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.