These days, one of our first activities in most cities we visit is a food walking tour, visiting local eateries and markets with a foodie guide. It’s a great way to get a sense of the city, and a great way to spot foods and places to come back to later in the trip. Above, a Basque pinxtos bar in London; we went with a tour and went back for our farewell dinner.
Red beans and rice, New Orleans
In a sense, a food tour is the culinary equivalent of a quick bus tour of the city: enough to pique your interest and guide the rest of your stay.
Breads and pastries, Berlin
I’m really not sure just when these tours became a ‘thing;’ there are definitely more than when we did our first about 4 years ago, but it definitely wasn’t new then, either. We’ve been very happy with most of ours, but there’s a wide variety, and we’ve got some tips for you.
In the markets, Karakoy, Istanbul
What’s a typical tour like?
- Most of them are small-group tours, and that’s the best. I’d avoid anything that’s more than 10-12 people. Most tours stop in a variety of small local restaurants and shops; larger tours can only visit larger places. Also, large groups move slowly and you lose the opportunity for conversation among the group and with the guide and food hosts. Those conversations are the best!
- Tours generally run 3-4 hours; some longer, and stop in a number of places for small bites; some end up with a meal at the end. In general, it’s kind of like a “progressive supper” with both “real food” and desserts. Some have more beverage emphasis. Wear comfortable shoes and assume that the tour is a substitute for at least one meal.
- The stops will as often be interesting food stores, bakeries, etc. as restaurants; there's almost always a chance to talk with the owner or staff.
- We’ve been fortunate to tour with guides who were really into food and especially the food and culture of the place. The best tours are really about more than just the food; conversation and information connects the food to the city’s history and culture, and to the different experiences of your fellow travelers.
Curry in London, top, and discussion and relaxation after the East End tour
What kinds of food?
- In some cities you won’t find a lot of tours, and they will likely focus on the most traditional local foods. But in some cities, you’ll find a real smorgasbord of foods, celebrating different traditions or cutting-edge styles, or desserts only.
- Don’t be afraid to do more than one tour, especially in larger cities; in London, for instance, we did one tour that covered food traditions of the historically-immigrant East End, and one that covered today’s trends in Soho. It was interesting to see how much they intersected!
- If you’re traveling with children, take into account how adventurous they are, or not. I’ve had a few moments of telling myself, “OK…I know it’s not what you think you like, but this is your one chance to try it.” Most tour descriptions are pretty specific about what you’ll see and visit.
Black beer in Prague. Very black!
How much do they cost?
- There’s a wide variety of prices out there, and the price doesn’t always seem to bear any relationship to the tour itself. Think of it as you would restaurants: the prices vary, and you have to decide if you want to spend that much or find a less expensive one.
- Well-recommended tours come at the low end, too. While we paid $125 each for our Istanbul tours, the popular StrEat tours in Palermo and Catania are around $45.
Chatting with wine-store owner, Berlin, above, and a wealth of delicatessen
How to find them and what to look for
- While most of the tours are local, and can be found by Googling “food tour of somecity,” a number of organizers have created brands with extensive websites. Culinary Backstreets is one of those; when we went on two of their Istanbul tours, they had tours in three cities; now they have 10 cities listed and a website of food articles and blogs.
- Even within groups like Backstreets and Eating Europe, most of the tours and tour guides are local, using the umbrella groups for marketing and a common format.
- Don’t limit yourself to the “name brands;” if a tour’s description sounds tasty, go ahead. And if it doesn’t have a well-organized way to reserve in advance, and you want to be sure, check Viator.com; it’s a well-organized aggregator of local experiences. Many small local tour companies sell through them. Check the tour you want; you may find you can book it there.
- Markets, markets, markets: we always give an edge to tours that include a visit to local markets. Sometimes they are big and famous, like La Bouqueria in Barcelona; sometimes they are smaller but vital to local food habits. One of our Istanbul tours spent the whole 5.5 hours in markets on both the European and Asian sides of the city.
- Check about transportation and walking. Comfortable shoes, of course, but some go greater distances than others, or up steeper hills. And it helps to find out in advance whether you’ll end up in the same place you started!
We’ve especially enjoyed…
Only a starting point, but checking out these tours and others from the same sites may help you find just the one you want. We’re only listing the ones we’ve been on (not the five we’ve reserved for our next two trips!). A number of them have appeared in TravelGumbo blogs, and the others will eventually.
All the breads you could imagine, Istanbul
- Culinary Backstreets, Istanbul
- Two Markets, Two Continents, starts in the markets of Karakoy on the European side, and crosses the Bosphorus by ferry to continue on the Asian side in Kadikoy. Lots of small and interesting bites.
In Karakoy, a store that sells only pickles and pickle juice. A great drink!
- Hidden Beyoglu, in the old “European Quarter,” formerly home to Greeks, Armenians, Jews and a mixture of other Europeans. The tour explores the remaining traces, as well as the current Anatolian population.
The kitchen crew preparing lunch at the Beyoglu lokantasi where we stopped
- Berlin Mitte Food Tour, focuses on Berlin’s original center (which is what Mitte means) with tastings of pastry, candy, bread, meats and, of course, a currywurst. We ended up in an artisanal beer garden, chatting with the owner. Plenty of good restaurant recommendations, but sadly we were at the end of our week!
On the Berlin Mitte tour, we ended up chatting with the owner/brewmaster of this artisanal brewpub.
- Eating Prague’s Prague Food Tour focuses only a little on the older food traditions of the city, and a lot on how it has changed in the past 30 years, but the traditional is there, too. Several of the stops belong to a group of young chefs and artisan suppliers; we went back to several.
- In Lisbon, we were among the first customers of Eat Drink Walk, and had a fabulous tour with the two founders, starting at the market on the riverside, and continuing through several restaurants. Full of good information, advice on where to go “across the river” for a wonderful lunch, and a “secret” rooftop café with a fabulous view. They now have a variety of tours.
New Orleans roast-beef Po Boy, and delicious shrimp and grits
- Tastebud Tours Flavors of the French Quarter in New Orleans. Our guide, a local schoolteacher, walked us through New Orleans history as reflected in the varied cuisines, including the ones we expect in NOLA and the ones we don’t. Don’t only think French or Spanish: there’s Italian and African blended in there, too.
- Eating London
- East End Food Tour, a morning tour that starts at Spitalfields market and wanders through the East End’s immigration and other history, reflected in a mix of Jewish, Bangladeshi, Chinese, French and other cultures. Plan no lunch after this one; one of the most varied and filling, and it ends with a deli-style smoked meat sandwich I still dream of.
Fried and fried in the East End
- Twilight Soho Food Tour is a whirlwind of different food experiences, starting with a gin-and-tonic that almost made me a convert. We also had incredible Chinese dumplings, Mexican tacos, a traditional meat pie and Basque pintxos, all with commentary on a neighborhood that has stayed on the edge of change for a century or two and is still evolving.
Trendy gin and tonic...almost made me a convert in Soho
Coming up for us: We’ve got tours scheduled for Santiago, Chile in December, and for Naples, Catania and Palermo in March, followed by one in Budapest in April…we promise to report!
And if you’ve had a good time on a food tour, please chime in!