More than ever, people are traveling to Europe year-round. Those looking for authentic culinary experiences can find themselves among a crush of hungry visitors in popular destinations no matter when they travel. As professional food travel journalists living in Portugal, we believe exploring lesser-known European food cities gives you all the flavor without the crowds. We’ve enjoyed traveling to some amazing places that provide enriching experiences where culture, cuisine, and community come together. Here we share a few of our favorite places to inspire you to explore more hidden gems with your own sense of culinary adventure.
1. Toulouse, France
Known as La Ville Rose — or “The Pink City” for the color of terracotta bricks used in many buildings — Toulouse is a gastronomic paradise in southwestern France. Enjoy classic dishes like braised Toulouse sausage at the Brasserie de Beaux Arts, just as the artist Matisse once did. The vast Victor Hugo Market bursts with local produce and regional foods from cheese and chocolate to sausages and baguettes. Specialties of Toulouse include the renowned Cassoulet, baked chicken à la Toulousaine, and foie gras. Try the apricot tart la fénétra at the fourth-generation family-owned Pâtisserie Conté. A unique Toulousaine culinary specialty is the violet flower, which shows up in teas, macaroons, liqueurs, and candies, such as the crystallized petals invented by Candiflor, confectioners since 1818.
2. Stuttgart, Germany
Located on the “Sunny Side of Germany,” Stuttgart is a fun city for food lovers. Some central streets are pedestrian-only, great for discovering markets and restaurants on foot. Swabian dishes play a key role here, including our favorites käsepätzle (cheesy homemade noodles) and maultaschen (similar to meat-filled ravioli). For fine dining with a view, Cube offers modern cuisine in an architecturally unique setting. Between bites, there are medieval castles and a stunning city library to explore. The Porsche and Mercedes-Benz museums will please car enthusiasts too. Spring and summer are full of food, beer, and wine festivals, while the fall Cannstatter Volksfest and winter Stuttgart Christmas Market are some of the biggest festivals in Europe.
3. Viana Do Castelo, Portugal
We’re slightly biased about food in Portugal since we live there. One of our favorite lesser-known food cities is Viana do Castelo, way up north near the Spanish border. This picturesque jewel hugs the Atlantic at the mouth of the Lima River. The views are fantastic and so is the food. Fill the table with an enormous flaming tomahawk steak at Pecado Capital. Or get incredible prices for the freshest seafood at popular local hangout Casa Primavera. Line up with locals at 11:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. for freshly baked bolas de berlim (cream-filled donuts) at Pastelaria Confeitaria Manuel Natário. Then, walk off a few of the calories strolling the nearby shops or visiting the Gil Eannes hospital ship museum. Finish with a visit to the hilltop church Santa Luzia for an unforgettable view.
4. Cartmel, England
One of the most surprising lesser known European destinations we’ve explored is Cartmel, a tiny dot on the map of Cumbria in northwestern England. Here resides L’Enclume, a beautiful 16-room hideaway that is home to Chef Simon Rogan’s three-Michelin-star, farm-to-fork restaurant. Traditional pub fare and a touch of history can be found at local haunts like Kings Arms. For handcrafted cheeses and beers, Unsworth’s yard is a fun place with live music outdoors on summer weekends. The Cartmel Racecourse offers horse racing action in the warmer months. No visit would be complete without a stop at the Cartmel Village Shop for some famously delicious sticky toffee pudding. Cartmel is small in size but rich in many flavors to enjoy.
5. Bergamo, Italy
A visit to Bergamo, Italy, is like getting two trips in one. Città Alta, the walled upper town, is full of historic buildings, cobblestone streets, and Roman ruins. Below, Città Bassa is buzzing with modern life. Cozy restaurants like La Dispensa di Arlecchino serve local specialties, like polenta with cheese, butter, and garlic, and casoncelli — called casonsei locally — which are fresh pastas stuffed with meats, cheeses, or vegetables. Many restaurants and bars offer aperitivo, drinks and snacks to whet your appetite. For a sweet treat anytime, visit La Marianna, birthplace of stracciatella — creamy vanilla gelato with dark chocolate shards. The Hotel Excelsior San Marco in Bassa is a quick walk away from the funicular that takes you up to Alta. Check out the Roof Garden restaurant for dining with a view.
The Secret Ingredient
One of the greatest thrills we get from our travels is finding new places and new tastes that expand our culinary horizons. These are a few of the many unique and memorable places we have gone that may not make it to the typical top 10 destination lists. We most enjoy getting to know the people in their natural surroundings, sharing recipes, stories, and local traditions. Connections and memories from exploring these lesser-known European food cities motivates us to discover more. We hope our discoveries ignite your curiosity — the secret ingredient of rewarding food travel.