What do you think of when you think of that big Euro trip you’ve been dreaming of for years? Is it the sights and sounds of cities like London, or the brilliant quiet of Scandinavian skies? For many, the answer is more primal—food. And what better place to savour a croque monsieur or a hearty breakfast of Spanish tortilla than at legacy cafes in the countries of origin themselves? In Europe, food is not just sustenance, and cafes cater to more than your appetite. Bring as big an appetite for history, art, and culture, and you’re likely to be rewarded, for these establishments are also bona fide intellectual hubs, plenty of them boasting associations with seminal authors and artists from different periods of history. Let this epic cafe crawl itinerary take you through the delicious offerings of Portugal, Spain, France, Belgium and Italy—gastronomic and otherwise.
Portugal on a Plate
You may not always think of Portugal when comparing cafe culture but spend time in the land of Port wine and sunshine, and you might change your mind. Capital Lisbon alone will leave you spoilt for choice, with landmark establishments such as A Brasileira and Pastelaria Versailles. The former, the haunt of Portuguese poet-writer Fernando Pessoa, will lure you in with his life-size bronze statue and lavish Art Deco interiors. Admire its dark wood interiors and chess-board flooring as you sip on an extra-strong bica (espresso) or devour peri peri chicken. Don’t forget to leave plenty of room for Portugal’s darling custard tart, the eggy, creamy pasteis de nata!
Ornate decor is also a hallmark of Pastelaria Versailles, the 100-year-old confectionery modelled after the Garden of Versailles. Expect high ceilings, crystal chandeliers, and stained-glass windows. Eat your way through Lisbon with bacalhau à martinho (fried codfish fillet cooked in olive oil and onions) at Martinho da Arcada, where not a statue but a table commemorates Pessoa’s creative cafe-idling. In the historic heart of Coimbra lies a time-tested gem, Café Santa Cruz. If the building, with its high Manueline (Portuguese Gothic) ceiling, wood panelling and stained-glass windows evokes a sacred atmosphere, it’s because it served as a former chapel of the Monastery of Santa Cruz next door before being officially inaugurated as a cafe in 1923. Up north, Porto charms with Majestic Café, ranked one of the most beautiful cafes in the world. Time-travel to the Belle Époque as you soak up art nouveau decor and live piano performance over specialty French toast wrapped in egg-custard with dried fruit. Like any European cafe worth its salt, their terrace space offers time-out from the bustle of the main area, along with poetic views. Put down the glass (or not) with a sparkling night of Fado and Cuban music at Café Guarany.
Lufthansa flies from New Delhi and Mumbai to Lisbon via Munich and from Bengaluru via Frankfurt. You may also choose to reach Porto via Munich from New Delhi and Mumbai.
Spain conjures up a montage of warm images. Mediterranean beaches, Flamenco music, and Antoni Gaudí’s whimsical architecture are some. Heritage cafes dishing out finger-licking croqueta, gambas al ajillo, paella and patatas bravas is another. Head to Els Quatre Gats in buzzy Barcelona, a space where 17-year-old Picasso held his first exhibition and Woody Allen anchored moments from his film Vicky Christina Barcelona. Imagined to be Spain’s response to Paris’s Le Chat Noir cabaret, its free-spirited philosophy attracted ample intellectuals including Gaudi. While the original goal of cheap food may not hold true anymore (current prices are steep) the bohemia lives on in Picasso’s sketches and a collection of vintage wall plates.
Gran Café Gijón—championed by turn-of-the-century intellectuals, painted by artists, and even visited by famous spy Mata-Hari—is one of Madrid’s most culturally cited cafes. Even today it hosts roundtable discussions on poetry and publishes a magazine carrying words and art from visiting writers. But if it is rich arroz meloso (rice cooked with prawn and squid) and soft jazz music that you’re seeking, head to the no-less-historic Café Comercial. Its curved bar, seductive lights and vintage photo booth add to the flapper oomph. Next stop Salamanca, for ornate sandstone architecture and at least one serving of artisanal ice cream (two or three scoops?) at Café Novelty, founded in 1905 and said to be the city’s oldest. A statue of writer Torrente Ballester will usher you into the establishment’s glorious past where it hosted banquets for King Alfonso XIII. Café Iruña in Bilbao makes the list for its colour-splashed tiles and Mudéjar decor—a total Instagram catch. Its history is just as vibrant, with the cafe being declared a ‘Unique Monument’ in 1980, and even receiving the ‘Best Café in Spain’ award. Consider a snack of Spanish pork skewers, which you can wash down with a glass of oaky-sweet Rioja.
With Lufthansa airlines, travel from either New Delhi or Mumbai to Madrid via Frankfurt or choose to head to Barcelona from New Delhi with a layover in Munich.
A Movable Fest in France
A Café Terrace at Night, dipped in celestial blue and gold. Or a lone protagonist at a quaint boulevard cafe, toying with dilemma and wine. Whether or not you have travelled to France, the associations with these images are instant and undeniable. While artful food is sacred to all of France, much of the country’s fabled cafe culture is concentrated around its capital, Paris. That’s because ‘The City of Lights’ regards cafes as the custodians of cultural and intellectual bonhomie, that tell-tale spillover of chairs on cobbled streets serving to seat both the past and present. Said past can be traced all the way back to the opening of Café Procope in the 1600s, a time-proof establishment that still dishes out deluxe servings of history, escargots, and Pinot Noir. Located opposite the Comédie-Française theatre, a stop at this cafe would allow you to regard its revamped 18th-century interior and share a moment in time with former patrons such as Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and even Napoléon! Digging the star-studded clientele?
Standing metres apart from each other, you’ve got Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore, locked in a sweet rivalry since the 1800s. While the two have shared much of their creative associations—Ernest Hemingway, John Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir to name some—during the 20s and 30s, Les Deux Magots became a political den for the extreme left, while Flore was the hang out for the extreme right. Let the “two Chinese figurines” of Les Deux Magots (for that is what the name means) take you on a spin across eras, and later, slide into the snugness of Café de Flore’s red booths and mahogany tables where even Picasso found artistic refuge. Don’t forget to order a chocolat chaud at the latter. If Pablo Picasso had a fling with Café de Flore, his heart belonged to his regular haunt La Rotonde, which opened its doors in 1911 in the avant-garde neighbourhood of Montparnasse. It is said that founder Victor Libion allowed artists to lounge in the café for hours every day, nursing nothing but a cup of coffee, and he even accepted drawings as temporary payment when they were out of cash. Another unmissable Montparnasse stop is the glass-roofed La Closerie des Lilas, where the tables are named after once-regulars like Oscar Wilde and Emile Zola. Enjoy an aperitif by the paino bar or savour The Hemingway Beef at this institution that the author referred to as his “home café in his Paris memoir, A Movable Feast. Legend has it that American novelist F Scott. Fitzgerald showed Hemingway the manuscript for The Great Gatsby here. Stationed on Rue Norvins, minutes from the Basilica of Sacré-Coeur, Le Consulat Café is a cinematic vision with red-and-white facade, round-table seating, and flowers pouring over from its windows. Picasso, clearly the OG cafe-hopper, was known to stop by it, as were Van Gogh and Monet. Bonus: Walk over to Place du Tertre to watch artists set up their easels or paint in the open. Not every cafe in town wears a vintage facade. Set across the Notre-Dame, the cafe counterpart of iconic bookshop Shakespeare and Company flaunts a low-fuss, modern setting, perfect for nibbling on an apple-pie or pastry between book hauls. Even if you’ve had your fill of buttery croissants and crêpes sucrées by now, take out some time to admire the stucco ceiling, marble tables and gilded walls of Café de la Paix, or make a stop at Le Select—one of the first grand cafes to stay open late into the night. You know, so your inner Gill Pender can run free.
Opt for Lufthansa Airlines while flying from New Delhi to Paris via Munich or fly from Mumbai to Paris via Frankfurt.
Browsing Belgium’s Beer Cafes
Ah Belgium, home of big-persona beers and cafes! Also the place where the two mercifully combine (enter, beer cafes) as a weary traveller’s respite. The mind jumps to one of Brussels’ big guns, Café Le Cirio, located superbly near the Grand Place city square on Rue de la Bourse. Established in 1886, it has played host to writers Victor Hugo and Alexandros Dumas, as well as Belgian surrealist painters. Today the old-style brassiere proclaims ascendency over modern counterparts in the same area with an arsenal of dark wood furniture, period lighting and stylish serving bar. Then there is the food and beer—taste the Flemish stew bursting with flavours most robust or Stella Artois beer to concur. Love a tasty tongue-twister? Head to Poechenellekelder, also in the capital. Originally a puppet theatre, the tavern is still home to an assembly of string dolls, who will no doubt maintain their best poker as you hicc your way through its vast beer selection. If you’re thinking the bar is weird in a wonderful way (you’re right), step outside to take a gander at the Manneken Pis, the statue of a naked boy, tinkling.
In Bruges, discover an ancient Flemish cafe called Café Vlissinghe. The oldest cafe in Bruges is also reckoned as one of the world’s oldest, with an inauguration year of 1515. Its insides are decorated with the flair of Flemish Renaissance, featuring heavy beams holding the ceiling, sombre portraits, and even a vintage heating stove. Tapas here is a good idea. Isn’t it satisfying when a bucket-list cafe is located near a major site of interest? Such is the case of De Dulle Griet in pretty Ghent, where it stands only a stroll away from the Gothic grandeur of St. Bavo’s Cathredral. Animal heads share space with beer signs in this watering hole where the menu flows as free as the alcohol—there are around 500 beers listed.
Fly Lufthansa from New Delhi to Brussles or Bruges via Munich or from Mumbai via Frankfurt.
In Italy, Feed your Soul
Everyone knows, Italy equals good eating. Bookmark the right cafes and you can turn your meals into greater experiences with a generous sprinkling of art, architecture and revolutionary history. But, food first. You’ll find plenty of it Palermo’s Antico Caffè Spinnato, established in 1860. Whether you favour the Sicilian pasta alla Norma or arancini aka deep-fried rice balls with meat sauce and butter, it’s all win-win. Don’t be reasonable and pick between gelato, cannoli and ricotta-and-pistachio cakes, when you can grab them all. A sweet conclusion (or beginning, who are we to judge?) to your meal at Gran Caffe Gambrinus in Naples would be the Santarosa dolce or lemon and arancia gelato. But be warned, service can be when you can slow during certain hours. Go anyway if you have time on your side and are vying for a photograph of its opulent belle époque-interior, which served as the political meeting ground of the city in the 19th century. See a giant coffee pot? It is a symbol of caffè sospeso or ‘suspended/pending coffee’, an old Napoli custom of buying two cups of coffee where only one cup is consumed and the second reserved for a stranger who might ask for a sospeso later in the day—an act of good faith. If you’re feeling retro in Rome, head to Antico Caffè Greco on the swanky Via Condotti, an establishment founded by Greekman Nicola della Maddalena in 1760. Once the stomping grounds of stalwarts like Baudelaire, Stendhal, Goethe, Wagner, Byron, and Keats, it is now studded with hundreds of historic artworks. Prices are steep—the cafe dubbed Rome’s oldest huddles close to the iconic Spanish Steps—so it might be wise to marvel at its interiors over a cup of Espresso.
All powered up? Walk five minutes for your fill of lobster pasta and ravioli at Caffè Museo Atelier Canova Tadolini, a museum-cum-cafe where you can dine seated amongst sculptures and maquettes! The food is known to please, but even more memorable is the atmosphere of watchful marble busts in a space that was originally sculptor Antonio Canova’s studio, which he left to his favorite mentee Adamo Tadolini. Moving north to Florence, there’s Caffè Gilli and Caffè Paszkowski, two institutions located side by side, dating back to the 18th and 19th century respectively. Caffè Gilli, touted as Florence’s oldest cafe, also offers a stellar bar menu that includes a mix of classic and contemporary cocktails. Order yourself a knock-out Negroni as you contemplate a rather dreamy decor of chandeliers. Founded in 1846, Caffè Paszkowski has seen its share of evolution as a brewery and then a literary cafe. Declared a national monument in 1991, it is special for preserving the tradition of ‘Caffè Concerto’ or coffee concerts, which make the air come alive with the sound of music and cheering. In Venice, doff your history-geek hat to Caffè Florian. Its past includes not only pathmakers such as Rousseau and Goethe, but also the distinction of having served as the headquarters for revolutionaries during the insurgency against Austria in 1848. Genoa to Turin, Aosta to Padua—there’s no real end to this belly-meets-soul journey. But for now consider making Milan your final stop. A lush drink of L’ora del Bitter and window-seat views of the Duomo Piazza will lull you into sensory bliss at Caffè Zucca aka Camparino in Galleria. Yup, only just the place where Campari was invented.
Travel to Rome from New Delhi or Mumbai via Zurich with Lufthansa or to Venice from New Delhi or Mumbai via Frankfurt and to Naples from the same two cities with a layover in Frankfurt.
Sohini Das Gupta travels with her headphones plugged-in and eyes open. While this doesn't stall the many accidents that tend to punctuate her journeys, it adds some meme-worthy comic relief. She is former Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.