I find myself writing about food a lot lately, but with good reason. Food is so important when we travel – it’s the fastest and best way to learn about any new destination. They’re also a lot of fun; who doesn’t like trying new local delicacies or concoctions you’d never even imagined? It’s a great way to combine education with good old-fashioned fun travel, and it’s a style of cultural immersion I find myself seeking out more and more. With that in mind, I thought I’d share some of my favorite food tours and other culinary experiences in Europe. Granted, there are many more out there, but it’s a big continent and I’m doing my best to eat my way around it.
Paris Holiday Food Walk
France is perhaps best experienced through the stomach and as the capital of this food-obsessed nation, Paris has plenty of experiences for the foodie in all of us. Several years ago I joined a Context walking tour of my favorite city; an effort to learn more about the culinary traditions behind the foods that I enjoy. The Baguette to Bistro tour was a great introduction to the basics of French cuisine. Led by an amiable and knowledgeable food writer, we covered everything from the art of the perfect baguette to trying some of the seasonal pastries common during the Christmas season when we visited. Even if you’ve spent a lot of time in Paris as I have, it’s a great way to learn more about the cultural underpinnings to some of France’s best-loved foods.
This is the tour that changed my mind about food tours. Not only is it still the best food tour I’ve ever been on, but it’s probably the best walking tour of any kind, anywhere in the world that I’ve ever enjoyed. The four-hour jaunt through London’s eclectic East End is a walk through the neighborhood’s history and culture as well as an opportunity to taste some great bites. The guides are passionate about their city and the food culture and I learned a lot as I chowed down on classics like bacon sarnies and fish & chips as well as more recent neighborhood additions like spicy curries. All food is included in the tour cost and come hungry because the bites are much more than samples, they’re mini-meals in their own right.
Cooking in Milan
Food tours are great, but so are cooking classes that go into more depth than any tour could hope to. I look for these when I have enough time in any given place to spend, especially since they usually last for several hours. I also try to do them in especially iconic foodie destinations, and Milan certainly qualifies as that. Northern Italy in general, but Milan and Lombardy in particular is home to some of the most famous Italian dishes, as well as the tastiest. Walking into the modest home of Chef Aurora, owner of Cook and Dine, I could already smell the aromas of cooking prep well underway. There’s something inherently calming about being in someone’s house, in their kitchen when learning how to cook. Had we been in a large industrial space I know I would’ve been a little nervous, but cooking alongside Aurora in her personal kitchen made it seem like I was hanging out with a friend instead of a teacher. Through her patient tutorial, that evening we learned how to prepare several iconic Milanesi dishes including: Osso bucco, pumpkin ravioli, cotoletta and tiramisu. It was a delicious way not just to learn about the food, but to really feel connected to the people who call both Milan and Lombardy home.
Helsinki Food Tour
Before first visiting Finland I had no background with Finnish food, and so in this case I felt that a food tour wasn’t just a nice thing to do, it was an important experience. Using the local tour company Happy Guide Helsinki, I met my guide outside one of the city’s many food halls, eager to start my culinary education of the city. Meats, cheeses, breads and more, each stop at the various stands told a different story, shared a different tradition and naturally, all tasted amazing. Featuring foods produced locally, my guide gave me her unique point of view as an expat living in Helsinki, a perspective that added a different and important perspective to food in Helsinki and Finland. Throughout the course of the afternoon we ambled around town, trying local favorites like pastries and cinnamon rolls as well as learning more about Finland’s great love of candy, including the often maligned (and rightly so) salmiakki. It was a fun afternoon and an eye-opening experience as I finally began to understand the foodie side to Finland.
Afternoon at a Spanish Fishing Hut
Not all food experiences are overly formal; something I discovered when I was invited to a local fishing hut in Spain for what is a very popular activity. It’s hard to find a bad meal anywhere in Spain, but that’s especially true along the sunny Costa Brava. Here food is life, the logical way to welcome friends and strangers alike. Seafood is necessarily a big part of daily life here along the Mediterranean, and enjoying an afternoon on the coast isn’t just something tourists like to do, it’s popular for locals as well. Many families or groups of friends co-own small fishing huts. Small buildings next to the beach with a place to nap, a kitchen and that’s about it. Throughout the warm summer months especially, everyone gathers at the huts to enjoy the weather, great friendships and of course some amazing food. It’s a remarkable experience anytime someone invites you into their homes, into their lives, and the afternoon I spent with my new Spanish friends wasn’t only the most fun I had along the Costa Brava, it taught me more about the culture and the food than anything more formal could have ever achieved.
Amsterdam Food Tour
Since my first experience with the tour company Eating Europe was such a success in London, when I found myself in another city where they host tours I knew immediately that I had to join. I wasn’t disappointed either and that morning and early afternoon I spent wandering around the canals of Amsterdam made me finally learn to appreciate the city, food coming to the rescue once again. From classic Dutch apple pie and poffertjes to more recent additions to the Dutch food scene from far-flung colonies, the tour was a true immersion into what Amsterdam as a city values in its food. Of everything I tried that morning, without a doubt my favorite bite came not at a café or restaurant, but at a butcher’s. Butcher Louman in the Jordaan neighborhood has been the go-to source for great meats since 1890, but they’re especially well known for their sausages and cured meats. My favorites were the ossenworst (raw, smoked beef sausage) and the grillworst (grilled sausages), which are both amongst the best in the city.
Making Black Forest Cake in Germany
I have an incredible sweet tooth – I’d much rather enjoy a great dessert than a main course any day. So when I travel I am naturally drawn to pastries, chocolates and other sweet treats and one country where that proclivity is always rewarded is Germany. Of the many sweet food experiences I’ve enjoyed in Germany, learning how to make a real Black Forest Cake with a local baker in Freiburg is probably my favorite moment. Special tart cherry kirsch from the Black Forest is the only acceptable ingredient to add to the layers of chocolate, whipped cream and cherries that make an authentic cake and it’s not just a stereotype, the cakes are still popular locally. The baker told me that families wouldn’t think of having an Easter dinner without one, although it’s certainly popular throughout the year. Freiburg is the gateway to the Black Forest, so locals take this special dessert very seriously, and learning from the top bakery in town is something I’ll never forget.
Nordic Food Experience in Stockholm
Nowadays, finding new food tours is just a normal part of my travel experience. That’s why when I recently found myself in Stockholm for just a scant 36 hours, I knew that a great food tour necessarily had to be a part of the trip. As with most food tours, I learned a lot about what Swedes eat and why, but I also learned a lot about the city. The Stockholm tour with Food Tours Stockholm was one of the best run food tours I’ve been on, led by a local food writer and cookbook author, her expertise in all things Swedish cuisine made a big difference not just in my enjoyment of the food and city, but my understanding of the culture behind it. Of the several tours offered, I opted for the Nordic Experience walk so that I could learn more about the very traditional side to Swedish cuisine. I’d traveled in Sweden before, but my foodie knowledge of the country was very limited, a deficiency in my education that was quickly corrected. From meats and cheeses to traditional Swedish meatballs, we tried a little bit of everything that afternoon. Of course my favorite Swedish food custom is Fika, that time in the afternoon when you sit down with coffee, some cake or sweets and catch up with friends. It’s a tradition that I wish more countries would adopt and is yet another reason to fall in love not just with Stockholm, but Sweden itself.
These are just a few of my favorite European food tours and experiences – what are yours?