4 Tips for Finding Europe’s Best Food Tours

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.

15 Replies to “4 Tips for Finding Europe’s Best Food Tours”

  1. This is a fine handout. I’d like to offer the kind of advice you might not feel comforable to offer: Don’t be ‘put off by sites like Trip Advisor. I know a bit about restaurants and cuisine. All too often, I don’t recognize the same restaurant I’ve eaten at and enjoyed both fine food and good rapport with the staff in many of these reviews. A traveler needs to ‘read and confirm’ from more than one source. Each of us needs to ‘listen’ to an ‘inner ear’ that vibrates happily when we go online and find a congenial restaurant and a beguiling menu. Do that ‘seasonally.’ Things change so don’t set yourself to salivating about a particular set of dishes. ‘Go with the flow.’

    I read the readily available cookery books, like the Culinaria series because they explain what goes into the dish and they label each dish in the native script for a good many European nations. Before we leave, we know what to look for on menus and we know how to recognize those dishes.

  2. I so enjoy your posts and we love good food tours. Would it be possible for you to give any information on your tour guide friend who is going to be offering a food tour in Slovenia? We will be there this summer and would love to try it out!

  3. Hi Cameron, great article! I, too, would go on the Slovenia food tour your friend is thinking of setting up. Just let us know about it!

    1. My Slovenian guide friend is Tina Hiti, who runs PG Slovenia with her partner Sašo. They are still in the early planning stages, so I’m not sure how soon they will actually be offering their food tours. But their ideas were top-notch!

  4. Thanks for the wonderful article. i enjoy your blogs, and based on your Thanksgiving blog in Tuscany, I will soon be going to the Agriturismo Cretaiole.
    Relating to food tours, I also have taken a few and on each one, learned quite a bit about the food and the area. I like going to offbeat areas of a city to check out where the locals go. The best one was probably not a chic as some, as it was the Palermo Street Food tour. It was relatively cheap as you paid for the guide, Giorgio was terrific, and after he explained the various dishes and reasons for the dish, you chose what you wanted to try and paid for it with a Euro or 2. Chickpea fritters, the original Sicilian type of pizza, and of course the spleen and lung sandwich. All had to be cheap, fast and soft as the people back then didn’t have teeth. This tour had all the features you list above. Good fun and very different.

    1. Hey Barry. That Palermo Street Food tour sounds great…I’ll have to try it sometime. You will love Cretaiole! They do food experiences better than anyone–I would definitely put them at the very top of the list. Have fun!

  5. Great information! We recently enjoyed a fabulous tour with Paris By Mouth. She exceeds all of the suggestions you offered on how to pick a tour. Best food we had in Paris!

  6. Cameron – Thanks so much for the tour contact! Hoping it works out this summer! Can’t wait to read where you go next!

  7. What a great article. Hands down one of my best travel experiences EVER (not just food-related), was a food tour of Emilia-Romagna through Italian Days Food Experience. A small group was shuttled around the region, visiting a Parmigiano-Reggiano factory, a balsamic factory, and a proscuitto factory. Learning what made each item D.O.P. but WHY D.O.P. is so important is sacrosanct to their culture. That treating the animals, ingredients, and process with the utmost respect isn’t just good eating, it’s their life and their pride.

  8. Thanks for the information. I love food tours and it is now a tradition when we travel. My friend and I are going to Lisbon in September. Can you tell me what tour you took in Lisbon?

  9. hi, great article.question..we are going to paris and want a foodie tour and there are so many to choose from..any suggestions?

  10. Interesting post! We are going to San Sebastian for the first time in September and would love to do a Tapas Tour. Would you be able to recommend a guide or company for a Tapas Crawl?

  11. My husband and I are thinking about taking a trip to Europe this summer and I had never heard of a food tour before, so I am glad that I found this article. It sounds like a great way to engage with the local culture and we will make sure to choose a tour that uses local ingredients. Also, you make a great point that the food can be used to provide a better understanding of the culture of the place where the tour is and I will make sure to share these benefits with my husband because a food tour seems like such a unique and fun experience!

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