In my last post on espresso in Portugal, I reviewed a handful of notable cafés in Portugal’s capital, Lisbon. For this installment, I review notable cafés in other parts of Portugal. Namely, futher north … where I generally found the espresso to be even better than that in Lisbon.

Name Address City Espresso [info] Cafe [info] Overall [info]
Café Nicola Rua Ferreira Borges, 35 Coimbra 7.10 7.50 7.300
Pastelaria Toledo Largo da Portagem, 15 Coimbra 6.80 7.50 7.100
Café Calhambeque Rua de São Sebastiáo, 15 Porto 7.40 7.00 7.200
Majestic Café Rua de Santa Catarina, 112 Porto 7.00 8.00 7.500
A Brasileira Largo Barão São Martinho, 1 Braga 7.80 8.30 8.050

The sample cafés chosen for this post come from the central (Coimbra) and northern (Porto, Braga) parts of the country. They represent a mix of the classic European grande café (Majestic Café, A Brasileira), the local favorite (Nicola Café), and the random find (Pastelaria Toledo, Café Calhambeque).

Near the Coimbra Sé Dawn in Porto: the Igreja do Carmo across the Praça da Cordoaria Cannons look out from the heights of Monsanto, near the Spanish border

Coimbra

I was warned in advance that Coimbra was a bit of a run-down town with little going for it outside of the Universidade de Coimbra, which has been in continuous operation since 1290. However, I found Portugal’s third largest city to have a lot more going for it beyond university students in capes.

Nicola Café

This is one of the best cafés in town — with popular table seating in front along the commercial Rua Ferreira Borges. Using a three-group Magister Kappa machine, they pull espresso shots with a rich brown crema of a decent thickness. With a fully textured froth, it persists as you sip. The body is slightly weaker than you’d expect, given all other indications. But it has a bold, dark flavor — more of cloves. Still, the Nicola Café stand-up cafés seem to oddly serve better espresso than you can find at their grander sit-down locations.

Read the review.

Nicola Café, Coimbra The Nicola Café, Coimbra espresso

Pastelaria Toledo

This café/bakery is located in the main square just across the Mondego River. It is often packed with locals and none of the few tourists in the area (particularly on weekends), which often says something. Much of the local appeal must be for their baked goods, which are fantastic. They make a chocolate croissant that simply dissolves in your mouth. Using a three-group Brasilia Century, they pull shots with a not-too-thick, light-to-medium brown mottled crema. It has a decent body, with mostly a spice and herbal flavor with some woodiness. Served in Delta Diamante logo Costa Verde cups.

Read the review.

Sunday morning chaos behind Toledo's counter The Toledo espresso

Porto

Portugal’s second largest city, Porto, or Oporto (adding the “the” article to call it “The Port” to the Portuguese), is most famous for the production of fortified port wine from up the Douro River. (The Douro Valley is the world’s oldest designated wine-producing region, with Port being its most popular export.) The famous port wine lodges reside across the river from Porto in Vila Nova de Gaia, but Porto is an interesting town unto itself.

The saying goes that Lisbon is where Portugal has fun, but Porto is where it goes to work. Porto’s industrial and gothic feel reminds me of Italy’s Torino to Lisbon’s Roma.

Café Calhambeque

This is one of those classic examples of where you’d expect some overpriced, foul-quality espresso stand in the U.S. — given its tourist-friendly proximity to the entrance of the Porto Sé (cathedral). However, in Portugal it’s just the opposite experience. Run by an owner who wants to be a fisherman full-time (he helps pay for his ‘habit’ by running this place), this small café serves epsresso from a two-group Brasilia Portofino. For 0,60€, you get an espresso with a rich, thick, deep brown crema, a decent body, and a richer flavor of cloves and some herbal notes. A typical pleasant surprise you find in random cafés in northern Portugal.

Read the review.

Café Calhambeque doesn't exactly scream 'quality' from the outside ...but inside, they make a mean espresso

Majestic Café

This Porto institution has been in operation as a grand café of Europe since 1921. With the Imperial Café converted into a McDonald’s and the local A Brasileira in transitional ownership/use as a restaurant, this is one of the very few remaining grand cafés in operation in Porto. The place comes with weathered palacial decoration: grand mirrors, chandeliers, and sculpted artwork. They have an old brass dome Brasilia in the bar area at the center of the room (there’s some limited outdoor table seating as well), but they currently use a red, three-group Faema E92 Elite marked as ‘Selecção Diamante’ by Delta Coffee. They produce espresso with a somewhat thinner layer of a deep brown crema. It has a great aroma, with flavors of cloves, tobacco, and a little oakiness. Pricey at 1,50€, but then you get the posh environment plus a Delta chocolate served on the side. When it comes to milk frothing, they produce a significant amount for Portugal (which isn’t all that much) — though it consists of slightly large bubbles and no microfoam.

Read the review.

Majestic Café from a rainy Rua de Santa Caterina Inside the Majestic Café

The Majestic Café espresso The Majestic Café's take on cappuccino - with the obligatory cocoa

Braga

Braga, along with neighborhing Guimarães, are the more sophisticated, non-smoking cousins to the central and southern parts of Portugal. Although small in size, they carry much more in stature — given their recognized roles as the religious heart and political birthplace of Portugal, respectively.

A Brasileira

In terms of espresso quality, I’ve perhaps saved one of the best for last. This is yet another prominent city café in A Brasileira’s line-up. It shows its age a little more, eventhough it still dominates a prime city corner near the Praça da República. Older and a bit worn, inside it displays dingy mirrors and aged chairs on two levels. Using a old, plain-looking, two-group Gaggia, they pull shots with a great aroma. It has a rich, dark brown crema of considerable body, and the cup is weak only on flavor — which is a little mild and missing pungency. Flavorwise, its light herbal flavor is accented by some woodiness. A mere 0,55€ served by old school wait staff.

Read the review.

Braga's A Brasileira The Braga A Brasileira espresso

In conclusion…

These only represent a few of the cafés I sampled in Portugal. I’ve overlooked many others I’ve tried in these main cities — plus more remote towns such as Óbidos, Alcobaça, Guimarães, Évora, Viseu, Cascais, Sintra, Peso da Regua, Monsanto, etc. However, I sampled enough to notice a tendency for the corpo, or body, of the local espresso to improve as you travel north.

I also sampled enough espresso at cafés, restaurants, soccer stadiums, and other venues to note that quality and prices are generally consistent throughout — whereas they wildly vary within the U.S. And although I certainly have to give Italy the edge for a better cup, I may be hard-pressed to find other countries where the single espresso is so widely held to such high regard. Finland may have to be next on my travel list to top it…

The old school gathers 'round at the Braga A Brasileira The smoking Russian Doublemint Twins mix and match in front of Coimbra's Nicola Café