Join Culinary Backstreets

Sign up with email


Already a member? Log in.

Log in to Culinary Backstreets

Trouble logging in?

Not a member? Sign up!

Join our upcoming

Food Tours!

Every summer, sellers hawking bolas de Berlim – custard-filled doughnuts without a hole in the middle – throng to Portuguese beaches. Plodding across the boiling sand and ringing a bell to announce their arrival, they deliver these beautifully simple pastries to hungry beachgoers, many of whom associate a trip to the coast with the sweet treat.

A slew of bolas are sold on the beach each year; the presumed number is almost as eyebrow-raising as the calorie content of a big fat bola filled with custard. It’s no surprise, then, that an app promising to be the Uber of bolas has been an immediate success.

The idea for the Bolinhas app first came up in a conversation Ignácio Correia, the app’s founder, had with his youngest brother on a beach in the Algarve, where he and his siblings grew up. It took some years for Correia to act on the idea, but he ultimately developed the app through his company Algardata. Launched in early July of 2017, Bolinhas quickly gained traction, both with customers (the app recorded around 6,000 downloads in the first week) and sellers applying to work with the app. It lead Google Play for downloads in the food category in Portugal for months and is also available in the Apple store.

The Bolinhas app has been an immediate success, photo by Rodrigo Cabrita

With the app, users can see where sellers are, order from a menu (the classic custard-filled doughnut, regular doughnut, carob doughnut, chocolate-filled doughnut, as well as other eats) and watch the seller approaching just like an Uber car. The app also allows users to order fruit at some beaches, like Portimão.

Bolas have a long history in Portugal. During World War II, a refugee family from Berlin began making the doughnuts in Lisbon. They were traditionally baked and filled with jam in Germany. But the Portuguese began frying the soft dough and packing it with a light lemon or eggy custard, calling the pastry bola de Berlim.

“Bolas taste better on the beach, because people are more relaxed here.”

The bolas quickly spread north and south of Lisbon, and itinerant cake sellers, who wandered the beach with a wooden box divided into separate compartments for each type of pastry, began carrying more and more of the fried doughnuts with yellow custard. Together with homemade chips and a wafer known as língua da sogra (mother-in-law’s tongue), bolas played an important role in the childhood of many Lisboetas – they were best after a swim in the salty sea. (This tradition is not exclusive to Portugal. Beachgoers in Greece are also avid fans of doughnuts, albeit without the custard. According to CB’s Athens correspondent Carolina Doriti, these doughnuts also “remind everyone of their childhood.”)

Even with the new app, selling bolas on the beach is still hard work. Vendors walk for hours on soft sand, some carrying their trays on their heads. Take Maria, who we met one morning on Costa da Caparica, a long stretch of beach south of Lisbon. She’s tired from walking back and forth all morning, but will have to walk a lot more before she heads home. “I will be here all day selling fresh bolas. Yes, it’s very tiring but it has to be done,” she explained. Her day starts earlier than others because she gets her bolas from a supplier in Lisbon: “I think the quality is better and they are softer than the ones sold by my colleagues – but don’t tell them that!”

A bola seller on Praia de Carcavelos beach, photo by Rodrigo Cabrita

Unlike Maria, who carries three plastic trays and shouts “olhá a bolinha” every 10 seconds or so, Ana prefers to carry one tray at a time and makes her presence known by ringing a bell. She hasn’t heard of the app, but doesn’t think it’s necessary. “It’s easy to find us, we’re here all day, walking back and forth,” she said. Heavily tanned, she doesn’t remember how many summers she’s sold bolas on the beach: “Too many for sure, as my wrinkles make clear. But what I know is that every day I’m here at 9 a.m. until the season ends.”

While not everyone is sold on the app, we imagine its popularity will grow as it expands to other areas. As of July 2017, the service was available in the Algarve (Manta Rota, Lagos, Portimão, Carcavelos, Oeiras, Quarteira, Fuzeta and Armona beaches) and also at Carcavelos and Oeiras beaches outside of Lisbon – and has surely expanded since. Correia never imagined that the app would be so successful. “Growing up on Quarteira beach, we knew how everyone loves eating bolas on the beach, how sad children can be when they don’t find one, but I never thought this app would generate so much interest,” he told us.

The one thing everyone can agree on is that there’s something special about eating a bola on the beach. For Correia, bolas on the beach are superior to those in bakeries and cafés. “These are lighter and softer,” he explained.

Ana, the bola vendor, suggests it’s the location that makes the difference. Bolas on the beach, she says, “taste better, because people are more relaxed here.”

Bolas Lisbon

loading map - please wait...

Bénard: 38.710723, -9.141821
Versailles: 38.735461, -9.145587
Tartine: 38.710173, -9.141623
Sacolinha: 38.710208, -9.142011
Aloma (Bijou do Calhariz): 38.710706, -9.145376
Doce Estrela: 38.713302, -9.159262
Some good places for Bolas de Berlim in Lisbon:
Address: Rua Garrett 104, Chiado
Telephone: +351 21 347 3133
Hours: Mon.-Sat. 8am-8pm; Closed Sunday
Address: Avenida da República 15A, Saldanha
Telephone: +351 21 354 6340
Hours: Daily 7:30am-midnight
Address: Rua Serpa Pinto 15A, Chiado
Telephone: +351 21 342 9108
Hours: Mon.-Fri. 8am-8pm; Sat.-Sun. 10am-8pm
Address: Rua Paiva de Andrade 6, Chiado
Telephone: +351 21 342 0415
Hours: Daily 8am-8pm
Aloma (Bijou do Calhariz)
Address: Largo do Calhariz 2/3, Chiado
Telephone: +351 21 346 2730
Doce Estrela
Address: Calçada da Estrela 251, Lapa-Estrela
Telephone: +351 21 396 1900
Hours: Mon.-Sat. 7am-7pm; Closed Sunday

Related stories

May 11, 2017

Angola in Lisbon: Go Deep

By Francesca Savoldi and Syma Tariq
Lisbon -- A three-floor cultural association in Rato, the neighborhood just north of sleek Principe Real, Casa de Angola has for decades focused primarily on bridging Angolan and Portuguese cultures. Created in 1971 by Angolan students, it launched without state support and is still subject to some intrigue. “Some say that this was an Angolan masonry…
May 11, 2017

Post-Colonial Lisbon: Angolan Edition

By Francesca Savoldi and Syma Tariq
Lisbon -- (Editor's Note: Lisbon's communities from Portugal's former colonies provide the strongest link to the country's past, when it was the hub of a trading empire that connected Macau in the east to Rio de Janeiro in the west. Though integral elements of Lisbon life, these communities can sometimes be an invisible presence in their adopted land, pushed out…
May 11, 2017

Angola in Lisbon: Taste

By Francesca Savoldi and Syma Tariq
Lisbon -- Those normally finding themselves craving Angolan flavors in central Lisbon head straight to Mouraria, the historic downtown neighborhood that has experienced a conceptual conversion of its peripheral status into a landmark of cultural and culinary diversity. Despite it being the area with the highest density of Angolans in Lisbon’s city center, Angolan restaurants open…