In Portugal, every street corner has a café, and every small town and village has a Café Central that doubles as a meeting point.
Yes, café culture is quite strong in this country, and going out for coffee is often used more as an excuse to catch up than to enjoy the delights of the caffeinated hot drink. Although, the combination of both is nice. The good news is that you don’t need to be an expert to know how to order coffee in Portugal. The better news is that we at Devour Lisbon put together some tips on how to do it like a local.
Coffee Culture in Portugal
First things first, let’s address some facts around coffee in Portugal. Local coffee brands import green coffee beans, mostly from South American and African countries, which are then roasted in Portugal. The country doesn’t grow coffee, except for a tiny village on S. Jorge Island (Azores) where a local has a small plantation, the only one in Europe.
The roasting expertise dates back to the 18th century, which led to perfecting the techniques and the blends. Most countries prefer 100% Arabica coffee beans for their espressos, making the drink creamier and more fragrant. Portugal, however, uses a mix of Arabica and Robusta beans, slowly roasted. A typical Portuguese espresso, when brewed right, is full-bodied, less acid, and feels “thicker.”
Glass of Water, Yes Or No?
Precisely because Portuguese espressos feel “thicker” in the mouth, most customers will ask for a glass of water with their coffee. It’s a common habit, although not all Portuguese coffee drinkers mind the lasting aftertaste.
So, should you or should you not ask for a glass of water with your espresso? It’s really a personal choice. A trickier question might be how you want your café: normal (3/4 of an espresso cup), cheio (full espresso cup, to the rim), curto (half of an espresso cup), escaldado (served in a cup that’s been pre-heated with hot water from the espresso machine)?
Sugar or Black?
By default, all coffees come with a packet of sugar or two for larger servings. You can also ask for sweetener, instead, if it’s not available at the counter. Both options are on the house. In fact, for most café owners, sugar and sweetener packets and branded cups and saucers are part of their deal with the supplier.
Some people use the whole sugar packet, some people use half, some people use a meticulously calculated amount like 1/6 of the packet, and some refuse it altogether.
When to Drink Coffee in Portugal?
Considering that espresso is a cheap drink in Portugal, €0.65 on average, anytime is a good time for coffee depending on your caffeine tolerance. That said, the most common time is after lunch, with or after dessert. Traditional Portuguese food is typically heavy and portions are large in most restaurants, so most locals need that caffeine boost to make it through an afternoon at work.
In the morning, and it’s quite normal for the Portuguese to have breakfast at cafés and pastelarias instead of at home, the preference goes to any combination of coffee and milk.
Learn the Portuguese Coffee Lingo
- café – what everyone orders when they want an espresso. In Lisbon, it’s also called a bica and in Porto a cimbalinho;
- descafeinado – decaf espresso;
- italiana – a very short espresso, what Italians would call a ristretto;
- carioca – a hint of espresso with lots of water in a small cup;
- abatanado – a large coffee, similar to an Americano coffee. To not be confused with a double espresso;
- café duplo – double espresso or two espresso shots served in one espresso cup;
- pingado – an espresso with a drop of milk, hot or cold. To not be confused with the next one on the list;
- garoto – milk with a drop of espresso served in an espresso cup;
- meia de leite – half-coffee and half-milk, served in a large cup;
- galão – served in a tall glass, it’s ¼ coffee and ¾ milk or the same as a latte. Some people will ask you claro (light) or escuro (dark) to assess how much coffee you want in it.
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Sandra Henriques Gajjar is a freelance web content writer and travel blogger born in the Azores and based in Lisbon for 20+ years. Since 2014 she’s been blogging about travel, culture, and the people she meets in between at Tripper, a blog on sustainable cultural tourism.