Madrid 3: Café Culture & Tapas

Let’s be honest, tapas are a major reason I’ve come to Spain. I can order a 2 euro glass of sangria and they’ll give me free food? Yes, please! Where do I sign up?

But it’s more than just tapas that attracts me to this lifestyle — it’s the whole café culture in Spain, and Europe in general. Every couple of streets you’ll find a cobblestone plaza with outdoor tables full of people eating, drinking, and spending time with friends or loved ones. Or sipping their wine solo over a good book. Just to sit outside in these historic squares and soak up the atmosphere is addicting; I feel alive and happy here. Especially by the time I get to my second glass of sangria.



There is no consensus on how tapas became ‘a thing’ in Spain — instead, there are about a half-dozen legends that attempt to explain the origin of this tradition. Here are my two favorites:

– Centuries ago, the working class could not afford both a drink and food during their afternoon siesta, so most would pick alcohol and then return to work drunk. So a king passed a law that any establishment serving alcohol must also serve food alongside it.

– Also centuries ago, the king was vacationing in Cádiz along the southern coast. There are strong winds during part of the year and sand was blowing into his wine. The waiter offered him a snack on a small plate as a way to cover his glass and block the sand, and thus, a tradition was born.


On my first night in Madrid, it takes me forever to settle on a tapas bar. Each alleyway or plaza is more enticing than the last. Most restaurants are packed so finding an empty table is a challenge, and as a single person I feel bad taking up a prime table meant for two or more people. Plus I want to find a menu that is both affordable and has a variety of tapas on offer. Ultimately I end up at Rosi La Laco, which to my delight turns out to be an excellent choice (I find out later that it has over 1,200 reviews on Trip Advisor and at the time of this writing is #67 out of over 8,000 restaurants in Madrid).

I order a glass of red wine, eggplant chips drizzled with honey, and a costilla (rib) over papas fritas. (And then I order another glass of wine and more eggplant chips…)


The next day I discover this place on my walking tour — Chocolateria San Gines, the best place in Madrid for chocolate con churros.


Don’t be deterred by the line out the door; it’s always like that, and it moves quickly.



There is a large room on the main floor, and then a smaller area downstairs where the waiter seats me.


The chocolate is thick and dark. The churros are light and crispy. YUM.


By the way, this chocolate con churros spot is conveniently located right near Plaza Mayor.


Yesterday I detailed two walking tours I did in Madrid — a free city tour (featuring major landmarks), and a Majestic Madrid tour (featuring more about literature and history). Both are offered through Sandeman’s New Madrid and I picked this company because they came highly recommended at my hostel. There’s no need to book in advance —all of their tours depart from Plaza Mayor and you can easily find their guides with bright red umbrellas. While the city tour is free (with a tip — I tipped 10 euros), they will happily sell you other tours. I bought two tours for 20 euros: the aforementioned Majestic Madrid tour, and then a Tapas Experience. Tonight I’ve returned for my third and final tour of the day.


We will visit three restaurants as part of our Tapas Experience. I’m guessing they don’t mix it up too often and likely return to the same places night after night (shout out to this blogger for chronicling everything which made it way easier for me to recall details for this post). Imagine my surprise when the very first restaurant we visit is the EXACT same place I ate last night: Rosi La Laco. What are the odds?! There are literally hundreds of tapas bars in downtown Madrid. The waitress even recognizes me and comments that I came back.

Since we’re such a big group, they give us a large bunch of tables downstairs:


The food aspect of this tour is just okay. I get to sample a few bites of things and try different alcohol at each place. But the best part is that it’s a relaxed atmosphere to meet other travelers — unlike the daytime walking tours where everyone is moving and it’s hard to have an extended conversation, this Tapas Experience makes it easy to sit back and talk. I end up meeting two other solo female travelers and we chat most of the night.

We all try a drink called rebujito that is a mix of white wine and soda, served chilled. (It looks like real rebujito is made with sherry but I’m pretty sure this place served it with white wine.) We also share croquettes (stuffed ham, fried) and potatoes with chopped up ham and eggs (photographed below).


Our second tapas bar of the night is La Cristiana Taberna.



Here we try some paella, bread with cheese, and olives.



We also drink red wine out of a pouch. It’s a little gross to drink this communal-style, pouring it into our mouths, but when in Rome Spain…


Our last stop of the night is La Buena Sidra:


Here we try traditional cider — it’s intended to be poured from an arm’s length, which makes it become fizzy. (Because it collects oxygen during the pour? I don’t know, I’m not a scientist!) Then you have to drink it as fast as possible before it becomes flat. It’s got an apple-ish flavor.


As I mentioned earlier, I met two other solo female travelers during this tapas tour. We hit it off so well that we decide to meet up the following evening to try a few other tapas bars recommended by my walking tour guide from that morning. He says you have to go to at least 2-3 places for it to be a true tapas experience… otherwise it’s just going out to dinner.

Of the three places he recommended, one is closed that evening and one we can’t find. So we end up a few random spots and I don’t even write down the names of these places. Travel blogger fail!

At the first place, we order sangria, and it’s delicious.


At the second place, we order sangria, and it’s delicious.

Are you sensing a pattern here?


This is one of the restaurants that our guide recommended, and it’s my favorite of the night. It’s one of the few places where you get to actually pick you own tapas instead of having them deliver something at random. Since we order a whole pitcher of sangria we get to pick four plates of tapas from a list, all of which are complimentary.

I am so sorry I don’t know the name of this place! I’ve spent the past 20 minutes digging on Google and it’s yielded nothing.


Afterwards, we walk around looking for another promising spot and end up at this random tapas bar which turns out to be great. Again, I forget to write down the name. There’s nothing extra special about it; it’s just a relaxing place with good wine and food. We order more calamari and some jamón ibérico. The waiter brings over papas frites (potato wedges with a spicy mayo on top).


Yay for meeting new friends! And it turns out that Rebecca (center) will be in Portugal next week when I’m here, so we exchange email addresses and make plans to meet up along the Algarve coast.


If you’re looking for really solid tapas recommendations in Madrid, do some Googling before you go. Here’s a few I didn’t try personally but stumbled across in my search: La Casa del Abuelo, Bodega de la Ardosa, and Triciclo. Another travel blog called GQtrippin reviewed Madrid Food Tour, which combines a city walking tour with food. You can always ask your hostel / hotel or tour guide for their personal tapas recommendations. Or just walk around and see what catches your eye!

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