“Visit León” they said, “you’ll love it”. Our friends shared stories of streets filled with tapas bars and evenings spent strolling around eating for free. So we went. The city of León turned out to be the tapas crawling adult food playground that we had hoped it would be. The tradition of serving a free tapa (a small appetizer) with each drink is still going strong in León and locals young and old take full advantage of it. We loved seeing groups of all ages pulling up to the bar, having a drink and a tapa, then moving on to the next spot.
Tapas aside, León has a lot of charm and history to offer. The Camino de Santiago (The Way of Saint James) passes through León. The camino is a network of ancient pilgrimage routes from various cities in Europe through northern Spain to the Galician city of Santiago de Compostela where the remains of St. James are said to be buried in the Cathedral. León is a popular starting point to walk the final 309 km (192 miles) of a route called the French Way. Walking along the sidewalks marked with scallop shells, the sign of the Camino, stirred our own desire to walk the Camino someday.
The León Cathedral (also called the Santa María de León Cathedral) is one of the three most important cathedrals along the Camino de Santiago. French Gothic in style, much of the cathedral is from the 13th century. The audio tour tells a fascinating history of the cathedral’s construction, renovations and restorations to save it over the years.
Now back to what we are here for – tapas.
A pedestrian shopping street called Calle Ancha starts at the southwest corner of the Cathedral and splits the Casco Antiguo (Old Town) into two areas known for their tapas bars: the Barrio Húmedo and the Barrio Romántico. We were like kids in a big ancient candy store roaming between the two barrios noshing on tapas. León is famous for its morcilla blood sausage and dry cured beef called cecina and we indulged in plenty of each. (I’ll eat my leafy greens at home in Valencia.) Sorry vegans, this might be difficult for you.
A few tips first for those of you unfamiliar with Spanish tapas bars: A bar in Spain is not the same as a typical bar in the US, where bars are associated with drinking. Spanish bars are places were people eat casual meals, children included. Many restaurants have lively tapas bars in the front and formal dining areas in the back. An important thing to remember when tapas crawling is to order just a drink and then wait to see what kind of tapa comes with it. If you order off the menu too quickly, they may not bring you the free tapa. Also, maximize your yield of tapas by sticking to small beers and reordering more frequently. In our experience here in León, you typically recieve a different tapa with each new drink order. Each bar seemed to have 3 or 4 different tapas for that day to choose from.
To the north of Calle Ancha is the Barrio Romántico (Romantic Quarter). I don’t know exactly where the name comes from, but the beautiful buildings and monuments found here certainly lend a romantic feel to a stroll through the streets. Here is the Plaza San Marcelo which is dominated by the Casa de Botines, a modernist building by Antonio Gaudi and the 16th century Palace of the Guzmanes that is currently the seat of the León provincial government.
Camarote Madrid was one of our first stops in the city. While we stood at the bar eating a free plate of paella and sipping a glass of tempranillo (served in a proper big glass) we saw a curious bottle of wine from León sitting on the bar. The very friendly bartender introduced us to Prieto Picudo, a native grape varietal grown in the DO Tierra de León. The red wines were intense, interesting, and available in bars all over León. We have not seen this grape varietal available anywhere else in Spain, so from this point on we weren’t just tapas crawling but prieto picudo crawling to try as many of these wines as possible. Oh, and our second glass came with a very good creamy cup of salmorejo (a cold tomato soup topped with ham and egg).
We were drawn into Restaurante Ezequiel by the large crowd around the festive bar. The wine list kept us there. There were over two dozen wines by the glass including several prieto picudos at only €1.80 per glass, which reinforced our opinion that we really like this wine. Our wine came with a plate of cecina and chorizo. Ezequiel produces their own cured meats in the town of Villamanin out in the mountains of León.
Now, we’ve eaten plenty of morcilla (blood sausage) while in Spain but León is famous for it’s version which is not formed into a sausage but more like a blood pudding. We couldn’t leave León without it and Ezequiel seemed like a good place to put it to the test. So we ordered a full racion.
If we thought we knew something about morcilla, this dish put us in our place. It was gigantic and amazing. Laden with aromatic spices and a good bit of heat (we asked for it spicy), it was a luscious assault on the senses. Not only did it put us in our place; it kicked our butts and sent us home for a nap. And we were only able to eat about half of what was served.
What’s good for a belly full of meat? A nice bitter medicinal vermouth. I know, vermouth is only supposed to be drunk before lunch in Spain, but it also makes a good digestive. The crowd at Cervantes 10 Gastrobar certainly didn’t seem to care what time it was.
This place was just what we needed—a true vermuteria. According to the bartender that day, they have currently have 94 vermouths. We made it easy and tried the vermut de casa (house vermouth) which they make from a base of Cinzano vermouth infused with orange and spices for only €2.50. There were four tapas available to choose from and we both selected crunchy cones filled with foie gras creme topped with diced cecina. Quite a fancy tapa indeed. Smooth, creamy, lush goodness neatly nestled into a small crispy cone.
We came back later the same evening to a lively terrace. With heaters blazing, it was toasty despite the temperature being only in the 40’s. The perfect spot to sample a few more of their higher end vermouths and, of course, a few more cones of foie.
South of Calle Ancha, Barrio Húmedo is nicknamed the wet neighborhood because of the high density of bars. The focal point of this area is the Plaza de San Martin, where there are over a dozen tapas bars lining the edges. You could spend all afternoon or evening just in this plaza.
Also in this barrio is the massive Plaza Mayor, which itself is lined with bars and discos. We can attest to this, as our hotel room faced the Plaza Mayor and we could hear the parties continue until 6:00 a.m.
Bars in the Barrio Humedo tend to be more traditional than those in the Barrio Romántico. One of the most interesting was Nuevo Racimo de Oro. The 17th century building has exposed ceiling beams and warm brick walls. Downstairs is a beautifully restored12th century wine cellar with a bar where you can have drinks and an interior dining room deep within the wine cellar. We took our cañas of Amstel at the entrance level bar and received a plate of tasty albóndigas (meatballs) and fries. We sat back along the wall enjoying the cozy atmosphere and watched small groups on their own tapas crawls come and go.
Across the Plaza de San Martin is the iconic tapas bar La Bicha. Our local Leonese friends insist that La Bicha has the best morcilla around. The owner Paco has a reputation for being unpleasant, but he was all smiles the day we were there. Paco is doing everything himself – pouring drinks, distributing tapas, cleaning (or not). He doesn’t stick to posted hours so you never know when or if they will be open. If the tiny bar gets too crowded, he may even lock the door. The sign behind the bar says HORARIO: ABRO CUANDO VENGO CIERRO CUANDO ME VOY… (I open when I come, I close when I leave…) The most honest sign in Spain, I would say.
I’ve got to admit that the locals know their morcilla. At La Bicha, Paco grills the morcilla on the plancha behind the bar and smears it on a hunk of bread. As the photo shows, it’s not pretty but man is it good. Rich, spicy, and hot, fresh from the plancha. The drink selection is limited to a cana of beer, vermouth, or wine from either Mencia (white), Picudo (rose) or Toro (red). The tapas menu is also very small, with chorizo, cecina, jamon, panceta, queso, etc. So basically meat and cheese. It doesn’t matter. All we needed was the morcilla and we were happy to be lucky enough to get in to try it.
Just next door, we stopped into the Tabierna Los Cazurros. They had at least a dozen wines by the glass ranging from €1.40 to €2.50. Potatoes were the tapa of the evening here, with a choice of sauces including picante, ali-oli or blue cheese. The decor is a combination of modern and traditional Leonese elements, like the back wall decorated with hundreds of wooden shoes.
About those wooden shoes that we saw hanging in bars around León- they are called madreñas – and were traditionally worn in rural areas of Northern Spain for work in the fields. Supposedly they are good for protection in wet, muddy places and are still in use today. I am not sure they would be very comfortable and I doubt you will see them anytime soon in your local DSW.
Tucked into a narrow alley we found Pizzeria La Competencia and some of the best pizza that we have had in a long time. The bar La Competencia has been in this space since 1989 and started focusing on pizza in 1992. The pizza was so popular, they changed their name to Pizzeria La Competencia and have since opened other stores around Northern Spain. There are now 14 locations but this is where they started. Our canas of Amstel each came with a small slice of the pizza de la casa, which had a thin crispy crust and was loaded with toppings. We were enjoying it so much that we ordered half of a pizza de la casa for 4 bucks. There is a list of pizzas to order ranging from €8-9 euros.
On the edge of the Barrio Humedo, Kadabra Brew is an atypical modern space with white stone walls and eight beers on tap. There were a few Belgian and American beers, and four brewed by Kadabra. They produce a Belgian White, a Golden IPA, a Red Ale and a Pale Ale (which was not on tap) in their brewery located about 40 minutes away. They use all local ingredients from Leon, including hops grown in Villanueva del Carrizo where the founders grew up. We tried a few of their beers, which came with a sopa de ajo (garlic soup) with a nice spicy kick.
We were pretty pleased with the number of tapas bars that we tried in just a few days, but there were so, so many that we had to pass by. If we had only had more time and stomach space, there were plenty of tapas bars in León to keep us busy.
If we lived here, I could easily see making this a regular ritual.
Drink. Eat. Repeat.