With its grand imperial boulevards and its copious theaters, palaces and monuments, it is small wonder that Madrid attracts tourists in swarms. But where can you continue your tour of the city’s many delights whilst also taking in a lunchtime snack or some traditional tapas? This is our guide to Madrid’s most historic, welcoming and delicious cafes and coffee shops.
The Café Gijón, or Gran Café Gijón, is one of Madrid’s most historically and culturally significant cafes. Established in the 1880s, it was after the Nationalist triumph in the Spanish Civil War that the cafe began to act as a discrete meeting place for the artists, writers and intellectuals who were otherwise stifled under the dictatorial regime of Francisco Franco. Alive and kicking today, the Gijón occupies a privileged location opposite Spain’s National Library on the central Paseo de Recotelos avenue, making it an ideal stop-off for sight-seers.
The Café Manuela is situated in similarly charming quarters – it sports an admirable range of plants and fine art as part of its classy interior decor – although it is a somewhat less weighty environment. Serving a range of pleasant snacks and tapas alongside coffee and pastries, the cafe is also striking for the range of board games that it makes available to customers. Add in occasional live music performances and warm Spanish hospitality, and this is the perfect spot for an afternoon family sit-down or for an evening out.
La Libre is part of a new breed of cafe-bookshops that are mounting a challenge to the burgeoning laptop culture in cafes in Madrid and elsewhere. Fitted out in a pleasing 1960s style, the cafe serves a broad range of teas, coffees, snacks and pastries, and prides itself on its placid and welcoming atmosphere. Defiantly Wifi-free and pro-conversation, this is one plucky little establishment that is doing its part to redraw the tattered distinction between relaxation and the rest of modern life.
Lhardy is thought to be Spain’s oldest cafe-restaurant, having opened its doors in 1839. Anecdotes abound about its role in the many espionages and scandals of contemporary high society; for many decades Lhardy’s French-influenced cuisine was synonymous with unattainable luxury and aristocratic high living, and indeed the restaurant first introduced a telephone system for reservations in 1889, when the nation had less than 49 telephones installed. Today, it has left this elitist heritage behind it, and operates as a joint cafe-restaurant and boutique for unique Spanish foods and supplies.
The Café de Chinitas is, first and foremost, about flamenco. Indeed, it is one of Madrid’s best-known haunts to witness this most evocative and idiosyncratic of Spanish traditions, strongly associated with the the large and often persecuted Romani community of Andalucía in the south of the country. Attendees can pick from a wide range of tapas snacks, or from heavier favorites like paella and tortillas, all while indulging in the local wines and passing a riveting evening watching skilled flamenco dancers and musicians.
Rustika is a highly unconventional eatery situated in Calle Minas near the city center. The first obvious point of divergence with traditional Spanish cafes is the bright and whimsical decoration, which veers from the mystically-inspired to the almost psychedelic; taking a look at the menu, visitors will find a range of snacks and meals drawn from a wide variety of European, African and Oriental cuisines. A little off the beaten path, Rustika is an intriguing little corner.
The Café de Oriente is a vision of elegance and sophistication in the ornate Habsburg-era district of Central Madrid. Facing the Spanish Royal Palace across the grand Plaza de Oriente, this is a luxurious establishment which fully lives up to its profoundly privileged location. A gourmet experience, the cafe is as popular with local business and social parties as it is with the steady stream of tourists coming to rest and enjoy some tapas after a visit to the Palace.
The Café Central is an institution in Madrid live music. Regarding the staging of musical performances as a core part of its own identity and purpose, the Café gives performers a full week of performance time, ensuring that customers will be able to arrange a visit at a time of their own convenience. Also serving a range of typical Mediterranean options such as salads, tostas and platters of Spanish cheeses, there’s little not to like about this much-loved pillar of the capital’s live music performance circuit.
Café Comercial is reputedly Madrid’s oldest coffee shop, having been licensed in 1887. The current managers are the Contreras family, who first acquired the establishment in 1909, and who maintain a proud list of the various notables and intellectuals in Spanish public life who have patronized the cafe down the years (the list includes such modern figures as world-famous director Pedro Almodóvar, alongside many of Spain’s finest poets and writers). Still a lively and welcoming environment, Café Comercial is the perfect place to soak up the local history and the finest Spanish coffee.
The so-called “Secret Garden” may be the worst-kept secret in Madrid, as the frequent queues on the street outside attest. Attracting all manner of visitors, El Jardín Secreto is one of Madrid’s most refreshingly distinctive cafeterias, accommodating all comers in a zany and eclectic environment which draws inspiration from some of its wackier Northern European and American counterparts. The Jardín particularly prides itself on its trademark cakes and pastries, which are a great shout for weary travelers wanting to sit a while and indulge a sweet tooth.