Where and how to experience coffee culture in Lisbon
Talking about the Portuguese way of life and daily habits is synonymous with talking about coffee. The average Portuguese adult drinks at least two espresso coffees a day, which ends up amounting to about four kilos of coffee grains per person per year. No wonder wherever you go in Portugal, whether it’s in an urban setting or a rural place, you will see cafés where locals gather, not only to attend to their caffeine habits but also to socialize.
A brief history of coffee in Portugal
Coffee was introduced in Portugal in the 1800s. At the time, Brazil was a colony of Portugal and it was no less than the world’s biggest producer of coffee. By the hands of the Portuguese, coffee culture was exported to Africa, namely to the ex-colonies of Angola, S. Tomé e Príncipe and Cape Verde, which proved to be very conducive for growing coffee plants. In parallel, during the same period, the Dutch were spreading coffee consumption in Asia, having introduced the crop via Java, in Indonesia.
At first, here in Portugal, coffee was a luxury that came from far away at a steep price, and that only a few could really afford. But during the 19th century, the first public cafés started opening in Lisbon, forever changing the coffee habits of the Portuguese. Some of the very first cafés that were ever established in Lisbon, such as Martinho da Arcada (Praça do Comércio 3, 1100-148 Lisbon) or the tourist-popular A Brasileira (Rua Garrett 122, 1200-273 Lisbon), are still open and can be visited to reminisce about the old days. Going to one of these coffee houses, back in the 19th and even during the early 20th century, was not about the drink in itself. These were places where intellectuals, artists and those interested in political debates would visit, for the sake of mingling with like-minded people. Decor wise, these first coffee shops were inspired by French design tendencies, which can still be admired today.
Until today when someone in Portugal asks you to “go for a coffee”, we’re not literally talking about the act of drinking this beverage, but about going to hang out. Most frequently, morning coffee is an individual habit, but coffee breaks throughout the day or after dinner are highly linked with socializing with colleagues and friends.
What is Portuguese coffee like?
For a couple of centuries, Portugal sourced all its coffee from the now ex-colonies, where all of the beans were Robusta. This molded the Portuguese taste for coffee, which translates into a rather strong and bitter brew. If at first the most common brewing methods involved manual pour-overs, when speciality equipment like Cimbali espresso machines was introduced in Portugal, locals started preferring short and concentrated cups of espresso.
Even though we may share Italy’s love for espresso, the way that the coffee is prepared here in Portugal differs from the Italian method. Portuguese coffee starts with roasting a blend of full-bodied Robusta beans with a portion of added Arabica for a smooth and sweet after-taste. Brewing these blends with very high water pressure results in the distinct flavor and mouthfeel that the usual Portuguese cup of coffee offers. We’re talking about the 30ml (about 1 fl oz) cup of coffee most locals enjoy at regular cafés, pastry shops and in restaurants after a meal, which tends to be ubiquitous and affordable, and thus democratic.
While espresso is Portugal’s favorite way of brewing coffee, the recipes can vary according to taste and, in general, depending on the time of the day. Many prefer milky coffee to start the day with or during an afternoon coffee break with a Portuguese pastry, but small servings of coffee are preferred after meals or as a pick-me-up mid-morning.
Explore the different types of coffee traditionally served in Portugal and learn how to order coffee the Lisbon way!
Classical and historical cafés of Lisbon
No matter if you ask older folks or the younger generations, people in Portugal still prefer strong bitter coffee versus watered down sugary versions, like those served in international chains which are yet to gain real proeminence in our country. Most of Lisbon’s most historical cafés have been responsible for molding these coffee preferences, which are still alive and well today.
These are some of Lisbon’s classic cafés which are worth visiting today, not just for the sake of enjoying a good cup of Portuguese coffee, but mostly for soaking in the ambiance and, in some cases, reminiscing about the old times when intellectuals would discuss the present and future of the country sitting at these very same tables. The right dosage of caffeine and good company might spark good conversations today too.
Martinho da Arcada
Established in 1782 in Lisbon’s main square, Terreiro do Paço, Martinho da Arcada is Lisbon’s oldest and still running café. During these days, taverns offered the only option for gathering over a drink, and the appearance of a café where alcohol wasn’t shaping human internations proved impactful for a crowd that valued a more tranquil and focused exchange. Even though today you’ll find a statue of the prolific Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa at A Brasileira, it was at Martinho da Arcada where he mostly contributed to Lisbon cafés becoming known as places for writers to gather. When you visit Martinho da Arcada today, you will still be able to see the table that used to be permanently reserved for Pessoa, and where he allegedly spent many hours sitting and penning some of his most famous writings.
📍Praça do Comércio 3, 1100-148 Lisbon
During the 18th century in Lisbon, botequins were spaces that specialized in selling groceries and beverages. Botequim Nicola was one of the first establishments of this type in Lisbon, which after several years and changes in management, ended up becoming Café Nicola in 1929. If Martinho da Arcada became popular as Fernando Pessoas’s go-to spot, Café Nicola did so as the “home away from home” of another Portuguese poet, Bocage. During the 1930s, the Lisbon area of Rossio became popular for its cafés and coffee culture, and Café Nicola was at the center of it all. Even though it has become decidedly more touristic, and that would have been hard to avoid thanks to it privileged location, it is still very worth it to sit down at Café Nicola to sip a cup of coffee by the brand of the same name, while enjoying the art deco walls on the inside, or seeing the world past by Dom Pedro’s square if you choose to sit al fresco.
📍Praça Dom Pedro IV 24, 1100-200 Lisbon
This is one of the oldest and most well-known cafés in Lisbon’s old quarter, where locals and tourists gather today. A Brasileira opened back in 1905, and used to specialize in exclusively Brazilian coffee, thus the name “the Brazilian lady”. In the beginning, more than a coffee shop, A Brasileira used to be a store that sold ground coffee. But to promote its own product, it started offering a cup of coffee to those who’d buy a kilo of beans. Over time, drinking coffee at a Brasileira became way more popular than purchasing it to take home, as it would represent an excuse for gatherings of free thinkers and intellectuals. The coffee, the history and the location, make a stop at A Brasileira almost compulsory when you visit Lisbon.
📍Rua Garrett 122, 1200-273 Lisbon
A true Lisbon institution for one of the favorite local habits: coffee and cake! Confeitaria Nacional opened its doors in 1829, and it is the oldest and still open pastry shop in Portugal. Sugar and coffee have become best friends in Portugal over the years and this business that gained popularity when it started importing recipes of fine French patisserie and adapting them to Portuguese taste is so relevant to the history of Portuguese food and coffee culture, that Confeitaria Nacional is protected under the municipal program Lojas com História. Taste history when you are in Lisbon, ordering a coffee and pastry at Confeitaria Nacional. If you visit during December or January, don’t miss out on the Christmas speciality bolo rei which goes beautifully with an espresso.
📍Praça da Figueira 18B, 1100-241 Lisbon
Where to drink speciality coffee in Lisbon
Specialty coffee came to Lisbon in recent years, but the speed at which coffee shops have been mushrooming all over the city sure seems to be running on caffeine! In the last half or so decade, specialty roasters have been popping up a little all around the city, catering to international customers who have a specific coffee taste, while broadening the Portuguese idea of what a good cup of coffee is all about.
Before these coffee shops started establishing themselves in Lisbon, our country wasn’t particularly attentive to the so-called third-wave of coffee, which puts emphasis on high-quality beans, responsibly sourced from individual farmers. Between the higher price that this naturally translates into, specially for a country where coffee can still sometimes be enjoyed for around 50 cents of an euro, and the lighter roasts practiced in these kinds of cafés, we can’t say the popularization of specialty coffee was a given in Portugal. But the truth is that there is a time and place for everything, so if the common Portuguese folk will still hit the corner café or pastelaria for his morning espresso, that doesn’t mean he can’t also patronize a particular coffee shop for the sake of tasting and appreciating a different type of brew.
These are some of Lisbon’s most prominent speciality coffee shops:
Fábrica Coffee Roasters
When this coffee shop opened in Lisbon in the year 2015, specialty coffee wasn’t at all common in the city. Looking at how things played since then, we could say Fábrica was a trend setter. Coffee-thirsty expats and international travelers with a broader range in coffee helped Fábrica and similar coffee shops solidify their business in a country with very specific coffee taste and even spending habits. Today, Fábrica Coffee Roasters is regarded as one of the most well-established coffee shops and roasters not only in Lisbon, but nationwide.
📍Several locations across Lisbon:
Copenhagen Coffee Lab
Clean and minimalist Scandinavian aesthetics set the background for this third-wave coffee experience. Since its opening in 2013, by Danish owners Ida de Matos, Helle Jacobsen and Susan Jacobsen, Copenhagen Coffee Lab draws coffee aficionados and connoisseurs who appreciate the wide geographical range from where this lab sources its beans. Beyond the usual Portuguese espresso, here you can appreciate coffee extracted with different techniques, including Chemex, pour-over, V60, French press or cold brew. Coffee nerds of Lisbon rejoice.
📍Several stores in Lisbon (but also France, Germany and, of course, Denmark):
If Copenhagen Coffee Lab started the trend of Scandinavian inspired coffee shops in Lisbon, Hello, Kristof followed its steps and helped solidify not only a specific taste for coffee, but also for the aesthetics that contribute to the experience. Hello, Kristof brews 100% Arabica beans, something that goes in stark contrast to the classical Portuguese coffee habits, where Robusta beans are still mode widely used. This coffee shop in the so-called hipster triangle of Lisbon’s Rua do Poço dos Negros, is known for extremely high coffee standards, an interesting selection of magazine, and a decidedly digital nomad vibe.
📍Rua do Poço dos Negros 103, 1200-337 Lisbon
Olisipo Coffee Roasters
Freshly roasted Arabica coffee, headquartered in the neighborhood of Ajuda, tucked away in a residential neighborhood away from the hipster crowds which would normally be interested in this kind of coffee experience. Mostly a roaster, Olisipo (paying tribute to the ancient name for Lisbon) not only supplies other specialty coffee shops in the country during the weekdays, it also opens its own doors during the weekend for coffee tastings. Owners Sofia Gonçalves and Antony Watson are very much into the pleasure of drinking and sharing coffee, but always with a keen eye on respecting the seasonality of the beans at their origin, and focusing on the most sustainable possible methods for storing and distribution. Visit Olisipo for a truly rich coffee journey
📍Rua do Cruzeiro 84, 1300-167 Lisbon
Explore more specialty coffee shops in Lisbon here!
Who else needs a good cup of coffee to start the day in the right mood? We know we’re not alone with this feeling! Let us know how much you love coffee and how you’ve liked your café experiences in Lisbon so far, getting in touch via Instagram and Facebook. Please tag us @tasteoflisboa or #tasteoflisboa.
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