If you travel to any major city or tourist destination in the world, you are bound to encounter more tourist traps than you can handle. And while you might be smug to think that you will be able to spot a tourist trap once you see one, this is not so evident in places which are extremely busy with tourists and which have a bad reputation when it comes to food.
Places which welcome many tourists each day are bound to take many short-cuts including with the quality of the produce they serve. Although online crowd-sourcing guides such as Tripadvisor or Yelp may serve as a deterrent compared to the past, they cannot always be relied upon.
When you have no control of time on a trip, then you need to be particularly careful if you want to eat well since you might not have time to book a restaurant before hand.
That was very much in evidence on a recent very short trip to Venice. While it has a bad reputation when it comes to food, particularly because of the large amount of tourists that visit the city on a daily basis, you can still find hidden gems if you know where and how to look. Unfortunately, there was little time to explore the culinary scene and look for the places serving the ‘chicchetti’ or tapas as they are known in this city.
In a place that is new to me and with little time for early research, I have a reputation for being extremely difficult about choosing a place where to eat, even if I am just searching for something simple. The problem is that the difference in price between a mediocre or average meal and a great meal is more often than not negligent.
This is normally what I do to avoid tourist traps.
- Carry out your research beforehand: Of course the best approach to eating well away from home is to research where you want to go to eat and book in advance. That way, you can guarantee that you are always in control. Check out local restaurant guides, research on the internet, visit the restaurant’s site and social media pages. Read newspapers, clip articles, take notes of places that you might eventually visit. There is no better way than carrying out research in advance but if this is not possible you should follow some of the remaining tips.
- Go off the beaten track: Up and coming chefs cannot afford to be in the top spots in most cities around the world. They may not have the best location but that is mainly where the magic is happening. Lose yourself in a city, walk around in the side roads away from the obvious places and you may be surprised with what you find. Is the restaurant busy even though its ‘hidden’ from tourists. If the answer is yes, than you may be on to something.
- Do as the locals do: It may sound like a cliché but the best way to avoid tourist traps is to find locals and eat where they normally lunch or dine. Have you ever noticed that in most cities, tourists are nearly always eating in the city centre while you will hardly see locals around. They know where the best places are so follow them.
- Don’t hesitate to ask locals where they eat: If you cannot spot locals in a restaurant then the best way is to ask. Simply stopping someone and asking him or her where they go to eat is normally better than tips online. You are likely to be pointed to places you will otherwise not discover.
- Run away from tourist menus or restaurants with someone trying to lure you in: How often do you seen a sign ‘tourist menu’. Or else have someone outside the restaurant encouraging you to go in. That’s a sure sign that this place is worth avoiding.
- Remember you are not going to eat the view: Restaurants or bars with views or in very prominent places in a city tend to profit from their location and view. It is great when they offer excellent fare but more often than not you will be disappointed. By all means, have a drink or a coffee basking in a sun terrace or enjoying the view but if you are going to eat, then think first about what is on offer.
- There is no such thing as a free meal: If the price is too good to be true than it likely is. Restaurants may attract you by offering a tourist menu or a lunch menu which is deliberately aimed at attracting tourists. Make a distinction between restaurants serving a daily menu (which normally changes based on the whims of the chef or the seasonality of the ingredients) and those which just offer a ‘cheap’ and ‘traditional’ menu.
- Take your time during your sightseeing to spot restaurants that look interesting: When you are sightseeing or walking around different parts of the city, observe the restaurants. Look at the decor, the type of clientele eating in the restaurants, take time to read the menus. Is there something innovative? A wine list can also reveal a lot about the restaurant. If the curation of the wine list is attentive, than it is highly likely that the owners are equally passionate and take their food very seriously.
- Look out for stickers of local guides on restaurant doors: Every country has its own restaurant guides. While these are not the bible, you are bound to eat considerably better in these restaurants. If you do not have time to research the places to eat, then research the main guides. If you are in Italy, you may want to look out for stickers of Gambero Rosso or Osterie d’Italia for example. Or in France, look out for Michelin or Gault&Millau. Remember, better safe than sorry.
- Follow your instinct: I’ve always been told to follow the crowds, i.e. if a restaurant is full than it is bound to be good. Alas, this is not always a valid tip. Follow your instinct. What’s the time? Are you too early at the restaurant? Locals may prefer to go later. Or if you are in the north of Europe, they may have already eaten and left the restaurant by the time you arrived. Don’t judge a restaurant by its cover.
- Run away from huge menus: Is the menu too ambitious? Is there a never ending choice? That is a sure sign that you should think twice before considering such a restaurant. Very few places can get away with serving fresh food if the menu is exhaustive and they are trying to please everyone. Particularly if it is not peak season, it is incredibly hard to offer such a wide choice of dishes and ensure freshness.
Do you have more tips on how to avoid a tourist trap. Feel free to comment below.