Lisbon Then & Now: Coffee and Café Culture

Most of the times in Lisbon, meeting up for coffee has nothing to do with actually drinking coffee. In fact, many times people will order something else.

Figuring out how to order coffee in Portugal and get it right the first time might take some time of adjustment. The Portuguese prefer their caffeine fix in short, creamy, and slightly bitter doses of espressos. But the coffee scene has begun to change in recent years with the rise of hipster-friendly new businesses and a new wave of digital freelance workers and nomads who are choosing Lisbon as their base.

The new Nordic-inspired establishments won’t, however, shun out the typical corner cafés of the city whose employees haven’t quite gotten used to the request of “coffee to go.” Lisboetas are on the run every morning but there’s always time to stop for that first bica of the day.

Lisbon cafés are an integral part of local culture. Here's what you need to know before you order your coffee.

Portugal’s Role in the Coffee Growing Industry

It seems odd that in the 18th century Portugal was the world’s largest coffee producer, considering the country’s climate isn’t appropriate for coffee plantations. That was of course at a time when Brazil was a Portuguese colony (and, later, the headquarters of the Portuguese Kingdom from 1808 to 1821, during the French invasions).

By the time the Portuguese attempted the first plantations in Brazil, coffee was already a precious commodity in Europe. Being able to grow coffee at one of their colonies and export it would give them economic leverage. Which, to cut a long story short, it did.

Later, other green coffee producers (then, colonies) were added to the list: Angola, Timor, São Tomé e Príncipe.

Outside Pastelaria Benard, one of the typical Lisbon cafes.
Pastelaria Benard is one of the oldest cafés in Lisbon Photo credit: Sandra Henriques Gajjar

Meeting for Coffee: A Cultural Habit That’s Lasted

From the first public cafes in Lisbon that opened in the 18th century to now, little has changed in the “meeting for coffee” culture. It’s still the preferred gathering spot to meet old friends and new acquaintances, a place where you can stay and talk for hours long after the espresso is done. Unless a café also serves lunches, it’s unlikely that a waiter will come over to your table to let you know you’ve overstayed your welcome. At best, they’ll come to see if you want to order something else and, considering the average espresso costs around €0.70, that’s not so bad.

Those first Lisbon cafés are part of the city’s cultural and literary history. There, artists and authors gathered to discuss anything from politics to culture, following the fashion that had started in Paris the century before. That safe, democratic environment that cafés promoted turned them, later, in the go-to place for anti-regime political movements during the Estado Novo (the 50-year Conservative Dictatorship that ended on 25th April 1974).

Before there were coworking spaces and high-speed Wi-Fi needs, cafés were the place for students getting together to finish papers or study for exams. For those who preferred the background noise of clanking cups, steaming espresso machines, and random strangers’ conversations, that is.

inside Vertigo Café, one of the must-visit Lisbon cafés.
Vertigo Café is a welcoming hideout from the busy streets of Chiado. Photo credit: Sandra Henriques Gajjar

The New Coffee Trends in Lisbon

As coffee became more of a food product than a necessity for sleepy city dwellers, the way Lisboetas consume coffee has also changed. Those habits, like having brunch in Lisbon or running your digital business from a café table, are now as common in the Portuguese city as they are in any other European capital.

At the forefront of the new coffee-drinking habits, are the independent local businesses that ventured into the world of americanos, lattes, and pour over coffee. Instagrammable backdrops, high-speed complimentary Wi-Fi, a reasonably quiet environment, and care and respect for the product they serve are some of the reasons for the success of these cafés.

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Copenhagen Coffee Lab, pictured here, has some of the best coffee in Lisbon!
The counter at Copenhagen Coffee Lab is packed with fresh baked goods and bread. Photo credit: Copenhagen Coffee Lab

Here are some Lisbon cafés you can’t miss:

  • A Brasileira – famously known as the favorite hangout spot for Modernist Portuguese author Fernando Pessoa and other writers of the Portuguese Modernism movement.
  • Pastelaria Benard – initially a pastry shop and tea house, it soon followed the trend to become a coffee house. Some Lisboetas claim they have the best croissants in the city.
  • Café Nicola – one of the first cafés to open in Lisbon in the 18th century and an inevitable must-photograph spot in the Rossio square. Only the façade is the original one from three centuries ago. The interior design has remained intact since a renovation in the late 1930s that favored the Art Deco style.
  • Vertigo Café – a little off the beaten path, it’s great to hide out from busy Chiado for a couple of hours. The 1930s-inspired décor is a bonus.
  • The Mill – great for digital nomads and freelancers, thanks to the great high-speed Wi-Fi and abundance of power outlets. Although their coffee roasting recipe is secret, they roast all their beans at an artisanal family-owned company a couple of blocks from the café.
  • Hello, Kristof – with a Scandinavian-inspired design, it’s a place to work, to indulge in pure Arabica coffee, or simply to browse one of the many independently published magazines on the back wall.
  • Fábrica Coffee Roasters – one of the first “new trend” cafés to open in Lisbon, it’s perfect for coffee connoisseurs or aspiring ones.
  • Copenhagen Coffee Lab – imported coffee from Denmark at its best, from the roasted beans to the coffee recipes. Visit if you ever feel like dropping by Copenhagen without catching a flight.

We could talk for hours about Portuguese cafe culture, but at the end of the day, it’s something you have to experience for yourself to fully understand. Lucky for you, that’s exactly what’s in store as part of our Tastes & Traditions of Lisbon Tour. You’ll start off your morning with breakfast at a traditional cafe that locals love, and see for yourself just how important the almighty cup of coffee is in Portuguese culture.

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