What to Expect from Coffee in Europe

First, I’ll put this up top this time: check out the summer’s collection of posts on the main 2017 travel page.

At the Athens airport, I had a long layover. Seven hours, actually. The duration of this stopover wasn’t enough to pull me back into Athens, but it did provide plenty of reading and coffee-drinking time. I’ve quite come to appreciate what they call Greek coffee, and I ordered two of them as I finished my book and whiled away the hours. The café in the terminal that became my home over the course of three visits and twenty-plus hours was situated near the international arrivals exit, so a lot of my time was broken up with watching airplanes’ worth of people disgorging into the outer terminal concourse. There was a group of Italians, first. Then came Americans. There were others, of course.

When I approached the bar to order my second Greek coffee, I waited for my drink and listened to a confused, tired, and impatient middle-aged American attempt to order coffee. I’ll call him Fred. Fred said: “Black coffee, please.” The barkeep was confused by the request.

“Would you like Greek coffee?” he asked, hoping for a solution.

“No. Just a small black coffee.”

“I can make americano for you,” Fred said.

“I guess that’ll have to do,” came the reply.

Fred was clearly dissatisfied, but he should have been better prepared. It’s okay, though. It’s not his fault. This post didn’t exist before Fred left for Greece.

Being dissatisfied at coffee options in Europe is just the sort of thing Americans should learn to avoid by knowing the coffee situation in Europe.

I’m here to help. So here’s the situation.

First off, don’t order a black coffee or just “coffee” anywhere in continental Europe. I’m not saying this because it’s passé or some sort of social faux pas. I’m informing you: this coffee does not exist in Europe. (I’m sure someone is making it in their home, but even this is unlikely unless the person in question is an American – we’re talking cafes, bars, etc..) If someone gives you a tall glass of black coffee, and you are in Europe, there are two things you may just have been handed: either instant coffee that I pray you don’t want to drink, or an americano (that is, a shot of espresso weakened with a lot of hot water), which I should also hope you don’t want to drink.

But don’t worry. There is hope!

Here are your real options: espresso, cappuccino, Turkish or Greek coffees (in the southeast), and variants of these drinks. I’m assuming you know what espresso and cappuccino are. But Turkish and Greek coffees are unlike the usual options served in the United States (outside of Turkish restaurants), and if you’re from there, you probably don’t know much about them. Turkish and Greek coffees are probably different in some regard, but I can’t tell the difference in drinking them. They’re brewed similarly to a French-press coffee – with grounds mixed with hot water. And the grounds are, counter to French-pressed coffee, ground extremely finely and are left in the drink – that’s what that muck is at the bottom of the cup you’ve just drained. These two drinks are often served with sugar, and they’ll ask you if you want it; it will be added to the mug before they’ll hand it to you. Try them. They’re good, honest. 
If you’re in Italy, people will look at you funny if you order a cappuccino after breakfast time, but don’t let that stop you if it’s what you want to drink. The Italians are wrong about that, anyhow. And they typically drink coffee standing at the bar rather than seated casually. (The price will be different for sitting to drink rather than standing at the bar to drink.) Drinking espresso at a coffee bar is a social experience for Italians. (Sometimes, there’s a separate place for paying in advance at a cash till and another place for handing the barista your receipt for payment. Be aware of this setup.) The actual drinking of coffee in Italy seems to happen too quickly for my taste. People stand there, down their espresso, exchange pleasantries, and then bolt. I don’t like drinking coffee in Italy for several of these reasons.

Generally, on the European continent, “bars” are also the coffee cafes. Keep this in mind as you travel. “Going to the bar” does not necessarily entail getting a beer as it would in the U.S. – if you want a coffee drink, you’re as likely to find it in a bar that opens at 9am as you are to a place that looks like a café you’d recognize as such.

Unlike in Italy, (where people are confused about the true joys of coffee despite inventing the language we use to describe it), in Denmark, Germany, and Austria, you can often find cafes with plenty of seating where no one will blink at you for sitting for a long time and sipping on whatever sort of coffee drink you like. Again, no “regular/black coffee,” but cappuccinos and espresso-based drinks are served to-order.

In Holland, “coffee shop” means a place where you can buy drinks and smoke drugs. I didn’t go into those. There are cafes and bars that serve coffee. Just know that if you ask someone for a “coffee shop,” that’s what you’ll get in Amsterdam.

I’m not sure about Paris yet. I’ll be there next week. Can anyone advise? (If I remember, I’ll update this post after visiting Paris.)

Here’s another thing to note: the further east you go, the less likely there is to be a developed coffee culture. In the Czech Republic and in Georgia, both former soviet satellites, they’re barely past the instant-coffee variety of drinks. Don’t go to the old satellites with high hopes. They’ll likely be dashed. I cannot speak to the Baltic States but am assuming it might be a bit better than further to the south in the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

I am not going to go through every country. I’ve ordered coffee drinks in a mere ten of them, and I’m not an expert on any of them. I only have wide experience in two or three of them. I think this advice and characterization is broadly applicable, however.

I’m also not here to offer a full-menu rundown, so I’m not going to waste your time telling you the difference between a doppio and a macchiato. To be honest, the only things I order are espressos and cappuccinos – or Greek/Turkish coffees, where they’re served. I just want you to be prepared not to have drip-coffee available. You might be able to get it at a McDonalds or other American chain – Starbucks are definitely a thing in Europe. I can’t report specifically on those chains, however, as I am happy to drink my cappuccinos and espressos throughout my stay in Europe at small cafes and bars.

This has been a disjointed report from my place on the ground, so to speak, in Central Europe. Don’t be like Fred. Be happy.

About Steve Capone

Writer hailing from Salt Lake City, Utah. Interdisciplinary teacher (read: generalist guiding inquiry) at an independent school. Adjunct instructor at a medium sized state school. Lover of learning. Favorite destination: Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, Germany. @CaponeTeaches on Twitter M.S. Philosophy (Univ. of Utah 2013) M.A. Humanities (Univ. of Chicago 2007) B.A. Philosophy & English (Washington & Jefferson College 2006
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