Eating is a major part of travel experiences. Many travelers follow their taste buds all around the world in search of the tastiest and most interesting food. But there are better ways to enjoy local cuisine than dining in one of TripAdvisor’s top-rated restaurants. Here are a few ideas for getting a true taste of the best food wherever you travel.
Pick a Restaurant with No Menu
While it’s nice to be able to choose what you want from a list, it’s often the restaurants with no set menu that have the most creative, freshest food. Some of our best restaurant meals have been at places that had no menu. When we sat down, they asked us what we liked to eat. Then they brought us the chef’s creations based on the ingredients he had purchased at the market that day. If you have dietary restrictions (as we do), it helps if you can communicate with the server at least a little bit, but in our experience, the delicious meals have been well worth the gamble of not knowing exactly what we would get.
Eat at a Local’s House
A fun way to experience local cuisine and meet new people is through meal-sharing websites. These sites are similar to AirBnB, but instead of sleeping in someone’s house, you simply eat a meal there. The host publishes upcoming menus along with the prices, and guests sign up and pay via the website to join a meal. In some cases the published menus are only representative of what the host can prepare; guests provide input or make specific requests. Some hosts even offer cooking classes and teach guests how to make a local dish.
There’s a long and growing list of meal-sharing websites, but EatWith, Vizeat, and BonAppetour are among the most well-established. The sites differ in terms of how they operate and the cities where they have the strongest presence, so it’s worth browsing several of them to find a meal near you. While in Florence, Italy in May 2016, I used EatWith and had a delicious multi-course dinner prepared by an amateur chef. She prepared several dishes that I had never seen on a restaurant menu in Italy. My dining companions were a friendly couple from London who were in town for a wedding.
Of course, a more informal way of eating at a local’s house is simply to get an invitation from people you’ve met while in town. Depending on the local culture and customs, such invitations may not come right away, but if they do, don’t pass them up. Whether for a dinner accompanied by several bottles of wine or a child’s birthday party, meals in new friends’ homes have been among the highlights of our travels.
You can also take the initiative and host a meal yourself. Your new friends will appreciate your efforts, and you may receive a reciprocal invitation. While in France, we invited our AirBnB hostess to dinner at her apartment (she was living with her boyfriend). My husband treated her and her boyfriend to some of the dishes he likes to cook, and the following week we enjoyed a traditional French meal made by our hostess and her boyfriend.
Prepare Your Own Meals
Grocery shopping is one of our favorite parts of day-to-day experiences when traveling overseas. It’s a fun challenge when you don’t speak the language, especially in a country like Japan where you can’t even read the packaging, but we always enjoy perusing the aisles, discovering the local foods, and figuring out what we can prepare at home.
Outdoor markets are another fun way to buy local food, whether it’s fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, cheese, or pastries. Markets tend to be lively cultural experience in themselves and often have lower prices – and fresher food – than supermarkets, so even if you don’t plan to cook, I highly recommend checking out a market or two.
Grocery shopping gives you a sense of what local people actually eat when they’re not in restaurants (needless to say, the Japanese don’t eat sushi at every meal and Italian cuisine goes well beyond pizza and pasta). It also makes you feel like part of the community, browsing the aisles and comparing prices with everyone else.
Many short-term apartment rentals are stocked with at least basic cookware, and some hosts provide staples like salt, pepper, and olive oil. If you plan to cook, be sure to confirm what’s in the kitchen before you book a rental.