Lisbon’s café society

Food, Nightlife, Things to Do — By Paul Bernhardt on December 12, 2011 at 3:46 pm

Percolating throughout the Portuguese capital is a myriad of cafés and teahouses as ubiquitous and appealing as the rich and aromatic beverage itself. So why not blend your love of caffeine with some of the best cafés in Lisbon?

Café Versailles

Versailles

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Sweet-toothed traditionalists will love Café Versailles. Located away from the city centre on the bustling Avenida da Republica, this classy 1930s confeitaria is bourgeois café society personified. These days the chandeliers are nourished with neon rather than gaslight but the expanse of polished marble, filigree dark wood and pastel-hued stucco is straight out of Jeeves and Wooster. The vast selection of cakes, pastries, gateaux and other assorted confectionery lure a loyal clientele, including fur-coated octogenarians who gossip and gesticulate over French sponge topped with dollops of whipped cream. The busy waiters look dapper in their burgundy waistcoats and pipsqueak bowties, but sometimes forget to smile. It’s a moot point. After all, this place is all about character.

Orpheu Caffé

Back in central Lisbon, and the pleasantly understated Orpheu Caffé also has a whiff of the bygone about it with its antique furnishings and homely ambiance. The vibe however is sophisticated and off beat, a fact helped by the café’s location overlooking the gardens at Príncipe Real – an area known for its arty ambiance and diverse character. The menu here is bursting with healthful food options (the brunch is a stunner). This is a place to unwind and un-hurry in the company of young, good-looking types.

Orpheu Caffe

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Café Vértigo

Another low-key café rich in character is Café Vértigo on Travessa do Carmo, in the city’s Chiado district. Brimming with vintage furnishings from the 1950s and ‘60s, the attractive retro look is tempered by an amazing stained glass ceiling that has a dash of the Art Nouveau about it. A refreshingly simple menu of homemade food, best savoured at Sunday lunchtimes, further heightens the experience.

Café A Brasileira

Nearby is one of the city’s most celebrated coffee-serving establishments, Café A Brasileira in Rua Garrett. Dating from 1902, this historic venue remains a firm favourite on the sightseeing agenda and can sometimes be uncomfortably crowded because of it. A Brasileira is also renowned for its Art Nouveau décor and was a favourite watering hole of eloquent but troubled wordsmith Fernando Pessoa, a poet with a penchant for coffee and unhealthy measures of absinthe. His liver succummed in 1935 but the man’s spirit lives on in the shape of a bronze statue outside the café that is one of Lisbon’s most photographed pieces of sculpture.

Café Nicola

Lovers of art and Portuguese culture in general will be equally rewarded at Café Nicola, another coffee house steeped in history. A series of huge and evocative canvases inside the café depict the life of Manuel Maria Barbosa du Bocage, an 18th-century Portuguese poet. The brushwork is outstanding, as is the sombre, moody tone of the colour. Check them out before bagging a seat on the Rossio esplanade to watch the world go by.

Café Infusão

Infusao

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Up in Chiado again, this time to a funky little hangout called Café Infusão, a French-Portuguese-run eatery that’s been squeezed under the brick stone arches of an old cistern complex, an historic local landmark. The atmosphere here is laid back and cosy, and it’s one of the few places in town where you can sample genuine crêpes, made with Gallic flair and lots of imagination. They also offer up a wonderful array of teas and infusions, and if you’re there during winter, why not order a mug of hot, spicy mulled wine?

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