Madrid has many great landmarks: Museums to spend days in, open-air markets, a lush green park where you can commune with peacocks. But deciding what to do in a large, foreign city is often overwhelming, and perhaps the best way to see one, at least this one, is just to sit in a square—Madrid is full of them, cobblestoned and usually bustling—and have a coffee.
One of the great Spanish mainstays is the combination cafe-bar-restaurant found in almost every town and city, big or small, north or south. Here you can sidle up to the bar and order a coffee at nine in the morning and maybe at ten there will be a man drinking a beer right next to you, no eyebrows raised. The little old man behind the bar is often friendly and always endearing. There are tapas on display once the kitchen gets going, wine and liquor too, and at night, there may even be some full-on dinner plates. And if there's space, they'll have a few tables outside, too: nothing fancy and often topped with some sort of local beer advertisement and a dusty ashtray.
That’s what the Madrileños do, anyways; ordering coffee to go is not a Spanish custom. Spain may not have the serious espresso culture of Italy, but it does appreciate the leisure of a cup of coffee, the excuse to sit for a minute. After lunchtime, you can switch to wine, and stay right where you are, or mosey on over to another neighborhood, another street, another square. In Madrid, you can make a day of squarehopping and call it tourism. Bring a book or a friend or a pen or nothing. It’s more city-watching than people watching, and it’s much more relaxing than sprinting between buttons on a tourist map.
If you're looking for particular squares to park yourself, plazas Santa Ana, Isabel II, and Dos de Mayo should top your list of Places to Sit with their vibrancy and prettiness. The latter is tucked into Malasaña, a stylish and young and hip neighborhood that everyone wants to compare to Brooklyn, but we're not going to do that here. Pza. Dos de Mayo is still full of those ashtray-topped tables, flanked by Regular Old Cafés, and, on the weekends, full of giddy children and strolling families. Order a café con leche—or a less-milky cortado, if you want something smaller and punchier—and allow yourself an hour or so to do nothing but sit. Each of these squares houses a few restaurants at their borders; there isn't much differentiation in what will arrive in your cup at one or the other, so pick whichever looks friendliest, or has the cleanest tables.
And for a more modern take
There are great coffee experiences, and then there's great coffee. And if you're looking for the best-made cup of coffee in Madrid right now, head to Toma Café. It's reminiscent of hip shops in Los Angeles and San Francisco and Brooklyn and so on: You'll find good-looking local couples with their well-dressed toddlers sitting at the reclaimed wood communal table on the weekends, local exchange students chatting in English on weekdays. A road bike hangs from the ceiling among leafy plants. You can buy a signature tote bag. There's a quinoa salad on the menu.
All of this might inspire a mondo eye roll if the coffee weren’t so well made. Toma shows how Spain is welcoming global trends with enthusiasm and skill.
A café con leche is still an excellent choice at Toma, but they also offer a full menu of espresso drinks, including the ever-divisive espresso tonic (try it!), and single-origin pourovers. Their chocolate chip cookie is likely the best chocolate chip cookie in Madrid. It's not an authentic Spanish pastry by any means, but it's damn good. So is the carrot loaf. You can quell your tourist guilt by eating some jamón later.
There are to-go cups here, too, which bucks all Spanish tradition and ignores the country’s deep appreciation of leisure and languor. To-go coffee was all but nonexistent in Spain before Starbucks arrived, but then again, so were coffee shops. And now they have those, and good ones, too. And if you order something iced, you’ll get to partake in one of our modern world’s greatest delights: the bendy straw.
Calle de la Palma 49, Madrid, Spain