You’re planning your trip to Lisbon and there’s so much to be excited about: sunshine, viewpoints, riding the electric tram and visiting the best fado houses. However, food lovers will agree that the best part of any holiday is getting to try unique and interesting local dishes, of which Lisbon is home to many. Perhaps the most iconic is the pastel de nata; the Portuguese custard tart.
You may already be familiar with the pastel de nata, a mouthwatering pocket of crispy, flaky pastry with a center of creamy, velvety custard that fits snugly in the palm of your hand. Traditionally dusted with cinnamon, the best pastel de natas are still warm from the oven and can be devoured in two or three delectable mouthfuls.
Pastel de natas are now so popular that they have travelled across the globe – just like the Portuguese did 500 years ago – and can be found from London to Tokyo to Melbourne, but there is something about eating a traditional dish while you’re in the place that it comes from that makes it taste that little bit sweeter. In almost every pastelaria (pastry shop) across Lisbon, you will find this typical treat, however not all pastel de natas were created equally. To help you in your quest to reach pastry heaven, we have compiled a guide to the best pastel de natas Lisbon has to offer.
First things first, pastel de nata literally translates to “custard pastry”. If you’re feeling really hungry and want to order more than one, you’ll need to use the plural “pastéis de nata” and if you want to sound like a true connoisseur, you’ll sashay into the bakery and coolly request “um pastel de nata e uma bica”, a custard tart and its perfect counterpart: an espresso coffee.
The Lisbon pastel de nata is not only delicious but also firmly entrenched in the history and culture of the city. So before we dive into where to find the best custard tarts, let’s trace the history of this unique delight.
In the year 1820, a liberal revolution took place in Portugal, leading to the temporary closure of monasteries and convents. In the Lisbon parish of Belém one holy man, suddenly finding himself in need of work, began baking egg tarts at a nearby sugar refinery and selling them to the public.
The tarts were made using the egg yolks that were left over from the starching of the nuns’ and monks’ uniforms, traditionally done using egg whites. These pastéis de Belém, Belém tarts, as they were known, became immensely popular and three years later the Antiga Fábrica dos Pastéis de Belém (Old Belém Tart Factory) was opened. Therefore, first on our list of where to find pastel de natas in Lisbon had to be the original and, according to many purists, the best…
Antiga Fábrica dos Pastéis de Belém
This iconic café has been producing custard tarts since 1837 and has had to expand over the years to meet the growing demand. Legend dictates that the secret recipe has been passed down through five generations of master pastry chefs and has never been written down. The keepers of this scrumptious secret are rumoured to be forbidden to travel together on the same airplane, in case it should crash and the recipe be lost forever.
The immense café is decorated in typical blue and white tiles, seats 400 people and annually draws hundreds of thousands of tourists who will happily queue for hours just to sample this delectable bite of history. To arrive there, you’ll need to catch the tram or the train out of Lisbon and head west along the coast to Belém, so if you’re looking to source some pastel de natas in the city centre, read on…
In the 1960s, a rumour started that the Pastel de Belém recipe had been bought by the owners of a butter factory in the neighbourhood of Chiado. This factory has now turned into one of the most famous producers of custard tarts in Lisbon, whose quiet opulence harks back to a time when butter was a luxury product.
Inside the tiny shop, there is only room for about 15 people since most of the space is taken up by a glass-fronted pastry kitchen where customers may watch the white-hatted chefs smoothing the layered butter pastry into iron tins.
Unlike other pastelarias on our list, Manteigaria exclusively sells pastel de natas and coffee and whenever a new batch leaves the oven, one of their apron-wearing sellers will typically take to the street and ring a bell, signalling to passers-by that some freshly-baked goodness has just arrived!
What makes a truly great pastel de nata? It should be the perfect balance between creamy and crunchy with a filling that’s neither too sweet nor too heavy and a pastry case that is crisp and tasty, yet light. Indubitably, there is a serious art to producing a treat so seemingly simple. It is fitting then, that every year the city of Lisbon hosts a competition to find the best pastel de nata, and 2019’s winner definitely deserves a mention in our list.
Pastelaria de Santo Antonio
Tucked away in a beautiful tile-coloured building near the St. George’s Castle, a sign outside reads: “Eat a custard tart and ask Saint Anthony for a miracle.” Head pastry chef, Luís Ascenção has mastered the difficult balance of getting that well-fired colour of the custard while being careful not to burn the pastry and does so by cooking the top and bottom of the tart at different temperatures: 390 and 385 degrees respectively.
Another winner for the best pastel de nata and Eating Europe’s favorite one certainly deserved a mention! Join the Eats, Street Art & Undiscovered Lisbon tour to try not only these delicate pastries but plenty of other amazing food in Lisbon!
Knowledge is power and we hope that our comprehensive guide to the Lisbon pastel de nata will give you a good insight into seeking out and savouring the best custard tarts in the city!