Christmas in Switzerland: Christmas Markets, Cheese Fondue, and Live Candles on the Tree

Some Christmases are forgettable. Others burn bright in your memory. For me, the Swiss Christmas of my fondest dreams came down to those live candles on the Christmas tree.

Soon after they were married, my parents lived for a year and a half in Switzerland. The holidays they spent high in the Swiss Alps left an indelible mark on their notion of Christmas — and, because this is how these things work, also on their kids’.

When my sister and I were growing up, our Christmases took on a Swiss flavor. Our tree decorations included vintage straw ornaments from Swiss Christmas markets — including our tattered treetop angel, a hardy veteran of decades of holiday seasons. When we would indulge him, my father would read us the story of the Nativity in German. And our it-just isn’t-the holidays-without-it Christmas Eve tradition has always been a big, bubbling cauldron of cheese fondue.

Every December, at one point or another, my parents would get around to telling the story of one of their all-time favorite memories: attending a Christmas Eve service in a small mountain village church, high in the Swiss Alps. The Christmas tree by the altar had candles pinned precariously to its delicate evergreen boughs. At the start of the service, ushers with long poles carefully lit each candle. One usher remained stationed next to the tree, so that when a candle set the branch above it on fire — as it inevitably would — he could grab a stick with a wet sponge lashed to the end, swing it up, and smack the fire out with a wet thud. With each retelling of this tale, the details grew more and more theatrical: One year, the usher was dozing off in his chair, until the congregation started hissing “Feuer! Feuer!” He awoke with a start, leapt to his feet, whacked the offending branch with his sponge, then went back to his nap…as the stoic Swiss congregation acted as if nothing had happened.

Likely because of these very experiences, my family has always approached the holidays with a spirit of adventure (antique straw ornaments and cheese fondue notwithstanding). When I was three years old, for example, we spent our family Christmas in Mexico. Instead of shivering in moon boots and parkas in the Midwest snow, my sister and I wore flip-flops and T-shirts as we followed the posada procession door-to-door through a workaday Cuernavaca neighborhood. And when my sister was in grad school in New Orleans, we spent several Thanksgivings there — following our turkey with beignets.

But my favorite holiday travel memory of all came a few years ago, when my family spent Christmas in Switzerland. My parents — then newly retired and eager to relive one of their most formative holidays with their adult children — were determined to create some powerful new Swiss Christmas memories to file alongside their 40-year-old ones. The stakes were high, and trying to rekindle the magic of holidays past is courting disappointment. But we decided to give it a shot.

Settling in at Wilderswil

A few days before Christmas, we landed in Zürich and rode the train to the Berner Oberland — the traditional, dramatically scenic heartland of German-speaking Switzerland. We’d chosen to stay in the village of Wilderswil, which fills a sleepy valley at the doorstep of the Berner Oberland’s peaks.

Workaday Wilderswil has few claims to fame. (Not long before our visit, the town’s big play to put itself on the map — its “Mystery Park” amusement park — opened to much fanfare, then quickly closed in disgrace, going down in local lore as a regrettable boondoggle.) But Wilderswil’s nondescriptness suited us just fine. Sleepy and effortlessly charming, it’s a split-shingle community of bulky chalets that crowd along tight streets dating back to horse-and-buggy days. The village — just big enough to have a well-stocked Migros grocery store, but small enough to escape most tourists’ itineraries — turned out to be an ideal home base. From our rented cottage, a short walk brought us to the train station, from which we could travel in just five minutes in one direction to the bustling resort town of Interlaken, or 15 minutes in the other direction to Lauterbrunnen — the base station for several of Switzerland’s most rewarding high-mountain lifts.

Before arriving, we wondered if we were in for a white Christmas. (Having moved from Ohio to the Pacific Northwest — sacrificing snowy Christmases for soggy ones — this had become a priority.)The answer was, as the Swiss would say, Ja-ein…yes and no. Wilderswil fills a temperate valley, hemmed in by hills fuzzy with leafless trees and a few evergreens. We had occasional flurries, and a gentle morning frost fringed naked branches and brown grass with a layer of white peach fuzz, but nothing really stuck. However, a short lift ride could carry us, at a moment’s notice, to a winter wonderland of snowbanks and skiers. With snow close at hand, but never getting in the way of our travels, the weather conditions were ideal.

Exploring Switzerland and Its Christmas Markets

Determined to get the most out of the Swiss Travel Passes we’d invested in for the trip, in the days leading up to Christmas, we fanned out across the little country on scenic rail lines.

One day, we rode the breathtaking Golden Pass route south, through an idyllic landscape of snow-flocked trees, hibernating farms nestled in valleys, and cuckoo-clock villages perched on white hillsides. Chugging our way past glitzy ski resorts, we crossed the linguistic and cultural border from German to French Switzerland. The terrain softened and thawed, replacing evergreens with vineyards and rustic wooden chalets with handsome stone homes.

Emerging from a long tunnel, we popped out on the side of a bald mountain. As we curled between gnarled vines, we got our first view of Lake Geneva, shrouded in a dense fog. Twisting down closer and closer to the lake, then reaching the lake in Montreux, we chugged along the shoreline until we pulled into Lausanne.

The chic streets of this sophisticated yet manageable burg were the perfect spot for a bistro lunch and some last-minute Noël shopping. And then, as the sun dropped low in the sky, we bid Lausanne au revoir and hopped on the train back home to Wilderswil.

On other days, we took full advantage of the Christmas markets that were in full swing across the country. Bern — Switzerland’s mellow little capital, filling its river-wrapped promontory with storybook houses and warm arcades — was all decked out with garlands, giant illuminated stars, and cheery mood lighting.

Münsterplatz, the square surrounding the gigantic church tower that stretches up from town like an exclamation point, was lively with vendors. Bundled up against the chill, we sipped hot spiced Glühwein and munched on chestnuts roasted before our eyes by street vendors. (If you’ve been lucky enough to do this, you’re smelling those chestnuts right now. There’s a reason they sing Christmas carols about chestnuts roasting on an open fire.)

Basel — with its fire-truck-red city hall — sits at the nexus of Western Europe, at the point where Germany, France, and Switzerland touch. (Those many years ago, my mother worked at an office building in Switzerland that had its parking lot in France.) One of the town’s main landmarks is Jean Tinguely’s Carnival Fountain — a cyberpunk playground with “robots” that spray and splash water at each other. But on this day, each robot was a chunk of solid ice, draped in thick icicles. The many Christmas trees decorating Basel’s downtown core were (like all things Switzerland) elegant in their organic simplicity: towering trees with twinkle lights, a few unglitzy ornaments, and an ethos of tasteful restraint.

At Basel’s Christmas market, an old-fashioned, steam-powered locomotive — belching great billows — chugged along tram tracks through the main square, offering wide-eyed, cherry-cheeked little kids rides around town. Window displays were over-the-top explosions of red velvet, tinsel, and greenery. Carnival rides and live choral music contributed to the festive atmosphere. Inviting faux-log-cabin market stalls — draped in garlands and twinkle lights — offered fragrant wreaths and greenery, colorful wooden children’s toys, handwoven baskets, big wheels of rustic cheese, neatly stacked jars of preserves, handmade figures for your crèche, giant garlicky sausages, bouquets of dried flowers, and a rainbow of ornaments. We stocked up on some new straw ornaments to (finally!) retire our vintage ones.

Zürich — ever the Swiss trendsetter — trades the folksy kitsch for sleek sophistication. The grand main hall of its train station was filled with vendors, all tucked under the boughs of a 50-foot-tall Christmas tree that glittered with crystal ornaments. After hours, Zürich’s tidy, regimented shopping streets were strewn with twinkle lights that seemed to cascade from the sky, like snowflakes of light plotted on graph paper.

Seeking snow, we rode some lifts high into the mountains. From Wilderswil, it’s a quick hop by train to Zweilütschinen Station, where another train takes you up to Grindelwald — a heavily touristed gingerbread village popular with skiers and hikers, who appreciate its strategic position at the intersection of various lifts and rail lines. Grindelwald was where those intrepid 19th-century English mountain climbers based themselves when first conquering this region’s harrowing 13,000-foot summits.

To gain a little more altitude — without the sweat or the danger — we hopped on a gondola, hopped out again at the mid-station, and went for a walk in the snow. Even in late December, the mountain sun can be intense. We hiked past woody mountain lodges, their outdoor terraces jammed with sunbathing skiers — cheeks and noses rosy from frigid air, warm sun, and schnapps. Hot cocoa with marshmallows tastes even sweeter in the sun and snow at 5,200 feet.

In the evenings, as we plotted out the next day’s excursions, we cooked local meals. We discovered — tucked deep in a forgotten cupboard — a raclette iron, which, based on the day-glo flowers, probably dated from the 1970s. Raclette is fondue’s less famous, tragically underappreciated cousin, and a must for cheese lovers. Raclette cheese is formulated to melt just so — with a thick, stringy texture that you can wrap around anything edible. Traditionally, a wheel of raclette is sliced in half, and the flat part of the wheel is held facing an open flame. When it’s melted just right, you use a thick blade to shave off a glob of half-liquefied cheese — like slicing browned meat from a döner kebab spindle.

A more modern, more controlled version of raclette features a special appliance with a covered heating rack. You put slices of raclette in little trays, set them inside the raclette maker (facing the heating element), and melt it to perfection. And then — just as the slice of cheese is beginning to bubble and brown — you pull out the little tray and scrape the gooey goodness onto your plate. Melted raclette cheese goes perfectly with gherkins, little boiled potatoes, prosciutto and other air-cured meats, and (my favorite) those miniature pickled cocktail onions. The earthy, nutty cheese and the sharp, acidic kick of the vinegar and onion are an explosively flavorful combination.

Our raclette evening was the perfect way to wrap up our busy Swiss explorations, and to whet our appetites for the fondue that awaited us on Christmas Eve.

Christmas Eve in a Village Church: Candles on the Tree?

Finally, December 24th arrived. Now, just try to imagine the decades of pressure that were piled upon our Christmas Eve plans. How could it possibly live up to my parents’ gauzy memories of the village church and the live candles and the usher with a sponge on a stick?

After much research, speculation, and discussion about which village church would be graced with the honor of our visit, we shrugged and went with the easiest, most obvious choice: Kirche Gsteig, the historic yet humble church over a covered wooden footbridge from the Wilderswil train station, and just a few minutes’ walk from our house. Sure, it might not be the remote, rustic, live-candles-on-flaming-boughs church of our fondest Swiss Christmas fantasies. But we figured we’d make it easy on ourselves; after all, it’s really just about being there together. (That said, if there were candles…well, we wouldn’t exactly complain.)

We spent most of Christmas Eve side-tripping to Christmas markets. And as our train approached Wilderswil, after days of a brown landscape fringed with frost, it finally began to really snow for the first time. After the sun set (at 4 p.m.), as the town’s holiday lights twinkled on, we made our way through plump snowflakes and across the covered footbridge to the tiny community of Gsteig.

On our way through town, the church bells began to toll. And other villagers emerged from their homes and joined us in an impromptu, festive parade through town. Everyone was out — all the Whos down in Whoville were heading to church. Our hearts grew three sizes that day.

Plain and white on the outside, tidy and stony inside, the Gsteig church’s walls are decorated with a few faint frescoes from the 14th and 15th centuries. On this evening, those simple halls were decked, and very tastefully. The arched alcoves lining the nave were filled with Advent wreaths on tall wooden stools. The congregation wore cheery red sweaters and green scarves. And there, by the altar, stood a sparse but elegant Christmas tree — with little candles pinned to its branches, ready to be lit.

As we settled into our pew, a hush settled over the crowd as ushers stood and began to light those little candles, one by one, with long poles — just like they had in all those years of stories. It was a beautiful moment of serene silence, as the entire congregation fully appreciated the arrival of this holy light into their world. Everything else was precisely as we’d always imagined. My parents’ eyes danced with the joy of treasured memories, old and brand-new, coming together.

The Swiss live their lives in dual linguistic worlds: In official contexts, at school and in the workplace, and in most radio and TV, they speak  High German (or, as they call it, Schriftdeutsch — “written German”). But at home, at the pub, and among friends, they switch to their own language,  Schwyzerdütsch. Germans and Austrians say “Fröhliche Weihnachten,” while the Swiss greet each other with “Guëti Wienachtä!” In big-city Swiss cathedrals tonight, the Fröhliche Weihnachten service would have been in High German. But here in the humble Gsteig village church, the sermon was proudly in Schwyzerdütsch. As the only out-of-towners in the congregation, we felt honored to be observers at this intimate Guëti Wienachtä service.

After church, we mingled with the ruddy-cheeked villagers of Gsteig and Wilderswil. Outside the church, at the fellowship hour, we made some new friends, nursed Styrofoam cups of Glühwein, and caught fat snowflakes on our tongues. Shimmering red lights drew us around the side of the church, to the graveyard. The villagers had lovingly decorated the graves of departed loved ones with tasteful garlands and red votive candles — inviting generations past to join in the celebration.

Then we headed back through the flurries — which were just beginning to stick on the wood-shingled rooftops — to our family Christmas tradition: fondue.

A Perfect Fondue

Swiss fondue is elegantly simple: cheese liquefied in wine. But making a perfect fondue is equal parts art and science, mastered over many years. You need the right kind of cheese, the right kind of wine, the right kind of bread, the right equipment, and the right technique. In my family, we are insufferable fondue snobs. And being in Switzerland on Christmas Eve, we were in our element.

Earlier in the day, we’d stopped by the Wilderswil Käserei (cheese shop). (Even tiny towns have a dedicated Käserei. After all, this is Switzerland.) When we make fondue back home, we have to improvise on the cheese, usually going with half Emmental and half Gruyere, all grated into one big fluffy pile. But a real Swiss Käserei sells a Fonduemischung engineered for a perfect fondue — usually about half Gruyere, and one-quarter each Appenzeller and Fribourger. Real Swiss cheeses are majestically funky — so pungent you can taste them with your nose. Appenzeller in particular smells like a festering toe fungus…and yet, somehow, once melted, it washes the taste buds with a nutty, tangy, rich flavor. There’s nothing else I can think of that smells so wretched, but tastes so delicious.

Cheese in hand, we stocked up on the other ingredients: a couple cloves of garlic; ground nutmeg; white wine; a pinch of cornstarch; and Kirschwasser — cherry schnapps. Our rental cottage, of course, came with a ceramic pot specifically designed for fondue — right down to the Swiss cross on the side — and a stand with a Sterno-can burner for keeping it warm at the table.

Oh, and you need the perfect loaf of fresh, rustic European bread — crusty on the outside, soft and spongy on the inside. We cut the bread into little chunks, about one-inch square. Each chunk — and this is very important — should have some crust, to pierce with the little fork. Without the crust, a chunk of bread instantly becomes unmoored from the wimpy bread flesh when it hits the cheese — lost forever in the bottom of the pot.

Ingredients assembled, we began by rubbing the inside of the pot with cross-sections of garlic cloves, then filling it with white wine. Then we heated it up on the stovetop. Not too hot, and not too fast — gradually raising the temperature, and occasionally stirring…never boiling, or even simmering.

Soon — after maybe 10 minutes or so — a hazy cloud begins to rise from the surface of the wine, like fog clinging to the surface of a glassy lake at dawn. And that’s when it’s time to start mixing in the cheese. But — as with everything fondue — this should not be done too quickly. Grab a scant handful of grated cheese and sprinkle it in. Stir until it’s dissolved into the wine. Then mix in another handful. Then another. Wait until the previous sprinkling of cheese has fully melted before adding more. This takes some time, but that’s perfectly fine…we’re in no hurry. The whole time you’re doing this, you never, ever stop stirring. Whirl the spoon in a smooth, continuous, mesmerizing figure-8 motion. Use a wooden spoon — ideally one with a hole in the middle.

If done correctly, the fondue will wind up as an opaque liquid, without individual strands of cheese visible. That’s when you mix in a glug of the Kirschwasser, premixed with a bit of cornstarch for thickening, and a smidge more wine. Add a pinch of ground nutmeg and some fresh-ground pepper. And keep stirring. Once the mixture begins to thicken up a bit, carefully transfer the pot to the tabletop burner.

At a certain point — seamlessly — you stop stirring with the wooden spoon, and start stirring with a long, skinny fork piercing a perfect chunk of bread. Take turns stirring and eating — someone should always have their fork swirling around in the pot. To really get the party going, the Swiss sometimes dip their bread in Kirschwasser before stirring it into the cheese. But we are not nearly that hardcore.

A good fondue is life-altering. What’s not to love? Fresh bread and cheese liquefied in wine. We always have our fondue with a side salad. It’s comforting to imagine the lettuce settling into the stomach, creating a much-needed digestive buffer of leaves between the layers of cheese.

The best part is the charred cheese that coats the bottom of the pot at the end. Usually, we let my wife and my sister debate which of them gets the intensely satisfying (and delicious) task of gently peeling off the skin of browned cheese with their little fork, then popping it in their mouth.

Settling into our Christmas Eve tradition, still buzzing from the impossible-to-plan-for serendipity of our day, we jabbed our forks into the bubbling cheese and planned our Christmas Day.

Christmas Morning High in the Alps

On Christmas morning, we awoke to glorious sunshine, with deep-blue skies over white-fringed frosted fields. We piled onto the train in Wilderswil and rode into Lauterbrunnen. As we made our way up the valley, the slight increase in elevation took us through higher and higher snowbanks. Snow clung to the evergreen boughs, tracing pretty piney patterns on either side of the train tracks. The fresh coating of white, as far as the eye could see, was lit up so bright by the midwinter sun that we had to squint. It felt like a vast blank canvas on which to create treasured new memories to build on last night’s perfect Christmas Eve.

In Lauterbrunnen, we transferred to a bus — even on Christmas Day, coordinated with flawless Swiss efficiency — to the far end of the valley, where we stepped onto the Schilthornbahn cable car. We rode it up, up, up, feeling our ears pop as we ascended through a landscape painted by winter.

Stepping out at 12,000 feet, we surveyed that classic lineup of cut-glass peaks on the far side of the Lauterbrunnen Valley: the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau. Aspirational yellow arrows pointed in every direction, suggesting hardy summertime hikes down into the valley far below. But not today. On this Christmas morning, giddy skiers were strapping on their skis for the long, blissful glide back to civilization.

Escaping the bitter chill into the warmth of the revolving restaurant — made famous by a dramatic ski-chase scene in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service — we noticed they had a special “early bird” offer for brunch, and quickly changed our plans for a picnic. We settled into a table and watched the panoply of peaks slowly crawl past us for an hour as we dug into heaping plates of Rösti (Swiss hash browns) slathered in creamy mountain cheese, with chunks of potato and bits of bacon.

Having dispensed with the need to ever consume food again, we waddled back to the cable car and rode it down the mountain to Mürren — perched on a snowy lip over the valley — where we began a long, scenic stroll through the village.

In spite of the snow and the altitude, it was warm. Bright sunshine spotlit rustic wooden homes, revealing precisely stacked piles of firewood under rugged eaves, assembled with Swiss precision by farmers who were engineers at heart. Skiers — just completing their eye-popping journey down from the Schilthorn — shuffled past us on the snow-covered streets. Everyone was in a festive mood. Even the cable-car operators were uncharacteristically jolly.

Reaching the end of Mürren, we decided to extend our hike (and burn off more of that Rösti). Circling back through town, we continued 30 minutes gently downhill to the precious hamlet of Gimmelwald. Warmed by the sun (and the just-right exertion of plodding through a little snow), we peeled off our jackets and felt refreshed by the Swiss splendor.

The steeply switchbacked trails led down past frozen little waterfalls, soon depositing us at the upper flanks of Gimmelwald — marked by its much-loved landmark, Walter’s classic old hotel. From there, we continued past humble farmers’ houses buried in snow banks and frozen water troughs for stabled cows. Reaching the edge of the bluff that faces the Jungfrau — looming across the valley, so close, yet a deep chasm away — we walked out to a rustic barn clinging to the lip of the cliff.

Panning up once more to survey 360 degrees of Swiss peaks, we realized we were having a very merry Christmas, indeed. Trying to capture Christmas magic is a risky business. We got lucky. Or maybe it’s just that Switzerland makes it seem easy.

Guëti Wienachtä!

Europe for Foodies: How (and Why) to Incorporate Food into Your Travels

The term “foodie” is trendy these days. It sounds pretentious, and a little silly. But I’ve decided to take that word back, for food-lovers everywhere. There’s nothing wrong with being a “foodie.” It simply means that you prioritize food in your life — and in your travels.

Some travelers eat to live. I live to eat. And the more I make food a central focus of my travels, the clearer it becomes that to really appreciate a culture, you need to understand its food. Because in a sense, food is culture.

Finish this phrase: Swiss ___. For all its claims to fame, and the end of the day, Switzerland is synonymous with cheese. It’s part of their international brand and their national identity. And the government invests generous subsidies in keeping this part of Swiss culture alive. To this day, Swiss farmers — now federally funded — still make cheese the old-fashioned way. Each spring, they take their herd of cows up to high-mountain huts, on pastures called “alps,” and hang their decorative cowbells from the eaves. There they stay with their livestock for 100 days, all summer long — milking them at dawn and at dusk, and spending their days making cheese. And then one day in September, when cool weather announces the onset of autumn, the cowhands sling those giant bells around their cows’ necks and walk them back down into the village in the valley below — creating an impromptu parade of flower-bedecked cows, enjoying a victory lap after a productive summer, to a soundtrack of clanging bells and satisfied moos.

What type of food do you associate with Spain? Tapas, of course — small plates. But a deeper understanding of Spanish cuisine tells you volumes about the Spanish culture, climate, and landscape. In arid, blistering Iberia, people take a mid-day siesta to head home, eat a big lunch, and hide out from the heat for a couple of hours. They return to work for a few more hours, and then, just as the sun goes down and temperatures grow tolerable, they go for a paseo — a languid stroll through the city streets, promenading with friends and family, greeting neighbors, and dropping into a variety of cozy bars and cafés. After a day cooped up inside, avoiding the heat, the last thing you want is to settle in for a long, sit-down dinner. So instead, you nibble on little plates of food at the bar — sharing a variety of dishes with friends old and new, sipping drinks, cracking jokes, socializing. Then you head to the next bar, for some new dishes (and some new friends). “Tapas-style” dining isn’t a trend — it’s a social ritual and a way of life, shaped over eons by Spain itself.

What are the two most beloved European cuisines? If you’re like most people, you’re thinking of Italian and French. (If you’re an odd duck like me, Hungarian might have crept into the mix.) Italian and French cuisine are equally enticing, and yet, so fundamentally different.

In sun-drenched Italy — the garden patch of Europe — cuisine is all about highlighting quality ingredients. The fewer ingredients, and the less they’re manipulated, the better. I once took a cooking class in Tuscany where Marta taught me how to make the most delicious sauce ever to cross my palate. It has just five ingredients: tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, red pepper flakes, and salt. And it makes everything it touches explosively flavorful. This emphasis on fresh ingredients also makes Italian cuisine highly localized. Why are there so many types of pasta? Because each one is engineered to highlight a particular sauce or topping, usually rooted in a highly specific place and season. (Those pasta places where you “pick your noodles, then pick your sauce” make Italians furious.) Specialties aren’t just regional — they can be specific to a town, or even to a neighborhood. And Italian law forbids restaurants from using frozen ingredients unless they’re noted on the menu.

In French cuisine, the ingredients are less important than what you do with them. I once took a cooking class in Burgundy, where every dish had at least a dozen ingredients — and each recipe involved mastering a precise, delicate technique. French chefs are technicians, who endlessly play and tinker and experiment to create something delicious. Who, but the French, would look at snails crawling across a rain-dampened path and think, “I’ll bet if I cooked those in garlic butter, they’d be delicious”? Beyond escargot, think of the other most famous French dishes: Coq au vin takes the toughest, least palatable type of poultry — rooster — and slow-simmers it in red wine and spices until it’s tender and flavorful. Bœuf bourguignon does the same with tough cuts of beef. And confit de canard is a duck that’s been rendered, preserved in a sealed can of its own congealed fat, then opened up months later and cooked in that same fat. That’s not a recipe — that’s a science experiment. So much of French cooking feels like it was created on a dare. And yet, it’s delicious. And it’s beautiful. French chefs are also elegant artists, who employ their technique to create stunning masterpieces, as pleasing to the eye as to the palate. French salads aren’t just jumbled together — they’re composée…composed.

These are just a few examples of how food can play a much larger role in your travels than simply filling the tank. And that’s the topic of my “Europe for Foodies” class, which we filmed earlier this year and is now available to view on Ricksteves.com and YouTube (and below).

Of all the travel talks I do at Rick Steves’ Europe, “Europe for Foodies” is my favorite. It’s the one that my audiences seem to enjoy the most. And, strangely, it’s also the least-attended.

Maybe people already take it for granted that food is important in travel — or are confident that it isn’t. But the purpose of this talk is to deepen your appreciation for the many vivid travel experiences where food and culture intersect. Like a French chef who makes snails delicious, I’ve engineered this talk to fine-tune your culinary sensibilities, with ample suggestions for incorporating food in your travels. If you’ve enjoyed my many blog posts about food in Europe…this talk is for you.

In the talk, I introduce age-old European culinary concepts that are newly trendy these days, including terroir, zero-kilometer, nose-to-tail, and the importance of eating with the seasons. I also suggest practical tips for finding the best restaurants, and explain some subtleties of dining in Europe that can be confusing. Sometimes this requires psychoanalyzing the way Europeans conceptualize food: You’ll learn why Italians can’t understand how anyone could drink a caffé latte after lunchtime, why they serve your salad after the pasta, and why that stubborn server won’t bring your bill to the table until you’ve asked for it.

I run through some of my favorite cheap eats in Europe (from German Currywurst to Greek souvlaki to Sicilian arancine to Polish zapiekanka) and the best food halls and street markets. And there are sections on drinking (wine, beer, spirits, and café culture) and sweets — from Belgian chocolates to Italian gelato. Finally, I suggest some experiences that allow you to incorporate food into your travels: cooking classes, food tours, visits to local farms, chasing a truffle-sniffing dog through an oak forest, getting to know a Slovenian beekeeper, and so on.

I hope you enjoy my “Europe for Foodies” talk as much as I enjoyed putting it together. And remember: Every meal you have in Europe is an opportunity to have a cultural experience.


If you enjoy reading my blog posts that focus on food, you can find a roundup here.

Check out my full 1.25-hour “Europe for Foodies” talk on Ricksteves.com and YouTube. (You can find the handout for the class here.)

If you’re tight on time, you can also check out shorter chapters separately:

 

Columbus, Ohio: Unexpected Foodie Mecca

I recently made a trip back home to Central Ohio, where I grew up before moving to Seattle in 2000. Normally, my blog focuses on European travel. But you can also “travel” back home — approaching it through the eyes of a visitor. And when I do that, I’m doubly impressed by the remarkable foodie scene that’s percolating in my formerly meat-and-potatoes hometown. If you’re headed to Columbus, be ready for some great food — from Himalayan dumplings and explosively flavorful fried chicken, to high-end molecular gastronomy feasts, to artisanal microbrews and spirits, to the best damn ice cream in the land. And if you aren’t going to Columbus anytime soon…well, maybe you should.

Aaah, Columbus, Ohio. Flyover country. The heartland. The Heart of It All. The crossroads of the good ol’ U-S-of-A. And, for me, home. But these days, tucked amid the cornfields and strip malls of Central Ohio is also one of the most exciting culinary scenes in the United States. Who knew?

I spent my 20 most formative years (from age 5 to age 25) in Central Ohio — in the small town of Delaware, a half-hour’s drive north of Columbus. Back then, Central Ohio was the farthest thing from a culinary mecca. But it had all of the ingredients of one — in a literal sense. Ohio’s sultry summers give rise to a cornucopia of lush produce. No more perfect food exists than a juicy cob of Ohio sweet corn, right off the stalk. And Ohio (where one of the leading cities is called Cleave-land) has always had a top-tier meat industry. My next-door neighbor raised prizewinning hogs, which sold for some of the highest prices in the country.

And yet, when I was living there, local restauranteurs hadn’t quite caught up with local producers. Consider the Ohio State Fair butter cow. Now, get this: Dairy sculptors take a full ton of rich, creamery butter and fashion it into a full-sized statue of a cow. The butter cow is kept in a refrigerated glass case that a half-million fairgoers shuffle past with a hushed reverence, like visitors to the tomb of Lenin. (I am not making this up. Did I mention the butter cow is life-sized?) The year I graduated from high school, in a beautiful synergy of Central Ohio food theming, the butter cow was joined by a full-sized butter statue of Dave Thomas, founder of Columbus-based fast food chain Wendy’s.

Looking back, using mountains of butter to sculpt statues seems an almost too on-the-nose symbol for a city that had more great food than it really knew what to do with. They had the ingredients, and the industriousness. It just hadn’t yet coalesced.

When I moved away from Central Ohio in 2000, the food scene there was just getting rolling. Chains were beginning to be nudged aside by quality local restaurants. (In the 1990s, Cameron Mitchell built the foundations of a culinary empire that’s still expanding. Today he’s preparing to open a trendy food hall in the former Budd Dairy building.)  I believe things really turned a corner just a decade and a half ago, when Jeni Britton Bauer, from her humble ice-cream stand in Columbus’ North Market, figured out a way to harness Central Ohio’s natural bounty and turn it to the best ice cream on the planet. (More on Jeni’s ice cream later.) Jeni led the vanguard of a new foodie awareness, and a new foodie pride, in Central Ohio. And today, Columbus is blossoming into one of the best food cities in the USA.

With each return visit, my in-laws — in an endearing if fruitless quest to convince us to move back home — take my wife and me on a culinary tour around the city. Those first few years, these food tours felt a little forced. But then something strange started to happen: The places they took us were actually good. Really good. And after our last visit, it’s official: Columbus has arrived. It’s a city I’d seriously consider traveling to just for the food.

The best embodiment of Columbus’ foodie renaissance is the city’s Short North,  a trendy corridor stretching along High Street from the main campus of Ohio State University to downtown. Longtime favorites here include Tasi, a delightful breakfast, brunch, and lunch café with delicious comfort food and a neighborhood bustle; Bakersfield,  an upmarket bar-taqueria; and Northstar Caféan organic stay-a-while cafeteria with great salads and sandwiches.

But the epicenter of the foodie scene in the Short North — and Columbus generally — is the North Market, which hides between brick warehouses on the northern edge of downtown. Now, I moved from Columbus to the city with perhaps the most famous market in America. You know…the one where they throw fish. But the problem with Seattle’s Pike Place Market is exactly that: its fame. Years before I moved to town, the Pike Place Market had already been transformed into an almost entirely touristy venture. I rarely visit Pike Place Market, unless I’m entertaining out-of-towners. And if I do wind up at the market at mealtime, I panic a little bit, because I have no confidence I’ll find a good meal. Most eateries are squarely pitched at the palates of people piling off one of the world’s largest cruise ships, moored out front every Saturday. (Apologies to the exceptions.)

But Columbus’ North Market?  Now, that’s a place I could have lunch every single day and never get bored. Unpretentious and packed with temptations, the North Market has been the incubator for Columbus’ burgeoning foodie scene. Its main floor is a warren of producers and food vendors, offering everything from toothsome Polish pierogi to flavorful Vietnamese vermicelli bowls to crisp French macarons. Each stand is more tempting than the last, but two are particularly worth trying.

First is Momo Ghar, serving a short-and-simple menu of savory handmade Nepalese-style dumplings called momos. Food snobs shouldn’t be put off by the Guy Fieri endorsement — this place is straight-up fantastic, and a perfect example of how curious foodies and Columbus’ growing immigrant populations mix and mingle at the North Market.

But if you have only one meal at the North Market, head upstairs. There you’ll find Hot Chicken Takeover, filling a long, industrial-mod hall. Not only does this place have the best Nashville-style fried chicken I’ve ever eaten — juicy, tender, and perfectly seasoned — but it’s socially conscious, priding itself on being a “fair chance employer” (the majority of their staff are formerly incarcerated or formerly affected by homelessness).

As you get in line, a chalkboard on the wall counts down how many pieces of today’s fresh chicken are still available. The line moves fast, and soon you’re ordering your preferred spiciness level, from “cold” to “fire” (casual palates max out at “warm”). While waiting for your name to be called, grab a free cup of iced tea — super-sweet or unsweetened — and fill a little tub of ranch sauce. (No barbecue sauce here. The chicken is so juicy and flavorful, you won’t miss it.)  Find a seat at a shared table, with strategically placed rolls of rough brown paper towels, and wait for your name to be called. They have only a few sides — macaroni and cheese, coleslaw — but they’re also perfectly executed.

If you just want a snack at the market, Brezel has an enticing array of German-style pretzels (and smaller pretzel twists), ranging from sweet to savory. On my latest visit, they had one encrusted with Crunch Berries, and another with melted slivers of smoked gouda. Nearby is Cajohns Flavor and Fire,  with a dizzying array of salsas and hot sauces to suit every palate, from mild and sweet to unadulterated heat. I already have my personal favorites here (the salsa verde and the chipotle salsa are tops), but I can never resist the long tasting bar.

And now…dessert. And for dessert, there’s no better choice — in the North Market, in Columbus, and quite possibly in the United States of America — than Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams. As I mentioned earlier, Jeni Britton Bauer started her ice cream stand right here in 2002. She befriended her fellow market vendors and suppliers, and engineered ways to infuse her ice creams with the essence of their produce. For example, her Backyard Mint is an off-white ice cream that tastes like actual mint — the kind that grows like a weed in your garden — rather than synthetic peppermint essence and neon-green coloring. Another summertime North Market inspiration is her Sweet Corn and Black Raspberries, which speaks for itself.

Jeni’s ice cream is the perfect expression of the form. It’s the In-N-Out Burger of frozen dairy products. The texture is smooth and creamy — rich, but not too rich. It melts on your tongue exactly the way you want it to. And the flavors… well, the flavors are magnificent. Jeni has the nerve to christen her ice cream with superlative names that can’t possibly be true (“The Milkiest Chocolate In The World”)…but somehow live up to the fuss.

Jeni’s flavors are simple, yet complex. Like a perfectly composed dish by a master chef, every ingredient has its place — each one hits its note, perfectly on-pitch, without overshadowing the others. Take the Bangkok Peanut. It’s a rich, creamy peanut butter flavor. Not fakey Jiff peanut butter — the real stuff, nutty and rich, from the health food aisle. To that, she adds coconut that’s been toasted to the point of perfect caramelization. And finally, she tosses in a pinch of cayenne pepper, which tickles the back of your throat just so — adding an exquisite, exotic twist the moment after you’ve already swallowed and think you’ve experienced every nuance of the flavor. An ice cream that finishes hot sounds like a gimmick, but in Jeni’s hands, it’s a masterpiece.

In addition to a long list of perennial flavors (don’t get me started on the Gooey Butter Cake), there are always a few changing seasonal flavors. I’ll never forget her Pumpernickel ice cream from a few Christmases ago. On my latest visit, she had another one of my favorites — Savannah Buttermint. It tastes like a dish of chewy after-dinner mints suspended in a creamy broth. The Pickled Mango is a fascinating mix of sweet and sour. And the Watermelon Buttermilk Frozen Yogurt tastes like the best tangy watermelon you’ve ever eaten…only better.

I could go on and on about Jeni’s flavors (apparently so). But recently she topped herself by coming up with the ultimate delivery system for her ice cream: the Buttercrisp Waffle Cone. Imagine taking a traditional cone, hot and fresh off the griddle, and dipping it into a vat of melted salty butter. The cone is a perfect synthesis of soft, crisp, sweet, and salty. It’s so good, it threatens to upstage the ice cream.

A few years ago, Jeni published a cookbook that teaches the home chef to make ice cream that’s nearly as good as what she does in her shops — and quite rightly won a James Beard Award. (Having made a couple dozen batches of Jeni’s at home, I can attest that if you follow her instructions carefully, it turns out great.) Jeni has a serious mail-order business, and has opened several additional scoop shops around Columbus, and in other US cities. But visiting the mothership in person, at the Columbus North Market, is a pilgrimage.

OK, enough with the ice cream. (Though, let’s be honest: Can there ever be enough ice cream?) Apologies for getting carried away. My in-laws have gently teased me that I come to Columbus as much for Jeni’s as for them. I have, to date, not disabused them of this notion.

The Short North and North Market may be ground zero for Columbus’ foodie explosion, but other destination eateries are scattered around the metro area, too.

Just a few blocks east of High Street, in the Italian Village neighborhood, runs Fourth North, which has recently flourished as an arterial for artisanal breweries: Wolf’s Ridge (with a particularly well-regarded attached restaurant, and more affordable taproom), Seventh Son, and Hoof Hearted.

Just west of downtown, in an industrial corner of the posh Grandview neighborhood, those who look will find Watershed Distillery. In addition to offering tours of the facility where they distill a wide variety of spirits from Central Ohio ingredients (such as apple brandy), they operate a fun cocktail bar and restaurant. They publish the most entertaining cocktail menu I’ve seen, with choices like “Teenage Dirtbag” and “Big Papi.” The cuisine is bold and experimental, melding local favorite dishes with flourishes that challenge the palate — such as big slabs of ribs with Asian accents.

My favorite high-end restaurant in Central Ohio used to be incongruously located in the humble downtown shopping zone of my hometown, Delaware, Ohio — literally across the street from the three-screen movie theater where I worked my way through college. Foodies from all over Ohio would flock to Veritas for Chef Josh Dalton’s high-end, confident cookery — harnessing the state of the culinary art with a typically Central Ohio lack of pretense. A few years ago, I had a dinner at Veritas that was the best-value meal, dollar for dollar, that I’ve had anywhere — creativity and execution on the caliber of a European Michelin-starred restaurant, but at Delaware, Ohio, prices.

Chef Dalton’s ambition and command of molecular gastronomy — savory bacon risotto with perfectly delicate sous vide egg; scallop with pungent kimchi and crispy rice; Wagyu beef short rib with palate-blasting chimichurri — has cultivated many foodie converts amid the cornfields of Central Ohio. Recently Veritas moved to a location more befitting its world-class cuisine — in downtown Columbus, between the North Market and the statehouse — and raised its prices accordingly ($90 for the eight-course tasting menu). But it’s still an unmissable opportunity to blow up any preconceptions you might have that Columbus is a Podunk culinary wasteland.

There are many other excellent choices scattered within and around the I-270 outerbelt, but this representative sampling of why I get excited anytime I head back to Ohio…beyond the chance to reconnect with family and friends. I realize I am biased. But, believe me, nobody was more suspicious of Central Ohio’s lackluster culinary scene than someone who fled to the wilds of Washington State. Take it from this prodigal son: Columbus, Ohio, is the most underrated foodie destination in the USA.

Dining at Europe’s Foodie Splurge Restaurants: A Practical Guide

These days, more and more travelers are investing serious time and money in top-end fine-dining experiences across Europe. And on a few special occasions, I’ve jumped on this bandwagon — spending more on a meal than my hotel room cost.

I proudly consider myself a foodie. But I define “foodie” broadly: I’m simply someone who considers food an integral part of any culture — and any travel experience. On the other hand, I’m also thrifty, so splurging on a fancy meal doesn’t come naturally to me. I strongly believe that “foodie” doesn’t have to mean “expensive.” Some of my favorite culinary experiences in Europe have come with the lowest price tags, from grazing on street food in Palermo to my €25 day in Ljubljana.

And yet, a fine-dining extravaganza certainly deserves a place on the spectrum of foodie experiences. Here’s one traveler’s take on what it’s actually like to dine at a world-rated restaurant — designed to help you decide whether that experience deserves your time and money.

Finding, Booking, and Dining at High-End Splurges

Part of the fun of fine dining is doing your homework — figuring out which place deserves your splurge budget. I’m a devotee of Netflix’s exquisite food documentary series Chef’s Table — and after every episode, I’m ready to book a plane ticket. (Documentary Now! — also streaming on Netflix — did a genius parody of this type of foodie tourism.) And the Restaurant Magazine 50 Best Restaurants list has — among a younger generation of foodies — eclipsed Michelin stars as an indicator of the world’s best (or, at least, buzziest) eateries. Learning about a restaurant through these sources can make booking and anticipating a reservation a highlight of your trip preparation.

But that’s the first trick: Getting a table. Restaurants that are really hot book up many months in advance. If you have a place in mind, as soon as your dates firm up, check their website for the reservation policy. Many release blocks of reservations two to three months in advance  — and once they’re gone, they’re gone. It’s not unusual for foodies to set an alarm for midnight Copenhagen time, three months to the day before their visit, to try to book that elusive table.

So, your table is booked, and you’re ready to drop $200 per person on (what had better be) a life-altering culinary experience. If you’re like me, you may need to spend a little time rationalizing that high price tag. I’m not going to pretend I’m some sort of a bumpkin, but I must admit, until a few years ago, I was skeptical about fine dining. For a long time, I believed that once you reach a certain cost threshold for an upper-midrange restaurant (say, $40 or $50 a person), how could it really get that much better? At a certain point, you’re just throwing good money after bad. But a few recent dining experiences have changed my thinking.

On a trip to the Basque Country in northern Spain, my wife and I booked a table at what was, at the time, the “16th top-rated restaurant in the world,” Azurmendi. Driving through the verdant Basque hills to our midday reservation, we were debating whether lunch for two could really be worth a total tab of over $300 and several hours of our precious Spanish vacation.

But when we walked in the door, we began to understand that when you go to a world-rated restaurant, it’s not just a meal — it’s an experience. If you conceptualize this meal as part of your “food budget,” it’s outlandish. But if you think of it as an “experience”…well, that may be justifiable. We’ve spent $300 on other experiences in our travels, and felt it was a good value: prime tickets for a hit musical on Broadway or the West End, or a home playoff game for my beloved Denver Broncos, or a live concert of a huge-name musical act, or a sightseeing flight through Slovenia’s Julian Alps. And in an age where chefs are attaining celebrity at a level on par with rock stars and athletes…well, that’s what splurging is for.

As we arrived for our reservation at Azurmendi, we were invited into the leafy conservatory and given a little picnic basket filled with creative amuses-bouche.

Then, in the greenhouse, they showed us where some of the herbs and produce were grown; more amuses-bouche were creatively tucked among the plantings.

Then they took us into the busy kitchen, where an army of chefs and cooks — outnumbering the diners — were scurrying around with great precision, directed by the confident chef, Eneko Atxa. Observing this controlled hubbub, we were offered yet another amuse-bouche.

About 30 minutes and a light meal after we’d arrived, we were finally shown to our table. The rest of the meal was a fine experience, and taken together, that’s just what it was: an experience. I’ll admit it’s not The Best Meal I’ve Ever Eaten, but it was certainly one of the most interesting and entertaining.

Chef Atxa elevates Basque cuisine to an astonishing degree. Each dish was an adventure…an experiment in intensely focused flavor. Cauliflower, fried eggs, and truffle, composed like a surrealist painting. Natural spider crab, emulsion, and infusion — a super-concentrated taste of the sea that left my mouth tingling for several courses. Slightly spicy fried suckling pig and three Basque cheeses in three textures, which was…exactly as described.

Leaving the restaurant, we agreed that — assuming travel is worthy of the occasional splurge — it was $150 per person well-spent. And we certainly remember it more vividly than any other meal on that trip.

My favorite fine-dining experience took place in the remote Slovenian countryside, at Hiša Franko, owned by 2017’s highest-rated female chef in the world, Ana Roš. Ana was profiled on Chef’s Table, which we watched not once but twice before eating there. Imagine our delight when we walked in the door for our reservation, and there stood Ana herself at the maître d’ station. She took our coats, showed us to our table, and brought us bread, while we stuttered our greetings, star-struck and tongue-tied.

But that was just the beginning of a marvelous dining experience. Ana Roš lacks the theatricality of Azurmendi…but she doesn’t need it. It sounds like a cliché from a cooking-competition TV show, but over the course of her degustation menu, she achieved what every great chef aspires to: Through her food, she told a story about herself, and about the place she comes from. The progression of dishes felt like journeying through the pastures, rivers, and mountains of the Slovenian countryside all around us. Her food tasted like Slovenia. Her food could only be rooted in that place, and could only have been made by her. It was a culinary revelation the likes of which I have never had before, or since. And that’s why — for me, at least — it’s worth it.

Fine Dining for Dummies

I’m still new enough to this fine-dining scene to find its customs quirky and fascinating. If you haven’t experienced a fine-dining restaurant, let me walk through what to expect — tongue planted firmly in cheek.

On arrival, you’ll be greeted warmly and seated. Your purse even gets its own little stool. Everything operates with exacting precision, yet the pacing and atmosphere are insistently relaxed.

You’ll be handed a menu, but normally that’s something of a ruse. The choice is simple: Do you want the smaller tasting menu, the bigger tasting menu, or — at the finest places — the gargantuan tasting menu? I’ve never ordered anything but the smallest option, and I’ve never waddled out of a fine-dining restaurant anything short of full-to-bursting. I imagine the full-blown option would require serious consideration of the “boot and rally” strategy.

In addition to your food, you can choose whether to add the wine pairings. And if you’re going to commit to a top-end meal, just go ahead and do the wine pairings. A good, mid- to upper-mid-range restaurant stocks a nice variety of local wines, and the server can help you narrow down a glass or bottle to your taste. Well all know the rules of thumb: red wine for beef, white wine for fish. But a fine-dining restaurant takes things to an entirely different level. Your sommelier is a master at meticulously pairing wines to the nuances of each course, in a way that’s mutually beneficial to both wine and food. When properly paired, it’s nothing short of astonishing to take a sip of wine, then take a bite of food, then take another sip of wine — and see how much both flavors have changed.

The meal begins with a tiny appetizer called an amuse-bouche, which loosely translates as “palate stimulator.” (The plural is — and yes, I looked this up — amuses-bouche, which may be the most perfectly pretentious word I have ever come across.) The amuse-bouche is a sort of culinary overture — the chef is firing a warning shot across your taste buds about what’s to come. It’s a clever way for a talented chef to show off, while sneakily doubling the number of courses. While low-end high-end restaurants greet you with one amuse-bouche, the fanciest ones trot out a progression of a half-dozen or more.

By the time you make it through all of the amuses-bouche, you’re pretty much full. And then it’s time for the first course. Don’t worry — these meals usually span over three hours, sometimes four, so by the time the main courses arrive you’ll already have digested most of your amuses-bouche. Still…pace yourself, come hungry, and wear your roomy “Thanksgiving pants.”

Speaking of pacing yourself, let’s talk about the bread: Don’t fill up by gobbling the bread the moment it hits the table. This seems painfully obvious. However, it’s far more difficult than it sounds, because at a great restaurant, the bread is fiendishly delicious — spongy and warm inside, crusty and slightly charred outside. It is not an exaggeration to say that at more than one of the high-end meals I’ve had, the bread was one of the best dishes to hit the table. So we’re in agreement: Go ahead and eat some of the bread. Just…pace yourself, OK?

There will be a progression of courses. Sometimes you’ll have a list to follow along; other times, you’ll just take it as it comes. With each course, your server has prepared a brief lecture, explaining the ingredients, provenance, and technique represented. Cloches will be lifted with great ceremony, billowing rich-smelling smoke, and little teapots of broth will be poured over the dish at the last moment. Wait patiently until you’re sure it’s done. Then, only after she walks away, it’s safe to dig in.

A word about your server: You’re spending a lot of time together. And, without realizing it, you’ll slowly grow to be very fond of your server. He’s not just bringing you food, and scraping your crumbs off the table, and changing out your silverware from a little tray before each course, and deftly picking up your napkin with two forks held like chopsticks. He is your partner, your guide, your sherpa in this culinary adventure. He is your wingman.

You will like some of the courses. You will not love some of the courses. That’s OK. These chefs are in the business of pleasing, surprising, and sometimes challenging their diners. Barring real allergies or vegetarianism, I have an ethic of going along with whatever’s on the menu. In the hands of Ana Roš, even a raviolo filled with goat brain puree is unexpectedly delicious. Personally, I am not a fan of foie gras or sea urchin. (Yes, I realize this admission is severely damaging to my foodie street cred. What can I say? The taste buds want what the taste buds want.) But if a great chef wants to prepare it for me, I will try it.  And I will usually love it…usually.

As an aside, a phrase that I don’t hear nearly enough in everyday life is: “And now, we have an intermezzo before the final main course.”

Again, pace yourself. Thanksgiving pants. And, by the way, where does one buy one of those little crumb combs for the tablecloth?

At some point, probably late in the meal, the chef will appear from the kitchen and begin circulating among tables of star-struck foodies. This is like getting a backstage pass for a Springsteen concert. If you are familiar with the chef, be prepared to get flustered and say something stupid…or to stammer dumbly, saying nothing at all. If you have been dragged to this meal by a foodie spouse or relative, you will have no idea why this is such a big deal.

No matter how good the meal is, there is a moment of relief and accomplishment when you realize that you have finished the final main course. You made it! It’s all downhill from here. You always have room for dessert. (I have a relative who insists that, no matter how full she is from dinner, she has a separate “dessert stomach” that is always empty. You will need it.)

Another phrase I don’t hear nearly enough in everyday life is: “And this is a little pre-dessert…”

There is probably not one dessert, by the way. There are probably two, or three, or four.

And then, when you think you’re really finished, here comes yet more desserts: a tray of little sweets, sometimes accompanying coffee. They call these “petits-fours,” which is misleading, because there are usually more like six or seven.

So, if you’re keeping track — and if you count all of the little amuses-bouche and petits-fours and intermezzi, and, of course, that heavenly bread — a “five- or six-course meal” can be more like 20 or 25 different dishes. That’s worth some consideration in the big-picture analysis of whether it’s a good value.

When it’s all over, you’ll manage to disguise your shock when you glance at the bill, then pay it happily. That server that you have forged a bond with over the last three hours?  She’ll be getting an American-sized tip, if not a weepy goodbye hug. Then you’ll head out the door, somewhere between a waddle and a teeter (depending on whether you did the wine pairings).

So… Is It Worth It?

At the end of the day, that’s the real question, isn’t it? Can any meal really be worth such a huge investment?

My short answer: Yes. The longer answer: It depends…on the restaurant, and on the diner.

If you are a person who prioritizes food, in your life and especially in your travels…it’s probably worth it. If you can name more than five celebrity chefs (Guy Fieri doesn’t count)…it’s probably worth it. If you can conceptualize your meal as a “travel experience” rather than “food” (in the same wedge of the imaginary budget pie as scenic picnics and ice-cream cones)…well, then, it’s probably worth it.

If none of these applies to you, then maybe you should skip it. But don’t rule it out. Remember that ultimate foodie meal I enjoyed at Ana Roš’ Hiša Franko in Slovenia? My wife and I dragged my in-laws to that one. They were skeptical, but game to give it a try. And by the end of the meal, they were raving about the experience even more than we were. They even liked the goat brain puree.

If, on the other hand, you simply can’t afford it, that’s OK. Remember that there are reasonably priced alternatives. Again, “foodie” does not have to mean “expensive.”

Or….you could just stay in hostels, and let your taste buds travel first class.

40 Hours in Amsterdam: A Travel Writer’s Layover

What does a travel writer do on his day off? He just putters around Amsterdam, without an agenda, enjoying travel in its purest form. (And then, surprise surprise, he writes a blog post about it.)

That’s just what I’m doing on the way home from my guidebook research trip. After two busy weeks in Spain, and three even busier weeks in Sicily, I’m ready for a break. So, I figured, why not take a two-night, one-day layover in Amsterdam on my way home? That gives me exactly 40 hours to reacquaint myself with a great city.

There’s something liberating about returning to a city where you’ve already seen all the big sights. This isn’t a post about how to squeeze the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum, the Anne Frank House, and a canal cruise into a hectic day of sightseeing. Instead, this is a post about how you can have a wonderful visit to Amsterdam, simply exploring neighborhoods that are missed by most visitors — entirely avoiding the tourist core, and never stepping through a turnstile. When a travel writer finally gets to turn off his data-collection feature, he finds himself simply going on a photo safari, strolling, browsing, and grazing. (Side-note: When I tell certain people I’m spending a couple of nights in Amsterdam to unwind after a busy research trip, I get a lot of knowing winks and rib jabs. “Yeah, I’ll bet!” But, in all honesty, I have zero interest in the illicit activities that are uniquely legal here. I just love Amsterdam. My friends back home will  back me up on this: I am a total square.)

Thursday Night

Arriving at my lovely splurge of a canalside hotel, Hotel Ambassade, around 9 p.m., I’m ready for dinner. I want something close, and something different — a change of pace after my steady three-week diet of pasta, seafood, granite, and Sicilian spleen sandwiches. Fortunately, right around the corner is one of Amsterdam’s top upmarket Indonesian restaurants, serving flavorful cuisine from the former Dutch colony. Kantjil & De Tijger, along the busy Spui corridor, is a once-trendy restaurant that has settled into its status as a reliable standard. Sitting outside as the sky gradually darkens at 10 p.m., I dig into the nasi rames — a one-plate sampler of flavorful Indonesian dishes, including sambal goreng kentang (shrimp and potatoes with spicy sambal paste), rendang (beef simmered in a sauce of coconut and spices), and saté babi (pork kebab). After dinner, I go hunting for bridges strewn with twinkle lights, reflected in a glassy canal. And, sure enough, I find some.

Friday Morning

While Amsterdam has a booming brunch scene, I stick with the excellent breakfast at my hotel —  reasonably priced when prebooked as part of the room rate. There’s no better start to a drizzly day than relaxing over made-to-order eggs and crêpes while gazing out over the picturesque Herengracht canal.

Leaving my hotel, I dodge wayward bicycles through a gentle rain, going nowhere in particular. I wind up following the exclamatory steeple of the Westerkerk, where I duck inside to avoid a sudden squall. The tranquil interior is filled with simple pews and soaked, poncho-clad tourists rubbing raindrops off their eyeglasses. The austere space is the polar opposite of the dazzlingly ornate Baroque churches in Sicily and Spain, where I’ve spent the last several weeks. Of course, as this was one of the flagship churches of the Dutch Reformation, that was exactly the point. Even the fancy organ has “modesty covers” that can swing shut to conceal its naughty pipes. Hiding out from the rain in this church, whose bells Anne Frank heard from her hiding place in the building next door, I’m reminded again why Amsterdam is such a delight.

I head back outside and circle around the church, following the gaze of a sweet little statue of Anne Frank to the Wil Graanstra Friteshuis, a handy spot for Vlaamse frites — Flemish fries, double-fried and served with a variety of sauces. I’m tempted to order a greasy cone of fries, but the rain picks up again, so I dash across the street and duck into one of the city’s ubiquitous Albert Heijn mini-supermarkets. Browsing with no intention of buying, I come across a display of make-it-yourself meal kits for mexicaanse burritos, italiaanse lasagne, and indiase curry madras…a clever Dutch spin on America’s current obsession with Blue Apron-type mail-order meal kits. I love stumbling on little slices of local life, even when I’m just trying to stay dry.

From Westerkerk, I delve into my favorite part of Amsterdam: the Jordaan. While this might seem like shameless product placement, I really do enjoy touring the Jordaan using the excellent audio tour on the Rick Steves Audio Europe app — taking me through this sleepy, photogenic, formerly working-class neighborhood where Amsterdammers still outnumber tourists. Rick and my colleague (and favorite writer) Gene Openshaw wrote the tour years ago, and it still holds up — offering an intimate look at a corner of Amsterdam most tourists miss entirely.

Friday Lunch

The rain begins to let up, and I head back toward the core of the city. A sudden sun break reminds me it’s actually summer, and I’m in the mood for an al fresco lunch…raindrops be damned. I make my way to Café t’Smalle, a classic wood-paneled “brown café” — a characteristic old Dutch pub whose walls are stained by decades (or centuries) of tobacco smoke. While the seating inside is traditional and cozy, I’m lured to the tipsy tables on a barge in the canal out front. It’s an ideal spot to canal-watch and munch a simple sandwich of aged Dutch cheese, shielded from the occasional fat raindrop by a generous canopy of leaves.

Heading south after lunch, I follow the Prinsengracht canal to dessert at IJscuypje, a local chain of ice cream shops. Flavors include the usual suspects, plus Dutch variations like stroopwafels (syrup waffles), boerenjongens (brandy-soaked raisins), and speculaas (gingerbread cookies). Biting into my speculaas cone, I remember one of the most mind-blowing discoveries in my many years of travels: that morning at my Amsterdam B&B breakfast table when I learned that they smash ginger cookies into an insanely decadent and delicious paste…and that I can buy it anytime I want, back home, where Trader Joe’s sells it under the name “Cookie Butter.” Soon after I got home, I learned a hard lesson: If you ever really want to put on some weight — and fast! — develop a taste for Cookie Butter. In this city notorious for its addictive vices, the one that really did me in involves gingerbread cookies.

Friday Afternoon

From the Prinsengracht, I go on a little aimless safari through another of the city’s most characteristically Amsterdam areas, the “Nine Little Streets” — a checkerboard of shop-lined, perfectly Dutch lanes connecting the Prinsengracht, Keizsergracht, and Herrengracht canals just west of downtown. While it’s billed as a “shopping area,” I’ve never spent a dime here — but there’s no place in Amsterdam I’d rather wander to reacquaint myself with the city’s unique cocktail of tranquil canals, skinny townhouses with fancy gables, manicured flower boxes, perfectly inviting cafés, and constant, fluid swirl of bicyclists rattling over cobbles with no helmets. Even the garbage bags lining the streets — awaiting collection — are arranged just so.

Heading east, I cut through the busy transit hubs of Spui and Rokin, traversing the touristy core of Amsterdam for the first (and only) time on my trip — providing a jarring contrast to the rest of my day. I realize that the Amsterdam I’m so enjoying gets entirely missed by many visitors.

But just a few steps from the tourist blight, I find myself in the sleepy zone around the University of Amsterdam. I detour a few steps through a fancy archway next to Oudezijds Achterburgwal 229, down the corridor housing the Oudemanhuispoort book market. The rustic tables lining the passage are piled high with secondhand books and art prints. Halfway along the corridor, I duck into a sunny courtyard where university students linger and chat — as if, like me, they’re regrouping from the stag-party chaos a couple of blocks away.

From here, I head east along Staalstraat, a lovely, narrow lane of classic Amsterdam townhouses and some of the city’s best window-shopping (including, at #7b, a wonderful design store confusingly named Droog, and at #17, the top-end local praline shop, Puccini Bomboni). In three short blocks, Staalsraat manages to cross over two entirely different — but equally distinctive — Amsterdam drawbridges.

Popping out at the far end of Staalstraat on Waterlooplein — facing the starkly modern opera house — I realize I’m starving…and I’m just a couple of blocks from one of my favorite scenic Amsterdam cafés: De Sluyswacht, “The Lock-Keeper’s House.” True to its name, it fills a standalone black-brick house from 1659 overlooking a busy intersection of canals in the heart of Amsterdam. I pull up a bench at a shared table and look out over the hubbub of boats big and small plying the brown waters, crisscrossing their way through the city.

For a snack, it’s a plate of the classic Amsterdam bar food, bitterballen — croquettes that have been double-fried to create a crunchy, almost prickly outer skin. The sun has finally decided to come out for good, and the whole city is out, enjoying the early inklings of summer. Dipping my butterballen into spicy Dijon mustard and watching boats scurry to and fro, I wonder why so many people think they need marijuana to enjoy Amsterdam. Sure, come for the marijuana…but stay for the bitterballen and canal views.

Feeling those bitterballen weighing heavy in my stomach, I head back to the hotel for a brief rest. Why am I so tired? I realize it’s because simply walking down the street in Amsterdam is exhausting. You have to keep your head on a swivel, as cars and silent bikes whiz past you constantly, forcing you to jump at a moment’s notice onto the little brick median teetering between the road and the canal. In my 40 hours in Amsterdam, I’ll see at least three or four near-miss accidents — mostly involving tourists (on foot or on bike) who didn’t realize that they don’t always have the right of way, simply by virtue of being from out of town. Dutch cyclists are kind but firm, and will set you straight quickly if you wander in front of their oncoming bike. (You should hear the friendly jingle-jangle of a handlebar bell as if it were a foghorn.) Just as I’m pondering this, I see a Dutch cyclist pull to a stop and — again, kindly yet firmly — point out to a jetlagged tourist family that their toddler is toddling straight toward a canal.

Friday Night

After resting up, I head out in the early evening for a 20-minute walk west — beyond the Jordaan — to one of Amsterdam’s newest foodie hotspots: Foodhallen, Amsterdam’s foray into the European trend of jamming a world of eclectic eateries under one roof. Filling a red-brick former tram depot with shared tables, Foodhallen is ringed by two dozen different food stands, representing a rainbow of cuisines: Basque pintxos, dim sum, Hawaiian poke, tacos, sushi, bitterballen, Mediterranean mezes, Indian wraps, wood-fired pizza, steaming ramen, gourmet burgers, high-end hot dogs, and much, much more. After doing a couple of laps to survey my options, I settle on a plate of chicken-and-corn gyoza and a steaming shumai dumpling with pork and mushrooms. Squeezing into a free seat at one of the hall’s countless shared tables — all of them jammed full on a busy Friday night — I realize that I could have a dozen different meals here, and probably enjoy each one equally.

After dinner, I walk back toward the center, detouring along bustling Rozengracht to catch the 8:30 comedy show at Boom Chicago, Amsterdam’s answer to Second City.  Since 1993, comics including Jordan Peele, Seth Meyers, and Jason Sudeikis have cut their teeth on Boom Chicago’s stage, in English-language sketch and improv shows skewering current events on both sides of the Atlantic. For this show’s audience, savvy, worldly Amsterdam natives seem to slightly outnumber American tourists — all of them laughing in unison at the easy pickings generously provided by the Trump Administration.

Stepping out of the theater to find it’s still light out, I go looking for a canalside nightcap. Drawn once again — like a mosquito to a zapper — to the Westerkerk spire, I find myself back in the Jordaan. At another characteristic brown café, Café de Prins, I nurse a drink at an outdoor table, with a view of the Westerkerk and of a steady parade of well-dressed Amsterdammers rolling by on their bikes as they text on their phones and smoke cigarettes.

Saturday Morning

Determined to make the most of my fleeting few hours in Europe, I follow canals about 30 minutes south to the neighborhood delightfully named De Pijp (“deh peep”), where I stroll the thriving Albert Cuyp Market — several blocks of open-air vendors selling foods, flowers, clothing, housewares, antiques, and more.

The Albert Cuyp Market an easy and enjoyable place to assemble a progressive breakfast. There are pickled herring stands, if that’s your poison — choose between “Amsterdam-style” (chopped up on a bun, with raw onions) or the more adventurous “Rotterdam-style” (pick up the intact filet, dredge it in onions, and lower it delicately into your open mouth).

In the mood for something a little less…aggressively flavorful…I follow my nose to a stand selling poffertjes — tiny, puffy Dutch pancakes cooked on a special griddle. Each one is about the size of a semi-deflated squash ball, sprinkled with powdered sugar. Delicious.

As I wander, I check out many other tempting foods: roasted chicken sandwiches, a hummus bar, an array of Dutch cheeses, roasted nuts, and more.  But the one thing I can’t resist is a hot stroopwafel. Neighboring Belgium is famous for its big, fluffy waffles, but here in the Netherlands, they prefer a thin, crispy wafer…or, actually, two of them, sandwiching a layer of caramel syrup. You can buy stacks of stroopwafels in any shop, but they’re best when warmed up — hot and gooey. I don’t really feel like I’ve been to Amsterdam until I’ve had a stroopwafel. I’m getting this one in just under the wire.

Back at my hotel, I pack my bag in a hurry — determined to squeeze in one last culinary adventure before my flight. Around the corner from my hotel, I’ve spotted a hole-in-the-wall shop called The Lebanese Sajeria, specializing in the Middle Eastern wrap sandwich called a manoushe. I line up and place my order, then wait patiently on the sidewalk as the busy chef delicately lays each flatbread on the dome-shaped griddle in the window until it’s cooked just right. Finally, my name is called, and I find a canalside bench to bite into my wrap. The flatbread is warm and crispy, wrapped around a generous layer of the spice and sesame seed mix called za’atar, along with a layer of spiced ground beef.  It’s hot, delicious, explosively flavorful, and the perfect end to my mini-break in Amsterdam.

Hopping into my Uber, I know that I’ll be back to Amsterdam soon. This city exerts a strange magnetism on any traveler who simply enjoys exploring. Best of all, in two nights and one full day in one of Europe’s most touristy cities, I’ve managed to almost entirely avoid the tacky parallel world that most tourists never leave. If you’re going to Amsterdam just once in your life, of course you should check out the Rijksmuseum, the Anne Frank Museum, and the Van Gogh Museum. But also carve out a little time to putter around the city’s concentric canals. find a cozy café in the Jordaan, snap a twilight photo of a canal at 11 p.m., and munch a manoushe or a poffertje.


Most of the places I visited are my favorite discoveries from past trips — and are included in our Rick Steves Amsterdam & The Netherlands guidebook… although, because this was such a short trip, I brought along the more compact Rick Steves Pocket Amsterdam. (Other new finds — like the Foodhallen — will turn up in our upcoming third edition.)

Amsterdam is particularly well-suited for audio tours. Through our Rick Steves Audio Europe app, you can download Rick and Gene’s tours of three different neighborhoods: the Jordaan, the city center, and the Red Light District…all entirely free.