In Cais do Sodré, just across the street from the CP comboio and metro station, stands a sprawling domed building with a large clock over the main entrance and tall iron gates opening to the vast expanse inside. Flowers in tall wheeled carts sit outside the central exit, discarded boxes and crates line the east side, and produce and fish are loaded and unloaded at the back. From these three sides, you’ll see what you’d have always seen at Ribeira Market.
However, the west side tells another story entirely. Hoards of people shove themselves through the side entrances vying for a spot in one of the lines inside for “traditional” Portuguese food.
Just down the street, a family-owned tasca dating back to the mid-1800s sits half empty.
Mercado da Ribeira‘s current location has been used for trade and commerce for centuries, starting at least with the Romans. In order to survive that long, things have had to change with the times, so it’s not surprising that today the old market is split into two sides: one for visitors, the other for locals. Stand in the central hall at noon and look left, then look right. You’ll see what I mean.
The History of the Market
If you were to travel back in time a bit, this sight would be quite different. When TimeOut began renovation on the west side of the Mercado da Ribeira in 2013, archeologists discovered the walls of a Roman metal castings factory underneath the floor. In fact, if you go down the elevator to the underground parking next to Ribeira market, you’ll see glass casings with some of the recovered artifacts inside, including bowls, pots, pieces of processed metal, and more.
Later the area was used for unloading fish off the boats docked in the cais (riverbank), and it became a market. Its fame grew and grew until it became one of the largest and most famous outdoor fish markets in all of Europe.
The actual brick-and-mortar market as we now know it was inaugurated in 1882 as a wholesale and retail fish market. It survived a partial fire in the late 1800s and then in 1902, and then was renovated to include tile and marble booths and water pipes that are still used today. If you go to the traditional market, you’ll see a sight that has remained unchanged since then. Local vendors, some of whom have been there for decades, still sell flowers, vegetables, fruit, fish, bread, cheese, and other goodies.
The Time Out portion of the market is a relatively new thing to Lisbon. It officially opened in May 2014 and featured 35 hand-picked businesses (in many cases with ties to Lisbon’s cultural heritage) selling regional specialties like sheep’s cheese, Iberian ham, pastel da nata custard tarts, sardines, and more, alongside several stalls serving menus developed by Lisbon’s top chefs. Since then, there have been some kiosk and stall closings (we miss the original leitão stand!) and a few new openings, but the overall number has stayed relatively unchanged.
I have to admit TimeOut is doing a good job of promoting some of the best traditional (and fusion) foods in Lisbon, all under one roof.
Tips for the Market
The more often you go to Ribeira Market, the more likely you are to have your favorite fish lady for the myriad sea creatures you can throw in a pot or a pan. You’ll find some things you’ve probably never even heard of (try the búzios, razor clams, and percebes) and other creatures you’ve only ever seen frozen at the fancy supermarket back home. Octopus, swordfish, sole, bream, you name it — it’s there, fresh and on ice. Just bring a canvas bag and prepare to feast your eyes (and later your belly) on some of the most beautiful fish you’ve ever seen — unless it’s Sunday, Monday, or after 14h on a weekday, when the fishmongers close.
At TimeOut Market, long wooden tables meant to accommodate over 500 food-curious tourists make up the central area of the market, but often you’re left looking for a spot to squeeze in at peak times just to eat your expensive meal cafeteria-style.
My advice is to go to TimeOut in the off hours (at 10h is best) and take a quick look around. Unless you like the hullabaloo of being inside what feels like New York City’s Grand Central Station at rush hour, go to a tasca for lunch and sit and eat your meal in peace. Try Casa Cid, O Gaiteiro, a Maria Não Diexa, or basically any place with fish in the window. Eating in Portugal is not meant to resemble an assembly line…it’s meant to be enjoyed slowly. This is why you never see Portuguese people eating while they walk— we finish our food at the counter if we don’t have time to sit. Even in a rush, things are meant to be savored.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t eat and shop on the TimeOut side. There are plenty of things there that are truly special. So if you’ve decided to brave the crowds, here are five things you might like to do:
1. Souvenir shop at A Vida Portuguesa’s outpost.
2. Taste deliciously warm handmade croquettes at Croqueteria.
3. Indulge in an octopus hot dog at Sea Me.
4. Satisfy your sweet tooth with any cake at Nós é Mais Bolos.
5. Watch the masters at Manteigaria make traditional custard tarts (and try one with a coffee, of course!).