After weeks of eyeing airfares and saving up, you finally took the plunge and booked a trip abroad. Congratulations! Now, the fun begins. You’ll start mapping out where to stay, what to see, how to commute, and most importantly, WHERE TO EAT. Food, cooking, and dining rituals play a central role in every culture, and they are not to be missed. By eating locally you are able to dive into traditions that have been around for hundreds of years.
Philosopher, Ludwig Feuerbach, once said, “Man is what he eats.” Seeing that eating and human behavior are strongly linked, if you get to know the food of a culture, you get to know the entire culture itself on a very fundamental level.
With the culinary industry booming and social media making local restaurant scenes highly visible, there are now plenty of ways to avoid frustrating tourist traps. However, while there may be a wealth of resources outside of Fodor’s and Rick Steves, sometimes the amount of information to sift through can be overwhelming. To help guide you through the seemingly endless travel books and websites out there — read on for everything you need to maneuver the system and successfully plot out your local cuisine experience.
Dine With The Locals
When visiting a foreign country, no dining experience can match sitting down at the table of someone who actually lives there. Along with being treated to an authentic, home-cooked meal, you'll also get a glimpse into local dining customs.
If you don’t have a personal connection to someone in the area, try online networks such as EatWith, which connects travelers with local chefs — from Michelin-starred pros to passionate home cooks — who prepare meals for guests in their own homes. Whether you're headed to Tel Aviv or Barcelona (or anywhere in between), you can attend dinner solo or book a table for a group.
Book an EatWith dinner for your first night out in a new city. This way you not only get to eat great local food that you'd never find in a traditional restaurant, but also gather tips on hidden gems and local food trends in the city.
Shop At Local Food Markets
Whether or not you have access to a kitchen on your trip, don’t miss an opportunity to visit a local market. Packed with vendors selling spices, fresh produce, meat, prepared foods, and wine, the market will give you an inside look at the food culture.
By heading to the markets, you'll be eating the way locals regularly eat. Seek out the popular items you see others buying, and if you are staying in an apartment with a kitchen ask a local for a recipe that calls for regional ingredients. If not, grab some local delicacies and head to a nice park for a picnic.
Make a point to ask the market vendors for restaurant recommendations. After all the best restaurants shop for fresh produce at the local markets. Who better to talk to than market vendors. You can end up in crazy corners of cities all over the world this way, and the food is always fantastic in a warm and inviting atmosphere.
Talk To Strangers
Traveling is not the time to be shy. Be prepared to go outside your comfort zone in order to find the special places that only locals know about. On our journeys, it has always been the locals themselves who have proved to be the best guides: the guy on the subway, the barista who pours amazing espresso, or the local artists on the street corner. The best way to eat like a local is to ask people on the street for their favorite haunts. It's a no fail system.
Talk to local chefs. Chefs like to eat out. A lot. So, when you book a place, ask the staff what other places you should have on your list. They know better than anyone else. If you’re in a country without a strong tourism base, research the most obscure food in the region and ask a local or guide to take you or give you directions to their favorite hole-in-the-wall cafes specializing in that dish.
Check Within Your Social Media Circles
When mapping out your food trek, there's no need to start from scratch. You’d be surprised how many people in your extended network have traveled to the same destination, or who may have personal connections in that city. Your social media networks can be especially helpful if you don’t have much time to plan in advance.
Put out a call on Twitter and Facebook for an abundance of recommendations. You'll be surprised at the tips you receive in a short amount of time. Also, if you end up with an unexpected layover or are somewhere without a lot of time, Yelp and TripAdvisor are great tools to help you avoid the tourist trap nightmares.
You can also find excellent recommendations by browsing the Instagram accounts of local influencers and publications. People love to share their restaurant picks, and often remember the places that made an impression on them, so make use of the 140-character limit and update your status! You will be glad you did.
Visit Neighborhoods Off The Beaten Path
If you're visiting a city for the first time, you're most likely going to check out the main tourist attractions. While you don’t want to travel to Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower, or to Rome without marveling at the Colosseum, you should plan your meals at a distance from them. PLEASE! Restaurants close to the biggest landmarks rarely serve good food and are invariably overpriced.
Venture into the city’s suburbs and lesser-known areas to find the real local cuisine. The most memorable and delicious places are often tucked away in quiet, residential neighborhoods. Don’t be afraid to wander off the beaten path if you’re in a relatively safe city and onto the side streets. If you're worried at all about safety, find a tour guide or trusted local to accompany you.
If you want to dine at a hot spot, take a look around at where the interesting-looking folks are mingling. It sounds simple, but it might not be something that immediately comes to mind when you're hungry and scrambling for ideas about where to eat your next meal. Wander around and see where the cool kids go. The young hip crowd have learned how to enjoy living in the city you are visiting on little cash — they won't steer you wrong.
Check Out The Local Festivals and Cultural Holidays
If authentic food is a travel priority for you, look into upcoming events in the city you're planning to visit. Whether it’s a local holiday, cultural festival, or outdoor fair, that’s when you can find an abundant showcase of culture, and food is always a big part of that. The easiest way to find out about what's coming up? Do a Google search. Some of the best local food can be found in the form of street food at festivals and events. The further the celebration is from the touristy area, the more likely that the food vendors will cater to the local crowd.
In addition to fantastic, and budget-friendly, street food, you'll likely be exposed to age-old customs and traditions. You might want to check to be sure that the city’s local restaurants don’t shut down during the festival season — you want to keep your options open and varied when planning meals.
Stay In A Residential Neighborhood
Your best bet for local eats is to stay in an area where the city’s residents live. I know many hotels are close to big attractions and busy city centers, but there are plenty of options in residential areas. In London we always stay in the Kensington neighborhood and across the Tiber River in the Trastevere while in Rome. Think outside of the box and get inventive.
To have the most authentic travel experience possible, stay with friends, rent an apartment, house sit or if you're young and brave — couch surf! This not only puts you in a prime dining area, but also gives you the opportunity to ask your hosts for their restaurant recommendations. Try reserving an apartment or room through services like Airbnb, HomeAway, or VRBO. These sites also give insider details into different neighborhoods, including a bit about their food scenes.
I know some of you want to be super-organized, mapping out where you are going to be eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner for each day. I get that. When we travel we usually plot our meals out based on location, and then fill in the sights we want to see along the way.
Keep an open mind when picking your restaurants, and choose a wide range of places. Variety is good. It's hard to get a sense for a city’s food culture if you don't try to mix things up. High and low, classic and contemporary, and everything in between should be considered. It's also a lot less monotonous that way.
If you’re on a tight budget but want to have at least one slightly upscale dining experience, take advantage of wallet-friendly eats at food markets and street vendors to balance out total costs. And, be sure to mix in known local haunts with buzzing up-and-comers. At the end of your trip, you’ll have a robust feel for the food, people, traditions and culture of the city.
THE DOMESTIC CURATOR