The glorious cafés from Spain’s literary history are often overlooked in favor of its European neighbors, such as the famed cafés on Paris’s Left Bank or the decadent coffee houses of Vienna. However, Madrid’s grand literary cafés were once, and still are, the pulsing heart of “tertulias,” literary discussions and gatherings, where artists and writers would convene to share ideas and creations over drinks. These cafés play an iconic role in Spanish literature and art, and most of them are still in operation, bursting with the crème of Madrid’s artistic life. “Tertulias” are still a popular past time in the city and are now performed in modern and trendy venues, yet none of these retain the atmosphere of Madrid’s grand literary cafés—if Hemingway didn’t eat there, then it doesn’t count!
Café Commercial, right next to the Glorieta Bilbao, is Madrid’s oldest café still in operation. It has an old-world, grand feel to it: with plaster columns, worn mirror-lined walls and plush, red velvet seating. Usually you’ll find it filled with several different types clientele: from students, young professionals and senior citizens, and occasionally famous directors, bullfighters and even Hollywood actors, such as John Malkovich. During General Franco’s rule, it became one of the artistic and intellectual refuges of Madrid life. Café Commercial has more than just a curious reputation, but the café itself has left its literary mark in the novel by Pérez Galdós, Fortunata y Jacinta, and also features in the novella, Café de Artistas, by Nobel Prize winning novelist, José Cela.
If you are looking for a café that is the epitome of bohemian life, then look no further than Café Gijón. This café with echoes of faded grandeur, located on Paseo de Recoletos, had its fair share of famous patrons. Opened at the end of the 19th century, Café Gijón became the main watering hole for both artists and writers alike. Its literary scene intensified up to the Spanish Civil War, and was a hangout for the Generation 27’ —a group of artists and intellectuals associated with the “Residencia de Estudiantes,” the Student Residence, including great artists and writers such as Salvador Dalí, Frederico García Lorca and Luis Bruñel. Ernest Hemingway also liked to come here, describing the café as “a clean, well lighted place.”
Near the opera house and the Royal Palace, the neo-baroque Café de Oriente tends to attract the opera-loving crowd. This grand and decadent looking café, with marble-topped tables and fin de siècle lighting, was built on the site of the 17th century convent of San Gil; nowadays, Café de Oriente is well known for its avant-garde cuisine and excellent coffee selection. Underneath the elegant surface you’ll find its underground cellar restaurant—where, in 1924, Salvador Dalí met Frederico García Lorca, and marked the occasion with an ink sketch. In the 21st century, Café de Oriente is now popular with modern writers and intellectuals.
So steep yourself in Madrid’s literary history by enjoying a coffee after a morning in the Prado in Café Gijon, or an aperitif in Café de Oriente before a show in the Teatro Real—explore Madrid outside of the museums.