In Austria, coffee is served on a silver platter with a glass of tap water.
Make sure you’re ordering your cappuccino at the right time in Italy.
Can’t imagine a morning (or afternoon, or evening) without your coffee fix? Join the club. Unfortunately for caffeine addicts abroad, simply memorizing the word for coffee in the local language will only get you so far. Sure, you’re likely to get a caffeinated beverage, and that’s certainly better than nothing, but what if you’d like something more specific? Read on for our best tips on how to drink like a local (if you’re into that) and order what you really want to drink, or its closest approximation in seven European countries.
Italy: Sip standing up
Italy is widely known as a coffee-lover’s paradise and with good reason. It may all be espresso, but it’s all good. That said, even in java heaven, there are a few rules to follow. Rule number one? Head to the nearest bar. Once you’re there, get your fix standing up or expect to pay more for a seat at a table. And don’t dally. Unlike in other parts of Europe, in Italy, locals don’t hover over coffees for long. Typically, coffee is served warm, but not scalding, so you can sip it at a steady pace. Like your coffee practically boiling? Order a caffé bollente.
Something else to consider? Milk is a morning-only-habit for most Italians, so ordering a cappuccino after lunch or dinner is a major faux pas. And whatever the time of day you order it, a cappuccino will probably have substantially less milk than you’re used to—for a milkier concoction, order a latte macchiato (as opposed to a latte, which is just milk). Fancy coffee drinks with added spice or flavoring are frowned upon with three notable exceptions—caffé all nocciola, a frothy espresso with hazelnut cream from Naples, a marrocchino, a cappuccino with cocoa powder from Milan, and a coretto, an espresso with booze in it (usually grappa).
Finally, for outsiders, paying is probably the trickiest part. You’ll either head to the cash register to order, pay up, get your receipt, and flash it at the person manning the coffee machines upon request. Or do the whole thing in reverse and pay on the way out. Unfortunately, the only way to know for sure which procedure is the go-to in any given bar is to watch locals in action.
Greece: Specify the sweetness
No matter what your order is, in Greece it’s common for the barista to mix in the sweetener for you, so you’re best off making your preferences clear when you order by including your preference for sweetness level. Sketo is plain, glyko is sweet, and metrio is somewhere in the middle. And remember, in Greece, if something’s labeled sweet, it’s rot-your-teeth sweet.
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This is especially true when it comes to the country’s most popular drink, a frappe. While frappes are made with (horror of horrors) instant coffee, when temperatures climb, they’re surprisingly refreshing, and if you order them with milk (me gala) and medium sweet (metrio), they’re as good or better than most bottled iced coffee drinks. Espresso drinks with and without milk are also on offer almost everywhere in hot and cold versions—as is old-school filter coffee, which (for whatever reason) is sometimes referred to as French coffee.
Also, if you want to make friends, don’t call the grounds-in coffee Turkish coffee. Since the two countries’ falling out over Cyprus, locals are especially loathe to recognize the origins of the traditionally prepared brew.
Austria: Order something specific
In Austria, where coffee culture is king (and several centuries old to boot), you’ll shock your elegantly attired server if you dare order just “coffee.” Want something like a latte or a cappuccino? Try a mélange.
It’s important to note that while cappuccino and mokka are available on most menus, they may not be quite what you’re expecting. Austria’s version of the cappuccino replaces milk foam with whipped cream, and the mokka is simply a strong black coffee. Beyond the seemingly endless combinations of milk and coffee, there are also concoctions involving whipped cream, ice cream, all sorts of alcohol, and even egg yolks.
In a traditional Austrian kaffehaus, whatever you order, it’ll be served on a silver tray with a chocolate and a glass of tap water. Why? The custom dates back to the days when water and coffee were rare and precious. It’s a way of showing the customers how much they’re valued. Another great thing about Austrian coffeehouses? Patrons are expected to linger—so get comfortable with that guidebook and sip slowly.
France: Don’t drink it with food
Our favorite French rule? Coffee stands alone—so forget about washing down that after-dinner sweet treat with coffee. As in Italy, there are strict rules about when to mix your caffeine with dairy products—never after noon. The one exception to this rule, café au lait, is typically a breakfast-only affair, served at home or with full petit déjeuner. Milk on the side isn’t common (although you can ask if you want), and neither is filtered coffee, called café américain outside touristy spots.
And despite the name, French press coffee isn’t widely available in France— in fact, most neighborhood establishments offer variations on espresso, and that’s about it. Skip the cappuccino even if it’s on the menu—the drink you’re looking for is called a café crème.
In France, as in Austria, it’s generally understood that coffee isn’t to be consumed in a hurry—that means a shortage of to-go cups at corner cafés—but if you’re really in a hurry, you can do as you would in Italy, and throw back an espresso shot at the bar.
Portugal: Warm your hands with your cup
As in so many European countries, in Portugal, a plain coffee, or um café, is a single espresso served black and it’s the cheapest thing on the menu. In the country responsible for smuggling Brazil its first coffee plant from French Guiana back in 1727, coffee drinkers can choose from a cup of joe made from the first or second extraction from the grounds, and espresso served with more or less water or milk. Locals are even known to request their cups be heated or cooled, usually a scalding hot cup in the winter, and a cool cup in the summer. Want to try it? Order um café em chávena escaldada/hot or fria/cold.
Another pro tip—if you want a long coffee, skip the café americano—in some places in Portugal, it’ll get you an instant coffee. Order um abatanado instead. Prefer your coffee white? Be aware that just like in France and Italy, milky coffee has a time limit and isn’t consumed much after midday.
Germany: Order exactly what you want
When you’re ordering coffee in Germany, just remember to keep everything simple and to the point. German is a very exact language—consider for example the difference between a milchkaffee—a coffee with hot milk versus a kaffee mit milch—a black coffee with a splash of milk.
Espresso drinks are widely available, but unlike elsewhere in Europe if you order einen kaffee in Germany, you’ll get a cup of drip coffee. Who knows? It might have something to do with the fact that Germans invented both the paper coffee filter and the electronic drip brewer.
Spain: Savor and socialize
In Spain espresso is the go-to order. Filter coffee, French press, and pour over aren’t widely known and are only available in specialty coffee shops in bigger cities like Barcelona and Madrid—don’t expect them in neighborhood bars frequented by locals.
As in France, coffee is a leisurely social affair in Spain—something to be sipped slowly while sharing the latest gossip with friends. So you won’t see many locals with a to-go cup. That said, café para llevar is increasingly common in bigger cities, even if it’s directed primarily at tourists.
The best part about drinking coffee in Spain? The accepting attitude of the baristas. Want to drink a milky café con leche late at night or order a boozy carajillo first thing in the morning? No one cares, at least not enough to give you a dirty look or raise an eyebrow.
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