A night on the tiles in Madrid

by Andrea.Kirkby

Glazed tiles are a fine Madrid tradition – every bar worth its salt has a tiled façade or interior. Eat, drink, and learn Spanish culture the easy way by visiting the best tiled bars in town

One of the things I most love about Madrid is its azulejos – the glazed tiles that show the names of streets, decorate wayside shrines, and ornament many of the city's bars. Not only are these tiles highly ornamental, they're a great shortcut to Spanish culture. Take El Parnasillo, in Calle del Principe, for example. This little bar has in its time been home to many writers, and you can see their portraits in tiled panels on the façade. One of the house specialities is liqueur coffees – perhaps a good idea if you want to stay awake till the bar closes at three in the morning.
Venta El Buscon, in Calle Victoria, also has a literary theme – the swindler 'El Buscon' who appears in Quevedo's novel. He appears, wrapped in his cloak, in a huge tiled panel to the left of the doorway. No swindle inside, though; hearty Spanish cooking includes excellent ham, while after 11 the tables disappear and the restaurant becomes a bar with a friendly informal ambience and flamenco music.
Viva Madrid, off the Plaza Santa Ana, is a classic old-style bar with marvellous tiles inside and out, showing scenes of Madrid in the early 1900s. It serves good wine, Cruzcampo beer from the tap, tapas and raciones (a bigger version of tapas), and there are tables under the awning outside, as well as in the bar. Definitely worth a look for its belle époque ambience and atmosphere - it's still a characteristic local bar, even if it is recommended in Frommers' guides.
The Taberna Villa Rosa shows a different side of Spain with its Andalucian landscapes. Delicately drawn in cool pastel green, these tiled panels are quite different from the usual vibrantly coloured work you'll see, and well worth looking up if you're near Plaza Santa Ana.
Bullfighting is another side of Spanish life that is celebrated in azulejos. Head for Los Timbales, near the bullring, to see matadors immortalised in tiles. I particularly like the dramatic splash of yellow over blue tiles that bears the bar's name – a theatrical flourish that's typically Spanish. The whole ambience of this bar is very much that of the aficionado taurino, particularly at lunchtime before a bullfight in the afternoon, when the bar is always crowded.
My personal favourite among all the tiled bars of the centre is the Fontana de Oro, in Calle Victoria. This pub is famous – it went one better than the Parnasillo by not just providing a friendly local for writers, but actually starring in a novel of that name by 19th-century author Benito Perez Galdos. Now, like several other Madrid bars, it's become an Irish pub, not perhaps completely in sync with the lovely tiles showing peacocks and fountains. Still, at least it means you can get an ice-cold Guinness rather than the more usual Cruzcampo. While the upstairs bar remains relatively traditional, with lots of dark wood and brass, the brick-vaulted cellars are also now used as a bar. A particular appeal for some is the fact that football and other sports are shown on the big screen; if you want Irish music, though, head for another Irish bar with a Madrileño-style tiled façade, Taberna Elisa in Calle Santa Maria.
Calle Cava Baja has a couple of fine tiled bars. La Chata uses its azulejos to advertise its products – ham and suckling pig – as well as showing scenes of old Madrid. Instead of the separate tiled panels that illustrate most bars, here the tiled decoration sprawls over the whole façade. Inside, they're still serving the excellent jabugo ham.
If you really can't make it to the Prado, La Bayuca de la Cava, nearby, will introduce you to the works of Goya and Velasquez through its tiled copies. For further education in the art of painting, you can find Velasquez's 'Los Borrachos' - 'the drunks', an appropriate subject for a bar if there ever was one – at El Madroño, a bar in Plaza de la Puerta Cerrada. There are more tiled panels inside, and you can try the licor de madroño, a liqueur made with the fruit of the strawberry tree that gives its name to the bar and is the symbol of the city of Madrid.
If you fancy a pub crawl through Madrid's bars, remember that Madrileños, like most Spaniards, eat late and stay out even later. Many bars are open till two or three in the morning. If you're near Puerta del Sol, you may want to end the night in traditional fashion at the Chocolateria San Gines, at Pasadizo San Gines just off Calle Arenal. Here, you can get a cup of thick, dark chocolate, and long thin fried churros to dip in it – guaranteed to settle your stomach and give you sweet dreams when you finally get home.

Addresses for the bars

El Parnasillo: Calle San Andres 33
Venta el Buscon: Calle Victoria 5
Viva Madrid: Calle Manuel Fernández y González 7
Taberna Villa Rosa: Plaza Santa Ana 15
Los Timbales: Calle Alcalá 227
La Fontana de Oro: CalleVictoria 1-3
Taberna Elisa: Calle de Santa Maria 42
La Chata:Calle Cava Baja 2
La Bayuca de la Cava: Calle Cava Baja 39
El Madroño: Plaza de Puerta Cerrada, 7
Chocolateria San Gines: Pasadizo San Gines


Andrea Kirkby is a writer and photographer with a passion for travel. So far, she's hiked the pilgrim trail to Santiago de Compostela, climbed Oman's highest mountain, and walked around St Petersburg's canals at two in the morning during the White Nights. It's still not enough... Favourite places: the island of Torcello and the Venetian lagoon; the ice cream parlour by the pier on Buyuk Ada, Turkey; Laon, the first and most lovely of the Gothic cathedrals; Lubeck, with its Hanseatic warehouses and fantastic marzipan; Ruestempasha mosque and the Tahtakale market, Istanbul; the shipyards of Sur, Oman; the Fens with their huge skies and black earth; the Silver Tiger bar in Prague with Pilsner Urquell on draught; the front bar of the King's Head, Norwich.