Jesuíta from Pastelaria (Bairro Alto Hotel). (Pastelaria Barrio Alto Hotel)

Portugal’s rich pastry tradition goes far beyond egg tarts

Discover custard doughnuts, eggy sponge cake and layers of coffee-soaked biscuits in Lisbon and Porto

Eating warm pastéis de nata fresh from the oven is one of the best reasons to visit Portugal — and you should do exactly that without an ounce of shame. But if you restrict your sugar intake to the famous egg tarts found on every corner, you will miss out.

There’s a diverse tradition of Portuguese desserts spanning centuries of history and thousands of creations, including decadent biscuit cakes, shredded chicken breast puddings and more. Thankfully, even regional specialties can be found in the shops of big cities such as Lisbon and Porto.

A local's guide to Lisbon

Portuguese sugar production — first on the island region of Madeira, then in the former colony of Brazil — generated so much wealth it was called “white gold.”

This abundance led to the creation of many sweets with broad influences, including monks, Catholic nuns and artisan bakers who adopted ingredients such as almonds, pumpkin, cinnamon and even rabbit meat. As a child in the northern region of Trás-os-Montes, food writer Virgílio Nogueiro Gomes recalled hearing the phrase, “Leaving the table without eating dessert is leaving the table with a poor mouth.”

The following five treats represent some of the most popular that visitors should try — besides pastéis de nata.

Bola de Berlim

The country’s favorite doughnut-like pastry is proudly displayed in shop windows everywhere. Fluffy fried dough is rolled in granulated sugar before being sliced in half and filled with a sweet golden custard.

Although consumed all year, demand for bolas de Berlim reaches a fever pitch in the summer. They are popular on beaches, where vendors sell them to sunbathers.

Translated as “Berlin balls,” bolas de Berlim were brought to Portugal by German Jews who used to go to the beaches near Lisbon. They are one of the few Portuguese sweets to be fried and not baked. Locals say the taste of salt after a dip in the sea balances out the pastry’s sweetness.

“Just as there are no pastry shops in Portugal without pastéis de nata, there are no beaches without bolas de Berlim,” says food critic Fortunato da Câmara.

Where to find them

A Sacolinha, Rua Paiva de Andrade 4 12, Lisbon

Confeitaria Nandinha, Rua de Serpa Pinto 74, Porto


Many Portuguese sweets were born in convents and monasteries; local nuns and monks mastered the art of pastry dating back to the 15th century. “But there are many untruths about them, since few have their origin documented,” Nogueiro Gomes warns.

Although its name seems to have a religious heritage, and its covering resembles the garments worn by Jesuit monks, Jesuíta (Jesuit) was brought to Portugal by a Spanish pastry chef hired to work at an ordinary shop: Pastelaria Moura in Santo Tirso, north of Porto.

For more than 140 years, the triangle-shaped puff pastry with meringue frosting has been prepared following the traditional recipe — although the demand has grown exponentially in the past few years.

“We sell 40,000 to 50,000 Jesuítas a month,” says Alda Moura, the third generation of his family to run the business.

Few people, however, know that there is a secret to eating Jesuítas. Moura says it is necessary to open one in half (with your hands or the help of a knife) and to turn it inside out, so the glaze from the frosting becomes the filling.

Where to find them

Pastelaria e Confeitaria Moura, Rua de Rodrigues Sampaio 115, Porto

Pastelaria (Bairro Alto Hotel), Praça Luís de Camões 2, Lisbon

Pastel de Tentúgal

To fully appreciate the pastel de Tentúgal, you must understand its intricate preparation.

In an empty, well-ventilated room with fabrics on the floor, pastry chefs gently stretch pieces of dough with patience and care until they become thinner and thinner, testing the elasticity of the gluten to the max. The dough gradually transforms into transparent sheets that will form a rectangular package around a creamy filling made of eggs and sugar.

The 16th-century delicacy comes from the Nossa Senhora da Natividade convent, in the small village of Tentúgal, about 120 miles from Lisbon.

“It is certainly one of the most distinguished specialties of Portuguese convent sweets,” da Câmara explains in the book “Tesouros de Origem Portuguesa” (Treasures of Portuguese Origin).

Where to find them

Cafetaria Astro, Avenida Guerra Junqueiro 6, Lisbon

A Pousadinha, Rua da Doçaria Conventual 776, Tentúgal


Not just a single recipe, pão-de-ló (sponge cake) is more like a “family” of cakes that has spread across Portugal at least as far back as the 1700s, gaining different characteristics in each location.

In general, they are similar in their airy, spongy texture, in which the amount of flour — combined with only two other ingredients, sugar and egg yolks — is so restrained that it only serves as a thickener, so the dough can at least be baked.

“There are versions in which the amount of flour is 10 times smaller than that of sugar, which makes the dough very light,” Nogueiro Gomes says.

In the case of some variations, such as the pão-de-ló de Ovar or pão-de-ló de Alfeizerão, the touch of flour is so little that the dough doesn’t fully bake in the middle, creating a velvety cream to eat with a spoon.

Although the pão-de-ló is traditionally a recipe for special occasions, such as Easter and Christmas, it is now consumed all year. Thanks to its lightness and versatility, it can accompany fruit, marmalades or whipped cream. Even if it is quite popular, note that most bakeries only sell it to order. Some also take orders a day in advance.

Where to find them

O Melhor Pão de Ló do Universo, Rua Nova de São Mamede 54, Lisbon

Padeirinha Doce, Rua de Augusto Rosa 46, Porto

Bolo de bolacha

For the Portuguese, bolo de bolacha is the classic childhood dessert. Typically made at home, they are now ubiquitous at popular restaurants and small neighborhood tascas.

The increasing flow of tourists has given them different names, such as “Portuguese biscuit cake” and “Portuguese Maria cookie cake.” The name, however, is self-explanatory: overlapping layers of Maria biscuits (originally known as Marie in England) soaked in coffee and interspersed with cream made of butter, sugar and, in some recipes, egg yolks.

It is arguably the most decadent Portuguese dessert, made with the English biscuit created in 1874, which has become the basis for many desserts worldwide. The Portuguese version is an adaptation of the French gâteau de famille, created in the first half of the 20th century.

The secret is the filling: Some make it with margarine or cream, but tradition calls for respectful amounts of good-quality butter, which supplies a unique flavor and creamy texture.

Where to find them

Esquina da Fé, Rua da Fé 60, Lisbon

Casa Pardal, Rua da Boavista 655, Porto