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8 great European cities for food lovers

Cafe-Restaurant in Avenue des Champs Elysees. Arc de Triomphe, Paris, France An outdoor café on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris. | Photo by Bruno de Hogues/Getty Images

A vacation to Europe will leave you with memories of incredible sights: the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Big Ben in London, and Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Família Basilica in Barcelona, among others.

But you’ll also return home with indelible remembrances of the meals you’ll have: the inventive panoply of a street food market in Copenhagen, the wickedly rich spaghetti carbonara in Rome, or the succulent simplicity of grilled prawns in Dublin.

In Europe, meals are cherished experiences. Here are some of our favorite cities for food lovers.

1. London

Big Ben rises over the downtown London landscape.

Big Ben rises over the downtown London landscape. | Photo by Getty Images

While Londoners will debate where to find the best fish-and-chips, there’s no denying that their city in recent decades has transcended the bland food stereotype to become an influential culinary city. London’s gastronomic maturation borrows from a wide range of cuisines and cultures not originating in Britain—from French to Indian to Turkish—plus a parade of innovative celebrity chefs (among them Gordon Ramsay) who’ve earned their respective restaurants a coveted Michelin star or more.

Indian food served at a London stall.

Indian curries served at a London stall. | Photo by Alex Hubenov/stock.adobe.com

Don’t miss: Chicken tikka masala. It’s the U.K.’s unofficial national dish, despite its Indian origin. (British politician Robin Cook described it as a “perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences.”) Head to the East End restaurants along Brick Lane, a.k.a. “Curry Mile,” for this dish of marinated chicken chunks in a creamy curry sauce and pair it with a British cider.

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2. Copenhagen

Reffen street food market in Copenhagen, Denmark

Reffen street food market. | Photo by Rolands Varsbergs

What helped to put Copenhagen on the modern culinary map? Noma, a restaurant that regularly tops “best in the world” lists and ushered in the New Nordic cuisine movement. This influence extends to restaurants, cafés, and food stalls across the city, where chefs champion hyper-local seasonal ingredients and apply traditional techniques like marinating, smoking, and salting in unique ways.

For a culinary mosaic of phenomenal dishes, head to Reffen, a vibrant street market where more than 30 stalls serve everything from Danish hot dogs to bites based on Nepalese and Moroccan dishes.

Smørrebrød, a popular open-faced sandwich in Denmark.

Smørrebrød, a popular open-faced sandwich in Denmark. | Photo by Maria Nielsen/Visit Denmark

Don’t miss: Smørrebrød, a traditional Danish sandwich that’s received a face-lift as Copenhagen’s food scene has evolved. The open-faced sandwich on dense, sour rye bread typically boasts toppings of pickled herring, meat, or cheese—but don’t be surprised to find combinations that include pearl onion and buckwheat or cod roe with bergamot. Chase it with a strong shot of Danish aquavit.

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3. Paris

The view from Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. | Photo by Getty Images

The view from Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. | Photo by Getty Images

Parisians take their food and wine seriously. Boasting more than 100 Michelin-starred restaurants and influencing much of the rest of the world’s cuisine and modern-day fusions, Paris even has an annual award to the baker with the best croissant. In 2021, the winner of the prestigious “Concours du Meilleur Croissant de Grand Paris” was Frédéric Comyn of Pâtisserie Colbert in the southern Parisian suburb of Sceaux.

Parisian gastronomy can be overwhelming to the novice foodie who’s unsure of what to eat beyond stereotypes such as escargot (snail) and anything involving a béchamel or espagnole sauce. Just don’t overthink it: Head to any of the city’s charming bistros or brasseries and indulge in what you may never have tasted before, such as blanquette de veau (veal in cream sauce) or pistachio soufflé. It’ll inevitably be the best you’ll ever have.

Diners in the Latin Quarter of Paris.

Diners in the Latin Quarter of Paris. | Photo by Pawel Libera/Getty Images

Don’t miss: Paris is surrounded by some of the most globally heralded vineyards, so the wine selection is likely to be incomparable to any other city. Start with a sommelier-recommended bottle and pair your food around the wine. French cheeses such as Camembert or Saint-Nectaire are great accompaniments.

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4. Athens

A couple enjoy a view of the Acropolis, Athens, Greece.

A couple enjoy a view of the Acropolis at dinner. | Photo by Matteo Colombo/Getty Images

A lively food scene awaits in the tavernas, ouzeries, and koutoukia (traditional, family-run restaurants) of Athens. Although the ancient city has Michelin-star establishments (such as Hytra, a highly sought-after spot offering curious twists on Greek cuisine and stunning views of the Acropolis), it’s the street food and freshly caught seafood that are the real stars here.

Avoid mediocre moussaka in tourist areas such as the Plaka; instead, tuck into local gems that would make Anthony Bourdain proud—like Ta Karamanlidika, a small deli/ouzeri where waiters will bring you a feast of house-cured pastrami, spicy salami, and whatever else your carnivore-loving heart desires.

Seafood, grilled octopus, fish and prawns served in a traditional Greek tavern. Crete island. Greece.

Seafood, grilled octopus, fish, and prawns served in a traditional Greek taverna. | Photo by vivoo/stock.adobe.com

Don’t miss: Fresh grilled octopus. This is not your run-of-the-mill fried version. In Greece, the octopus is straight from the bountiful seas of the Saronic Gulf or off the Cyclades islands and prepared in a traditional way that makes it extra tender. Enjoy it at a seaside taverna with a glass of retsina (white wine infused with the resin of the Aleppo pine tree) or tsipouro (Greek brandy).

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5. Dublin

Dublin's Temple Bar neighborhood.

Dublin's Temple Bar neighborhood. | Photo by Brian Morrison/Tourism Ireland

While traditional Irish dishes such as cabbage, stew, and soda bread aren’t exactly fireworks for the palate, Ireland has turned an impressive corner when it comes to its culinary prowess. Dublin, specifically, has emerged as an exciting foodie destination in the wake of Brexit, attracting creative chefs who find inspiration in Ireland’s fresh, local ingredients. Farm-to-table dining experiences filled with fresh butter and cheeses, duck, foraged celeriac, and a bountiful seafood selection have earned restaurants such as Tang and Spitalfields praise.

Prawns and other seafood are served at Octopussy Restaurant, Dublin, Ireland

Prawns and other seafood are on the menu at Octopussy. | Photo by Brian Morrison/Tourism Ireland

Don’t miss: Dublin Bay prawns in garlic butter. It’s a melt-in-your-mouth experience that has left many food critics euphoric. The dish pairs 2 local ingredients: freshly caught langoustines with Ireland’s succulent butter. Savor it alongside a pint of Guinness. The Irish will be the first to tell you (with a wink) that their national drink pairs well with everything, and simply tastes better in Ireland.

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6. Rome

St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, Italy, at sunset

St. Peter's Basilica glows at dusk. | Photo by Michael Abid/stock.adobe.com

The food and wine of the Eternal City is as much a seductress as its ancient ruins—and some might argue more so. Multicourse meals featuring iconic dishes such as cacio e pepe (fresh pasta with cheese and black pepper) and saltimbocca (pan-fried veal with prosciutto) are flavorful, filling, and full of history.

The vineyards throughout Italy, including those in the Lazio region surrounding Rome, have roots going back centuries.

But a superb culinary experience here needn’t be all white tablecloths and vino. Street food, such as porchetta (pork roast seasoned with salty garlic and rosemary) and home-spun gelato, can prove exceptionally memorable, especially when consumed against the backdrop of a bustling Roman square.

A glass of white wine served with pasta carbonara.

A glass of white wine pairs well with pasta carbonara. | Photo by kucherav/stock.adobe.com

Don’t miss: Carbonara is the dish to seek out in Rome. Join a cooking class to learn how its simplicity is the key to its mouthwatering explosion of egg, guanciale (cured pork jowl), and Pecorino Romano cheese. Because of the richness of the dish, a crisp, dry white wine, such as a Malvasia-Trebbiano blend, pairs well.

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7. Amsterdam

A restaurant by a canal in Amsterdam. |

A canal-side restaurant in Amsterdam. | Photo by ilolab/stock.adobe.com

Intrepid foodies might not bat an eyelash at gulping down Amsterdam’s delicacy, the salt-cured herring—tail and all. Some Dutch chefs have boldly bragged it is “as good as caviar,” especially when it’s the first-of-the-season Hollandse Nieuwe.

More mainstream palates, however, will likely gravitate toward sweet and savory Dutch pancakes (pannenkoeken). But know this: A Dutch cuisine movement is afoot. Local chefs such as Luc Kusters of the Michelin-starred Bolenius are leading the charge, creatively elevating their home country’s ingredients—such as Gouda cheese and farm-fresh vegetables—into inventive dishes that wow diners.

Indonesian Rijsttafel served in an Amsterdam restaurant. Many small dishes are served in an elaborate meal.

With Indonesian rijsttafel, small dishes are served in an elaborate meal. | Photo by L A Heusinkveld / Alamy Stock Photo

Don’t miss: Rijsttafel (translation: rice table). It’s a culinary homage to the cuisine of Indonesia, which was once a Dutch colony. It involves a continuous parade of small plates with origins across the Indonesian islands, from spicy to sweet, accompanied by rice. Think of it as the Dutch-Indonesian equivalent of Spanish tapas. Pair your meal with a Belgian beer, followed by jenever (a Dutch spirit distilled from juniper berries).

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8. Barcelona

Restaurants at Plaça Reial on a summer night in Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain.

Diners enjoy a summer night on the Plaça Reial. | Photo by JackF/stock.adobe.com

The food and wine of Barcelona is as much a draw to the Catalan capital as Antoni Gaudí’s La Sagrada Família basilica. Taste buds get a flavorful workout while exploring 3 of the city’s most well-known delights: tapas (sophisticated snack-sized dishes), cava (Spanish sparkling wine), and paella (a rice and seafood dish regularly found on menus as arròs, not paella). Just heed the advice of locals about establishments slinging the generic varieties close to the touristy Las Ramblas. Find eye-candy inspiration in the neighborhood’s La Boquería market, where the sensory stimulation is an invitation to explore how such ingredients are woven into dishes that lean heavily on local farmers and fisherman. (Think barnacles, Galician clams, and sea cucumbers.)

The seafood and rice dish known as arròs in Barcelona. | Photo by HLPhoto/stock.adobe.com

The seafood and rice dish known as arròs in Barcelona. | Photo by HLPhoto/stock.adobe.com

Don’t miss: La Bomba. This tapas favorite has its origins in Barcelona at the family-run La Cova Fumada—a sign-less bar that specialized in seafood tapas way before tapas became cool—but it has since made its way onto menus throughout Spain. This potato-and-meat croquette is typically topped with a closely guarded sauce that could be aioli (garlic and olive oil) or something much spicier. Pair it with a Priorat, a Catalan wine hailing from one of Spain’s most prestigious wine regions.

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Erica Bray is a Chicago-based travel journalist and mindfulness teacher. A seasoned travel industry veteran with more than 20 years of media experience, she has written for Travelzoo, Yahoo! Travel, Frommer’s Travel, Fodor’s, Orbitz, Travelocity, and AAA Insights. 

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AAA travel alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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