Best way to experience a city: Every city's best tourist attraction

It's not the coffee that's the real attraction, although it certainly helps. Sitting around and staring at people becomes so much less creepy when you've got a cappuccino in front of you.

But still, it's not the coffee. What's truly great about a foreign café is everything else that's going on outside of your cup: it's a world in miniature, a double shot of culture, a window into life and a comfy seat from which to view it.

I love visiting cafes when I travel. It's usually one of the first things I'll do when I arrive somewhere: find the local purveyor of a cup of joe, and grab a seat. Then take it all in. A café is every city's best tourist attraction, and it's not a tourist attraction at all.  

What's not to love? This is, after all, the perfect reminder that you need to slow down. Forget all of the guidebook-listed attractions and bucket-list entries for a second and just sit down and take it easy. Enjoy yourself.

Travel can be a rush, a swirl of pavement striding and public transport wrangling. But all of that goes away when you push open the doors of a café. 

It doesn't have to be anywhere fancy either. Some of the best experiences can be had, say, on a plastic chair on a pavement in a bustling Tunisian medina, with a glass of hand-pulled espresso and milk, its heavy aroma mixed with whiffs of shisha smoke and sweat.

It can be in a bustling, noisy den in southern India, where spiced coffees are "pulled" between two metal cups before being slung onto the bare table in front of you. It can be in an old bar in Italy where you lean on the countertop and knock back espressos while men yell at each other and the football plays on a screen nearby. 

What's so great about the humble café is that you get to insert yourself into local life without actually doing anything to achieve it. You just sit there and take it in. This is not culture in the performance sense, it's not a show that's put on for tourists or a demonstration of a lost art. A café is life at its most basic: normal people doing normal things. 

And yet those things are fascinatingly different everywhere you go, just as the coffee in front of you changes.

Advertisement

In the US you'll get a mug plonked on your table and a constant refill of percolated jet fuel with cream and sugar. In France, if you don't know how to order properly you'll be presented with a comically large bowl of steaming liquid. 

In Morocco you'll get a nous-nous, a half-half of coffee and milk, in a glass, and you'll drink it surrounded by men. In Vietnam you'll get a miniature percolator that drips hot coffee into a glass of condensed milk and ice. In Turkey you'll be served a cup of molasses-like sludge that will almost defy gravity when it's tipped up.

I love all of these little differences. I love sitting at a table and scanning the room, checking out what everyone else is drinking and how they're drinking it. Maybe they're loading it up with sugar. Maybe they're taking it with biscuits or cakes. 

I love trying to figure out what everyone is talking about. It always sounds so romantic in another language, like people are reciting poetry or quoting philosophers. Mostly, of course, they're probably talking about the same things we talk about in cafes – the football, the weather, that thing your mum said the other day – but it's nice to pretend otherwise.

I love just watching and listening. I love the people. This is the real deal, where nothing is put on for tourists, or faked to impress. Inside the café people interact, they smile, they yell, they flirt and they argue. Outside people hustle past on their way to work or somewhere better. 

For the voyeuristic traveller it's a feast. There's so much to take in. I've learned far more about a country from time spent drinking coffee than I have from visiting museums or doing walking tours. This is where real life happens, unadulterated and plain.

Most of all, I love that a café provides the chance to indulge in every traveller's favourite conceit: that you're not a traveller at all. Pull up a chair and for the half hour you spend nursing a cup of coffee, you fit in. You're no longer a tourist, or a target. You're just you. 

It's not just the coffee that does that, although it certainly helps.

Email: b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

Comments