Café Culture in Portugal

Do Portuguese cafés serve alcohol? What’s the drinking age in Portugal? How do I order a Portuguese coffee? A café culture guide.

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A lot of ink is spilled on café culture in France, but much of that rings true here as well.  Coffee in Portugal is a social affair, and the places you typically go for coffee offer a relatively wide selection of eating and drinking options.   (As in most of Europe, people sipping from gigantic to-go cups of coffee while walking down the street is not a thing.) Most cafés – you can think of them as a cross between a coffee shop and a diner – are open all day, sell baked goods and light meals, and can also serve as local watering holes at happy hour and family gathering places on weekends.   Portugal is the European country where most coffee is consumed outside the home, and during the pandemic closures, national coffee consumption actually dropped. But the Portuguese don’t need a chic street corner à la française to get their coffee on — and they don’t need to be in a bar to get their drink on.
Grocery stores have cafés.  Hardware stores have cafés.  Libraries have cafés. You can’t walk more than a couple blocks, even in residential areas, without running into a café, and cold weather is no obstacle to sitting outside if it’s crowded inside. At the same time, even the most minimalist café will have some wine or beer on hand, and so do highway rest stops.  (Portuguese rest stops are an art. I’ve had some surprisingly decent meals stopping along the highway while driving down to the Algarve.)
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Café in a hardware store at closing time
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Beverage selection at your average highway rest stop
The Portuguese often differentiate between what they are drinking, um café or a coffee, from where they are drinking it, which may also be called a café, or instead referred to as a padaria (what we would understand as a bakery, usually serving bread baked on the premises and other savory baked goods), a pastelaria or confeitaria (a pastry shop / bakery, usually serving sweet baked goods — and some savory — but not usually baking their own bread), or their Brazilian friends might call it a cafeteria, which could give some Americans flashbacks of awkwardly wondering around with a tray in middle school. 
But fear not.  All your most pressing Portuguese café culture and Portuguese coffee questions are answered here.

Am I in a Restaurant or a Café?

If the name of the establishment includes the words padaria, pastelaria, or confeitaria, you are in a café.  If the name doesn’t include any of these words, but you see a big glass display case full of baked goods, you are in a café.  In most other instances, you are probably in a restaurant.
What does this mean for you?  Well, in a traditional café, especially outside the most touristy areas or one that isn’t “modern” or obviously upscale, you will not be handed a menu when you sit down as you would be in a restaurant.  The average Portuguese already has the basic café menu committed to memory because they’re the same at most cafés in the country, give or take some regional variations in the sweets. But you, dear non-Portuguese, will either have to already know what you want to order – I talk about ordering coffee below and egg-based Portuguese desserts here – or point at the sweets in the display case and experiment.  At the very least, you can always order a pastel de nata, the quintessential Portuguese dessert.
Note that in a café, especially one with outdoor seating, you can generally sit down at any open table, but in a restaurant, you should wait to be seated. Reservations are not usually required for informal restaurants, but anything upscale or trendy, or during peak hours, will require one.  Newer restaurants often take reservations directly on their webpage or via text / WhatsApp, and you can always see if they are listed on sites like The Fork or Open Table.

How Do I Order a Portuguese Coffee?

Unless you’re in a tourist trap with a 40-page menu translated into 15 languages, you will probably not find a list of coffee drinks spelled out for you, even if you were in a restaurant.  Still, it’s not that complicated, though you might think so based on the collective wisdom of The Internet.
There are countless guides and travel websites that list all the conceivable ways you could order a coffee in Portugal, but I feel confident in saying that most Portuguese, most of the time, will be ordering one of two caffeinated drinks: um café or a shot of espresso (in Lisbon you’ll also hear this called uma bica); or um café pingado (um pingo in Porto), which is a shot of espresso with a splash of milk.   (The words um or uma mean “a” in Portuguese.) I’ve often seen the claim that in Porto people order um cimbalino instead of um café, a name based on an Italian brand of espresso machines, but in 15 years here, I have never heard a single person say this ever, anywhere.
A milk-heavy drink on par with a latte is called uma meia de leite, but it’s something you don’t usually see the Portuguese ask for except in the morning, either with breakfast or as a substitute for it, or in the late afternoon as an accompaniment to o lanche or the afternoon snack.  I’d wager um café is more common, regardless of the time.  You can also order um galão, which is essentially a meia de leite with slightly more milk, however, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me, it’s often served in a glass without a handle that burns your hand when trying to hold it. Portuguese generally don’t follow up a meal with anything other than um café, um café pingado, or a digestif.
That will cover, conservatively speaking, 95% of all coffee drinking situations you may find yourself in here.  Sure, there are variations on a theme.  If you want a weaker espresso, you can order um café cheio with more water, similar to a lungo, or a um descafinado, which is um café but with decaffeinated espresso beans.  I can’t vouch for the quality, but you can also try your hand at um café americano, which has even more water and will get you something closer to American-style drip coffee, or um café abatanado, which is basically um café served in a bigger cup (that presumably goes cold faster?).  Cafés and baristas vary, and um café pingado in one place may taste more like um café in another, so you can also order your drink clarinho that’s heavier on the milk side. 
Then, there are the more obscure or coffee-adjacent drinks.  You can try um carioca de limão, or lemon zest in hot water served in an espresso cup. (I’ve never seen anyone under the age of 50 order this.)  In the summer, some people order um mazagran, which is um café served over ice with a slice of lemon and sugar.  (If you order um café gelado, or an iced coffee, in Portugal anywhere other than Starbucks, don’t be surprised to get just a shot of espresso with a cup of ice on the side.)  Somewhere in the Alentejo right now, an old man in a straw hat is sipping um café com cheirinho, or a shot of espresso with a dash of Portuguese aguardente brandy, and staring off into the middle distance.  But for the rest of us, there’s um café.
If you’re the type of coffee drinker who roasts raw coffee beans at home or for whom the distinctions between a latte, a flat white, and a latte machiatto are essential, you’ll have better luck in an upscale café, restaurant, or hotel that caters to international travelers.  See also: Starbucks.
The real question you have to ask yourself is: am I actually going to attempt to order my drink in Portuguese?  Elsewhere I discuss whether you can get by in Portugal speaking only English (probably) and whether you should learn Portuguese anyway if you plan to live here (definitely).  But if you are in an urban center, trust that your server can pick up your foreign-ness a mile kilometer away and will help you out with your coffee order.

Should I Go to a Café or a Bar?

Your shopping legs are tired.  Your friends want a late afternoon caffeine boost and you want a happy-hour glass of vinho verde, a light, crisp Portuguese white wine.  A café can satisfy everyone.  A couple of caveats, however.
Most traditional cafes will have only a small selection of moderately priced beers and house wines.  If you want a cocktail, you’re more likely to find something like that in a bar, a full-fledged restaurant, or cafés in a tourist area.  (Bars and clubs tend to open only later in the day or not until the evening.)  Another option is a wine bar, which is more of an international phenomenon than something traditionally Portuguese, despite the country’s long wine-producing history, but usually has a better selection of wine – and people watching, since they are often located in high-traffic areas, such as downtown Lisbon and Porto.
Note that there is less pressure to vacate a table in a café than in a restaurant – and even in a restaurant there usually isn’t much, unless it’s a trendy place with a famous chef that may have nightly seatings, though this is still rare – so it’s expected that you feel free to linger over your drink.  However, if you’re planning to set up shop in a café to work on your laptop all day, don’t expect to find an outlet to plug it in. 

How Early Is Too Early for Alcohol?

You know the old adage: it’s always five o’clock somewhere.  And of course, when on vacation, you’re on your own clock.  But it’s much more common to see people have a beer or a glass of wine with lunch in Portugal than in the US, especially on the weekends.  After all, Portugal has the highest per capita wine consumption in the world, so you won’t see anyone looking over your shoulder disapprovingly.  I’ve observed Portuguese knocking back a beer at 10 AM in the airport plenty of times. Plus, markups on alcohol aren’t as bad as in the US so a decent glass of wine is relatively inexpensive and it’s common for a restaurant with a set lunch menu to include a glass of wine at no extra charge. 
Now, it’s a different story if you don’t know how to drink responsibly.  For my British friends, I’m afraid the Portuguese have a derogatory name for the drunken, sunburned, loudmouths among your ranks that roam in bands in the Algarve: bifes or beefs.  (I’ve heard Americans referred to as cumões because we say “come on” a lot but this isn’t related to alcohol.  Yet.) Don’t be a beef, and you should be fine, no matter what time it is.

What Is the Drinking Age in Portugal?

A few years back, wine and beer could still be legally sold to sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds, but now the drinking age in Portugal is 18.  Historically, and as in many wine-producing countries, wine was often a substitute for potable water — and calories for the poor — and it wasn’t uncommon for children and adolescents to be given a small amount of wine, or wine diluted with water, at mealtimes.  Naturally, this practice has changed as Portugal became wealthier and as child welfare and health norms evolved. However, moderate wine (and beer) consumption among teenagers and young adults was not generally frowned upon in the past because most adults consumed wine (and beer) regularly.
Flash forward to today, and the grown-ups have maintained their moderate drinking but “binge drinking” is on the rise among younger Portuguese.  Taking a page from their Spanish counterparts, the practice of the botellón (botelhão in Portuguese), a group of teenagers or young adults drinking alcohol in a public space, has become more common, and in some places, a public nuisance.
In Europe in general, militant carding of suspected under-aged drinkers in restaurants and cafés is not really a thing like it is in the United States, especially if they’re with their parents or other older adults.  The legal minimum age to be admitted into a night club in Portugal is 16, but clubs often have 18-and-older or 21-and-older nights, so they may be stricter about carding.  (I’m one of the olds so I don’t club and can’t speak from personal experience.) Check the web site of the club before you go.
Note that recreational drugs were decriminalized in Portugal in 2001, however, possession and consumption is currently allowed only for medical purposes.
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