly crispy and salty, and this is exactly where a big part of the flavor concentrates. Eat the skin together with the flesh to understand what a sardine actually tastes like.
When you sit down at a restaurant, you are supposed to eat sardines with a fork and knife. Some people who couldn’t care less about protocol at the table, will still go all in with their hands. At a casual restaurant nobody will look at you weird for doing this. So, if it's easier for you, go for it! If not, try to pull away the flesh from the bones using your cutlery. Press the fish down with the fork and remove flesh from the main piece pulling away with your knife. If you have several days of vacation in Lisbon we hope you get more than one chance to try this, as indeed takes some practice to perfect the technique. Whichever way you go about it, we hope the work involved doesn't deter you away from enjoying mouth-watering sardinhas assadas. It’s just a matter of habit, we promise!
Where can I buy sardines to take home?
There might not be fresh sardines available all the time, but we sure eat them all year long. How? We opt for canned sardines - sardinhas em conserva. Portugal has an incredible range of canned fish and seafood. We're talking about high quality gourmet products that have little to do with the cheap canned sardines you may see in the supermarket shelves elsewhere in the world. The scope of prices when it comes to canned fish in Portugal varies tremendously, and that is because the quality does so too.
When you purchase canned sardines in Portugal, which we honesty think is one of the coolest souvenirs you can get in Lisbon, you can choose plain sardines in vegetable oil (sardinhas em óleo vegetal) or olive oil (sardinhas em azeite); or those preserved with extra flavors - some of our favorites include tomato sauce (molho de tomate), spicy sauce (piri piri) and even spicy tomato sauce (molho de tomate picante). If your budget allows, ask for sardine roe, or ovas de sadinhas, internationally dubbed as “the Portuguese caviar.”
There are some very touristic canned sardine shops in Lisbon which have inflated prices beyond what we find is reasonable. To purchase good quality sardines at prices that do make sense, go to:
Conserveira de Lisboa
They opened back in 1930 and, since then, they have consistently been a top place in Lisbon where to purchase high quality tinned fish
📍Rua dos Bacalhoeiros 34, 1100-321 Lisbon
Loja das Conversas
They have a shop featuring the best Portuguese brands of preserved fish and also a restaurant where they do creative dishes using tinned seafood
📍Rua do Arsenal 130, 1100-040 Lisbon