Europe’s 10 Best Markets

What traveler doesn’t love a great European market? There are few better windows into local life than rubbing shoulders with shoppers, browsing stands piled high with colorful produce, nibbling on street munchies, and being fully immersed in the sights, sounds, and smells of the local community.

Over half a lifetime of traveling around Europe, I’ve been collecting my favorite market experiences for travelers — where you can glean some insights into local culture and cuisine, and browse for a good, local, quality meal. This is a mix of old-school covered markets, trendier food halls, and sprawling, open-air markets that take over an entire neighborhood or town. I’ve heavily skewed my suggestions to foodie options, where you’ll find dishes that are creative and interesting (rather than just fill-the-tank), while still being affordable. Happy browsing!

10. Mercado de San Miguel, Madrid, Spain

Madrid's Mercado de San Miguel

Just steps from the grand Plaza Mayor, in the heart of Spain’s capital, sits this 1915 erector-set market hall. Fully remodeled in 2009, today it’s a bustling showcase of edible Spain. Squeezing between the crowds, you’ll find only the best jamón ibérico (air-cured ham), Manchego and other artisanal Spanish cheeses, powerfully piquant skewered pickles and olives (banderillas), delectable pastries, little skillets of paella, tinned fish and seafood, brochetas (meat or seafood skewers) grilled to order, smoked salmon, sweet vermouths from around Spain, croquetas with various fillings, Mexican dishes from a Michelin-star chef, and robust Rioja wines. It’s a culinary tour of Spain, under one roof.

9. Östermalms Saluhall, Stockholm, Sweden

A classic. Anchoring Stockholm’s posh Östermalm neighborhood, this market hall is simply elegant. Handsome, hand-carved wooden stalls display just-so piles of produce, stacked as if posing for a still-life. The wares here feel…curated. Composed. With Scandinavian precision. There aren’t many bargains in this pricey city, but the Östermalms Saluhall is fun to browse for a high-end picnic, or to settle into a market eatery for a quality deli plate, a delicately composed salad, a sticky Scandinavian sweet roll, a splurgy seafood dish, a gourmet smørrebrød (open-face sandwich), a delectable handmade praline, or a selection of Lebanese small plates. Note: The food hall is undergoing a makeover through 2020; in the meantime, the vendors have set up temporary digs nearby.

8. Markthalle Neun, Berlin, Germany

Berlin’s Kreuzberg district is home to its most cutting-edge, engaging culinary scene — and Markhalle Neun is its flagship. Tucked in a workaday neighborhood away from the tourist sights, it fills a beautifully restored 19th-century hall with greengrocers, cheesemongers, butchers, fishmongers, florists, and bakers, all with an appropriately Berlin-hipster vibe. Meanwhile, food stands sell Berlin classics like Buletten (meatballs), Stolle (open-faced sandwiches), Brezel (big doughy pretzels), and Currywurst — but also Italian pastas, French crêpes, Turkish deli meats, Spanish tapas, and even BBQ from the USA. Markhalle Neun scores bonus points for its many special events (listed at www.markthalleneun.de), including its Saturday farmers market and its “Street Food Thursday” — a beloved institution for Berliners seeking a trendy yet affordable dinner.

7. Mercato Centrale, Florence, Italy

For years, I’d peek tentatively inside this cavernous market hall in the center of Florence, which felt dark and foreboding. With tattered stalls and piles of garbage out front, it felt like it hadn’t changed since the days of Vittorio Emanuele II. Then, in 2014, they converted the top floor into a high-end food circus. Just walk past the still-grubby produce stalls on the main floor, and hike up the stairs to a world of Italian taste treats: hand-rolled pastas, prizewinning prosciutto, massive steaks cooked so rare they still moo, melt-in-your-mouth panini, gourmet burgers made from Tuscany’s prized Chianina beef, rotisserie chicken, big juicy wads of mozzarella di bufala, handheld flatbread sandwiches called trapizzini, big slabs of rustic pizza, tender stewed beef cheeks, truffle-infused oils and pâtés, the rustic Tuscan bread soup called ribollita, deep-fried tasties,  cannoli and other Sicilian sugar bombs, and high-end tripe sandwiches (a Florentine classic!). Travelers smart enough to escape the tourist-gouging restaurants on the main drag retreat to this upper level — like pigeons in the rafters — to take a break from intense Renaissance sightseeing with pretty much any Italian taste treat they can imagine. Tuscany is home to many foodie finds — but this is one of the best.

6. Belvarosi Piac, Budapest, Hungary

In Budapest, tourists flock to the Great Market Hall, an elegant palace of produce built around the turn of the 20th century. And you really do have to see the Great Market Hall. But don’t eat there — the “local”-seeming food counters upstairs specialize in ripping off naive tourists. Instead, head to a different, smaller, and far more authentic neighborhood market hall, also right in the city center (a couple of minutes’ walk from the Parliament): the Belvarosi Piac on Hold Street. In an atmospheric Industrial Age space that feels like the Great Market Hall’s little sibling, producers occupy the ground floor, while the upstairs is ringed by tempting high end-yet-affordable food stands: massive schnitzels at Buja Diszno(k), gourmet sausage at Lakatos Műhely, Russian grub at Moszkvatér (named for the since-rechristened “Moscow Square”), gourmet burgers at Kandalló, Thai-style khao man gai (poached chicken in garlicky sauce), and updated Hungarian classics at A Séf Utcaja. Anchoring the space, down on the main floor, is Stand 25 Bisztró. Here, celebrity chefs Szabina Szulló and Tamás Széll artfully fuse Hungarian classics with international influences (or is it the other way around?). While not cheap by market hall standards, Stand 25 a bargain for a Michelin-caliber lunch in a memorable setting (lunch only, plus dinner Friday and Saturday, book ahead).

5. Ballarò Market, Palermo

The Sicilian capital has some of the best, most vivid street markets in all of Europe. And the granddaddy of them all is Ballarò — seedy, chaotic, bewildering, and invigorating. Come here to jostle with Sicilians who verbally arm-wrestle for the best deals on the best ingredients. The vendors — continuing a tradition that supposedly dates back to Arab rule — warble their sales pitches with an otherworldly cadence, demanding the attention of passersby. Giant slabs of pink tuna perch on marble counters, like cadavers ready to be dissected. Produce stands overflow with vivid-purple eggplants, long, skinny Sicilian zucchini, and tomatoes that actually taste like tomatoes. Best of all, scattered throughout this multi-block span of barely controlled chaos are a wide variety of tempting street food stands, selling greasy napkins topped with dirt-cheap taste treats for every level of adventurous eaters — from arancine (deep-fried rice balls) and sfincioni (“Sicilian pizza”) to pani ca’ meusa (spleen sandwich) and polpo bollito (tiny boiled octopus, eaten whole). (For a complete rundown, check out my post on Palermo’s street food.) Go ahead, dive in — this is what real travelers live for.

4. Mathallen, Oslo, Norway

I love Oslo. But I’ve rarely found a memorable meal tucked among the dreary, blocky downtown core along Karl Johans Gate. However, just north of downtown runs the Akers River Valley, where the city has redeveloped a former wasteland of red-brick factories and warehouses into a lively people zone. Its centerpiece is Mathallen (“Food Hall”), filling the scavenged brick skeleton of a 19th-century factory. Norwegians recognize the limitations of their cuisine. And so, in addition to stands selling fresh, whole-grain bread (at Smelt Ostesmørbrød) sweet and savory pies (at Mildrids Kjøkken), and farm-fresh geitost cheese (at Ost & Sånt), you can nibble tapas, pastas, sushi, tacos and tequila, pizza, Asian street food,  gourmet ice cream, and much more. Ringing the outside of the market are a variety of industrial-mod, higher-end eateries. I skipped the fried chicken and “global tapas,” and went a bit more traditional at Vulkanfisk, serving up affordable-for-Oslo, elegantly presented, fresh seafood (the garlic-sautéed scampi were a flavor bomb). Anytime I’m in Oslo at mealtime, I come up with an excuse to head up the Akers River to Mathallen.

3. Maltby Street Market Rope Walk, London

One summer, my wife and I rented an apartment in London for a week and checked out a different market each day. And at the end of the trip, the Maltby Street Rope Walk emerged as our favorite (every Saturday and Sunday). Tucked along a vintage brick railroad trestle, far from any tourist attractions (roughly across the Thames from the Tower of London), it’s an explosion of foodie energy. Beyond the hole-in-the-wall eateries, wine bars, taprooms, and Mozambique-style burger bars squeezed into the arches under the train tracks, the weekend market adds a world of pop-up food stands: grilled sandwiches oozing with tangy English cheese; little slices of rye bread mounted with melt-in-your-mouth Scottish salmon; slabs of grass-fed, dry-aged, rare-grilled hanger steaks; wild variations on Scotch eggs; Middle Eastern flatbreads with savory toppings; German-style sausages; gyoza steamed in wicker baskets; and a mouthwatering array of gooey brownies. For a more traditional “market hall,” it’s hard to beat London’s famous Borough Market. The funky Camden Market sprawls through a yellow-brick wonderland of old industrial buildings. The Portobello Road Market charms Notting Hill fans. And the Broadway Market feels like ground zero for East London’s hipster baby boom. But if I had to pick just one market that incapsulates cutting-edge London…it’s Rope Walk.

2. Mercado da Ribeira/Time Out Market, Lisbon, Portugal

My favorite European market hall has a split personality. One-half of the market is as classic as they come: traditional, rough-and-tumble vendors selling fragrant herbs, plump produce, and an aquarium’s worth of fish. It’s ragtag, ramshackle, and trapped in the 1950s, with rickety wooden stalls, puddles pooling on cracked tile floors, petticoat-clad grannies selling rough bunches of herbs, and Old World scales with dials that spin imprecisely as if digital were never invented. On its own, this market hall is endearing enough to earn an “honorable mention” on this list. But from there, you can step through a door into La Ribera’s other half: a sleek, futuristic, top-of-the-line, Time Out-themed culinary wonderland (opened in 2014). The two dozen eateries here include stands operated by five marquee, Michelin-rated Portuguese celebrity chefs selling affordably price tastes of their favorite dishes. You’ll also find smaller stands bursting with a variety of local and international meals: the beloved Portuguese steak sandwich called prego, croquetes with fillings both traditional and creative, bacalhau (rehydrated salt-dried cod), fresh-baked pasteis de nata and other pastries, Japanese-fusion dishes highlighting the long-forgotten influence of early Portuguese traders, traditional cheeses and charcuterie, catch-of-the-day, quality steaks, gourmet burgers, artful sushi, and crispy pizzas. Rounding out the scene are a well-stocked wine shop, a place to stock up on conserves (tinned fish with colorful wrappers), and a branch of A Vida Portugesa (a classy vendor of Portuguese-themed products, gifts, and keepsakes that tempt even non-shoppers).  Whether for a meal or a one-stop-shop to stock up on all things Portuguese, Mercado da Ribeira is a winner.

1.  Market Day, Sarlat, France

Sarlat’s street market is hard to top. It’s the refined yin to Palermo’s gritty yang. Twice weekly — on Wednesday mornings, and all day Saturdays — the pristine, lemony-sandstone streets of one of France’s finest towns become a big outdoor shopping mall. Locals pour in from the countryside to browse the stalls, reconnect with their favorite vendors, and bump into old friends. You’ll find baked goods, fresh meat, duck-in-a-can (confit de canard), giant wheels of rustic mountain cheese, tiny pyramids of fine gourmet cheese, nuts and dried fruits, explosively flavorful olives, mammoth chunks of nougat, snail shells prefilled for escargot, fruitcake sold by weight, a rainbow of preserves, salamis and sausages of every shape and size, and whatever produce is in season. When the noon bell tolls, the vendors begin packing up, and the shoppers scramble for café tables that catch just the right mélange of sun and shade. This is where the second phase of the Market Day ritual kicks in: taking some time to nurse a cup of coffee with someone you haven’t seen in a while. It’s all so simple…so sophisticated…so smart. If you won’t be in Sarlat, you can enjoy similar market days all over France; every community has its own, but popular ones include Uzès (in Provence), Beaune (in Burgundy), and several in Parisian neighborhoods. But Sarlat is the one that has left me with the warmest memories of an ideal market experience.

What’s your favorite market in Europe?

2019 Discovery: Palermo Street Markets, Sicily

Street food stand
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Crowds got you down? This post is part of a series of 10 European Discoveries for 2019 — off-the-beaten-path gems where you can escape the tourist rut and find a corner of Europe all your own.

Among Italians (and other foodies), Palermo is synonymous with street food. And its three sprawling street markets — Ballarò, Capo, and Vucciria — let you delve into gritty Sicilian culture in a way that engages all the senses.

Go ahead — taste something you’d never otherwise consider putting in your mouth. Like frittula — basically the leftover parts of veal (cartilage, intestines, little bits of bone) all chopped up, griddled, and seasoned with generous salt and lemon juice. Or pani ca’ meusa — a pillowy bun stuffed with spleen, lung, and other organ meat. Or polpo bollito — a small octopus, boiled whole and spritzed with lemon.

Too adventurous? Then stick to the oldies-but-goodies: arancina, a deep-fried ball of saffron rice and meat sauce; sfincioni, French-bread-style “Sicilian pizza,” grilled up to order; and panelle e cazzilli, chickpea fritters and herbed croquettes.

Best of all, the whole time you’re browsing these gut-bombs, you’re fully immersed in the energetic hubbub of Sicilian urban life — watching the Palermitani greet old friends, listening to the urgent musicality of the vendors’ sales pitches, and smelling all that sizzling and frying goodness (plus a full spectrum of other odors). Palermo’s street markets are quintessential Sicily.

Ready to dive in? If you’re exploring Sicily on a Rick Steves tour, you’re good-to-go: The Best of Sicily in 11 Days Tour includes a guided walk through the Ballarò street market. If you’re traveling independently, consider joining a food tour. You can read about my experience on a Palermo street food tour here — and you’ll find lots of other recommendations in our brand-new Rick Steves Sicily guidebook, co-authored by Sarah Murdoch. Look for that in stores this April.

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.