Portuguese Cafés: the Secret Handbook (Part 1)

Garoto (espresso with a bit of warm milk) in a Portuguese cafe.

Maybe you’ve been to Portugal and sat outside enjoying a coffee in a fancy or historical café in a touristy area. If that is your case, and especially if you’ll be moving to Portugal soon (or maybe even if you already live here), you’re missing out on all the warm, crispy, buttery layers of Portuguese café culture. So grab a seat, pour yourself some coffee, and prepare to enter Portugal’s most beloved institution, the country’s Holy of Holies: the café!

Travel around Portugal a bit and you’ll quickly notice that there’s a fairly wide range of types of café. Some look like they came straight out of an IKEA catalog and others have an air of 19th century grandeur to them, while others still are little more than small dimly lit spaces with a couple of tables and chairs–and these are only a few examples!

Cafés are not all created equal, but the differences go far beyond the way they look.

Sometimes the signs are subtle, but if the name of the café includes the word pastelaria (pastry shop) they will likely make their own cakes, pastries, and everything else. There’s a good chance you’ll see a sign somewhere saying “pastelaria com fabrico próprio” (meaning pastry shop with own production). This is where you’ll usually find the fancier pastries and, very often, such a pastelaria will take special pride in at least one item they make. If outside it says it’s just a café, then the food (like pastries, for example) is made somewhere else and brought there (except for sandwiches and toast). If it says it’s a snack bar, then you have a café that also serves meals. Don’t expect anything too complicated, though!

All rules have exceptions, of course, and cafés are no different. Sometimes you’ll come across a place which, judging by the name shouldn’t serve meals, for example, but does. Pastelaria Versalhes, a well known and very much beloved Lisbon café, is one such example.

So, when in doubt, what’s the safest approach? Just go in and ask!

Coffee drink (garoto), pastel de nata and cinnamon in a Portuguese cafe.
A “garoto” (espresso with a bit of milk), a “pastel de nata” and cinnamon powder. Yum!

Don’t focus too much on appearances! No matter their size, location, and style, Portuguese cafés are like a mix of safe haven, meeting spot, and information hub-not just a place to drink an espresso or have a quick meal.

At any given time, you’re likely to see friends meeting in a café, no matter if they’re teenagers sharing a snack after school or if they’re the neighbourhood’s retiree gang going for their daily commentary on current world events (or just a little gossip!). Especially in urban areas a lot of cafés have also taken on the role of coworking spaces of sorts.

The café is, very often, the place of choice for first dates that involve low expectations and/or little time! Technically, it’s still a date but without the expectation level of going out for dinner, for example.

As you may have guessed by now, Portuguese neighbourhood cafés tend to have a fauna of their own. Let’s hide behind the counter and observe a few typical specimens:

  • the person reading the newspaper/ doing crosswords/ just looking at the television. In most cases, they’ll order an espresso and sit there for a good while. Think of them as the boomer version of the self-employed younger people who take their laptops to a café and sit there for a whole morning or afternoon with nothing but an espresso to keep them company (I may or may not be guilty of doing this).
  • the person stopping by for a coffee before work or mid-morning/mid-afternoon. Very often, they’ll be standing at the counter drinking their espresso because they’re in a rush and they’ll also ask for something to take (like a pastry, for example). In most cases, they’re commuters, and the café happens to be on their way to work, or they work in an office or shop nearby.
  • the annoying client: the kind of person who asks for their coffee without the first few drops, full to the brim and in a scalded cup. Yes, they exist.
  • That one over there? Oh, that’s the guy drinking a beer at 10 a.m. Personally, this is something that used to creep me out. But, like I usually say, travel is a life experience. Some years ago, in Paris, I got to see people enjoying a glass of white wine at just about that same time of the day. So, what’s the difference between Portuguese Zé having his mid-morning beer and French Pierre drinking his mid-morning glass of white wine? None.
Galão (espresso with warm milk in a glass) and laptop in a Portuguese café.
No coworking space near you? No problem! Grab your laptop, pick a cute café with good wifi and ask for your favourite coffee drink.

As far as I’m concerned café staff are unsung heroes and, generally speaking, quite interesting characters. Especially in neighbourhood cafés, they tend to have the patience of a saint, more emotional intelligence than many Instagram coaches, and a mental database of information that would be the envy of people making way much more money than they do.

In a way, café staff are like bartenders, but with much less alcohol involved. If you ask for a coffee drink, like a galão for example, they’ll ask you if you want it darker (with more coffee) or lighter (with less coffee). If you say you want it darker (because you really, really need that extra bit of coffee) there’s a good chance they’ll reply with an understanding nod: that’s when you realise they only asked it out of politeness because they can look inside your soul and they *know* you need it darker.

Unsure of what to order in a café? Then stay tuned for the next blog post!

11 comments

  1. I like how you said not to focus on appearances. It’s true for places here, too. One trick is to look at the parking lot (we all drive here). If the lot is always full, then it could be a great place, no matter what it looks like. I also agree that cafe workers are unsung heroes. We all rely on them, but mostly we just want our coffee and forget them. All the while they work hard in the background. ❤

  2. The line “because Portugal is more than lisbon”- touches my heart. You have hit the bulls eye. All the development, attention across the world has become capital centric which is not good..Best wishes from India.

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