Museums, art galleries and walking tours all have their place on any of my travel itineraries, but not before I’ve made a dent in a city’s key foodie hubs. And if I’m fortunate to have time up my sleeve then these are the places I will revisit again and again. They are also the best way to fast track your way into the culinary heartland of a new culture.
1. Food Markets
There are not many cities and towns without a food market of some sort. After all, this was how people shopped before supermarkets came along (not that I’m dissing supermarkets as you’ll see in the next point). Countries like France, Finland and Hong Kong are experts at food markets and even have themed markets for your every gastronomic desire.
This is where you will see first-hand what produce and ingredients are in season and sourced locally. You’ll find gems that you won’t find anywhere else. And those gems will likely be cheaper than anywhere else too.
Fave pick: the plethora of wet and dry markets in Hong Kong are an exotic adventure in the making. Wander through produce in a myriad of vivid colours and relish random finds like dried seahorse and starfish.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that supermarkets are purely the domain of locals and backpackers looking for cans of tuna. I can (and do) spend HOURS in foreign supermarkets; just ask any of my patient travelling buddies.
I love to see what’s stocked on the shelves, the more random the items the better. If I come across something I’ve never seen, that’s grounds enough for me to buy it. I also get a kick out of quirky packaging, unusual names (crap anyone?) and in-store advertising (must be my inner marketing nerd).
Fave pick: Romanian supermarkets have an awesome mix of eastern bloc-meets-europe items that I love, not to mention loads of comedic brand names based on English words for hours of fun.
3. Department Store food halls
This step up from supermarkets is well worth a trip (just leave your credit cards at home). Whether it’s Sydney’s David Jones, Geneva’s Globus or Paris’ Galleries Lafayette, this is where you find the top shelf brands in food and drink.
I spent an entire day just wandering through the Harrods and Harvey Nichols food halls before Christmas (I needed a whole other day to conquer Fortnum & Mason). Your eyes will be torn between display cases dedicated to truffles, glistening mounds of fresh seafood and gourmet snacks. And if you’re really lucky they’ll be offering samples when you visit.
Fave pick: Upmarket Swedish department store NK has a giant food hall under its flagship locations and showcases goodies from all over Scandinavia and beyond. Where else would I have discovered purple cauliflower, blackberry soup and skyr outside Iceland?
4. Food Festivals
This is the foodie holy grail. A one-off event dedicated to an ingredient, season or cuisine takes you even further into the foodie heartland, revealing the way a culture reveres and celebrates its gastronomy.
I’ve been known to purposely schedule trips to coincide with food festivals but for the most part it’s just luck of the draw. Do some research in advance to see what’s coming up, speak to the local tourist board and keep your fingers crossed.
Fave pick: I got lucky in Budapest when I stumbled across a Goose Liver Festival in Erzsébet Square. The Hungarians are actually the largest producers of foie gras in the world so they revere this animal with a massive celebration and feast.
5. Street Food
In some cultures, eating food prepared and served on the street is standard. And who’s to argue with that? If you’re watching pad thai or a wafer thin crepe being prepared in front of your eyes you know it’s fresh, authentic and usually cheap.
More often than not you’ll encounter someone who has been making the same dish for most of their life and has become an expert at it. So take advantage of their expertise!
Fave pick: In Mexico City you can virtually smell corn cooking 24/7. If it’s not a tamale cart then it’s a taco stand greeting you on each corner. The best in local food is cooked on the street and will set you back practically nothing.
6. Cooking class
The only thing better than eating the local food is learning how to cook it yourself. This is definitely the priciest experience on the list but in my eyes, one of the most valuable. The best part is taking the knowledge and recipes home with you to relive your adventure in years to come. You’ll need to do your research in advance for this one.
Fave pick: The day I spent at Chiang Mai’s Thai Farm Cooking School was the highlight of my Thailand trip. Over the course of the day we visited the local produce market (ticking off #1), picked fresh herbs from the garden, watched a local cook prepare a variety of signature dishes, cooked them ourselves, then devoured them on the terrace with view of the farm. Best. Day. Ever.