In Portugal, one does not only order and drink a cup of coffee. One closes their eyes to take in the aroma and taste its unique and distinctive flavor. Coffee allows the soul to be reborn again and prepares us for another day. Portuguese coffee is a way of life.
For Portuguese people, drinking coffee is a journey. No matter how late, anxious, adrift, or tired you are, is always worth the time and the wait.
We wish you could feel the instant warmth locals feel when that tiny cup reaches the table ensnaring their senses. That’s because – like in many countries around the world – coffee, or coffee culture, is deeply ingrained in its history, culture, and lifestyle. In fact, there’s a whole tradition and protocol around the simple act of getting a Portuguese coffee.
But first thing’s first!
History and Portuguese coffee culture – how it all began
Commercial coffee in Europe was first introduced in Venice, where the first public coffee shop – the Caffè Florian – opened in 1720. It then quickly reached France and spread throughout Europe thanks to the establishment of coffee shops like Caffè Florian. These coffee shops were frequented by every type of customer—from bankers to artists, merchants to intellectuals, and even politicians. Coffee was an international connector, and everyone enjoyed a cup. It became a type of public forum where people gathered to discuss cultural, historical, political, and/or social topics.
In Portugal, it all began with Francisco de Melo Palheta, who, during the reign of D. João I in the 18th century, introduced coffee both in Portugal and Brazil, turning the latter into the world’s biggest coffee producer. Having other colonies at the time, Portugal also introduced coffee to countries such as Cape Verde, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Angola, where coffee is also very well-known for its quality.
Similar to what happened in many other European cities, coffee culture became a part of Portugal’s everyday life when the first public coffee shops, inspired by Caffè Florian, opened. This is also how several historically famous cafes in Lisbon rose to fame, such as Martinho da Arcada, Café Tavares, A Brasileira, and Nicola. It eventually got to a point where coffee shops were found on every corner, even in the most remote places.
The “it” factor
Despite the country’s historical connection, and even though are renowned Portuguese coffee brands, the country does not grow coffee beans. Instead, it imports them, mostly from South American and African countries, and then roasts them here. There are only two exceptions – the Azores islands, one of the only two locations in Europe to grow coffee, and the only commercial producer of tea in Europe.
Although the beans aren’t grown here, roasting does require a certain level of expertise. Why? Well because it leads to specific techniques, flavors, and unique blends. And this is where the Portuguese shine—the “it” factor of coffee is achieved
Many countries prefer 100% Arabica coffee beans for their espressos, making the drink creamier and more fragrant. However, in Portugal, a simple coffee or espresso uses Arabica and Robusta beans slowly roasted, making it feel full-flavored, stronger than most, and as far from sour as possible.
And this is how famous Portuguese coffee brands such as Delta Cafés, Nicola Cafés, Sical, Buondi, Chave D’Ouro Cafés, Cafés Tofa, among others, were born and helped cement the distinctiveness of coffee in Portugal
Fake it until you make it – how to order a cup of Portuguese coffee like a local
Having created their “it factor”, Portuguese people started to branch out and use coffee to the best of their abilities in every food product or item that was available. That is why, when going to a Portuguese coffee shop, whether local or extravagant, one might be confused with what to order and how to order it.
There are many different choices when ordering coffee in Portugal, and if you’re not familiar with the terms, that may become a whole ordeal.
Let’s start with the simplest one: the plain, black coffee.
If you’re a black coffee kind of person, a regular espresso is called a “café,” which literally translates into “coffee” and stands for an espresso, typically served as a short cup of coffee. However, having perfected roasting and using Arabica and Robusta beans as its distinctive element, an espresso in Portugal is served as if it were a shot of coffee in a way – highly concentrated and strong.
This is also why you can go into a café and either order “café curto” or “café cheio” – the first meaning a shorter espresso and the latter the same shot but filled to the brim.
Now, if you’re feeling brave enough, can order a “duplo,” which is basically a double espresso shot, or if you need to eventually sleep during the night, then opt for an “abatanado” that stands for a less concentrated espresso that comes in a larger cup with a bit of water. Some coffee shops also refer to it as “americano,” as it is similar to a regular cup of black coffee served in the United States.
But it doesn’t stop there; over the years, different variations of the expresso were introduced.
Yes, you can order the black full-flavored expresso, but there are also other combinations, including:
- “Pingado” – espresso topped with milk, like an espresso version of a cappuccino with no foam.
- “Italiano” – it literally translates into “Italian,” and it is similar in both flavor and portion to an Italian Ristretto, hence the name
- “Carioca” – a weak form of espresso made from an old emptied-out coffee that’s ideal if you’re not looking to get too wired on coffee
- “Café com Cheirinho” – considered a typical request from the “old guard,” aka older people who back in the day wanted both the strongness of the coffee and alcohol and started to order this, which is basically is a coffee with a drop of brandy or aguardiente in it. By the way, translated, this means coffee with some smell.
However, you like to take your coffee with a substantial amount of milk; then there are some other orders you should consider. Due to Portugal’s diversity and openness to other countries, finding some of the widely known common coffee/milk options like cappuccinos, lattes, mochas, etc., is common. But, much like what happened with the typical espresso, the natives created their versions of such specialities. Here’s what you can find:
- “Meia de leite” – translates into “half of the milk.” As you can deduce, it stands for half milk and half coffee cup, similar to a flat white or a latte.
- “Galão” – stands for a tall glass of warm milk with coffee in it. Think of it as a cappuccino without the foam and sprinkles of cinnamon or chocolate. Like the “garoto,” it’s made from an old emptied-out coffee
These milky coffees are very popular drinks in the morning or in the middle of the afternoon, especially alongside the spectacular range of Portuguese pastries, cakes, and delicacies that will have you understand even more how much of a good idea it is to walk into a Portuguese coffee shop.
The Portuguese coffee shops you can’t miss if you’re in Lisbon
There are many coffee shops across the country, and if you are craving a cup of coffee then all you really have to do is walk 2 minutes in any direction and you’ll probably stumble upon a local restaurant or pasteleria that can serve a cup of joe. However, if you are looking for a unique experience with your espresso, check out these interesting cafés in Lisbon.
- Café Nicola is located in the city center, with a privileged view of the D. Pedro IV Square and its marvellous local architecture. It is the place that inspired the Café Nicola brand, and still is to this day, a popular spot among locals.
- A Brasileira, which literally translates to “the Brazilian [girl],” is located in the city center and has been around since 1905. The name comes from the high-quality coffee that was imported from Brazil. The café is widely known nationally and internationally as the place Fernando Pessoa, one of the most renowned Portuguese poets, had his espresso.
- Fábrica Coffee Roasters’ history begins in Germany, where the owner lived before moving to Portugal, and from where Probat, the coffee roaster’s machine comes from its privileged location near Avenida da Liberdade to the fantastic beans from Brazil, Colombia, and Ethiopia roasted on-site, it quickly became one of the modern pioneers of specialty coffee in Lisbon. Make sure to go visit.
- The Mill gets its name due to the coffee mill (or coffee grinder) at the entrance. The Mill is an Australian-Portuguese all-day-breakfast café created to serve high-quality espressos with locally sourced beans roasted nearby alongside the best healthy and delicious pastries. Not only can you eat delicious breakfast meals anytime, but at night you can also have a great glass of wine and enjoy what Lisbon nights offer.
- Simpli Coffee & Bakery is relatively new in the city, but it is a Portuguese-owned business that intends to spread across the country. The company also works directly with growers worldwide to obtain the rarest, most delicious, and most sustainable coffees they can find and roast to their exacting profiles. It also prides itself in serving great cappuccinos and lattes alongside freshly baked croissants, tarts, and bread.
If you are visiting Lisbon, the make sure you check out our ultimate guide to Lisbon and also our Lisbon off-the-beaten path recommendations.
Shhh – care for some last little insider secrets?
As all things Portuguese, Portuguese coffee started as a product that slowly and gradually became different, better, and unique, to the point of becoming something that you take in and breathe in, a peculiarity in the country’s culture. So, it’s no surprise that it was appropriated to the point of a simple espresso being called different things in different parts of the country.
In Oporto, instead of saying “café,” most people recognize the order if you ask for a “cimbalino.” Why? The espresso was named after the La Cimbali machines when the first Portuguese coffee shops began opening there. The use was vulgarized and is still used to the present day. But don’t worry. If you forget about it and still call it “café” they’ll still understand your order and bring you the short amount of coffee you’re craving.
In Lisbon, the use of “café” is much more common. But if you’re roaming through Lisbon, you will still hear people call an espresso “bica” instead of “café.” Legend says that the name came from A Brasileira coffee shop the first time it served Brazilian coffee because initially, people found it sour. So to prevent people from distaste, the coffee shop hung a sign that read “Beba Isto Com Açúcar” – which means “drink this with sugar.” If you combine the initials of each word, it reads “bica.”
We don’t know which type of coffee feeds your soul – if simple espressos, “duplos,” or “meias de leite,” and or kind of coffee shops stir you up – hipster locations of cozy neighborhood shops. Whatever moves you, we can only hope you are ready to close your eyes to take in the aroma, prepare your senses to taste its unique and distinctive flavor, and feel reborn again and ready for another day.
Feel the warmth yet?