There’s nothing more tragic than vacationing in a culinary capital and having less-than-savory dining experiences. Tourists experience everything from slow and spotty service to “cuisine” that is little more than reheated, mass-prepared frozen food. However, it is possible for tourists to enjoy authentic cuisine at affordable prices. You can lunch like a local without shelling out the big bucks. Let your inner travel-expert-compass be your guide, and you will be sure to have authentic and delicious cuisine during your travels.
Location. The greatest barrier between tourists and great cuisine is that most tourists are simply in the wrong location. Unfortunately, the hottest tourist spots (such as the Empire State Building or Eiffel Tower) are often surrounded by the worst food. There is a simple explanation for this: these restaurants don’t rely on repeat customers for business. They have little incentive to serve fresh food because people will frequent them just because they are convenient. If you want a satisfying meal, get off of the beaten path. This means that menus won’t have pictures next to each dish or be translated into English—telltale signs that those places cater to tourists. Put the guidebooks and giant maps away and get lost! Literally! Venture outside of the tourist areas, and then let your senses guide you.
Look for Locals. Keep your eyes peeled for where the locals are dining. If you spot a place with throngs of happy diners inside, it’s a pretty good sign that you have stumbled upon a hidden gem. This is particularly true for lunch hour. If the place is rather small and unremarkable, yet there is a hefty, steady line of people carrying their food to-go, get in the line. While visiting the Greek Isle of Hydra, three of us feasted for under 30 Euros because we veered outside of the restaurants at the “city center” that catered mostly to tourists. As we explored the tiny island, I kept seeing local children and adults coming from the same little alley with delicious-smelling food. I followed my nose and had a traditional feast that evening that was by far my most delicious and authentic dining experience in Greece.
An even easier place to find locals is the local market. This can—and should—be researched before you arrive at your destination. You can find some of the best fish and chips at Borough Market in London where street food is readily available. In addition to nearly every tulip variety imaginable and a variety of aged gouda wheels, you can enjoy just-off-the-griddle, powder-sugar-dusted, mini-pancake like poffertjes at the Boerenmarkt in Amsterdam.
Learn the Language. This may seem obvious, but being able to have some type of conversational ability in the local language is a great way to more fully experience local culture. You don’t have to be fluent, but any attempt to speak the local language will be rewarded exponentially. This applies to domestic travel as well: If you are visiting the South and everyone is friendly and smiles, be friendly and smile! These seemingly small efforts can make a big difference—especially when it comes to getting great service at dining establishments.
So, the next time your stomach grumbles around noon, put those guidebooks away and veer off the path. Your appetite will thank you.