Photograph by Miguel Pereira
You can debate which country produces Europe’s finest chocolate, but Spain has a lock on the continent’s oldest chocolate traditions. “The first commercial shipment of cacao beans from the New World arrived via Seville in 1585, and soon afterward Spaniards fell in love with hot chocolate a la taza (chocolate for the cup),” says Pedro López, whose great-grandfather founded the Valor chocolate company. Dark as night and thick as pudding from added rice flour or cornstarch, Spanish hot chocolate stars at cafés called chocolaterías, which first appeared in the early 19th century. You’ll find them nationwide, from Valor’s 35 locations to smaller operations, like these, with distinct personalities:
Hidden down a narrow pedestrian passage near the Plaza Mayor, this venerable café may well be Spain’s most famous chocolatería. San Ginés opened its doors in 1894, and the decor—mirrored walls, marble tables, and banquettes—still conveys old-time elegance. The waiters in white jackets are all business, no surprise since each year they manage to serve some 570,000 cups of hot chocolate and untold stacks of churros, the deep-fried ropes of dough that accompany the drink. With the café open all night, Madrileños continue a generations-old ritual of flocking here in the wee hours of the morning.
Sunday mornings are busy at this tiny spot in the central Las Letras neighborhood, yet barman Alfonso Boada still finds time for a buenos días each time the door opens. The essence of a Spanish neighborhood café, albeit one whose specialty is liquid chocolate kept piping hot in an eight-gallon urn, Chocolat is populated with a lively mix of locals. Patrons chat while spooning (or dipping) from ceramic goblets. From time to time, Boada will pass around cookies or suggest an order of porras, chunkier, chewier versions of churros, Spanish doughnuts fresh from their sizzling bath of olive oil.
Cacao Sampka—Barcelona and Other Cities
Makers of inventive, gourmet chocolates that won’t bust the budget, Cacao Sampaka also runs sit-down cafés in Barcelona, Madrid, Bilbao, and Valencia. At the original Barcelona location in the posh L’Eixample district, just blocks from Gaudí’s surreal Casa Milà, chic moms and shoppers toting bags from Mango pop in for merienda, the Spanish late afternoon snack. The hot chocolate is bolder, earthier, and far less sweet than at many other chocolaterías. A traditional style cup with cinnamon packs a respectable 70 percent cocoa; the more deeply spiced Azteca clocks in at a whopping 80 percent.
Close to Valencia’s hulking Gothic cathedral, Santa Catalina is hard to miss with its riot of vintage, hand-painted tile work. “Two centuries of tradition,” read tiles on the facade, while interior murals depict a host of local scenes. The house style here is flavored with cinnamon and crowned with whipped cream. Pumpkin buñuelos (fritters) are a favored side dish, especially during Las Fallas, the mid-March festival when the city fetes St. Joseph and the end of winter. As the weather warms, Valencianos head here for icy, sweet Spanish horchata, made with tubers known as chufas that grow in and around Valencia.
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