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How to Dine Well on a Budget in Europe

Tips for Finding Options to Eat Well for Less

Pastry Shops in Europe
For lunch or dinner, pick up a sandwich, a quiche, and some pastries in Europe for less than the average lunch at a café/bistro, and far less than the average dinner at a restaurant. You will eat very, very well. Photo by Gregory Hubbs.

One of the most remarkable aspects of visiting Europe is the plethora and variety divine cuisine, from hours-long multi-course meals to simple market and bakery finds. It’s one area in which even budget-pressed travelers do not wish to skimp. Fortunately, you still don’t have to spend a fortune to sample some of Europe’s best flavors.

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 quiche and onion tarts. Best of all, these delectable and filling delights cost just a few euros.

Budget tip: What you should most certainly not do is get the 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 euros per person for a breakfast that consists of nothing but coffee and average croissants. In fact, it is sometimes automatically included, so be sure to inquire first. Even if you like your morning coffee before venturing out, ask about just getting in-room coffee.

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 an 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 delis, bakeries, and butchers.

Street Food

Street food sometimes gets a bad rap among those older than college students, 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 crepe 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 meal at a café a few steps away.

Budget tip: Consider fleshing out your meals with the small change meals like those to be had at markets, street vendors, bakeries, and pastry shops mentioned above, and put most of your money into a single big restaurant meal daily. That is a wonderful way to avoid feeling cheated out of great food while on vacation, and you can still save potentially hundreds during your travels. Also consider having that big meal be lunch, when you can hit a popular restaurant but pay a fraction of the dinner prices.

Rural Dining

Fine dining in large European cities isn’t cheap, but consider venturing into the European countryside for some great finds in local cuisine and immersion experiences. Not only will you feel the joy of discovering a wonderful local restaurant in a rural setting, but you will likely enjoy a traditional Slow Food meal that is much more commonplace outside of the bigger cities.

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. Also consult the French Guide Michelin, which highlights great places to eat that are relative deals.

Casual country dining in Italy
Relaxing during a cheap and casual country meal in Italy.
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