Beyond beer and cocktails, plenty of bars in urban areas offer something extra that will help you experience the local culture. While locals can spend weeks, months or even years seeking out the best bars, it’s harder to decide where to have a drink when you’re visiting a new city – sometimes for only 24 or 48 hours. Especially if you’re pressed for time, seek out bars that also offer something characteristic of the city. Our spotters share their favorites.
Amsterdam – Canal-side bar
Amsterdam is an international city with hundreds of kilometres of canals. Experience both at Waterkant, a canal-side bar with Surinamese food. Amsterdam Spotter Gisela Clarke says you “can’t go wrong with some roti and a Parbo beer,” but she also loves Waterkant for its gigantic terrace and R&B karaoke. What do these very different things have in common? They’re “lots of fun!”
Copenhagen – Beers and board games
The Danish concept of hygge is “hard to explain and even harder to pronounce.” According to VisitDenmark, it means “creating a warm atmosphere and enjoying the good things in life with good people.” That’s the mission of Huset KBH – Denmark’s first and largest cultural center since 1970. Sigrid Sturlason, a Spotter in Copenhagen, is “drawn in because Huset embraces both the established and the upcoming.” She’s referring to 1,500 annual live music, theater and spoken word performances, as well as alternative movie screenings. After taking in Danish culture, hit the bar for beers and board games. “It matters not if you know the rules of a billion games or none at all – friendly game gurus will be there to help you get started.”
Vienna – Local wine and live music
Vienna Spotter Andreas Hussak wants visitors to “simply have a good time, the way the Viennese did for hundreds of years.” His suggestion? Sample local wine at a heuriger – an Austrian wine tavern that specializes in locally-grown grapes served only for short periods of time after the growing season. Similar to hygge in Copenhagen, heurigers are known for an atmosphere of gemütlichkeit, which means warmth, friendliness and good cheer. Andreas recommends Stammersdorfer Straße for an authentic heuriger experience. There, you’ll find locals, reasonable prices and musicians “more inclined to sing what they can play best and not just what tourists expect them to perform.”
Prague – World’s strongest beer and authentic cooking
When the Czech Republic was ruled by the Communist Party, the government gave restaurants a set menu of dishes they could prepare. After the 1989 revolution, it took time for restaurants to bring back traditional Czech dishes. When Spotter Derek DeWitt arrived in Prague in 1993, “the food in restaurants was terrible.” But spots like U Medvidku took on a mission to save Czech cooking with dishes like Kuba – a barley and mushroom dish dating back to the Middle Ages. The food is paired with local beer like X Beer 33, which is allegedly the strongest in the world. At 12.6% alcohol by volume, it might just be.
Lisbon – Refreshing drinks in a Moorish palace
It’s not hard to seek out local traditions in Europe. But as Lisbon Spotter Alexandre Cotovio points out, there are still hidden gems to be uncovered. In fact, he walked by Casa do Alentejo several times without realizing what was inside. Named after a region in southern Portugal, Alentejo is considered to be the country’s culinary alternative to Tuscany. Regional dishes like sheep’s cheese, black pork, salt cod, wild mushrooms and asparagus are served in the Moorish-style palace, which also has a courtyard bar with drinks.
Barcelona – Tapas since the 1870s, microbrews since the 1970s
Café del Centre has been “managed by the same family since 1873,” but has “changed at a glacial pace.” That’s why Bill Sinclair, a Spotter in Barcelona, loves this spot. Many consider it to be the oldest in the city, offering Barcelona’s famous tapas like morcilla – black pudding and blood sausage – and croquettes alongside craft beer from local microbreweries. With a nod to the current century, the spot also imports Brooklyn Pumpkin Ale and Scottish Brewdog.
Berlin – Cocktails and cabaret
Spotter Jérémie Gerhardt in Berlin knows exactly what a traveler “running on a tight schedule” needs: A “glimpse of the present spirit of the place, a bit of history to feel the background and soul of the city, and finally to leave with a head full of images and visions of the future.” In Berlin, he recommends drinks and a showing of A Cabaret Story at the Sally Bowles Café. The show is performed by two opera singers and a pianist on a tiny yet elegant stage, and entertains visitors with a history of the roots of cabaret in Paris in 1881 to its demise under National Socialism in Berlin in 1933.
Hamburg – German biergarten in picturesque setting
German biergartens have been replicated all over the world, so why not try out the real thing? Kyra Garske, a spotter in Hamburg, recommends Alles Elbe – a biergarten on the Elbe river. Not sounding picturesque enough? Kyra likes how the traditional setting pairs “old and new brewery culture” with live readings and small concerts throughout the year.
Brussels – Setting the bar for high-design
Get in touch with the city’s French roots at Bar Beton in Brussels. Spotter Nettah Yoeli-Rimmer loves it for “the solid concrete bar, an exact replica of the reception desk at Le Corbusier’s Unitié d’habitation in Marseille.” It might be 1,000 kilometers away from the real thing, but the pioneer of modern architecture himself wouldn’t be able to resist a drink in this “perfectly balanced mixture of cool and down to earth, cutting edge and retro.”
Munich – Punks and hipsters toast together
“The table at the corner is occupied by punks or hipsters,” but according to Stefan Hermansdorfer, a Spotter in Munich, “everyone is the same” at Johannis Café. The scene caters to the beer-loving locals in a setting where time has stood still at this pre-World War II spot – the oldest in Munich, to be exact – where people are comfortable chatting with total strangers. According to Stefan, this is normal. “People from Bavaria love to toast, because they love to drink beer.”
Rome – BYOB (or wine!) in Trastevere
In the Eternal City, the best bar might not be a bar at all, but a public square where locals and visitors meet over bottles of beer or wine. In Trastevere, “one of Rome’s most famous and characteristic” neighborhoods, piazzas come alive at night. To get to Piazza Trilussa – a favorite of Rome Spotters Matteo Mueller-Thies and Ivan Marra, locals and tourists alike – “you walk over one of Rome’s prettiest bridges…and just when you pass its highest point, you’ll see a beautiful square up ahead…with a few stairs leading up to an elegant fountain from the 17th century.” Do you need any more convincing?
Milan – Post-shopping cocktails
In typical Milan fashion, end your upscale shopping spree at La Rinascente – “the most famous shopping jewel of Milan” – with a cocktail at Straf. If the Fashion Week set isn’t for you, Straf is still a slick bar with minimalist design only 40 meters from the Duomo, so you can enjoy a drink after taking a selfie (or two, or three!) outside the famous Milan landmark.
Paris – Jazz-age nightclub
Spotter Adam Roberts suggests taking a “trip back to a Paris of another era.” To follow in the footsteps of Edith Piaf, Maurice Chevalier and Django Reinhardt, check out La Java – “the oldest nightclub in Paris” – hidden in an art deco shopping arcade. The spot has been around since 1923 and, according to Adam, still retains its historical charm. If the club scene isn’t your thing, don’t worry. There’s live music and stand-up comics at La Java in the evening, before the club kids show up around midnight.
London – Reservations-only cocktails
“Hidden away on a side street, but in the heart of Soho,” London Spotter Matt Bramford recommends the London Gin Club where making a reservation “is absolutely essential.” Keeping things properly British, everybody is seated at a table – “avoiding hideous bar elbowing and overcrowding.” The bar features a Gin Wheel, which will help you select one of over 70 types of gin served with your choice of tonic. Matt also recommends the cheese board to accompany your drink.
Madrid – Rooftop drinks
La Azotea is not only a center for art, literature, movies and exhibitions throughout the year, but also “one of the coolest rooftops in town.” Nadia Perez Rojas, a spotter in Madrid, suggests leaving the rooftop for the end of a cultural visit. When you’re done, grab a meal at the TarTan Roof restaurant or a cocktail – “tables are arranged so that all visitors, seating and standing, can enjoy the beautiful rooftops in Madrid.”
These are only a selection of some of our favorite spots in Europe. Did we leave out one of your favorite bars? Let us know in the comments!