It’s a fact that while most of us struggle to remember the exhibits, monuments, and landmarks that spurred our travels, there are those life-altering, quasi-religious culinary experiences that remain etched in the memory bank for life. As most European gourmands will declare, it’s not generally the Michelin-starred haute cuisine with the vertiginous price tag that stimulates those food epiphanies that feel almost like an erotic pleasure. More likely, it’s that wild boar faithfully cooked according to a century old recipe in a rustic tavern in that hilltop village somewhere between Florence and Siena, or a sample of bulbous snails, or a rosette de Lyon sausage in Lyon’s spectacular food market.
Since the turn of the new millennium, culinary travel has grown exponentially. As food has become an art form and the term ‘foodie’ has entered the lexicon as a person who has turned their passion for fine food into a very civilized hobby that they like to talk about (a lot), our new, improved relationship with food increasingly dictates how and why we travel. While the mega cities — London, Paris, New York, Tokyo — combine celebrity chefs with multiculturalism to create dynamic international flair with a flashy soundbite, that elusive ecstasy of flavor and taste lies beyond the gastronomic powerhouses in the local taverns and bistros where menus are defined by what’s fresh and what speaks to the region’s cultural heritage.
There is no shortage of superlatives to describe Copenhagen. Renowned for its healthy lifestyle, poetic cityscape, design kudos, and laid back but super efficient citizens, Copenhagen frequently tops the lists of the most desirable places to live in the world. The fact that Noma – the world’s best restaurant according to the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list — finds its home here and has made the happiest people in the world even happier. Without pomp or pretense, Noma’s trailblazing chef René Redzepi utilizes often overlooked produce in that creative, fun, and thrilling way that embodies the Danes’ earthy, yet aesthetically pleasing approach to life.
Certainly, the city’s culinary acumen has continued to soar. More liberated than their Scandinavian counterparts, Danes revel in a diverse and never dull gastronomic scene. During the halcyon days of summer, you’ll find locals picking mulberries in city parks, or lunching on a simple open-faced sandwich laden with cured meats or smoked fish at a communal wooden table in an arty café. One of the best times to visit Copenhagen is in late August for the Copenhagen Cooking Festival, the most prestigious food event in Northern Europe.
Brussels may be the political pulse of the European Union, but Belgium’s pristine capital prefers to play the role of gorgeous wallflower. Brussels’ medieval streets, resplendent architecture, centuries old squares, handsome boulevards, and fabulous cuisine often draw favorable comparisons with Paris, albeit a more hospitable rendition. Beer and chocolate are the country’s two most appreciated exports. Throughout the city’s ancient core, it seems as though a master chocolatier is waiting to tempt you on every corner. There are close to 200 breweries in Belgium and the average Belgian drinks around 30 gallons of beer per year. From sun-soaked patio cafés in the summertime to sleepy taverns and subterranean bars in the bleak midwinter, there’s a Pale Ale, Flemish Red, Trappist, Abbey, or a Lambic beer for every occasion.
When it comes to fine dining, Brussels sports more Michelin star restaurants per head than Paris, and it seems that the city’s effusive denizens would much rather splash out on haute cuisine than a Gucci purse. Kwint restaurant showcases decadent ingredients — think truffles, king crab, lobster, foie gras — in a dramatic dining room featuring a centerpiece Arne Quinze ‘vertebral column’ sculpture and terrific views to match. Brussels’ movers and shakers favor Belga Queen, which serves traditional, meat-centric Belgian delicacies, including snails, duck, and seared liver in a 19th century former bank vault that also houses a cigar club.
Despite Brussels’ omnipresent fine dining establishments, culinary epiphanies tend to take place in the city’s atmospheric bistros and cafés where you can feast on the kind of century old recipes that you wish your mother used to make. Along Rue des Bouchers, a fabulous glut of bustling, ethnic restaurants make for a fantastic initiation into the city’s cultural tapestry.
With an independent spirit and a cuisine that is to die for, quite literally, Bologna (known affectionally as ‘the Fat One’) encourages its visitors to embrace the moment. But, as the proud and spirited capital of Emilia-Romagna region, Bologna has given the world a great deal more than just Bolognese. Bologna’s beating heart is the handsome Piazza Maggiore and, tucked away just behind it, the Quadrilatero, a centuries old foodie haven. You can create your own smorgasbord from the region’s prized truffle oils, waver-thin cured meats, fragrant olives, pungent cheeses, and kaleidoscopic produce then bring it all along to Osteria del Sole, a welcoming bar that has ennobled a joyfully democratic food culture by allowing patrons to bring their own lunch since the 15th century.
With an electrifying atmosphere, the rustic Drogheria della Rosa is everything you want a trattoria to be and serves heavenly pasta dishes loaded with prize wining ingredients — ham, cheese, honey, pheasant, zucchini blossoms — sourced from across the region at terrific prices. For more pomp, Diana, close to piazza Maggiore, excels at home style pasta favorites.
France’s second city, Lyon is often hailed as France’s gastronomic capital. A culinary tour of the city’s chic bistros is essential for any visitor. The city’s Unesco designated architectural treasures majestically overhang the narrow alleys and regal squares of the city’s old town districts, while La Croix Rousse and Vieux Lyon provide the perfect calorie burning complement to epic dining. It’s location, location, location that determines quality of produce, and Lyon certainly hit the geographical jackpot. Chefs, food writers, and impassioned foodies wax lyrical over the city’s incredible array of charcuterie, cheese, freshwater fish, and sublime fruit and vegetables.
The Lyonnais approach to food is best defined by the unpretentious taverns known as bouchons (originally the eateries where silk workers would graze), known for their copious portions of beef and pork, not to mention offal, calves heads, donkey tongue, and organ meats — not generally for the faint of heart. The most famous bouchon of them all is the Café des Fédération, a bastion of Lyonnais traditionalism with its check tablecloths, a spit and sawdust vibe, and sausages swinging from the rafters.
Les Halles market is a food lover’s paradise and the epicenter of Lyon’s culinary scene. Within some 60 halls, food is reverentially displayed like jewels on gleaming, marble countertops. If you fancy straying into more Michelin territory, Lyon’s most famous chef is the charismatic, luminary Paul Bocuse. At 88 years old, Bocuse still oversees his three Michelin star restaurant L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges, six miles north of Lyon, as well as seven brasseries and a even a small hotel in the city.
Paris is the quintessential foodie’s city and for all the clichés, and in spite of travelers’ high expectations, it rarely disappoints. Paris fuses food with art and style like no place on earth. You can easily spend $300 per head at one of Paris’ top restaurants, and in the city where ladies don their Chanel suit and Gucci heals just to take the dog to the park, there is a certain high end restaurant protocol that can be off putting to many travelers; wearing shorts or trainers to dinner is deemed sacrilege. But, Paris’s culinary landscape has certainly loosened up over the last few years. Pascal Barbot’s L’Astance, endowed with three Michelin stars, is an Asian inspired restaurant in the 16th arrondissement which treats just 25 diners to an inventive set menu in a sleek, high-ceilinged dining room four days a week.
Yam’Tcha is one of the most sought after reservations in the city thanks to an innovative tasting menu (quite a snip for Paris at $120 per head), which changes daily according to what leading female chef Adeline Grattard happens to pick up that day at the market. There’s something altogether more warm and fuzzy these days about the ambience at Guy Savoy, the luxurious, three Michelin star restaurant that keeps diners universally in rapture with its unstuffy atmosphere and waiters who will joyfully serve second helpings of any dish that features on the epic 18-course menu (arguably they should at around $500 per head.)