One of the best things to do in Lisbon is nothing – that is sitting and watching the world go by, preferably in one of its cafes. Here are my thoughts on three of its best known, each of which offers excellent people-watching and outdoor seating.
Located on the Rossio, http://www.casasuica.pt/.
Located on both the Rossio and Praça da Figuera, this is perhaps Central Lisbon’s most famous café. Certainly, its location is difficult to beat as somewhere to watch Lisbon slowly drift before you. However, if you’re going there on a winter’s night as I was, being seated outdoors is less important than somewhere warm to sit, hopefully accompanied by similarly warm food and service. Suiça delivered in all three of these regards. The interior dining room is pleasant, although given its historic renown (it was founded in 1922), rather less excitingly decorated than one might expect. However, the food itself – both the snacks and the cakes, were excellent. Unlike other similarly well known cafes (such as A Brasileira), Suiça seems to be trading on the quality of its food as well as its location. Judging by the facts that most of the waitstaff only speaks Portuguese and that the website is only in Portuguese as well, despite the fact that it attracts a lot of tourists, its clientele is primarily local, which may explain why its standards remain high.
120 Rua Garrett, near Baixa/Chiado Metro Station
Founded in 1905 to sell genuine coffee from the state of Minas Gerais in Brazil (hence the name) A Brasileira is probably both Lisbon’s and Portugal’s most famous coffeehouse. It originally offered a free small cup of strong coffee to anyone who purchased a kilogram of ground coffee there, with the instructions "Beba Isto Com Açúcar" meaning "drink this with sugar," whose acronym "bica" then became synonymous in Portugal for a small cup of coffee equivalent to an Italian espresso. It was also later the haunt of the Portuguese modernist writer Fernando Pessoa (today honored with a sculpture on the patio), who did most of his writing there, as well as a number of other intellectuals, and has been described as the literal birthplace of Portuguese Modernism. Perhaps predictably, A Brasileira has cashed in on this history as a major tourist attraction and while the coffee is still good, nearly everything else is expensive enough to deter the next generation of Portuguese artists (or many Portuguese in general) from visiting. It’s certainly worth having a coffee in the bar (cheapest) to admire the décor or on the terrace in the summer (the most expensive), but the sandwiches and pastries are both overpriced and mediocre and service is rather slow.
Antiga Confeitaria de Belem
Rua de Belem 84-92, http://www.pasteisdebelem.pt/
Among Portugal’s most delightful but least known (outside of Portugal) culinary specialties are custard tarts (known as pasteis de nata) which supposedly were first produced at the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, literally down the street from this café. Fortunately, the monks couldn’t keep such a good thing to themselves and in 1837 this café began to sell them and continues to do so to this day, according to a secret recipe (although nearly every Portuguese bakery worldwide sells an imitation). The café itself also serves a variety of other pastries and good coffee, but the reason for visiting is to eat these delicious tarts hot out of the oven and because they’re better here than anywhere else. Although they’re topped with powdered sugar and cinnamon, they’re not as sweet as you might expect; my mother who doesn’t typically enjoy sweets or pastries generally loved them. As is usual at Portuguese cafes, it’s cheaper to eat standing up than in the labyrinthine rooms at the back which are decorated with antique Portuguese tiling. This is probably just as well, since once you (or at least) I bite into one of them, you immediately want more! Perhaps the best thing to do is to buy six in a special tube for take-out. Given their popularity amongst Lisboetas and tourists alike, the lines to buy the tarts are long – the café sells 10,000 on the average weekday (double that on weekends) and there’s only one counter.