Do you like coffee? And do you want to get through your holiday in Lisbon without the stress of not knowing how to order a coffee the right way? Then stop what you were doing right now and read on with due attention, for this article will tell you everything you need to know about drinking coffee in Lisbon.
Coffee culture is ingrained in the daily life, culture and history of Portugal. Because of the overseas colonies and the introduction of coffee plants in Brazil by the Portuguese colonists, Portugal became a crucial factor in the expansion of the coffee industry to what it is today.
Portuguese way of having coffee
Drinking coffee is an everyday part of life here. On almost every street corner you will find a coffee bar or pastelaria where you can start the day with coffee. Even in the most remote places, in shopping malls, basically everywhere you wouldn’t really expect it, you can always find a place for coffee.
For most Lisboetas, the day starts at home with toast and milk, on the way to work or school. Or, and this is the moment that people go out and about for, you can drink a bica in your favourite coffee bar and enjoy a bolo with it.
A coffee or tea moment as we know it is usually going somewhere and sit down with a cup of coffee and a biscuit, having small talk. That’s not the same as a coffee appointment in Lisbon. If you have a coffee date in Portugal it can be over within two minutes: you come in, order coffee, down it in seconds, pay and be on your way again.
A coffee for everyone
If you want to order your favourite coffee in Lisbon, pay close attention! If you want to immerse yourself in Portuguese culture, ask for your coffee in a “chávena quente” (hot cup). Most locals drink their coffee this way.
Here’s a list of most common coffee varieties you can get
Bica or café
This is basically an espresso and it’s what you get when you ask for “um café“. You drink a bica (bhie-kah) just like you would normally take a shot of espresso. An espresso is served hot, so you down it in one sip. A bica usually costs no more than a euro (about 90p). If you pay more, you’re either drinking your coffee in a very posh place, or you ended up in a tourist trap.
You only order a bica in the Lisbon area, if you visit Porto and you want an espresso then you ask for “um cimbalino”, named after the La Cimbali espresso machine brand.
Fun fact: bica is said to be an acronym for “Beba Isto Com Açucar” (which roughly translates to “drink this with sugar”). This coffee has a somewhat bitter aftertaste, so locals often add (a lot of) sugar to it. I usually drink my bica without any sugar. I make an exception when the smell is typically sour and strong, then a little sugar in it is delicious.
Be careful when you drink your coffee with sugar though. If you’re accustomed to using a whole sachet, be prepared that in Portugal these contain at least 1.5 times as much sugar as what you are used to. I’ve seen sachets with 8 grams of sugar, where 4-5 is normal for us.
If you’re bad ass enough to order a double espresso, then ask for a “cafe duplo”. But beware, if you have it during breakfast then there is a good chance that you won’t be needing a siesta!
Or as it’s known around Lisbon, a “bica cheia”. This is an espresso with an extra splash of hot water. A bica never completely fills up a cup, this one does. And with a bit of extra water the coffee’s also a bit less strong.
This is an espresso with a dash of hot milk, usually around 30 – 40%, to make it less bitter. Don’t confuse this coffee with a latte, because that is made with regular coffee and a Pingo is still based on an espresso.
This is also a variation on an espresso, it contains 50% coffee and 50% milk. It has a mild taste and is not so bitter. Garoto literally knows “little boy”, because parents usually give their children garotos to introduce them to coffee.
If you want to have coffee all day in Lisbon, go for “um carioca”. Normally when brewing a bica, the old grind is thrown away and replaced by freshly ground coffee. WIth a carioca, the old coffee grind is not thrown away but rather reused. This variation is a lot smoother than a regular bica.
If you fancy a ristretto, this is the coffee you’re going to order. It is a very strong coffee and there is even less in your cup than you are used to. A true shot!
Coffee variations with milk
Meia de Leite
This is a coffee that consists of more than half milk and half coffee, and is comparable to a ‘Latte’. If you want a slightly stronger coffee, ask for “uma meia de leite escura”.
This coffee is often served in a tall glass of hot milk with just a dash of coffee in it. It is often made like the carioca, with reused coffee grind. If you want this coffee a bit stronger, ask for a ‘galão directo’, they will add an extra shot of espresso to the galão.
If you prefer your coffee without caffeine, you can order “café descafeinado”. Just add the word “descafeinado” to any coffee to make it a decaffeinated one.
In Portugal too, they have a habit of adding a dash of liqueur in their coffee. If that’s your thing then order a “café com Cheirinho” or “bica com cheiro”. More often than not though, locals will order a glass of liqueur next to their coffee, not to drink it in their coffee but rather with it.
Of course you can always play it safe and go to Starbucks in Lisbon. There are plenty of them around. Our advice however is to really immerse yourself in the traditional Portuguese coffee culture. You won’t regret it!