A Guide to Portugal's Delicious Cakes and Pastéis, and Where to Try Them

A queijada from Vila Franca do Campo in the Azores
A queijada from Vila Franca do Campo in the Azores | © Kritzolina / WikiCommons
Nina Santos

While visiting Portugal, be prepared to give your sweet tooth some exercise. Pastry shops are practically on every major road, and cafés are even more common, home to long counters filled with an assortment of pastries and cakes. Then there are the specialty cake shops, which are usually never too far away. In Portugal, cakes and pastries are eaten for breakfast, as snacks, and, of course, as dessert immediately following a traditional meal. Don’t know where to start tackling the famous Portuguese desserts on your trip? How about with this guide of cakes and pastries that we have prepared for you.

Pastéis are among the most commonly ordered sweets in Portugal, in large part because of the famously world-renowned pastéis de nata and especially those from Pastéis de Belém. Deliciously creamy and sweet with a flaky crust, it’s certainly one of the first things first-time visitors should try after arriving in Lisbon, but there are more pastéis where these heavenly bites come from.

What’s better than a pastel de nata along the Tagus River?

Queijadas are another pastry that’s pretty popular all over Portugal, especially in Sintra, Évora, Madeira Island, and the Azores. As noted in its name, queijadas are commonly made with queijo (cheese) in addition to sugar, milk, and eggs. Variations exist, though, like queijadas de laranja (with oranges) and queijadas de coco (with coconut).

A queijada from Vila Franca do Campo in the Azores

Other pastries that you may see are called pastéis de feijão, or bean pastries. Normally made with red or white kidney beans, they are pretty ubiquitous in Portugal but originated in Torres Vedras, a region just north of Lisbon and Sintra.

Each region has its own variety of pastéis (and other types of cakes), such as the pastéis de Tentúgal. This nationally famous recipe was developed in a convent (like many others) in the village of Tentúgal in central Portugal.

Then there are the cake-like sweets made with puff pastry. One of the more famous examples is the Travesseiro de Sintra, rectangular pastries of flaky crust filled with almond cream. If you like sweet things and don’t mind your fingers getting a little sticky, trying these local delights is a top thing to do in Sintra and the best place is arguably downtown Sintra’s famous café Casa Piriquita.

A plate piled high with Travesseiros de Sintra

Piled high with slices of puff pastry are Jesuítas, another item listed under doçaria conventual (convent-made confectionary). The recipe was first created by a Spanish pastry chefs from Bilbao who lived in the north of Portugal and designed to resemble the robes of Jesuit priests. It won’t be hard at all finding Jesuítas inside cafés or pastelarias in Porto.

Mil folhas are similar to French millefeuilles with alternating layers of puff pastry with custard and topped with a frosted sugar layer.

Do you like muffins? A number of muffin-like cakes pair incredibly well with coffee and tea (and are nice on their own, too). Bolos de arroz (rice cakes), queque (funny star-shaped muffin-like cakes that are sometimes made with carrots), and pão de deus (called God’s Bread and made with coconut) are three examples that can be found all over the country.

They may not look fancy but Bolos de Arroz are definitely worth trying

In Lisbon, “O Melhor Bolo de Chocolate do Mundo,” or “the best chocolate cake in the world,” will be found at the cake shop of the same name, located in the LX Factory and around the corner from the Campo de Ourique market. There is also a kiosk on Avenida da Liberdade.

Pão de ló is for those of you who like American sponge cake. As with pão de deus, it might be called a bread but this is a common cake and found in Portuguese households during special events and as after-dinner treats.

After dining at a restaurant, try the bolo de bolacha, made with Maria cookies and cream with variations depending on the chef. Most restaurants offer their own version of this cake and sometimes call it the “sobremesa da casa” (house dessert).

What is our recommendation for tart-lovers? Many, but one in particular is the Tarte de Amêndoa, made with chopped, caramelized almonds and a popular dessert in Lisbon and Alentejo.

This list can go on and on, but let’s wrap it up with a holiday favorite. The Bolo Rei is a Christmas cake that’s covered with candied and dried fruits and sometimes contains nuts. Inside, a toy waits for the lucky person who finds it in their slice. Spain and some other European countries have their own version of the Bolo Rei (in Spain, it’s called Roscón de Reyes).

Find the best spots for pastéis de nata here.

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