Our author loves cafes – not only because she is a coffee aficionado but also because they reveal the social fabric of a place. In cafés, the working day is suspended long enough to allow the trading of gossip or an argument about politics over a cup of coffee. For travelers, these places are a respite from overly ambitious itineraries and portals into a place’s culture, especially for those who dare to follow the caffeine trail down alleys and streets away from the usual tourist haunts.
This guide showcases cafes around Western Europe.
London is well known for its ubiquitous pubs, but there are also cafés to be found serving good coffee and eclectic food. Keep in mind that here asking for a cup of coffee translates into getting an Americano: two shots of espresso distilled with hot water. Very rarely is drip coffee served, so when ordering a cup, expect it to be on the strong side.
For the traveler weary of perusing the endless stalls of vintage clothing and jewelry on display at Camden market, inSpiral lounge (250 Camden High Street, Camden Lock, just before the bridge, 020-7428-5875, website) is a perfect place for a well-deserved, post-shopping rest. The café overlooks a channel where the owner’s tour boat is docked and its cargo – the tourists – lounge at tables along the water. inSpiral serves fair-trade organic coffee at £2.05 that coupled with a slice of vegan cheesecake (£2.50) is a delicious post-market treat. If you are in the mood for a bit of experimentation, try the Banana Karma smoothie (small £2.50; large £3.50). A light dessert smoothie, with raw cacao, bananas, cashew nuts, agave syrup and dates, the lingering sweetness is an aftertaste to savor. There is also a hot and cold food buffet with delicious organic selections.
One note of caution: inSpiral often hosts evening performances of local musicians, generally of varying quality and Sunday night is open mike night, starting at 8pm. You may want to take off before the acts hit the stage.
On Fridays and Saturdays, Portobello Road fills with vendors who sell everything from doorknobs to designer clothing. While Portobello Road is lined with cafes and restaurants, they are often overwhelmed by the onslaught of shoppers. Thankfully, tucked inside a garden just off the main market thoroughfare is Lazy Daisy Café (59A Portobello Road, 020-7221-8416). The discreteness of this café’s sign and its location make this place a nice – and relatively quiet – refuge from the crowds. During the week, Lazy Daisy is a favorite hangout of local moms, and the menu – along with many grown-up selections – is filled with kid-friendly choices. To enjoy a cup of good, hearty coffee you will spend £1.60 or £2.00 for a cappuccino.
If you are in the mood for a larger meal, the weekend special “Sundays Fry Up” (or just “Fry Up” for vegetarians) is English breakfast at its best. A plateful of fried eggs, bacon, sausage, tomato, mushrooms, baked beans and toast (served with either coffee or tea), it is a real bargain at £7.50. Note that hours tend to be short – Monday to Saturday from 9am to 5pm and Sundays from 12pm to 2:30pm.
In the summer, most cafes in Madrid spill onto their outdoor patios. People take their morning coffee on the aluminum tables and chairs, a décor standard for most places. If you are in Spain then, it is unlikely you will even see the interiors of cafes, unless you visit in the evening when coffee is replaced with wine. Be warned, however that unlike much of Europe, smoking is still permitted in most establishments. No smoking signs are displayed in the windows in those rare instances where this is not the case.
In Spain, it is also important to make a distinction between a café and a cafeteria. The former is a place to leisurely enjoy your coffee or a meal, while the latter is a space around which men and women congregate to drink, converse and usually leave heaps of trash on the floor.
Note: If you would rather have something like American drip coffee in Spain, ask for an Americano. Some places will bring you an espresso in a cup and a small pitcher of hot water for you to make your own mix. Others will do it for you, but in cups significantly smaller than what you may be used to – making the demitasse extra potent.
Café Gijón (Paseo de Recoletos 21, (91) 522-3737, website) is a mecca of aspiring literati, located along the pedestrian walkway on the opposite end from the Prado, Thyssen and Reina Sofia Museums. Celebrating its 120th birthday this year, Café Gijon has been the headquarters of many intellectual gatherings – tertulias – that included writers such as Camilio José Cela (winner of 1989 Nobel prize for literature), Federico García Lorca, Antonio Machado, Rubén Darío and Pérez Galdós. The fame has rubbed off on its staff, who according to my Spanish informant, “are as ancient as the establishment itself” and can be slightly indifferent to anyone but their regular customers. You also pay for the fame: €3.40 for an Americano. But you will think it well worth the price when resting your elbows on the marble tabletops touched by the prodigious fingers of history. The café also has a great selection of Spanish hams Jamon Serrano, Iberico and Jabugo.
There is nothing traditional about Café Acuarela (Calle Gravina 10, (91) 522-2143). Located in Barrio Chueca, also known as the gay part of the city, the café – as well as its neighborhood – has a certain flair. The gelled hairdo of the nude statue of Archangel Gabriel – the café’s trademark – and his impeccable abs stand in almost sacrilegious contrast to the more traditional religious icons that hang on the wall. The glass tables are lovely but tiny, so grab one of the sofas if you plan on lounging. The eclectic décor shouldn’t prevent an avid coffee drinker from fully enjoying this exotic locale, perfect for that favorite Spanish pastime: people watching. The café boasts a diverse selection of teas from all over the world. The Spanish standard café con leche (coffee with milk) is served in stylish, minimalist metal cup and costs €1.90. A cappuccino is €4. Open daily from 2pm to 2am.
Angelina (226 Rue de Rivoli) is a gorgeous Belle Époque café best known not for coffee but for its to-die-for hot chocolate (€6). Basically, this is melted chocolate served in a pot and it’s fantastic. They have been serving breakfast and lunch since 1903 and while the service sometimes shows the café’s age, the surroundings are so beautiful and the pastries so good, you won’t mind the other tourists as you sip your hot chocolate.
Coffee drinking is part of the social fabric of Italy, though coffee is most often taken at a counter and downed in a matter of minutes. Here, an espresso is called a caffé – either single or double (doppio) and you can also get a cappuccino or a granita, as well as a variety of other drinks – alcoholic and otherwise. Expect to pay about a Euro for a caffé, depending on the strength.
Antico Caffé Greco (Via Condotti 86) is the Grand Dame of Roman cafes. In the midst of the hubbub of Via Condotti and a stone’s throw from the Spanish Steps, Greco has been serving everyone from Goethe, Byron and Keats to today’s Gucci shoppers for over 200 years. Prepare for wall-to-wall coffee drinkers once you venture inside – if you are standing, pay for your caffé at the register on the left and then make your way to the bar. If you want a taste of old world elegance, the serene back rooms are the epitome of 19th century style. Unfortunately, that also means much higher prices and a single bathroom for everyone.
Another good option for a quick coffee is Sant Eustachio il Caffé (Piazza Sant’ Eustachio 82, near the Pantheon). If the weather is nice, take a seat at one of the outdoor tables and watch the vespas and pedestrians dodge each other on the narrow surrounding streets. The coffee is very good and the granita, topped with whipped cream, is perfect for hot weather. They also sell their beans, roasted on premises, so you can bring a taste of Rome home with you as well.
Caffe Florian (Piazza San Marco 56, website) has been in business since 1720, making it Italy’s oldest café. Today, it retains much of its charm even if it has some of the trappings of a tourist spot. Prices are high, typical for Venice and the location across from the Basilica San Marco. As one of several cafes on the square with its own orchestra, you can expect to pay a steep €6 per person cover charge for music in season (April – October). For a different experience, make your way all the way inside and take a seat at the small bar to enjoy classic cocktails – one of the few spots in Venice where you can.
The city of Vienna has long enjoyed a reputation amongst connoisseur coffee drinkers as a place where much of the social life revolves around cafes. Café Sperl (Gumpendorfer Straße 11, (1) 586-41-58, website) is no exception. Unlike most of its neighbors – old establishments popular with the visitors who crowd the city’s center – Café Sperl is more than just a witness to history and a tourist attraction. It continues to be a place where locals come to enjoy a cup of coffee, read one of the numerous newspapers piled on the carambol table, or play cards – a favorite pastime of many of its regulars.
There are two things you should know about Vienna and Café Sperl: Karlsbader-can and Sachertorte. The first is a porcelain carafe used for hundreds of years to make coffee that is gentler on the stomach, without sacrificing flavor. The second is a Viennese trademark, a rich chocolate cake with a layer of apricot marmalade. The combination of the two, usually for an afternoon treat, is superb. (Sachertorte: €3.20; a small carafe of coffee: €6.20).