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How to Eat Well on a Budget in Europe

Tips for Finding Traditional Dining Options for Less

Pastry Shops in Europe
For lunch or dinner, pick up an assortment of tasty sandwiches, quiches, and pastries in Europe for less than the average lunch at a café/bistro, and far less than the average dinner at a restaurant. Picnic at a local park, square, or where you wish and eat extremely well. Photo © Gregory Hubbs.

One of the most remarkable aspects of visiting Europe is the plethora and variety of excellent cuisines, from hours-long multi-course meals to simple market and bakery finds. It’s one area in which even budget-pressed travelers of all ages who are foodies will not wish to skimp. (Editor's note: Growing up with foodies for parents, who traveled decades in Europe with the enjoyment of great food as one of several major motivations, we would drive far out of our way to be in areas known for their cooking traditions. Fortunately, you still don’t have to spend a fortune to sample some of Europe’s best flavors, especially now that the euro is nearing par to the U.S. dollar.) Backpackers, students, solo travelers, families, and mature travelers have options to eat like royalty while feeding the local economy, thereby helping small farmers continue to grow their produce with great care and pride.

Here are some tips for dining on a budget in Europe (and enjoying every last morsel while you do it):

Bakeries and Pastry Shops

The cheapest breakfast in Europe is arguably its best: the stop at the local bakery or pastry shop. Throughout Europe, you can find delicious tastes from baguettes and (chocolate) croissants in France to apple tarts and strudels in Germany. You can even find pretty hearty fare such as various takes on quiches and onion tarts. Best of all, these delectable and filling delights cost just a few euros and will leave you satisfied.

Budget tip: What you should most certainly not do is get breakfast at your hotel, unless you happen to be staying at an inn where breakfast is included, well-made, and inexpensive. At a typical European hotel, you could spend upwards of 15-20 euros per person for a breakfast that consists of nothing but coffee and average croissants and packaged jam. In fact, it is sometimes automatically included, so be sure to inquire first. Even if you like your morning coffee, tea, or fresh-squeeze orange juice before venturing out, just ask about just getting in-room service. Still often better than standard breakfasts at home, but not nearly as good as what can be found at a good local breakfast hangout.
Markets in Europe
Tomatoes at markets in many parts of Europe have so much taste they are really an entire meal (the editor enjoys them with fresh goat cheese, olive oil, and a baguette, but the regional options are endless).

Fresh Produce Markets

Europe’s fresh produce markets are a downright bacchanalia of tastes, colors, and lively social interaction. This is a miniature world in which farmers, tourists, locals, and chefs collide and interact.

Not only can you find delicious and fresh fruits and vegetables, but you can often find fresh-baked artisan breads, marinating olives, and farm-fresh cheeses. This can make a wonderful option for a budget breakfast, or a satisfying lunch/picnic in a park or in your hotel to conserve money for a later restaurant dinner.

Budget tip: Rent a vacation apartment or find an accommodation with even a small kitchen. That will allow you to prepare your own meals at a fraction of the price of restaurant meals with the great fresh ingredients you discover at local markets and neighborhood grocers. You can't go wrong with ingredients so good, and prepared foods available at European versions of outdoor delis, bakeries, dedicated cheese vendors, olive vendors, butchers, florists, vendors offering the best local herbs to flavor the produce, and much more. And many of the vendors enjoy their work so much they sing out their daily deals, so the whole experience is a feast for the senses, with people of all ages buying and selling.

Editor's note: An added bonus is learning how to cook incorporating the local tastes, herbs, and recipes, which often is something you can bring home with you. This is how the editor learned to become a much better cook abroad and at home.
Eating in Italy in a rental house
A rustic Italian vacation rental far off-the-beaten path in Tuscany allowed us to drink wine, relax, and cook using herbs and mushrooms from their land when we wished at a fraction of the cost of most hotels. The editor enjoyed the company and conversation with incredibly hospitable hosts who not only offered us delicious treats of all kinds, but invited us to fantastic traditional meals with their friends and encouraged us to join them in the kitchen to help.

Street Food

Even with the food truck fashion sweeping many big cities in the world, street food sometimes still gets a bad rap among those older than college students or recent graduates, because, well, it’s street food. That doesn’t always have to mean it is bad, particularly on the streets of European cities. Buy a crêpe from a street vendor outside Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, for instance, and it will taste delicious and cost a fraction of a similar quality representation at a café a few steps away.

Budget tip: Consider enhancing your meals with tasty small change meals like those to be had at markets, from street vendors, at bakeries, and the pastry shops mentioned above. Try to use most of your money set aside for food in a single big restaurant meal daily. That is a wonderful way to avoid feeling cheated out of great food while on your trip, and you can potentially save hundreds during your travels in so doing. Also consider having that big meal at lunch, when you can hit a popular restaurant but pay a fraction of dinner prices.
Street food vendor making cag kebap
A street vendor making cag kebap in Istanbul. Photo by Lies Ouwerkerk.

Rural Dining

Fine dining in large European cities isn’t usually cheap, though there are plenty of inexpensive spots opened up for local students, young people, and bohemians who love to eat. Do consider venturing into the European countryside for some great finds in local cuisine and rich cultural immersion experiences where you will likely have more extensive contact with locals. Not only will you feel the joy of discovering a wonderful restaurant in a rural setting, but you will likely enjoy a traditional meal that is much more commonplace outside of the bigger cities. Take it slow and live in the time of the land you are visiting and chances are you will stumble onto to some great local fare — often just by following your nose, looking at menus, or peeking into the establishment to get a sense of its authenticity and liveliness. Honestly, when hunger strikes we will often check out the menus and smells emanating from restaurants all across town before making our choice — a way of finding a meal that seldom disappoints and increases anticipation while satisfying our desire for great authentic food.

Budget tip: Consider staying at an inn featuring its own restaurant, or even a more intimate bed and breakfast, in which your meals are included in the stay. The Logis de France inns, for example, often feature half-board or full-board meals with a stay, and many of these inns are as well known for their food as they are for their accommodations. The editor generally prefers to consult what he finds to be the very dependable French Guide Michelin for each country, which highlights great places to eat and often to stay that are relative deals. The Slow Food movement, which originated in Italy to combat the rise of fast food chains, has branches all over Italy and Europe, with many restaurants who abide by its tenants and offer traditional specialties at budget prices, sometimes located in B&Bs.

Obviously, sites such as Tripadvisor, Yelp, and other apps are ways to scrutinize and average out reviews for those who prefer the crowd-sourcing mode of referral, though such recommendations have often resulted in far less interesting and enjoyable food experiences in our case at home and abroad. The editor and many traveling foodies with whom he travels or corresponds honestly try to minimize being electronically connected while enjoying local traditional food in order to be "in the moment." Great food and taste discoveries off-the-beaten-path can result in memorable epiphanies.
Casual country dining in Italy
Relaxing and enjoying an inexpensive, casual country meal in Italy.
Related Topics
Budget Travel
Culinary Travel
Also by the Author
Budget Travel in Europe
Budget Transportation in Europe
Accommodations on a Budget in Europe
Slow Food Regions of France
Apartment Rentals in Nice, France
Budget Travel in France
Budget Sightseeing in Europe
Magazine issue on Europe
 
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