Often called “City of the Explorers”, flanked by the Atlantic Ocean and one of the world’s most historic cities, Lisbon is the perfect gateway to Portugal. And there’s no better place than the Bairro Alto old district to sample freshly caught bacalhau (cod). Salted, smoked or grilled, it’s often said that the Portuguese can serve their favorite fish in more than 365 ways, one for each day of the year.
Seafood has been a staple of Portuguese cuisine for centuries. Often simply served with olive oil and white wine vinegar, they sometimes fire shrimp or chicken up with spices like piri piri (small chilli peppers). Wash down fresh sardines, octopus, lobster or sea bass with delicious local wines in the lively Docas area at the Santo Amaro docks.
From Lisbon head north to Porto, Portugal’s second city, world-renowned for its port wine and UNESCO-protected old town. After trying out the port wine cellars on the Gaia hilltop, head downtown for a traditional dish of tripas à moda do Porto (tripe with white beans). This has been an important local dish since the 14th century when the locals had little else to eat. After a stroll along the beach in the Foz district, try Porto’s most popular ‘sandwich’ snack, a Francesinha (Frenchie).
If time permits, take the train from Porto’s old São Bento station to Pocinho which passes through the spectacular Douro Valley, complete with vineyards, tunnels and bridges. Don’t miss Régua’s old station, once the most important in the region.
Head back to Lisbon and hop on the overnight train to Madrid. Around ten hours later, wake up refreshed to explore the Spanish capital, as famous for its history, culture and architecture as its food. The city attracts people from all over Spain, so it’s a good place to try out Spanish dishes from the Basque, Andalusian and Galician regions. Besides its traditional meat stews, Madrid is also the place to try the popular tortilla de patatas (potato omelette). Leave some space for churros dipped in hot chocolate sauce.
Two and a half hours later disembark the AVE high-speed train in the vibrant city of Barcelona. Perched between the mountains and sea, and home to Gaudi’s architectural masterpieces, Barcelona is a cultural hotbed. Get a taste of its heady nightlife and trendy restaurant scene by taking a tapas tour or visiting the city’s cava (sparkling wine) bars.
Trace the Mediterranean coast around to France, and you’ll come to the unpretentious town of Sète. One of the country’s major fishing ports and home to mussel and oyster fields, try local specialities like moules farcies (stuffed mussels) at one of the restaurants on the Canal Royal.
A stone’s throw from Sète lies Montpellier, fast becoming one of the most popular cities in France for visitors. Spend a day at a cooking school learning how to prepare local dishes like bouillabaisse (fish soup), washed down with some local wines.
The two-hour TGV train journey from Montpellier winds through the Rhône valley, one of France’s most famous wine-growing regions, before reaching Lyon, France’s third largest city. An old Roman city, Lyon has been put on the world cuisine map thanks to Paul Bocuse after whom the prestigious Bocuse d’Or award is named and its proximity to the Beaujolais and the Côtes du Rhône wine regions. Enjoy a hearty Lyonnais meal with delicacies like tête de veau (calf head) and andouillette (intestines) in a local bistro (bouchon) on the touristic Rue Mercière.
En route to Paris, stop off in Dijon, the heart of France’s mustard industry, and capital of the Burgundy region. Once you arrive in the French capital, grab a bottle of champagne and watch the sunset from the Sacré-Coeur hilltop.