How To Find Best Restaurants When Traveling
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Traveling is not just about exploring new places, meeting different people, and experiencing diverse cultures; it is also a journey of discovering various culinary delights. Good food is an essential part of the travel experience. It is often said that one of the best ways to understand a new culture is through its cuisine. The dishes’ tastes, textures, and aromas can tell you a lot about the people’s history, traditions, and lifestyle. However, finding the best restaurants while traveling can be a daunting task. Language barriers, unfamiliarity with local dishes, an overwhelming number of options, and dietary restrictions can make identifying the best places to eat challenging. Over the years, I have collected several tips and tricks that have helped me find the best restaurants and enjoy delicious meals while traveling. In this article, I will share these insights with you so you can make the most of your culinary adventures on your next trip.
Google Maps – Explore
This incredibly useful tool offers a plethora of information about restaurants, cafes, and street food vendors in your vicinity. Once on location, open the Maps application and enable location sharing. This will allow the app to provide suggestions based on your current location.
In the search bar, you can type “restaurants,” “food,” or even a specific type of cuisine you are in the mood for, or you can click on the “Restaurants” button to get a list of all the dining options available in the area. Unless you are looking for something specific, I recommend the latter option because the results are comprehensive and include different categories, making it easier to browse various options. All the suggested places will appear on the map, making it easy to see how far they are from your current location and plan your route accordingly.
On the map, you’ll see all the dining options in your area of interest, and at that point, you can start narrowing down your choices based on your preferences and by looking at the reviews. I have a personal rule of thumb: I never go to places with a rating below 4, and if possible, I aim for places with a rating of at least 4.3/4.5. However, I also have a crucial tip for you: don’t just look at the overall rating; check the most recent reviews to better understand the current situation at a particular establishment. Sometimes, places with a lower overall rating have exceptional recent reviews, and the lower rating could be due to past situations or experiences that may have changed over time. It’s essential to consider the most recent feedback from customers to make the most informed decision.
Lastly, don’t forget to consider the type of dining experience you are looking for. Google Maps provides information about the ambiance, whether a place is casual or more formal, if it’s suitable for kids, and even if it has outdoor seating. All these factors can influence your dining experience, so it’s worth taking a few extra minutes to research thoroughly and choose a place that aligns with your preferences and expectations.
Go where the locals go
Seeing a restaurant or eatery bustling with locals indicates that the food is authentic, delicious, and reasonably priced. Don’t hesitate to enter and immerse yourself in the local culture. Of course, there may be exceptions, for example, if a place doesn’t inspire you, and where you think the food is clearly bad (for instance, I avoid all-you-can-eat places, even if they are full of locals!). Otherwise, don’t hesitate and go in: locals typically avoid touristy places and always choose (as we all do!) those where tourists are few or limited. These are almost always places where you can eat truly typical and really good food. Imagine being abroad and craving pizza: Wouldn’t you look for a place where you see all Italians inside?
For example, during one of my trips to Japan, I found myself in a very local, small establishment. There was a long queue outside, consisting only of Japanese people, which I took as a good sign. So, I decided to line up and ended up in one of the best local places ever. The food was incredible, and the experience was memorable because I could observe and interact with the locals, picking up on their customs and mannerisms, which added another layer to the experience. Not only did I enjoy a delicious, authentic meal, but I also gained insight into the local culture, which is an invaluable part of traveling.
Remember, part of the adventure of traveling is stepping out of your comfort zone and trying new things. While having some reservations is okay, don’t let them keep you from exploring and discovering hidden gems. Trust your instincts, observe the locals, and don’t be afraid to dive into new experiences – your taste buds will thank you!
Social media is rife with sponsored content, and influencers are often paid to promote a place, which can lead to an embellished or even inaccurate portrayal of a restaurant’s quality. It’s necessary to differentiate between reality and fiction. Instagram and other platforms like Facebook, Twitter, or TikTok are also filled with sponsored content. A place may seem much better online than it is in reality because it meets the visual standards of social media. Photos can be edited, and angles can be manipulated to make the food and the ambiance seem more appealing than they are. Therefore, while social media can be helpful, it is essential to approach it with caution and a critical mind, cross-referencing with other sources and reviews when possible.
Additionally, consider the source of the recommendation. If a local food blogger or a friend with similar taste recommends a place, it’s likely to be a good bet. However, if an influencer with a million followers and a history of sponsored posts rave about a restaurant, take it with a grain of salt. Always cross-check with multiple sources, look for consistent positive feedback from different users, and consider the overall reputation of the place before making a decision.
Ask a Local
Make it a point to be the one who asks the locals for advice, and you’ll uncover some hidden gems. Many years ago, on a trip to Valencia, we were directed by a local to a restaurant that served paella, which remains our favorite dish to this day. The restaurant has since gained popularity and fame, but at the time, it was a well-kept secret known only to the locals, specifically those from the neighborhood.
Residents often have insider knowledge about the best places to eat, which aren’t always highlighted in travel guides or social media. These local spots may not have the most polished interior or Instagrammable dishes, but they often offer the most authentic and satisfying meals. Moreover, by asking locals for recommendations, you will likely discover some lesser-known eateries and have the opportunity to converse with the residents, leading to more insightful and enriching experiences during your travels.
Therefore, while it might be tempting to stick to the well-trodden path of popular tourist restaurants or rely solely on online reviews, engaging with the local community and seeking out their recommendations can lead to more memorable and rewarding dining experiences.
But it’s surprisingly effective because our instincts often lead us in the right direction, especially regarding life’s pleasures, such as eating and drinking. It’s rare for our instincts to lead us astray in these areas. For instance, my instincts always prompt me to stop whenever I see a street cart selling food. If I am faced with a choice between a restaurant and street food, which is undoubtedly a different dining experience, I almost always opt for the latter. The nature of the destination plays a role in this decision, and the presence of other tourists can also influence your choices for the better: by keeping a distance from other travelers, particularly in the most renowned and crowded locations, you’re more likely to have a more authentic experience.
Trusting your instincts is crucial because it taps into your subconscious understanding of your surroundings. Your instincts might be picking up on cues you’re not consciously aware of, such as the cleanliness of the area, the demeanor of the vendor, or even the reactions of other customers. Also, street food often provides a more authentic and direct connection to the local culture. It’s usually freshly made, using local ingredients, and served in a no-frills manner. Moreover, street food vendors often specialize in one or two dishes, meaning they have perfected the recipe over time. It’s also a great way to support local businesses rather than big, commercial restaurants.
However, balancing your instincts with caution is important, especially regarding street food. Ensure the vendor follows basic hygiene practices and that the food is cooked properly. Also, be aware of your own dietary restrictions and food allergies.
Ultimately, the destination will guide your choices, and the presence of other tourists can sometimes be a helpful indicator. But by actively distancing yourself from other travelers, especially in more famous and congested areas, you will increase your chances of discovering hidden gems and enjoying a more authentic dining experience.
Avoid the tourist areas
Tourist areas often cater to a more general, international palate and might not offer the most authentic or high-quality local cuisine. In contrast, the neighborhoods where locals live and hang out usually feature good quality, authentic, and reasonably priced eateries. Therefore, make it a point to explore these areas. Walk a few blocks away from the main tourist streets, and you might find restaurants and cafes filled with locals, which is usually a good sign of quality and authenticity. Additionally, ask locals for recommendations; they often know hidden gems off the beaten path and are not listed in typical travel guides or websites.
For example, in Miami, a city known for its vibrant food scene and diverse culinary influences, I consciously ventured out of typical tourist areas like South Beach. Instead, I explored neighborhoods like Little Havana and Wynwood, where I discovered many culinary delights, from Cuban sandwiches to traditional Cuban coffee. One particularly memorable experience was dining at a small, family-owned Cuban restaurant in Little Havana, recommended by a local. The food was incredibly flavorful, the portions generous, and the atmosphere felt genuinely Cuban, with lively music and colorful decor. It starkly contrasted with the overpriced, generic fare often found in the more touristy areas.
Follow the lines
This often signals that the place is popular among locals and will likely offer good quality, authentic, and reasonably priced food. Although avoiding a line and seeking a quieter place may be tempting, it is sometimes worth waiting. In busy urban areas, especially in cities known for street food, the best vendors often have a queue of locals waiting for their turn. Don’t be discouraged by a line; instead, take it as a positive sign and an opportunity to mingle with locals and observe the area while waiting. Remember to be mindful of your surroundings and keep an eye on your belongings, as busy areas can sometimes be hotspots for pickpocketing. Also, make sure to have cash on hand, as many street vendors or small eateries do not accept cards. Following the lines can often lead you to some of your trip’s most satisfying and memorable dining experiences.
For example, on a trip to Bangkok, a city famous for its street food, I was overwhelmed by the array of options available. It was hard to know where to start. However, I noticed a particular street food stall in a bustling market that had a long line of locals waiting. Taking this as a good sign, I decided to join the queue. As I waited, I chatted with some locals who informed me that this vendor was famous for their Pad Thai, a classic Thai dish. When I finally got my plate of Pad Thai, it was clear why there was such a long line. The dish was incredibly flavorful, with perfectly cooked noodles, a balance of sweet, sour, and spicy flavors, and fresh, vibrant ingredients. It was hands down the best Pad Thai I had ever eaten and was a highlight of my trip. This experience taught me the value of following the lines when searching for the best places to eat while traveling.
Join a food tour
These guided excursions are specially curated to take you on a culinary journey through local eateries, ranging from hidden gems tucked away in narrow alleyways to renowned establishments celebrated by locals and travelers alike. You get to sample a diverse range of popular dishes in the region while learning about the history, culture, and associated traditions. The guides leading these tours often possess a wealth of insider knowledge about the local food scene and can provide invaluable recommendations for restaurants and dishes to try during your stay. Additionally, since food tours often attract a mix of tourists and locals, it’s a great opportunity to exchange recommendations and experiences with fellow food enthusiasts.
For instance, during a trip to Iceland, I decided to join a local food tour in Reykjavik. It turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip. The tour guide was incredibly knowledgeable and took us to places I would have never found alone. We sampled traditional Icelandic dishes, from fermented shark to freshly baked rye bread and succulent lamb stew. Not only did I learn a lot about Icelandic cuisine and its history, but I also received recommendations for other restaurants to visit during my stay. It was a fantastic way to start my trip and helped me feel more connected to the local culture.
Book your food tour in advance as they can be quite popular, especially in well-known food destinations. Also, consider your dietary restrictions and preferences when selecting a tour, as some may focus on specific types of cuisine or cannot accommodate certain dietary needs. Ultimately, a food tour is about tasting new and exciting flavors, immersing yourself in the local culture, and meeting like-minded travelers. It’s a win-win for any food lover!
Bonus Tip: Be Wary of Biased Hotel Recommendations
While generally well-informed about the local area, hotel staff may have affiliations with certain restaurants or eateries, leading them to recommend these places in return for commissions or other benefits. This means that the recommendations you receive may not necessarily be the most suitable for your taste and preferences, but instead, the ones that are most profitable for the hotel.
Embrace the Adventure: Savour Local Foods on Your Travels
Finding the best places to eat while traveling involves a multifaceted approach that includes not solely relying on hotel staff recommendations, being critical of social media promotions, venturing out of tourist areas, following local crowds, and considering joining a food tour. It is also essential to utilize online resources like Google Maps but approach them discerningly, especially regarding reviews and ratings. Remember, a crowded place with locals or a long queue is a good sign of quality and authenticity. Additionally, while social media can provide some valuable insights, it is crucial to differentiate between genuine recommendations and paid promotions. Finally, remember that the best experiences often come from venturing off the beaten path and immersing yourself in the local culture.
As you embark on your travels, remember to keep an open mind and adventurous spirit. Don’t be afraid to try new foods, explore different areas, and engage with the locals. After all, one of the greatest joys of traveling is the opportunity to experience and enjoy the local cuisine. Bon appétit!