5 Principles for Eating like a Local
Top tips from culinary experts
When Eurailers and Interrailers go traveling they have their transport sorted and, hopefully, they have somewhere to stay on arrival. Which leaves eating – that third essential of any trip.
Anyone can eat – and drink – well if they have a bottomless money pit. When budget’s no problem, Europe has some of the greatest – and most expensive – food experiences. But most travelers have to keep costs reasonable, while avoiding unhealthy foods and monotonous diets of bread and grapes.
At Secret Food Tours, we put our heads – and experience – together to come up with five rules for better eating at a lower price in Europe. We can’t guarantee that each one will apply for everywhere you go. But we can guarantee that where they work they will make your travels tastier!
Rule 1. Avoid the main drag – take a short walk
Main cities, including European capitals, all have “wow” factor sights to see. There’s Las Ramblas in Barcelona, Trafalgar Square in London, the island of Notre Dame in Paris (despite the fire), Prague Castle, the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin – the list is endless. You’ll find loads of eateries within shouting distance of all of these. Often, even in fall, they are open air (much of Europe stays mild until December-January, and there’s always outdoor heating) and they often look attractive, offering “typical meals”.
But they are tourist bait. They are designed for a quick in-and-out visit, leaving the table for the next foreign visitors. The food is generally indifferent – they know you are unlikely to return. And it is often overpriced – sometimes they will more or less oblige you to buy expensive bottled water even when local rules say they should supply tap water free of charge.
The solution is to walk five or ten minutes away and find something authentic down a side street. Las Ramblas is full of restaurants, all serving near identical meals. Explore a little away from this street and you’ll find countless small restaurants serving much better food at far lower prices.
Rule 2. Look for markets
We love markets. They feature on most of our tours. They’re where local residents go to buy their food. They are colorful, the food is fresh, the prices are low and very often, stall holders give you a sample before you buy – you might find you need this when encountering cheeses or sausages you’ve never tried before. You’ll also find bread, fruit and both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks at good prices at most markets.
In Southern Europe, markets tend to be indoors due to the heat. In Northern Europe, they are more often found on the street. But you’ll have to go in the morning. Many markets start to close down around lunch time and few stay open later than mid-afternoon.
Rule 3. Consider street food
Once, street food was a stall selling a nondescript hotdog, at best. Hygiene was, well... we won’t go there.
That’s all changed. Cleanliness is paramount and you can eat excellently. There are vans preparing amazing meals and many places sell “takeaway” or “carryout” food. Some of the best food in Berlin is from street stalls, the British Isles have their fish 'n' chips, while a delight of Paris is eating an impossible-to-make-at-home pastry in the street.
Street food is economical – and you’ll generally get utensils to eat with!
Rule 4. Go for lunchtime deals
Every so often, you’ll want to treat yourself to a special meal. It could be your birthday or getting engaged! Or marking the last day of your journey.
Many of Europe’s better restaurants offer lower prices at lunchtime compared to the evening. It’s often a price for two or three courses – sometimes you have the choice – from a more restricted menu, but the food and cooking are the same quality as the more expensive, standard menu. It works out that you generally get your starter and dessert for free, or very little over the cost of the main course alone.
Restaurants like it because they can pre-cook a small range of dishes. And customers like it because they get to eat a better quality meal. For example, London’s Michelin-listed Pied a Terre charges £43 for three courses at lunchtime, which would cost £80 in the evening.
You’ll still have to pay the same for drinks, coffee and the same percentage service on the bill. And some sneaky restaurants make you ask for the lunchtime deals when offering you the more expensive menu. Look on websites and in the display cases outside.
Rule 5. Think like a native
Go where the locals go. They know which places are quality and which are tourist traps. That could mean avoiding places with menus in six languages! Look for restaurants which are full of residents.
Equally, learn about service charges. In many European countries, the price you see is what you pay. If people leave tips, it’s usually the small change for those paying by cash. In the British Isles, they often add 10 to 12.5 percent onto the bill instead.
So don’t pay more. Waiting staff won’t turn away your 20 or 25 percent tip, but they really don’t expect it because they don’t depend on tips. And they won’t chase you down the street if you don’t pay any extra!
The Secret Food Tours staff – in 52 cities around the globe – know what’s what in their locations. And if you book a tour online, there’s a 15% discount for Eurail/Interrail Pass holders.
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