Travels in Europe with Cameron
I'm excited to host this blog of one of my favorite collaborators, Cameron Hewitt. Fans of my books have been reading Cameron's words (often without knowing it) for years. In addition to partnering with me to co-author our three Eastern European guidebooks, Cameron has also been a major contributor to my other books and writings. Cameron is well-traveled, smart, and insightful. And, while he and I are in perfect sync in terms of travel styles and priorities, he gives voice to the next generation of "Rick Steves travelers." If I were 20 years younger, I hope I would travel like Cameron does. Join me in enjoying his reports right here. —Rick
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Spending time in Berlin (working on our new Rick Steves Berlin guidebook), I enjoyed getting to know several Berliners. And what really struck me is that almost none of them was originally from Berlin…and each one had a different story of how they came here. They also all spoke fondly about their loyalty to their own little micro-neighborhood, or Kiez. And they all expressed concern about Berlin’s recent surge in gentrification, which is changing the character of various Kieze virtually overnight.
Hearing all of these observations, I came to realize that the city-state of Berlin is practically its own organism. Like London, Paris, New York City, or other multiethnic, cosmopolitan cities, Berlin has its own strong and unique culture that’s distinct from the rest of the country. I wrote up these two new sections for Rick Steves Berlin, which ponder intriguing aspects of Berlin’s unique makeup. While people rely on guidebooks mostly for tips on where to eat, where to sleep, and what to see, at Rick Steves’ Europe we also like to provide readers with cultural context. I hope you enjoy this sneak-preview excerpt of our newest book (which hits bookshelves in September):
Berlin’s Kiez Culture
Berliners have a strong sense of community. They manage this in a big city by enjoying a strong neighborhood identity. Your neighborhood is called your Kiez (“keets”). This doesn’t refer to a large swath of the city (like Prenzlauer Berg or Kreuzberg), but a microscopic sub-sub-sub-neighborhood. A Kiez can be just a few blocks, barely big enough to contain a smattering of key services (grocery store, school, park), and typically named for a major street or square. People tend to live lives very focused on their Kiez, and rarely stray. Some Berliners venture to other Kieze only when entertaining out-of-town visitors.
Each Kiez has its own personality — but things are definitely in flux. As a traditionally low-rent district, once surrounded on three sides by the Berlin Wall, Kreuzberg used to be thought of as being home to two types of people: draft-dodging, alternative-lifestyle German squatters and hardworking, lower-middle-class Turkish immigrants. And to an extent, you’ll still see both groups in Kreuzberg. However, over the last decade or so, several Kreuzberg Kieze have gone through a predictable life cycle of gentrification: Artists and hipsters, lured by the Kiez’s low rents and ramshackle funkiness, move in. They open up gourmet ramen shops and fair-trade coffee houses, stoking a buzz. As these areas become hip and desirable, rents increase — often forcing out long-time residents and ultimately changing the face of the Kiez.
As you talk to Berliners, you’ll learn that these issues of class, gentrification, and socioeconomic stratification are a huge preoccupation. Some make a hobby of chasing the latest trendy neighborhoods around town before they “go mainstream.” Others grow disgruntled at having to move farther and farther from the center, priced out by über-rich yuppies. Throughout its history, Berlin has been a city in transition. And, I imagine, for just as long, the local pastime has been complaining about those changes…and today is no exception.
The Many Faces of Berlin
Like any cosmopolitan city, Berlin has relatively few born-and-bred “original Berliners” — many of the people you meet here aren’t from Berlin, or even from Germany. As you get to know the locals, you’ll come to understand Berlin’s melting pot.
Many Berliners are “internal expats” from elsewhere in Germany. The first wave of these came to West Berlin back when the Wall was up — lured by draft deferments and tax breaks designed to keep this little outpost of the West vital. West Berlin became home to an edgy combination of granola peaceniks and tattooed-and-pierced punks, squatters, and graffiti artists. Still others came to West Berlin for business.
A second wave of “internal expats” arrived immediately after the Wall fell — when East Berliners flocked to the West, abandoning their homes. East Berlin in 1990 enjoyed an “anything goes” anarchy that attracted German artists, students, recent graduates, and unattached singles eager to live on their own terms. This was the heyday for squatting in — and eventually renovating — abandoned apartments.
A third wave of expats — both from inside and outside of Germany — came in the 2000s and 2010s, as Berlin put behind the chaos of reunification and blossomed as a 21st-century cultural capital and all-around cool place to live. You’ll meet many Americans and Brits who came to Berlin as backpackers, fell in love with the place, and decided to stick around. One told me, “People move to Berlin when they want to live in an exciting, international city but can’t afford London.”
And, of course, Berlin is also home to a vast number of immigrants and refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. In the post-WWII years, with a decimated population, West Germany needed help rebuilding. Through the 1960s and 1970s, the government invited Gastarbeiter (“guest workers”) from poorer nations to live and work in Germany. With approximately 200,000 residents of Turkish descent, Berlin is considered the largest “Turkish city” outside of Turkey. These families — some now in their second or third generation — are an integral part of Berlin society.
More recently, refugees have formed another strand of Berlin’s cultural tapestry. In 2015, Chancellor Angela Merkel offered asylum to people fleeing war-torn Syria — and 1.1 million took her up on it, in that year alone. While many have since resettled elsewhere, hundreds of thousands remain in Germany. Syrian Berliners have opened Middle Eastern bakeries and restaurants, and the Pergamon Museum actively recruits Syrians as tour guides — allowing them to proudly show off the masterpieces of their homeland’s ancient culture.
If you really want to understand Berlin…take the time to get to know some Berliners. And be sure to ask about their own personal story. You’ll never hear the same one twice.
In my last post, I explained that I just got back from researching our new Rick Steves Berlin guidebook. One of my favorite new additions to the book is this explanation of the classic East German automobile. (Thanks to our Berlin researcher extraordinaire, Gretchen Strauch, for suggesting some of the jokes.) Enjoy this sneak-preview excerpt from our newest book (which hits bookshelves in September):
Communist East Germany (a.k.a. the DDR) is forever linked to its trademark automobile — the Trabant, or, affectionately, the Trabi (TRAH-bee). Built in Zwickau, Saxony, starting in 1957, the Trabi was the DDR’s big play to compete with the popular West German Volkswagen Beetle. But its design and engineering (limited by a centrally-planned economy) were nowhere near VW standards.
A ride in a Trabi was cramped, bumpy, and smelly. To gas up your Trabi, you’d open the hood and pour a gas-oil mix into a tank above the two-cylinder, two-stroke engine, which used gravity instead of fuel pump. The body was made of a recycled, cloth-reinforced plastic resin called Duroplast. (So the body was as “green” as the engine was polluting.) On the upside, the construction was so simple that handy East Germans (who, out of necessity, were excellent do-it-yourselfers) could fix just about any problem with a hammer, a screwdriver, and a wrench. Because production was limited, for the privilege of owning a Trabi you’d sign up on a waiting list, and be prepared to wait many, many years.
In the summer of 1989, when Hungary suddenly opened its borders, whole fleets of Trabis were left behind by East Germans who went to vacation on Lake Balaton…and decided to flee West, never to come home. The Trabi remained in production until 1991, totaling more than 3 million cardboard boxes with lawnmower engines on Eastern Europe’s roads.
The best thing about the Trabi were the jokes it generated:
- Why is the Trabi the world’s quietest car? Because your knees cover your ears.
- How do you double a Trabi’s value? Fill the tank.
- “I’d like two windshield wipers for my Trabi.” “Sounds like a fair trade.”
- How many workers does it take to build a Trabi? Three: One to cut, one to fold, and one to paste.
- Why is the Trabi’s back window heated? To keep your hands warm while pushing.
- When does a Trabi reach top speed? When it’s being towed.
- What’s the longest car on the market? The Trabi, of course, at 60 feet long — 6 feet of car and 54 feet of smoke.
Like the Ampelmann (traffic-light man), the Trabi is enjoying a renaissance as a bit of “Ost-algic” communist kitsch. Old Trabis are being rehabilitated and souped up for tourist trips. Just be ready to get out and push.
I’ve been quiet on my blog the last couple of months. That’s because I’ve been 100% focused on producing a brand-new Rick Steves Berlin guidebook. For fans of our books, here’s an inside look at how America’s bestselling guidebook series adds another title to its ranks.
Rick and I are both big history buffs — especially 20th-century history. So naturally, we’ve always dreamed of creating a guidebook to Europe’s most fascinating 20th-century city, Berlin. Last year, our publisher gave us the green light: Berlin would sell. So we began the process of putting together the book.
Berlin has long been well-covered in our Rick Steves Germany guidebook. But our Berlin and side-trips coverage was bursting at the seams — at nearly 150 pages, it was practically a book in itself. (Whenever Rick — or another researcher — goes to this fascinating city, it’s hard to resist coming back with piles of new material.) At long last, Berlin would find a proper home…and some much-needed room to breathe.
The decision to create this book was partly inspired by a couple of top-notch researchers, who — in successive years — updated our Berlin material and came back with lots of suggestions. Gretchen Strauch, our resident Germanophile (who actually vacations in Berlin when she’s not working there), pointed out that our Berlin coverage had not quite evolved at the same breakneck pace as the city itself. (Rick wrote his original Berlin chapter in the 1990s, back when the notion of “East Berlin” and “West Berlin” still meant something. And, while we’ve definitely updated our vision of the city over the years, the time had come to tear down this Wall — in our guidebook coverage — and start from scratch.) And Robyn Stencil — who updated our Berlin chapter last year, and was also instrumental in designing the new Rick Steves Best of Germany in 13 Days Tour (which enjoys a grand finale in Berlin) — offered us ample suggestions for new hotels and restaurants. If you love using our books, be sure to raise a mug of Berliner Weisse to the folks pictured on the “Credits” page at the back — just a few of the unsung heroes who make Rick Steves guidebooks the best, and the bestselling, in the USA.
Another area for improvement was our coverage of Berlin’s museums. While people may not think of Berlin as a “museum city” (like Paris or Florence), the fact is that Berlin’s art and history museums are astonishingly good — easily ranking alongside any in Europe. We had a scant few pages apiece on the Pergamon, the Neues Museum, the Gemäldegalerie, and more — but we wanted to turn each one into a fully formed, self-guided tour chapter. Enter Gene Openshaw, Rick’s high school buddy-turned-art historian-turned-travel writer extraordinaire. Gene has written (or contributed heavily to) many of the wonderful stop-by-stop self-guided tours you’ll find in our books.
Last summer, Gene went to Berlin to hit all of the big museums, incorporating material Rick has written over the years with his own insights. He came back with about a half-dozen museum tours, plus self-guided walks through Berlin’s most famous neighborhoods. Now, I had toured Berlin’s Old National Gallery probably a half-dozen times over the years. But test-driving Gene’s brilliant tour was the first time I really enjoyed it. Gene has a knack for making you realize, much to your surprise, that you actually adore German Romanticism.
Starting with so much great material made our job easier…in most respects. But there were so many great ideas, it was a challenge to simply sort through them all. In writing our guidebooks, we usually find there’s one “best” way to experience a destination: The sights line up along a handy axis, the hotels and restaurants conveniently cluster in a couple of fun neighborhoods, and it’s easy to prioritize your limited sightseeing time. But a handful of problematic destinations have a “many ways to skin that cat” problem — and Berlin is the textbook example. Five people with different interests (art museums, Hitler and Cold War sights, foodie/hipster culture, etc.) could have five entirely different trips to Berlin, all have a blast — and never once cross paths. More than just about anywhere in Europe, Berlin is a “choose your own adventure” city.
For this reason, we’ve endlessly tinkered with our Berlin coverage over the years. This new book presented an opportunity for a head-to-toe overhaul. Before my trip, I spent a couple of weeks putting all of the great ideas into a centrifuge, giving it a spin, and pulling out the best of everyone’s suggestions. With thoughtful input from Rick, past researchers, Managing Editor Jennifer Davis, and the head editor for the Berlin project, Carrie Shepherd, we came to a consensus about how to best present Berlin to the reader. And our “mappies” (in-house slang for “cartographers”) even took the time to rough up maps that would fit our planned new coverage.
Before I flew to Berlin, I organized all of this raw material into separate chapters, printed each one as an individual “guidebooklet,” and taped the map to the back page. I was ready to test-drive everything in person.
In late February, I landed in a chilly Berlin, dropped my bag at the hotel, and immediately headed out to take the first of our new chapters — Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate Walk — out for a spin. Most of my past visits to Berlin have been in the summer or fall. Being here in the winter, I came to the conclusion that it’s not the best off-season city. The weather is cool, drizzly, and windy (with the occasional, glorious sunny spell — what Seattleites call “sunbreaks”). And the sun sets early — after about 5:30, I’d be stumbling and squinting my way through our new walking tours.
While I managed to get my work done, this trip reminded me that Berlin is a fair-weather city. Berliners are never so happy as when they’re outside, and on a sunny day, the parks, riverbanks, and outdoor cafés are jammed. Off-season…not so much. But they try. Bundled-up Berliners huddle on biergarten benches and try to ignore the windchill.
I spent 10 intense days in Berlin (including some side-trips), working my way through our mountains of material, and scouting new additions. For years, we’d described Kreuzberg — the sprawling neighborhood south of the historic core — as the “Turkish immigrant quarter.” While that’s still partly true, it’s only one piece of today’s story. And with the help of two excellent local guides (Maisie Hitchcock and Caroline Marburger), I got a much better look at what’s becoming Berlin’s trendiest, most enjoyable-to-explore neighborhood. The best of what I learned in Kreuzberg — from the bustling riverside Turkish market, where you can buy mint tea and dried fruits, to the über-trendy Markthalle Neun food hall, Berlin’s answer to London’s Borough Market — went straight into the new book.
I had the help of other outstanding guides, too. For my money, Berlin has the highest concentration of top-quality tour guides anywhere. (Rick Steves’ Europe Tours has more lead guides living in Berlin than in any other city.)
Lee Evans — an American expat whom I’ve been meeting up with since the early 2000s, back when he was selling couchette reservations to backpackers at Zoo Station — took me to a fantastic Georgian feast (a reminder that some of Berlin’s best food is not German). Over khachapuri fry bread and walnut spreads, Lee helped me finally understand what was so important about Frederick the Great.
Holger Zimmer walked me through Prenzlauer Berg, where he lived as a squatter in the early 1990s. Fresh out of college, Holger moved into an apartment vacated by an East German family who’d pulled up stakes and moved West. Holger discovered that the apartment came equipped with a telephone (already a rarity) that permitted unlimited long-distance calls…and the bill never showed up. But then, one day, the phone stopped working — so Holger had to wait in line at the public pay phone, like everyone else. His stories inspired me to write a new self-guided walk of that neighborhood for the book.
Torben Brown guided me through the now-trendy Scheunenviertel (“Barn Quarter”) — explaining the history of Berlin’s Jewish quarter and fleshing out the book’s new self-guided walk of that area.
And Carlos Meissner brought me to the Scöneberg City Hall steps — where JFK said “Ish been ein berleener” — and helped bring real meaning to the dreary area around Checkpoint Charlie and Hitler’s old government zone. If I’d had more days, I’m sure I could have filled them with even more top-quality guides.
While our existing Berlin coverage was already strong, it was gratifying to be able to flesh it out and fill some gaps. I wrote up Tempelhof Field and the Berlin Airlift (in which the Western Allies supplied the Soviet-blockaded people of West Berlin by running continuous supply sorties, round the clock, for nearly a year); a collection of jokes about the classic communist-era East German car, the Trabi (“When does a Trabi reach top speed? When it’s being towed”); Treptower Park, with what must be the most grandiose Soviet War Memorial you’ll find outside of the former USSR; and a couple dozen enticing restaurants, from “budget foodie” street food to hipster sidewalk cafés to elegant splurges. I even wrote a sidebar called “Why Does Berlin Smell Like Farts?” (I’m still a little surprised the editors let that one slip through…but, let’s be honest, it does! It’s built on a swamp. Why else is the city’s unofficial anthem called “Berliner Luft”?)
I also picked up some wonderfully long and precise German words: Trockenwohnen (“dry living”) was the practice, common in Berlin’s late-19th-century housing boom, in which tenants would move into a building so new, the slow-drying mortar was still wet. Their body heat would help cure the mortar, but their health suffered. Those same people might take on a Schlafbursche (“sleep guy”) — someone who works the night shift and rents out your bed to sleep in during the day. Much later, those same apartments were upgraded through a process called instand besetzen — fixing up a place while you’re living there (a common practice among 1990s squatters). And in the waning days of communism, the courtyards those buildings surrounded were spruced up by residents, who chipped away the concrete to plant inviting little gardens (that’s Hofbegrünung — “courtyard greening-up”).
I returned with a stack of heavily marked-up guidebooklets and a couple of big notebooks overflowing with ideas. I spent two intense weeks writing up all I’d learned, marking up the maps, organizing my photos, and turning it all over to our top-notch Book Department. They took it from there, editing and wordsmithing and tidying it all into a solid book. Our “mappies” put the finishing touches on all those new maps, and handpicked hundreds of photos to illustrate the text. And just a few weeks after I returned, we sent it all off to our publisher. Rick Steves Berlin, First Edition, is scheduled to hit the shelves (and our Travel Store) by September of 2017.
As you can see, producing a new guidebook is a real team effort that requires a lot of shoe leather, red ink, and thoughtful, talented people. Our publisher assures us that Rick Steves Berlin will be a big seller. But — real travelers at heart — we’re not really motivated by the bottom line. As Rick always reminds us, our measure of success is not the number of copies we sell, but the number of trips we improve. And by that metric, we’re confident this book will be a smashing success.
One of my tour-guide friends is planning to start offering food tours in Slovenia. That got me thinking about what makes for a really good food tour — and what stands in the way of sub-par ones.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve prioritized taking food tours just about everywhere I go in Europe. For someone who appreciates food, having a local foodie personally take you to their favorite market vendors, snack stands, and restaurants — assembling an enticing little buffet of their best dishes just for you — can be a trip highlight.
In San Sebastián, I went on a “tapas crawl” with a local guide who made the jostling-elbows-and-monolingual-menus confusion of the Basque tapas scene much more accessible. In Rome, I was guided around the Testaccio neighborhood — the former slaughterhouse zone — sampling Italian treats. In Lisbon, I started my day at La Ribeira Market (combining a traditional market hall with an upscale food court), and then wandered through the city, nibbling sardines and pastel de nata. And in Warsaw, I restaurant-hopped between eateries both traditional and trendy, gaining a full appreciation for the Polish capital’s surprisingly robust “budget foodie” scene.
Some of these tours were amazing. Others were missing something. Here are four key features that really elevate a food tour to something special.
1. Begin with good food. This seems obvious, but it’s less automatic than you might guess. Not every restaurant appreciates having a dozen curious foodies wander in and take up space, nibbling at small plates during the lunch rush. The best food tours cultivate partnerships with the best restaurants — even if it means making compromises. In Rome, we peeked in the window of a cramped pastry shop as we nibbled our treats on the sidewalk…and we were happy to do it. Lazy food tours settle for mediocre restaurants that substitute “gourmet” for “group-friendly.”
2. Appreciate local ingredients. Logically, many food tours include a trip to the market hall. My Lisbon tour kicked off with a browse through La Ribeira Market — where we sniffed explosively sweet bunches of cilantro; talked with a butcher who’d disassembled and displayed every piece of a pig, from snout to trotter to tail; ogled a pile of exotic tropical fruits (a reminder that Portugal has an appetite for passion fruit and guava from its tropical outposts, Madeira and the Azores); and perused an abundant fish stand that taught me more about Atlantic sea life than a visit to the aquarium.
Local ingredients are the building blocks of local cuisine; seeing them — and tasting them — in their natural state trains your palate to pick out subtle flavors in any dish. After that market tour, I can’t think of Portuguese cooking without sensing a phantom taste of cilantro.
3. Teach people how to eat on their own. The tapas crawl in San Sebastián wasn’t only great food — it decoded the mystifying local tapas culture, like a strategy session for how to eat well in the Basque Country. Any night of the week, the streets of San Sebastián are clogged with patrons spilling out of lively bars. In the Basque style, the counter up front is stacked with a few featured tapas, perched on slices of baguette — all lined up and easy to grab at will.
But our guide helped us understand that only tourists zero in on the ready-made stuff. For fresher (and often better) dishes, take some time to understand the written menu. Some items come standard in every bar, but locals know who does it best — so when gathering tips, ask locals not only about their favorite bars, but also their favorite dishes.
At one busy place, our guide led us past the mob to a quiet little eddy in the back corner, where a bored grill cook sat next to a row of raw meat and produce — happy to fire it up fresh. Noticing a plate of jalapeño-like green peppers, our guide ordered the pimientos de Padrón. They went into the deep fryer, got a generous sprinkle of coarse sea salt, and were piping hot and ready to eat in minutes.
“The trick with these peppers,” she explained, “is that, because different peppers get different amounts of sunlight, a few of them will be much hotter than the others.” The first two had a rich (but not spicy) pepper flavor; the third hit my tongue with a bang. But thanks to my guide, I was ready for it.
4. Above all, illustrate how the food connects to the culture. This is where, I’m sorry to say, many food tours fall flat. Feeding people great food for a few hours is considered “enough” by many tour companies — and by many tourists. For some, additional information might even be a distraction. But I believe that food is an opportunity to better understand culture, and the top food tours work hard to make those connections.
The best food tour I’ve ever taken was in Warsaw, of all places. Through Eat Polska, I spent an illuminating half-day with Michaś exploring the Polish capital. The food was delicious. But the information was even better. Michaś explained why Poles ferment everything; why Turkish ingredients — like raisins, cinnamon, and apricots — often show up in traditional Polish cooking; why Polish dishes always seem to have a few greasy fried bits of pork sprinkled on top; who traditional Poles insist on kissing a stale scrap of bread before they throw it out; and why it may not be a coincidence that Polish pierogi look like Chinese dumplings. By the end of the tour, Michaś had drastically deepened my understanding not only of Poland’s cuisine, but also of its history and culture. (I’ll share more tidbits from my Warsaw food tour in an upcoming post.)
That’s my challenge to my friend in Slovenia, or to anyone who wants to design a good food tour: Start with good food. But always put it into context: Why these ingredients, this recipe, this place? What can the food tell us about the national character, the landscape, the history? It’s not easy to create a context for the cuisine. But it’s essential.
Meanwhile, if you’re a traveler looking for a food tour, consider these four factors when you evaluate your options. These days, many cities have multiple competing food-tour companies. Some are flash-in-the-pan, hedonistic flings. And for casual eaters, that fills the bill just fine. But if you’d like to dig a little deeper — and come away knowing more not just about the cuisine, but about the culture it represents — do a little homework to find one that ticks these four boxes. Check online reviews — not just the ratings, but read between the lines of how customers describe them. Pretty soon you’ll get a sense of which food tours will only fill you up…and which ones will also fill you in.
Here at the Rick Steves’ Europe home office in Edmonds, Washington, I regularly present slideshow lectures on various travel topics. (You can stream several of these online: European Travel Skills; Czech Republic/Poland/Hungary; Slovenia/Croatia; European Cruising 101; Mediterranean Cruise Ports; and Northern European Cruise Ports).
Over the last couple of years, I’ve been developing a brand-new class that’s all about food. I believe that, when you travel in Europe, appreciating the local cuisine can unlock a greater appreciation of the culture as a whole. Food has become a high priority in travel these days, and one of my key roles at Rick Steves’ Europe is making sure that our content doesn’t miss out on the Foodie Revolution. This class collects the best of what I’ve learned over 15 years of eating well all over Europe.
If you’re in the Seattle area, love food, and want to gain some inspiration about how to tune into food culture and prioritize it in your travels, join me at the Edmonds Theater this Saturday (February 11) at 10:00. The class is free; to ensure a seat, sign up at our website.
And if you can’t make it, I hope you can glean a few of my best tips from my class handout, below.
Europe for Foodies
By Cameron Hewitt
- The Foodie Revolution & Celebrity Chefs. From Britain to USA, Ramsay, Oliver, Lagasse, Bourdain have given rise to “foodie culture.”
- European Food Pioneers. Ferran Adrià (elBulli, deconstructivist / molecular), René Redzepi (Noma, New Nordic; influenced Blaine Wetzel).
- Terroir. Ingredients are shaped by the very specific conditions in which they grow. “Locally sourced” is nothing new in Europe (“zero-kilometer meal”).
- Eat with the Seasons. Don’t look for French onion soup or white truffles in the summer. Europeans insist on eating seasonally. In Italy, frozen ingredients must be noted on the menu.
- Cuisine and Culture Are Interchangeable. Each one speaks volumes about the other. Examples: Swiss “cow culture,” Bulgarian wedding feast, Spanish taps culture (paseo).
- Local Specialties. Get beyond (or learn more about) the clichés. Appreciate the subtle varieties of Spanish jamón, French cheeses, Italian pastas.
- Be willing to try anything… once. Nose-to-tail classics (haggis in Scotland, tripe sandwiches in Florence) are newly trendy.
- Understand the Reason for the Cuisine. Italian (simple, ingredient-driven) vs. French (artistry; complex sauces and technique to make the most of limited/low-quality ingredients: coq au vin, escargots, duck confit).
- Budget Foodie Options. “Foodie” doesn’t have to mean “expensive.” Fried goodies on the street in Naples, street food in Ljubljana.
Choosing a Restaurant
- Challenge Yourself to Find Something Better. Don’t just settle for the glitziest place with a neon sign that says “We speak English and Accept Credit Cards.” Best choices are often mom-and-pop traditional places, or creative young foodie joints.
- Get off the main drag. Often, just a block or two away, prices drop and food/service improves.
- Look for a short, handwritten menu in one language. It’s short because the owner wants to do fewer things and do them well. It’s handwritten because it’s based on what’s fresh today. And it’s in one language because it’s catering to locals—not one-time tourist traffic.
- Find a nice setting. Sometimes the view trumps food/tourists/price concerns. Better yet, just get a scenic before- or after-dinner drink.
- Do your homework. Makes the difference between a functional meal and a memorable one.
- Guidebooks can be helpful. But be sure the author’s philosophy aligns with yours.
- Crowdsourcing Sites Have Pros and Cons. Wide range of opinions is helpful—but consider the source. TripAdvisor skews to touristy restaurants (e.g., Seattle rankings). Yelp is more local, but unfortunately less active in Europe.
- Newspapers/Websites. New York Times “36 Hours in…” series is top-notch, well-researched, engaging videos. The Guardian (London) also has excellent food writing (Britain and beyond).
- Local Food Blogs. Search for “foodie blog” plus your destination; often excellent food writing and photography with a local scoop. Example: Katie Parla in Rome (great apps). Also check out my blog: blog.ricksteves.com/cameron
- Menu la Carte. Throughout Europe, a menu is a fixed-price meal; to dine à la carte, ask for the “card” (carte/carta/Karte).
- Menus (Fixed-Price Meals). Can be a good chance to sample local specialties—or a tourist trap. “Tourist menus” are handy but not high cuisine; pay a few euros more for better choices.
- Courses. In Italy, a full-blown meal has four courses: antipasti (appetizers); primi (“first” course, pasta or soup); secondi (“second” course, meat or fish); and dolci (dessert).
- Sharing. This is generally OK, but don’t cheap out on the overall bill. In Italy, 2 people can split any 4 courses (e.g., one antipasto, one pasta, one main dish, and one dessert). In general, sharing is an excellent way to sample more dishes, especially in cultures where it’s common (Spanish tapas, Greek mezes). Tip: In Italy, some restaurants will do bis (two half-portions of pasta)
- Language Barrier. Use a phrase book (with menu decoder) or an online translator (Google Translate uses your camera). But don’t get too hung up on every word—take a leap of faith.
- Service and Tipping. European service is unhurried (“slow” to Americans). They won’t bring your bill until you ask. Europeans typically tip far less than Americans (many don’t tip at all; others up to 10-12%). In most countries, just round up to the nearest round number, typically 5-10%. Insisting on tipping “American-style” is culturally insensitive, even if well-intentioned.
- Vegetarianism. Most of Europe tries to be accommodating. Be explicit—in some places, “vegetarian” means “no red meat” or “not much meat.”
- Gluten-Free. Not as common in Europe. Consider: 1% of the population has Celiac Disease, but 20% eat gluten-free. Hmm…
- Cheating? If you are inclined to “cheat” on your vegetarian/gluten-free diet, do it in Europe.
- Food Allergies. Get the list translated so you can show it to servers—especially if dangerous.
- Street Food. Each country has its own; can be some of the best (and cheapest) food in town. In cities look for creative food markets (e.g., London Ropewalk).
- “Ethnic” Food. It’s OK to take a break from the culinary rut (pork/kraut in Germany, pub grub in Britain, pasta in Italy, etc.). Kebabs (or döner kebabs) are everywhere. And each country has their own “secondary cuisine”: Indian in Britain, Georgian in Russia, etc.
- Markets. A delight to browse (Budapest’s Great Market Hall, London’s Borough Market). Look for pop-up street markets and outdoor produce markets. Small towns in France designate a weekly “market day”—plan for it (e.g., Sarlat).
- Other Cheap Eats. Market cafés, worker/student cafeterias (“mensa”), gathering a meal at variety of artisanal shops (bakery, cheese, meats).
- Picnic. Simply means “non-restaurant meal.” All of the above are ways to assemble a memorable picnic—find a scenic spot for yours.
- Wine. Know what qualities you like—the vintner wants to help you narrow down your options. Wine bars/enoteche pair with good food, wine shops offer variety, and winery visits are more in-depth. Italy, France, and Spain have top wines, but don’t overlook lesser-known wine countries (Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia).
- Beer. German Biergarten culture, self-service, big liter steins called Mass (deposit). Czech Republic has best (and cheapest) pilsners (named for Plzeň). Belgian beers are refined, higher alcohol, each one served in a very specific glass to highlight the taste. Britain prefers its ales room-temperature, pulled up from cellar using “pulls,” after-work hangout in front of pubs. Craft beers trendy everywhere (especially Italy).
- Spirits. Splurge on a scenic cocktail. Europeans love both aperitif (before dinner) and digestif (after dinner, aids digestion). National specialties: whisky in Scotland/Ireland (distillery tours), vodka in Poland, limoncello in southern Italy, ouzo in Greece/Turkey, Unicum in Hungary, Becherovka in Czech Rep. Hospitality = homemade firewater.
- Soft Drinks. Discover the “local Coke”: Rivella in Switzerland (made with milk serum, tastes like vitamins), Irn-Bru in Scotland (bright orange), Cockta in Slovenia.
- Café Culture. Espresso with different amounts of milk (Italians don’t drink milk after lunch, for digestive reasons). You may pay more to sit than to stand—check price list. Genteel Coffee houses in Budapest, Vienna. Afternoon tea in Britain. Turkish coffee in Turkey/Bosnia/ Balkans comes with culture of slowing down.
- Chocolates. Best in Belgium, Britain, Switzerland. Also consider other candies (British sweets, Scandinavian salted licorice).
- Pastries. In addition to predictable choices, try alternatives: kürtőskalács in Hungary/Eastern Europe; churros in Spain. Cultural divide: SE Europe sweetens with honey rather than sugar.
- Ice Cream/Gelato. Look for “artisanal”/artigianale or “homemade.” Pistachio is best barometer of quality. Flavors that pair/marry well. Avoid big piles of bright colors (for attracting children).
- Cooking Classes. Have fun, learn a skill (and understand the culture behind it), and bring home recipes. Trendy; look online or ask your hotel.
- Food Tours. Get to know a (typically less-touristy) neighborhood, learn about local food culture, and identify great restaurants (e.g., Eat Polska food tours in Warsaw and Krakow).
- Learn Where Your Food Comes From. Agriturismi/ tourist farm (Italy), cheesemakers, beehive (Slovenia), truffle hunt, making kanafeh (Bulgaria).
Happy Travels…and Happy Eating!