Have you ever wanted to go on holiday for the sole purpose of eating? I have! For me, food is an integral part of any holiday, just as important, perhaps more so, than my accommodations. Some people plan their itineraries around famous or historical sights, but foodies prefer to research which cities have the best food to enhance our overall travel experience. For serious flavor hunters, going on a holiday is the perfect chance to seek out truly memorable meals.
Europe is home to so many different cultures and cuisines, and has so many incredibly diverse options for dining, that it almost feels impossible to choose the best cities for food. Luckily, there are a few cities that stand out. I’ve given this a lot of thought and, in no particular order, share my favorite food destinations in Europe. So, eat your heart out!
1. Bologna, Italy
I could fill this entire list with Italian cities. But in the heart of Italy is one of Europe’s best-kept foodie secrets: Bologna. Italians affectionately refer to Bologna as La Grassa, “the Fat One,” so leave your diet at home and prepare to indulge…
Parmesan Cheese, Balsamic Vinegar, Prosciutto, And Ragu
The region is home to more than 40 protected Denominazione Origine Protetta (DOP) products, including mortadella, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, balsamic vinegar, and prosciutto de Parma. This is definitely the place to linger over antipasti platters of cured meats and cheeses.
Quintessential Bolognese specialties include tortellini, tagliatelli, and the meat ragu we commonly refer to as Bolognese (though residents of Bologna do not), and with over 100 gelaterias in the city, you have endless delicious options to choose from. With countless trattorias serving up traditional pastas and wine cheaper than water, it’s no surprise that Bologna has been crowned the gastronomic capital of Italy.
Walking around Bologna, you’ll discover many sfoglinas, women who make pasta by hand. Tortellini al Ragu and Lasagna al Ragu are two of my favorite dishes to eat here. The ragu, made with a mix of pork and beef, is cooked for hours with wine, vegetables, and tomatoes resulting in a delicious, rich, flavourful sauce.
Another favorite is Tortellini in Brood, tiny squares of pasta stuffed with a pork filling and shaped into a small, hat-like pasta shape, which is eaten with a meat-based broth and topped off with parmesan cheese.
Mercato Di Mezzo: A Must-Stop For Coffee And Lardo Pesto
Mercato di Mezzo (Middle Market) is a covered market offering local food and wine products in the center of Bologna. There has been a market in this spot since the Middle Ages and it’s open every day. The market is located in the middle of a dense network of narrow pedestrian streets known as the Quadrilatero.
Together with the market, this roughly square-shaped area has been the center of food commerce in Bologna for centuries. There are seemingly endless food shops to browse in, as well as cafes and bars where you can sit down to try local snacks, like Lardo Pesto, a sandwich of tigelle bread (a flatbread not dissimilar from an English muffin) filled with lard, garlic, and rosemary — it’s a lot better than it sounds!
Pro Tip: You can take a day trip to Modena for a Balsamic Vinegar tasting or to the countryside near Parma to see how Parmesan cheese is made — I recommend both!
2. Copenhagen, Denmark
Copenhagen is an unassuming destination for food. The city, known for its minimalist style, high standard of living, and for being one of the happiest places on earth, also has an incredibly vibrant food scene. A few years ago, the capital city of Denmark was famous primarily for its statue of the Little Mermaid and its beautiful location by the sea, but now it’s on the foodie radar for its 15 Michelin-starred restaurants — an incredible concentration of culinary talent in such a small city.
The New Nordic Movement
Copenhagen’s reputation as a fine dining destination has really only emerged in the past decade or so, especially as the New Nordic movement transformed the local restaurant scene.
In 2004, Danish culinary entrepreneur Claus Meyer gathered together 12 visionary chefs from Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Greenland, Faroe Island, and Finland, and together they created a culinary manifesto to guide their cuisine, based on a commitment to organic, sustainable, and local produce. The simple yet innovative style quickly took off. In recent years, many affordable New Nordic options have appeared, and you can seek out delicious local specialties without breaking the bank.
Smorrebrod And Danish Hotdogs
For lunch, look for something that is typical to Denmark: open-faced sandwiches known as smorrebrod, typically served on rye bread and topped with a rainbow of ingredients like herring, meats, or vegetables. Alternatively, grab a Danish hotdog, topped with fried onions and pickles. The best hot dogs on the streets of Copenhagen are said to be from DØP, an organic hot dog stand.
Wienerbrød (AKA Danishes) And Other Next-Level Pastries
The pastry scene in Copenhagen is also next level. From Wienerbrød (called Danishes in the U.S.) filled with cream and topped with an almond-flavored frosting to cardamom buns and cinnamon buns topped with chocolate, you really can’t go wrong with the pastries in Denmark.
Copenhagen Food Tour And Restaurant Recommendations
For a really memorable dining experience, two special Copenhagen restaurants to check out are Restaurant AOC and Geranium, they may be a little less famous than some of the other fine dining establishments in town but both offer one-of-a-kind dining experiences.
Pro Tip: You can master the art of Danish pastry making during a 3-hour tour or take a tour of the best food stands in Copenhagen, where you can sample a range of Danish and Nordic specialties.
3. Lyon, France
Lyon is often hailed as the gastronomic capital of France. It was the center of the French nouvelle cuisine movement, pioneered by legendary chef Paul Bocuse (1926–2018), who aimed to lighten up French cooking, both in terms of calories and pretention. The late chef owned several restaurants in Lyon, the most famous being l’Auberge du Pont de Collonges, a two-star Michelin restaurant where you can still eat if you book far enough in advance. Bocuse inspired the whole of Lyon to a higher standard of food, and there are fantastic restaurants, in great locations, serving some of the best food in the region.
Rue Saint-Jean’s Authentic Bouchons
If you want to splurge, there are 21 Michelin-starred restaurants to choose from in Lyon. But traditional local restaurants, known as bouchons, offer great value. The best are officially recognized by the Chamber of Commerce and easily identified by a seal in their windows. Bouchons aren’t like typical, stuffy, expensive French restaurants. Here you can expect to find French comfort food like gratin, sausages, French onion soup, locally sourced pork and beef, and traditional salads. There are only about 20 authentic bouchons, the loveliest of which can be found on rue Saint-Jean — grab a table at any of them and order coq au vin and cardon au gratin (cardon is a relative of the artichoke family).
Lyon’s Open-Air Markets
Open-air markets offer another opportunity for inexpensive dining. Stalls are stacked with glorious fruit and vegetables, delicious sausages, and the freshest of fish. Try Saint-Antoine for an old-school French market day or Les Halles, with its 48 vendors spread over three floors.
Local specialties include
- salade Lyonnaise (topped with bacon and a fried egg)
- oval-shaped quenelle dumplings in seafood sauce,
- sausage and charcuterie that make use of every inch of the pig
- Beaujolais nouveau wine
Fun Fact: Due to its geographical location, Lyon is a melting pot of French gastronomy combining ingredients from all around France. With over 4,000 restaurants in the city, you are guaranteed to eat well in Lyon.
4. San Sebastian, Spain
Tapas Bars And Michelin Stars
Whether or not you’ve heard of San Sebastian, the one thing you definitely need to know about this Spanish coastal city is that its food scene is incredible. Boasting 11 Michelin-star restaurants (three of which have three stars) and countless tapas bars, this Northern Spanish city is considered one of the gastronomic capitals of Europe and an absolute paradise for food lovers.
At the top end of the spectrum, there’s Mugaritz, consistently in the top 10 on the list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants and known for its highly experimental molecular gastronomy. The restaurant typically closes for 4 months each year so its team can recharge and prepare an entirely new menu for the next season, so you’ll need to plan your travels well in advance if you want to dine here.
Another, less well-known but no less fantastic San Sebastian restaurant is Akelarre, one of the few three Michelin star restaurants in the world that also has its own hotel.
Basque-Style Pintxos Bars
San Sebastian may have more Michelin stars per square foot than any other city in Europe, but those wanting a more casual (and cheaper!) dining experience need look no further than one of the city’s many charming pintxos bars. Pintxos is the Basque style of tapas, and the region’s true culinary claim to fame. Each little morsel is served on a stick, and it’s customary to limit yourself to just a couple at one bar before moving on.
Pintxos specialties, local to San Sebastian, include
- slow-cooked veal cheeks
- pimientos di padron (fried long green peppers)
- bacalao (salt cod)
- gilda, made with anchovy, olive, and hot pepper.
Most bars also have their own specialty, which is often served hot and made to order, so be sure to check what the locals are eating or ask your bartender what else is available. Wash down your selections with the local effervescent, txakoli wine, which has hints of citrus and green apple: the perfect accompaniment to San Sebastian’s beautiful seafood, straight from the Bay of Biscay.
Pro Tip: Another not-to-be-missed experience is a visit to a cider house, where the drinks are typically served alongside a set menu of salt cod omelet, cod with roasted peppers, aged beef, and local cheese. I recommend Txirrita Sagardotegia in the center of San Sebastian.
Following your stomach isn’t always the best advice in life, but a holiday built around food can be the perfect way to experience a country and a culture. I hope you’ll give some of my suggestions a try on your next European vacation. For more foodie inspiration, consider