It wasn’t too long ago that visiting a restaurant—especially while on vacation—was hit or miss. You may have gotten a second-hand recommendation from someone about a place they liked five years ago, but it was usually a roll of the dice whether you were about to enter a local favorite or a tourist trap. That’s changed in our interconnected world, and food has become much more important to travelers, who use the opportunity to try new cuisines and sample regional specialties.
A trip to a new place is a chance to experience that culture through food. Sometimes that can mean pushing what you’re comfortable eating. But more often than not, you are rewarded with new tastes and flavors that you’ll soon be seeking out once you get home. For some with restrictive diets—like vegans, vegetarians, keto practitioners, and those suffering from food allergies, just to name a few—traveling can sometimes be a challenge.
But if you put in a bit of research beforehand, you can generally stick to your dietary requirements in most parts of the world. Whether you’re a strict vegan or someone who wants to explore the variety of local cuisine, putting some thought into your travel destination before you go can make all the difference. Choose a travel company like Conscious Adventurist, which can customize any trip with food-based activities like cooking classes and dining excursions. It can also accommodate people with dietary and nutritional preferences. Here are some suggestions for enjoying a foodie-focused trip on your next vacation abroad.
Prepare for the Language Barrier
Before you leave (or on the plane if you’re in for a long ride), research a few key phrases and words that will help when you order. Learn how to say “I don’t eat meat,” “I don’t eat eggs,” or “I don’t drink milk.” Vegans have gotten used to this, and the Vegan Society is a great resource—its Vegan Passport is a must-have for travelers. The 5th edition covers 79 languages, includes a variety of food photos and it’s less than $10.
If you’re open to exploring new cuisine, find out the words for chicken, fish, beef, and pork. Find out the staple foods of the area where you’re visiting and seek out restaurants known for providing them. Google Translate is another excellent resource. There’s a website, or you can download the app right on your phone and use it when you’re offline. You can even take pictures of menus and signs, and the app will translate them.
Travel to Places Where the Cuisine Works for You
Have a gluten allergy? Consider a trip to Southeast Asia, where wheat is much less a part of the standard diet. Look for trips like Thailand, Cambodian and Laos Adventure, which features a tour of the Yodsay neighborhood in Bangkok, which isn’t a typical tourist destination. You’ll be able to explore the traditional shops and restaurants that the locals love. For those serious foodies, consider a trip like Thailand & Vietnam—A Gourmet Adventure. The 16-day trip focuses heavily on the restaurants and local cuisine of each country.
Some places are more vegan-friendly than others. Most people in North America and Western Europe will at least know what you mean when you say that you’re a vegan, which helps, but that doesn’t mean these are your only options. Generally speaking, Middle Eastern, Ethiopian, and Indonesian cuisines are inherently vegan- and vegetarian-friendly. Indian food is usually vegetarian, although it often includes dairy.
When most of us think of German food, we think of meat-heavy meals, but Berlin is home to many vegan restaurants, cafes, and bars. Other particularly vegan-friendly cities are Tel Aviv, Israel; Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Budapest, Hungary; Chiang Mai, Thailand; and Warsaw, Poland.
In general, meat-eaters will have an easier time finding the cuisine they love. But it makes sense to seek out the best options available rather than going with what’s easily found in tourist areas. Take a trip to Ecuador or Argentina to try the steak that South America has made famous. When traveling to New Zealand, enjoy the local lamb. And Europe is of course filled with a wealth of cuisines to explore. On a classic tour of Mont Blanc, you can spend your evenings sampling incredible French cuisine after working spending your days building up an appetite.
You Don’t Need to Get Fancy
Too often we think of those white-tablecloth restaurants as the place to find local cuisine at its best. But often it’s the street food that you remember the most. Don’t be afraid to eat like a local, and go ahead and grab a bowl of noodles, some freshly-caught fish, or a slice of pizza from a vendor. Grab sandwiches to-go in town so you’ll have them handy for your hike. Throw some local cheese, bread, and sausage in your backpack and it may just be the best snack you can remember. If you see locals lining up at a food truck or a small storefront, that’s a place you want to go.
It’s OK to Splurge
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a night on the town at the area’s best restaurant as well. Just do your research to make sure it will live up to your expectations. Spending more than usual for a great night out is worth it. When the food falls far short of expectations, you’ll regret both the cost and the lost opportunity. Find recent articles in places like Curiosity Magazine and other foodie sites to find out which restaurants are worth your time and money in a new city.
Go on a Food Tour
More and more destinations are taking advantage of the interest in food and organizing tours. The World Food Travel Association can be a good resource to help you find a group outing that fits your taste. If it’s in your budget, a local guide can also serve as a great resource as well.
Chances are you will have access to some of the most knowledgeable people in food service, you just need to take advantage of their expertise. Waiters and bartenders know what’s good in town. Ask them. They will help you find a place (even if it’s not where they work) where they enjoy eating.
Make Your Own Meals
Pretty much all local markets will have basics like bread, pasta, rice, fruits, and veggies. Going to a market also allows you to take your time and look at the pictures on the packaging or use Google Translate to figure out words. It can also be helpful to look up a few keywords or ingredients and make a list before you head to the supermarket. You might not have the most glamorous of options, but at least you’ll know that your meal meets your needs. And if you’re traveling for a longer period of time, it’s a good way to save money. Consider taking a cooking class while on your trip, and you can learn more about what locals cook and eat at home.
Bring Some Snacks and/or Bars from Home
If you have a go-to snack or bar at home, bring a box (or two) on your trip. That way, if you’re feeling grumpy and jet-lagged and can’t find anything to eat, you’ll have something familiar to settle your stomach.
Know Local Customs
If you’re looking to fully immerse yourself in a culture, be prepared to either let your typical dietary restrictions slide a bit. Of course, if it’s a major health concern, this won’t fly. But if you simply avoid red meat at home, it’s not the end of the world to have a taste while abroad. In many countries, if a local invites you to sit down for a meal, it would be extremely rude to decline the food or not eat some of what is offered. Travel is about expanding your horizons, and that can include challenging what you eat as well. But if that’s something you’re not comfortable with, you can work around it.
The key to finding the right food experience abroad is knowing beforehand what to expect. With a little research, you can be enjoying yourself with incredible new tastes, instead of just accepting whatever’s available in the hotel restaurant. You’ll be happy you put in the effort.
Written by Abbie Mood for Matcha in partnership with Conscious Adventurist and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to [email protected].
Featured image provided by Jade Aucamp