When I first began to travel, I thought that going to another country meant that you were obligated to play the hectic tourist.  In order to maximize your time overseas, you needed to walk around at a clipped pace, arms outstretched holding a big map, crossing the “must see” sights off of your list and ending each day exhausted.

Yeah, that didn’t last long.

While studying abroad in Spain, I lived in Madrid but spent a large amount of time traveling around the country between Spanish classes.  Naturally, I had to study for my classes.  I lived with an older Spanish woman and a roommate, and between the typical European lack of air conditioning and tight space, studying in my little room was not ideal (unless I wanted to have a heat stroke while conjugating verbs).  So, one day I decided to do a little sightseeing around Madrid and hunt for a good place to study.

Enter the coffee shop.  In most countries, coffee shops are places to go when you need air conditioning, when you need a casual place to meet friends and chat, or when you need to arrange a non-threatening place for a first date.  They have everything you need-outdoor tables when the weather is nice, indoor tables when you need to escape from the weather, different coffees to keep you alert, assortments of teas when you want something lighter, and of course sweets and other food.  Usually there is music playing, or at least the rhythmic sounds of coffee grinders humming or people typing away on their laptops.

After checking out some of the beautiful sights of Madrid and just getting to know the city (it’s important, in my mind, to just walk around and explore), I found a coffee shop and hunkered down to write a paper in Spanish and brush up on vocabulary.  Before I  knew it, several hours had flown by, my homework was done, I felt a little more confident to engage locals in conversation, and I was ready to go home since the evening brought cooler temperatures.  My love affair with coffee shops around the world had begun.

No matter where you go, coffee shops are international houses of conversation, fellowship, relaxation, contemplation, and overall delight.  I thought about some of my favorite coffee shops around the world and wanted to list a few below:

–Chocolateria San Gines, Madrid:  Okay, so it’s not technically a coffee shop, but it has the same feeling as one.  I was told that I had to visit this place while studying in Madrid, and I was definitely glad that I did.  This was my introduction to real churros con chocolate–churros are availalble in the U.S., of course, but they are so not the real deal.  Real Spanish churros are light, crisp, and have the perfect blend of cinnamon and sugar.  When you dip them in the warm, thick, drinking chocolate, it’s a match made in heaven.

–Cafe Tortoni, Buenos Aires:  Founded in 1858, this is the oldest cafe in Argentina and immediately transports you to another time and place when you enter through the doors. I had wonderful churros con chocolate there and just hung out and enjoyed people watching (watching South Americans have coffee is truly entertaining–they do everything with a little extra flair).

–Antico Caffe Greco, Rome:  This coffee shop was founded in 1760 and is considered Rome’s fanciest coffee bar.  It’s not necessarily the greatest place to plop down with a book, but sipping a caffe latte there while enjoying the gorgeous antique decor makes you truly feel like you’re in the gilded days of Italian prominence.  The Italians certainly know how to impress, and between the incredible quality of the coffee and the history of the cafe, it is a memorable experience.  Plus, Antico Caffe Greco is located on Via Condotti, the poshest shopping street in Rome with designers ranging from Prada to Chanel, so after a cup of coffee it’s fun to stroll down the street and window shop (or buy something, if you want to spend a significant portion of that month’s salary).

–Caffe Florian, Venice:  Far and away one of my favorite places on earth.  The cafe is located in Piazza di San Marco, in the shadows of St. Mark’s Cathedral, and is even older than Antico Caffe Greco in Rome (Caffe Florian was established in 1720).  I know that some people think that Venice is a little cheesy, but I love it.  The gondolas, the canals, the Venetian palaces…I can’t get enough of it.  Caffe Florian has a live orchestra several nights a week, and the orchestra players wear tuxedos and play their instruments with graceful gusto. Add that to the fact that you’re in Venice, sipping a vanilla latte, and it’s surreal.

Chain coffee shops around the world can also be a source of great delight.  In my homeland of Texas, I like Saxby’s coffee shops and am always looking out for local mom and pop shops as well.  In Washington, D.C., I go to Caribou for a good cup of dark roast.  While studying in London, I spent a lot of time at different Caffe Nero and Coffee Republic shops around town.  When I lived in South Korea, I got hooked on 7 Monkeys and other random coffee shops that are springing up in the country.  In Santiago, Chile, I found a great Starbucks that served really good dulce de leche lattes and had a great study area.  Russia has Starbucks now as well, and I enjoyed visiting one in Moscow with some friends.  Poland has a great chain called Coffee Heaven which serves good caffe mochas.

In the end, it’s all about exploring.  Obviously, coffee shops are not part of the culture everywhere–in Cambodia, Thailand, and Egypt, for instance, you won’t really run into a plethora of coffee shops.  Each place has its own version, though, often in the form of tea houses (especially in Asia) or restaurants that serve tea or coffee after your meal.

So, let coffee shops serve as a reminder to take a break, sip on a delicious beverage, and enjoy your location, whether you’re at home or far away.