Stepping out of the airport for the first time in a new country is an exciting feeling. You’ve been thinking about this trip for a while, and you have a ton of expectations.
But in my opinion there is no point going halfway around the world just to do things the same way you do at home. For me that means immersing myself in the local cuisine. But my years travelling have taught me this is not as easy to do as it sounds.
Here are 15 tips I have developed over the years that will have you eating like a local in no time.
Look for locals
If you want to eat like a local, you have to eat where the locals eat. It is not to say that a place that caters to tourists will have bad food, but if you don’t see any local people eating there, it is an indication that it is not the best representation of local food. Try to avoid eating at hotels and other tourist destinations. Eating like a local usually means getting outside the tourist bubble.
Talk to the driver
Nobody knows a city like its cabdrivers. Whether you are taking a taxi or an UBER, the driver spends his days taking people around the city, and he is likely to know all of the best places to eat in the city. They’ll know where the best local food is, where to find the best prices and the best times to go to different restaurants. Just make sure to tell them you are looking to get some authentic local cuisine. If you just ask for a place to eat, they might play it safe and recommend a tourist spot.
Get the lingo down
In many places, finding the best local food will take you a bit off the beaten track. As you get away from the tourist centers, you may find that English has an ever-diminishing presence. In these situations, it can help to know a few words of the local language. It can help you to get around, and if you know the local words for different foods, it could help you to find your next dining opportunity.
Learn where to go before you leave
In this, we are not talking about finding the best restaurants, but the best areas for good local food. In many cities, there are specific neighborhoods that are known for having the best restaurants. If you learn about these areas before you go, you have a good starting point for finding the best local food. Depending on the destination, you could even book your accommodation to be near one of these areas.
Try the street food
Street food is a big part of the local culture in a number of different countries. Some tourists might be hesitant to buy food from a vendor on the side of the road, but in places where this is common, the street food is probably the best representation of the food that locals eat. These vendors don’t make their money with décor or some gimmick, they make their living by selling good local food to the same people every day.
Check out the local food bloggers
With the internet, almost every city has local food bloggers. They might have their own blog site, they might be on a local internet news site or you could find them on social media sites like Instagram. A quick Google search is all you should need to find a few, and they should be good for helping you to find all of the best places to eat like a local. Start following their recommendations a few weeks before you leave, and you should have a nice list of places to check out when you arrive at your destination.
This is the exact reason I finally caved and started travelling with a connected mobile phone. Unless you want to plan out your meals meticulously before you go, having a direct line to Instagram and articles about where to eat in the area you happen to be at any given time is the best way to eat well. You can get a local SIM in most countries, for journeys over multiple countries I like to use a prepaid international SIM (more on that here)
Respect the food culture
You’ll find that the culture around food and dining can vary in different places. People eat their meals at different times, and there are bits of etiquette that might not make sense to us, but they mean a lot when you are eating with the locals in a given location. Do people eat on the street? Is it ok to eat on the train? Should I ask to have my leftovers wrapped? Do I tip for service? If you want to eat like a local, you should try to learn some of the culture that has built up around eating.
Not only is this just the right thing to do but it will also be a good chance to connect with locals around you (they often appreciate the effort) and get a hot tip on your next eating spot.
This website is mostly focussed on business dealings but there are some good tips around eating culture in each country.
What do the locals eat?
Finding a few restaurants is good, but if you really want to eat like a local, you need to know what they eat. If you know some of the dishes that make up the regular diet of the locals, you’ll have an easier time finding the places that serve the best local food. This can help you out when you are asking your cabdriver or maybe talking to a person on the train. If you know what to ask for, the people will have an easier time making the right recommendation.
Don’t take the advice of your accommodation
If you are desperate to get anything to eat, asking the hotel concierge serves the purpose, but this is not the best way to find good local food. The hotel or the concierge might have a deal with a few of the local restaurants, in fact it is actually a well-established business practice for many. Often they will be recommending the place that serves their purpose best, rather than directing you to the best place to get local food.
A long line is a good sign
If you see a place where locals are waiting in line to get served, that is a good indication that is one of the best places to buy local food. They live there, and they are not waiting in line for mediocre food. If the line is too long or you are too busy to wait in the line, it might be a deterrent, but you could keep it in mind for later. You could also ask an employee if there is a slower time when it will be easier to get in.
Try a food tour
Look into any local food tours there might be at your destination. You can plan one for the beginning of your trip, and this can act as a sort of crash course in the local eating culture. You’ll learn about some of the best dishes to try, you could find a few restaurants that you might want to come back to, and you’ll learn about the local dining etiquette.
Beware the touts
A tout, also called a barker, is a restaurant employee that stands out the front and tries to convince you to come inside when you walk past
It is a common practice that baffles me to this day, but I’m sure there is a certain type of diner it is effective on. Good food sells itself. If a restaurant has a sort of wrangler out front trying to steer people toward the dining room, this is not a good sign. These guys can be persuasive, but if the restaurant needs to pull people in the door, it means that people are not coming in on their own. If the locals are not showing up on their own, there is probably a good reason for it.
Embrace the difference
Try some dishes that you have never heard of before. You might find some things that are just a little too far, but it is a good idea to push your comfort zone a bit. Look for some dishes that are unique to the place, and give them a try. These are the dishes that can really make your local dining experience.
How do the locals find a good place to eat?
You might have your favorite food websites and apps for finding a new place to eat back home, but there is a good chance that these resources might not serve you well when you travel. When you get a chance to talk to some locals, ask them how they find an exciting new place to eat. Ask them about the websites that they look at for reviews and find out if there are any apps that can be good for recommendations and reviews.
Again, this is another great reason to be connected to a network while travelling.
Be willing to explore
You may have researched a few places, and you have a good list of places to try. The problem is that you may find that it is not as easy to get to all of these places as you may have thought. Getting around in some foreign countries can be a little tricky. You also have to remember that in some countries, most places are not going to have an online presence. If you really want to eat like a local, that might mean walking into a few places cold. You could use some of the above-mentioned tips to try to get an idea if the place is any good, but you have to be willing to go in and give it a try with no recommendation and no idea if it is good. With this, you are taking a chance on having a bad meal, but if you are unwilling to take these chances, you might miss out on some of the best local dining experiences that are available.