By Rick Steves
I’m not the cocktails-at-happy-hour type of traveler. But on a recent trip to Italy, I savored a peaceful moment in Siena’s great square, Il Campo, sipping a glass of vin santo as the early evening light bathed the red-brick stone. My €5 drink gave me a front-row seat at the best table on the square, and for a leisurely hour I soaked up the promenading action that nightly turns Il Campo into “Il Italian Fashion Show.”
Public squares like Il Campo are the physical and cultural heart of Europe’s cities and towns. For Europeans, these bustling squares proclaim “community.” Defined by stately architecture and ringed by shops and cafés, squares are the perfect venue for café-sitting, coffee-sipping, and people-watching. Promenaders take center stage, strolling and being seen, while onlookers perch on the periphery. To play your part, tether yourself to one of the café tables parked around any square, order a drink, and feel the pulse of the passing scene. Don’t be in a hurry — spending endless hours sitting in an outdoor café is the norm.
Tourists are often stung by not understanding the rules of café culture: In many countries, you’ll pay less to stand and more to sit. In general, if you simply want to down a drink, then order and drink it at the bar. If you want to sit a while and absorb that last museum while checking out the two-legged art, grab a table with a view, and a waiter will take your order. This will cost you about double what it would at the bar.
If you’re on a budget, always confirm the price for a sit-down drink. While it’s never high profile, there’s always a price list posted somewhere inside with the tiered price system clearly labeled (cheap at the bar, more at a table, still more at an outside table). If you pay for a seat in a café with an expensive drink, that seat’s yours for the afternoon if you like. Lingering with your bar-priced drink on a nearby public bench or across the street on the beach is usually OK — just ask first.
Know Your Joe
If you’re a coffee lover, it pays to know the grounds rules. In some coffee bars (especially in Italy), you pay for your drink at the cash register, then take your receipt to the bar, where you’ll be served. In Italy, if you ask for un caffè, you’ll get espresso. Cappuccino is served to locals before noon and to tourists any time of day. (To an Italian, cappuccino is a breakfast drink, and drinking anything with milk or cream after eating anything with tomatoes is a travesty.) A caffè latte is an espresso mixed with hot milk with no foam and served in a tall glass (ordering just a latte gets you only hot milk). While the French call espresso with lots of steamed milk un café au lait, you can get specific by asking for un grand crème if you want a big cup or un petit crème for a smaller one.
If you’re hankering for the closest thing to brewed coffee in Italy, try a caffè americano, which is espresso diluted with hot water. A similar drink in France is called un café allongé. Cafés in Britain, Germany, and Scandinavia are more likely to serve brewed coffee, though there are plenty of espresso places these days. Turkish coffee is unfiltered coffee, with the grounds mixed right in. It’s popular in the eastern Mediterranean — typically drunk as a digestive after dinner and sometimes after lunch.
Picking a Perch
Siena’s Il Campo is my favorite square for café-sitting in Italy, but it’s not the only contender. Rome’s Piazza Navona, sporting a Baroque Bernini fountain, is filled with people no matter what the weather or the time. It offers Rome’s most interesting night scene, with street music, artists, fire-eaters, Casanovas, ice cream, and cafés worth the splurge to sit and enjoy Italy’s human river. Venice’s grand St. Mark’s Square is owned by tourists by day, but at night, it is a romantic place to be, as lantern light transports you to another century. Among the elegant cafés lining the square is the notorious Caffè Florian, a popular spot for discreet rendezvous since 1720 and one of the first places in Europe to serve coffee.
In Poland, Kraków’s stately main market square is a marvelous public space where there’s always something going on: outdoor art exhibits, impromptu musical performances, festivals, and markets. The square may look much as it did in the 13th century, but its Town Hall Tower beams out a free Wi-Fi signal to the cafés below.
Many great public squares began life in the Middle Ages as central markets, teeming with merchants and buyers. Markets are still a central feature of life in France, where marchés take over town squares for one or more days each week. In Paris, the pretty little Place Louis Lepine makes a pleasant detour on Sundays, when this square flutters with a busy bird market. It’s just one of dozens of specialty and produce markets scattered throughout the city’s squares. Market day is as important for its social connections as for its shopping — you’ll see neighbors freely exchanging the ritual three cheek-kisses reserved for good friends.
The ultimate Spanish square is Salamanca’s handsome Plaza Mayor. Slow your pace, sit down, and nurse a cup of coffee in this atmospheric place (try the classic Café Novelty). In earlier days, during the traditional evening stroll, girls promenaded clockwise around the square, while the boys cruised counterclockwise. People-watching peaks on Sundays right after Mass, when everyone turns out in their finest clothes. It’s a multigenerational parade that to me is quintessentially European.
As a traveler, you naturally want to take in as many sights as you can every day. But make time in your itinerary to simply drop yourself into a café chair for a few hours. Enjoying life like the Europeans do — watching the world go by — is one of the best and most relaxing ways to go local.