In Portugal, life revolves around coffee. Here, you never have to walk very far before you come to a pastelaria or coffee shop. The pastelaria is the heart of Portugal, and you will find at least one in every neighbourhood. Often, there will be two or three, and they will almost always have customers.
Pastelarias are different to the coffee shops you see in other parts of the world. You can not only get coffee, cakes, and savoury items here, but (often) a main meal and alcohol as well. In fact, you’ll often see older men or manual workers drinking a small beer or a glass of brandy alongside their coffee in the morning.
For a non-Portuguese person, however, the pastelaria can be a confusing place — especially when it comes to ordering coffee. Unlike coffee shops in most other countries, there’s no sign up listing all of the different coffees (well, there’s usually a pricelist but often it’s very small and hard to find). Generally, there’s no menu on the table either.
Don’t worry though: this article will guide you through the initially confusing world of Portuguese coffees.
This is an espresso, and it’s what you’ll get if you ask for a coffee (um café). It’s short, rich, chocolatey and the most popular coffee in Portugal. Cafés are drunk several times per day in Portugal, just like shots, to keep people going.
In Lisbon, you would ask for “uma bica” (bee-kah) whereas in Porto you would ask for “um cimbalino.” You can just ask for “um café” in either city, though, and people will know what you mean.
Sidenote: Apparently BICA stands for Beba Isto Com Açucar (drink this with sugar) because when it first came to Portugal it was considered extremely bitter. You can drink your coffee without sugar, but most people add a sachet.
“Um café cheio” or “uma bica cheia”
In Portugal, a café is never quite filled to the top. If you want that extra bit of water, you ask for “um café cheio” or “uma bica cheia”.
This is a café or espresso that has been topped up with milk. In Spain, this type of coffee is known as a cortado.
This is a milder-tasting espresso that’s around 50% coffee and 50% milk. The word garoto literally means a little boy. Apparently, this is because this is what parents give their kids when they’re trying to introduce them to coffee.
A carioca is a weak form of espresso that’s ideal if you’re not looking to get too wired on coffee. Normally when an espresso is made, the old coffee is emptied out and replaced with freshly grounded coffee. To make a carioca, you don’t change the coffee.
The closest type of coffee to this is a Ristretto.
“um café duplo”
A café duplo is a double expresso. This is what you drink when your neighbour’s dog has been barking all night or you’re busy cramming for exams.
“Café com Cheirinho”
A “café com cheirinho” or “bica com cheiro” is a coffee with a drop of brandy or aguardente in it. You can also order the two separately, and you’ll often see older Portuguese men drinking a coffee alongside a glass of brandy.
“Café com gelo”
This is as far as Portugal goes when it comes to iced coffee: an espresso and a glass of ice. You put the two together, and make your own iced coffee.
This is a decaffeinated coffee or espresso, but you can add the word descafeinado to any of the coffees to make it a decaf. Want to get more particular about your coffee? Ask for your coffee in a chávena quente (hot cup).
Milky coffees are typical in the morning in Portugal and you’ll see many people order a meia de leite or a galão. The milk that’s typically used is a full-fat long-life milk (UHT). Although some places may have skimmed milk, there isn’t really a selection of milks. You won’t have the option of ordering half-and-half or heavier milks, for example. As for plant-based milks like soy and almond milk, it’s likely these will become more common in the coming years, but you won’t find them in most traditional pastelarias for now. If you want a milky plant-based milk, look out for a more modern coffee shop where the menu has things like lattes and flat whites rather than meia de leites and galões.
“Uma meia de leite”
This is half milk and half coffee, and it’s similar to a flat white or a latte. If you want it stronger, you ask for “uma meia de leite escura“. Recently, places have started experimenting with latte art, although that’s a fairly new thing.
Um galão is a tall glass of warm milk with coffee in it. This is a popular drink in the morning and around 16:00-17:00, especially if you’re having some food (especially cakes) alongside.
Usually this is made using the carioca coffee method whereby the machine isn’t re-filled with freshly ground coffee, resulting in a weaker coffee.
If you want a stronger coffee, particularly first thing in the morning, you can ask for a galão directo aka a proper shot of espresso in your galão. On the other hand, if you aren’t a big coffee drinker, you could ask for a “galão clarinho“, which is an even milkier version of the galão.
Note: Some places aren’t very good at making milky coffees, and often the coffee or milk can taste a bit burnt.
“um abatanado com um pouco de leite”
A black coffee (similar to an Americano) with some milk.
“Um abatanado” (in the South) or “um Americano” (around Porto) is somewhere between an espresso and an Americano. If you want a long black coffee, this is the closest thing that you can get to it. Even then, it isn’t always as big a coffee as a lot of people will like.
Getting a big cup of coffee similar to an Americano is quite difficult and, even if you ask for an abatanado, often they’ll only put a tiny bit more water in it. It’s rare that they’ll fill it to the top of the glass.
If you want to guarantee you cup is full ask for an “abatanado cheio“, which means a full abatanado or a black coffee with extra hot water.
If you’re not a coffee drinker, here are some other drinks that you could order.
“Uma carioca de limão”
Lemon and hot water.
Chá is tea, and normally if you say tea that means black tea (chá preto). If you want tea with milk, you could ask for “chá preto com leite“. Some places will automatically just bring milk to foreigners. Other teas you could ask for are chá camomila (chamomile tea), chá tilia (tilia tea), and a chá de frutos vermelhos (red fruits tea).
“Um copo de leite”
If even a galão clarinho sounds like too much coffee for you, you could order “um copo de leite” (a cup of milk).
“Leite com chocolate”
Milk with chocolate powder (e.g. Nesquik).
“Sumo de Laranja”
What to order with your coffee
Now, that’s a whole other question. The easiest thing to order, especially if you’re visiting Portugal for the first time, is a pastel de nata (or what many people call a Portuguese custard tart).
This isn’t Portugal’s only pastry—be sure to read the list of all the other cakes you should try—but it’s a good place to start. Many pastelarias also serve a main meal at around lunchtime, which is almost always something traditional and usually very affordable as well. If you’re looking to try some traditional Portuguese dishes, the café is a good place to go.
FAQs about Portuguese Coffee
What’s the most typical Portuguese coffee?
If you want to ‘order coffee like a local’ order an espresso. Normally this is called a café, but in Lisbon it’s also called “uma bica” and in Porto it’s called “um cimbalino“. If that’s a bit confusing, just ask for “um café”.
Which Coffee is most similar to…
People often ask which Portuguese coffee is most similar to a latte, a flat white, etc. and there are even charts which attempt to match up these coffees with Portuguese coffees. The reality is that Portuguese coffee is different. If you order something expecting a flat white or a latte, you’re probably going to be disappointed.
An abatanado is similar to an Americano, but it’s really not the same (although it’s called an Americano in Porto). Similarly a meia de leite is similar to a flat white but, again, it’s really not the same. Instead, just order a coffee without any preconceived notions of what it should taste like.