Now let’s deal with some really important stuff – food! Part of any grand tour anywhere includes eating the local cuisine. You don’t know a place until you have experienced its food. There is some delicious food out there, and not only is it gastronomically satisfying, it is culturally rewarding as well. Europeans take great pride in their local specialties, and eating is still a social ritual, not just a life-sustaining necessity. Europeans will typically spend two hours lingering over a leisurely meal enjoying the food and one another’s company and conversation, and so should you. But dining out can also be a travel budget buster, especially in today’s
weak dollar environment, unless you know a few tricks to the eating abroad trade. Knowing a few things about eating your way through Europe will save you lots of money, increase your enjoyment of the local cuisine, and double your pleasure in experiencing this wonderful part of European culture.
Lets start with what nutritionists tell us is the most important meal of the day – breakfast! Well, that message has not gotten to Europeans. A typical European breakfast consists of small cup of espresso and a croissant and that’s it. But have no fear, our hotels are well aware of the American penchant for breakfast and over the years have expanded their offerings to include cereals, juices, cheeses, meats, yogurt, various breads, and even bacon and eggs once in a while. You’ll not have to take breakfast on the run in the cafes with the espresso/croissant crowd – unless of course you want to! And don’t forget that all your breakfasts are included in the price of your tour.
Lunch is my favorite meal of the day and a great opportunity for you to see how life is lived by the locals. All the great cities of Europe have wonderful open air markets and self-service food bars. These morning markets are where the locals go to shop for fresh food, and you should to. The great secret to eating well and cheaply in Europe is to hit the morning market and assemble a picnic! Any experienced European traveler is a connoisseur of the picnic! Buying the stuff for your picnic in these great markets is one of the fun experiences of any day in Europe as well as being the absolute, hands down best food value you’ll find. For $4 or $5 dollars anywhere in Europe you can stuff yourself on fresh breads, delicious meats, all sorts of cheeses, fruits, vegetables, yogurts and juices. Assembling the picnic feast is as enjoyable as eating it! So wander the markets with the locals, watch what they are buying, take in the colorful sights and smells, and buy what looks good. A few of you go in together and load up. Bring some sip lock bags to put
your selections in, put them in your day pack, and you are ready for a great picnic lunch. The next fun thing is to pick a good spot, the lawn in front of the Eiffel Tower for instance. Pretty good place for a picnic. Enjoying this will save you lots of money over a restaurant lunch and be a lot more fun.
Eating out at night is where some good advice will really save you a lot of money and increase your enjoyment of European cuisine. An evening meal does not have to be expensive to be good – in fact, the opposite is most often true. Read carefully the following four tips for dining out. I promise you good times, great food, and less sticker shock if you will follow these guidelines:
- Find a restaurant filled with locals, not tourists! The locals don’t go around wasting their money on lousy food. They know good food at a good value, so eat where they are eating. Get away from the touristy areas and the English menus and search the side streets. Ask your hotel clerk or another local and you’ll not have a problem finding a great meal at a reasonable price. If you see a restaurant with a big sign saying “We speak English” just turn around and go the other way! All they want is your money. Hang with the locals for the best food at the best price.
- Order ala-carte! This is where it gets fun! You probably have little idea what the menu says, so ask your waiter. Look around and see what other people are eating, pointing to something that looks good and asking your waiter to show you that on the menu. Get a group of you to each order something different and sample each others meal. Be adventurous, be inquisitive, and enjoy your dinner and your company, your waiter and the ambience.
- Follow dining suggestions in guide books! I have found suggestions in guide books to be very helpful. Just be sure what price range their suggestions are in. Some of the restaurants I have found in guide books have become restaurants that I return to again and again. When I go out to eat at night my target price for a good restaurant meal is about $20. A real splurge for me is about $25 to $30. But I won’t eat a restaurant meal every night. I’ll also picnic at night for about $5 and sleep the sleep of a full and contented traveler. Also, a good guidebook will help you identify the inexpensive local eateries. In Italy, for example, you will see lots of osteria’s, trattoria’s, pizzeria’s and “self service” bars. Your guidebook can help you find the best ones.
- European restaurants post their menus outside, so check the prices and see what’s cooking before you go in! You will see phrases like menu turistico; prix fixe; menu de jour. These phrases mean “today’s special” for a multi-course meal complete with service. These are almost always a good value away from the touristy areas. Many times you can choose your entrŽe or appetizers from a list of three or more options. Remember, however, that drinks such as wine or cola are almost always extra and almost always expensive. And don’t expect water – you are not in America. Handle it! Make sure you know the price before ordering.
So have fun, be brave, ask for suggestions, and try strange new things! Local food eaten with the locals will be one of your great travel experiences!