14 Nov Culinary Backstreets Lisbon Food Tour: Song of the Seas Review
About Culinary Backstreets
Culinary Backstreets is an organization passionate about telling the stories behind a city’s foodways. They promote and protect traditional culinary culture, highlighting masters of their craft and family-run establishments through walking tours, downloadable Eatineraries, and written articles.
You’ll find them in Istanbul, Athens, Barcelona, Lisbon, Naples, Tbilisi, Queens, Mexico City, Rio, Tokyo, Shanghai, and Izmir.
“We use food as a lens through which we explore urban issues, highlighting lesser-told stories and people, revealing a deeper side of the city. I think you’ll really enjoy what we have created.”
– Ansel Mullins, Co-Founder of Culinary Backstreets
Culinary Backstreets Lisbon Tours
There are currently three walking tours in Lisbon: two full-day culinary tours and one half-day walk. We got to do a complimentary Song of the Sea tour during our first week in Lisbon, in exchange for an honest review here on the blog and some photo content. (As always, the opinions expressed in our reviews are entirely our own.)
Our guide, Celia, was a freelance journalist and co-author of Eat Portugal. She personally researched the history of the neighborhoods we visited and had interviewed a number of the people we passed in the streets. We met Celia at 10 a.m. and were joined by another family for an enjoyable day walking and eating in Lisbon’s historic port district.
Song of the Sea Tour Details:
Distance: We walked about 8k or 5 miles. Of course, this was broken up into short bits throughout the day. Our guide’s Fitbit registered 6 stories climbed.
Time: 5+ hours
Food: All-inclusive price covers seafood, fish, pastries, alcohol, coffee, etc. Gluten-free and vegetarian alternatives can be arranged with advance notice.
Who it’s for: We really loved that this tour stayed entirely outside of Lisbon’s busy center. We saw almost no tourists and very few crowds. The tour was truly about diving deep into a lesser-known area, uncovering every-day culture and historic traditions, and sampling local favorites. Participants should be prepared to walk a good bit and enjoy all kinds of seafood.
Next we’ll share a bit about some of the stops we made and the great food we got to sample…
Our first stop was a small, family-run coffee roaster. It’s the only wood-fired coffee roaster in Portugal, producing a couple tons of chemical-free coffee beans each week for export around Europe and for use in local coffeeshops. Today, the business is run by a son about our age – he’s third generation in this family enterprise.
We sampled their espresso with some cookies, and we really loved the mild flavor. Since there was no sign on the street, we made sure to mark the location on our phone, and we went back a couple weeks later to purchase beans to take home. The price was extremely reasonable, sold by the kilo – ground or whole bean. Rather than grab a pre-made bag of the shelf, they take the time to hand-package freshly roasted beans!
Around the corner, we discovered the neighborhood’s limpeza urbana, or washing tanks. We’d only ever seen something like this in historic movies. They’re essentially public pools for laundry. These were built on the grounds of a former missionary convent in the 19th century and have long been a community meeting point.
Nowadays, most people have their own washing machines at home, but they might come to the tanks to do larger loads of bedding, for example. Schools and other institutions pay for bulk washings of uniforms and linens. And community events are still hosted there.
While hanging out at the washing tanks, our guide shared with us one of the city’s most famous delicacies: pasteis da nata, which she had brought along with her. This custard-filled pastry comes from the early convents and monasteries, when they needed to start income-generating projects to support themselves. The flaky crust and sweet, creamy center are a delightful combination which can be topped with cinnamon or powdered sugar, or just eaten plain.
We meandered through the cobbled streets, passing from the working-class fishermen neighborhood, the Madragoa (“mothers/nuns of Goa”) neighborhood and on to the wealthier Lapa neighborhood.
Our next stop was a small restaurant serving specialties from Goa, one of Portugal’s colonies in India. The owner, originally from Goa, arrived by way of Mozamique and had been living in Lisbon for 39 years. He originally started producing and selling thousands of spicy samosas a week to support himself. We got to sit down in his restaurant and sample some of his samosas as well as a labor-intensive 9-layer cake that’s typically reserved for special occasions.
With multiple snacks already under our belt, we were by no means hungry. But we sat down for an outdoor lunch at a seafood restaurant located on Lisbon’s port. It’s a popular lunch spot for the area’s office workers, and they specialize in grilled fish.
Next to us, a woman was single-handedly grilling all the fish to perfection amidst billows of smoke and steam. The fresh sardines were incredible, grilled and seasoned with nothing but sea salt. We also feasted on some hard cheese, olives, greens, cuddlefish, a rice and fish dish, and Portugal’s “green wine.”
Progressing further into the Alcantara neighborhood, seafood and beer joints are numerous and locals like to enjoy them while watching a football match. So we sat down for a few more seafood samples from various parts of the country. This time, we tried gooseneck barnacles, prawns, and clams. Most of us weren’t too interested in more of the barnacles, but the garlic sauces on the other dishes made seconds hard to turn down.
Next, we stopped by a small shop selling wines, cheese, and an assortment of other goods. It became apparent that the four other visitors who were in the store when we arrived, were actually just hanging out and not going anywhere soon. The shop has been there for 50 years but it’s a traditional kind of place that’s at risk of being lost to time, which is why Culinary Backstreets makes an effort to support it.
In a tiny back room, we sampled sheepsmilk cheese, sourced from a small village in Central Portugal where the owner is originally from. We also tried tawny port from 1980 and a delicious local pear.
With full bellies, we found ourselves entering another interesting shop with window displays full of nuts, candies, digestive teas, and other natural remedies. We sipped on coffee (which came from the roaster at our first stop on the tour) or verbina tea and munched on walnut and honey cookies while Celia, our guide, wrote out restaurant suggestions for the rest of our trip.
While our tour was officially done, Celia invited us to one more stop down the street, where she was getting bread to take home. It was a traditional bakery with a stone mill grinder that makes sourdough and rye, and the family that came with us also bought some loaves to take home.
We were very impressed by Culinary Backstreets from start to finish. Their communications were very helpful and thorough, their local guides are experts in their subject matter, and their mission aligns perfectly with intentional travel. Their pricing may be higher than others, but we think you will be hard-pressed to find a higher quality, curated cultural experience.
We came away from the tour with deeper insight into a side of Lisbon we never would have experienced otherwise. The food itself was all excellent and the tour included a number of new things we got to try for the first time. We felt bad that we were leaving some things uneaten by the end, but we left so full that we didn’t bother eating anything for dinner later!
All in all, it was a great tour. If you’re looking for an off-the-beaten-path cultural experience, we would recommend checking out Culinary Backstreets.
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