There are certain words in other languages that just cannot be directly translated in English.
Take schadenfreude in German for instance, a feeling of pleasure gained via someone else’s misfortune; ilunga, from the African language of Tshiluba, when loosely translated describes someone who will neither forgive nor forget a repeated wrong.
And then, in Portuguese there is the galão. This blissful beverage that elicits instant effervescent happiness is simple enough in its composition but incredibly difficult to describe exactly how delicious and uniquely flavored it truly is. It’s the kind of drink that takes you aback and makes you want to say “you had me at first sip” as it’s the perfect balance of ¾ hot foamed milk and ¼ espresso that somehow just tastes completely different in Portugal than in it does when recreated anywhere else in the world.
To be Portuguese is to live in a heightened state of all-consuming coffee culture.
It was Portugal that actually even introduced coffee to Brazil by the King of Portugal centuries ago whereas most would tend to assume it was the other way around. It was brought to Brazil where it could be grown in massive volume and turned right back around to Europe, and now it’s literally a part of the fabric everywhere across the country.
In restaurants, perpetually buzzing cafes, clubs, museums, side streets, universities, homes and vending machines and is a daily ritual for most citizens, beginning early on in life. Coffee is more of an event, a social occasion even if only to meet someone and sip an espresso quickly while standing up at a café, it is a way to end (or even begin) a great meal and a means by which to spend a lazy Sunday morning.
Check out our guide for ordering coffee in Portugal.
The galão is truly best enjoyed in a café in Lisbon.
My choice would be a charming café in Rossio Square in the center of the city which incidentally served as a meeting point during World War II where exiles could negotiate their tickets to Switzerland and thus to freedom.
Outdoor seat, preferably facing a bustling square, aluminum table with just one leg slightly off kilter due to the uneven grooves of the cobblestone streets beneath your feet, tabletop covered by a waxy sheet of tablecloth paper, chair perfectly positioned outward in prime people-watching position.
A galão coffee is always served steaming hot in a tall glass, steam and gorgeous aromas arising constantly and one must take great care not to burn fingers.
The sugarphobe in me always seems to take a hiatus when the concoction appears on a menu, because to have it just absolutely right, one must succumb to the multiple cubes that must be added to achieve the perfect balance.
Since a galão almost always must be accompanied by an obligatory sweet of some sort, order a traditional pastel da nata and enjoy that while waiting for your drink to cool. Then, sip or gulp, and enjoy the galão, the views on the street, and everything else that goes along with this charming city and stay as long as you want as most café waiters in Portugal will never bother you to move even if you decide to spend hours on just one drink.
If you can’t hop the pond but find yourself in the New York metro area, hop a train or a taxi to the heavily Portuguese Ironbound section of Newark and take a stroll down to Delicia’s Bakery on Ferry Street.
It’s about as close as one can get to the Lisbon experience, but there’s still that tiny bit that’s missing, that certain something that just can’t be translated…