Save on Food While Traveling in Europe

Eating in France  This is part of a series on “Traveling in Europe: 10 Travel Lessons.” To read main article, click here.

Even if, like me, you don’t consider yourself a “foodie,” er, gourmand who travels with a list of famous chefs and restaurants to visit, Europe presents a grand adventure in cuisine and wine not to be missed! Since eating healthy without spending a fortune is a priority, I don’t seek out fine dining (although I wouldn’t say no to an invitation!). Besides saving money, there’s the pleasure of the hunt,  local interactions, and learning about the culture through the food itself. Here are some ways to save money, eat well and have more fun.

Avoid tourist restaurants as they are designed to be innocuous and lull you into a false sense of security. Their food is often substandard and expensive, the atmosphere dull and the experience unremarkable.

Food Markets – Almost every town has a market day or a daily market of local producers. Cities have them in almost every neighborhood. Buying food from these stalls can be a cultural experience in itself – meeting the vendors, communicating in another language (gestures work just fine), and then taking it away to nosh on, picnic, or cook up later.  buying bread at Portabello Market

If you want a full meal and don’t have the desire or means to cook – these markets almost always have restaurants on site, the kind where working-class people go for lunch. The food is fresh and reasonably priced, and the atmosphere lively. Find one with a menu and vibe you like, order up, sit down at one of their tables and join the fun. If you’re alone, you can ask another person or group to join them. I’ve never been declined and it’s a great way to learn insider tips and, sometimes, make new friends.

Ethnic Restaurants – Every city has areas where certain ethic groups seem to settle and you’ll often find small, hole-in-the-wall restaurants packed with locals enjoying curry, dim sum, pierogies, etc. The owners and other guests may look surprised at a stranger invading their space, but I’ve always found them gracious and helpful when I make clear I am ignorant but curious about their food, often pointing to neighbors’ plates to place my order.

fish market BarcelonaShop like a local – In addition to outdoor-style markets (sometimes covered for year-round use), Europe has a long tradition of specialized food stores and vendors, often little shops in the neighborhood where you’re staying. If you’ll be staying at least a few days, you may enjoy getting to know the owners and employees who can be very helpful.

In France, for example, it’s fun to construct a meal by stopping at the fromagerie (cheese store), boulangerie (bread shop), grab a bottle of wine at a wine shop or l’epicerie (a convenience store that stocks a bit of everything) and your dessert from a patisserie (pastry shop).

When going to market, be sure to bring your own bags. Europeans are serious recyclers and you are expected to have your own. Fortunately, in many places, local crafts include woven baskets ideal for shopping and traveling, and durable plastic ones are readily available for a euro or two.

Some shops have luscious take-away counters.

Some shops have luscious take-away counters.


dining al fresco in Girona

Dining al fresco at a community potluck in Girona, Catalunya

Al Fresco – While memories of interior restaurants may fade, I remember every outdoor café experience – whether in a busy plaza in Madrid, on a sidewalk in Amsterdam, or in sight of a glorious view like the Abbey at Mont Saint-Michel. There is something magical about eating outdoors and well worth the effort to find an appealing situation.

Everywhere you go you’ll find opportunities to explore something new and, even if it isn’t to your liking, it will become a lasting part of the rich tapestry of your travel memories. Just one word of advice: before getting on a train or bus trip, be sure to pack your own food, as the pickings (if they exist at all) are typically slim and pricey. Be prepared and continue to feast on great food and wine!

If you have more ideas and experiences, please leave your comments at the blog!