Sometimes, the world’s best food hides in plain sight. These hidden areas boast fresh ingredients, delicious street food, and unique restaurant concepts — and often at low price points. So, if you’re wondering where you can feast like a king (for cheap) across the globe, look no further! Here are a few unexpected cities worth visiting solely for the food.
San Sebastián, Spain
Ever heard of San Sebastián? For most travelers, it’s not a spot that readily comes to mind when planning a trip to Spain. Believe it or not, though, this Basque city on the northern coast recently won the distinction of being the world’s best food destination.
San Sebastián is home to 10 Michelin-starred restaurants, but also offers affordable options for foodies on a budget. There, you’ll find plenty of fresh seafood — including bacalao pil pil (cod cooked in olive oil), kokotxas (cod and hake jaws), and percebes (goose barnacles) — on many restaurants’ menus. But meat lovers might be more interested in txuletas (Basque steaks) and txistorra (pork-and-beef sausage) than in these fishy entrées.
The city is also known for its pintxos, or appetizers stacked on top of morsels of bread and held together with toothpicks. This Basque version of tapas is served at bars throughout the Old Town, each one offering its own specialty, so you could easily spend an afternoon pintxo-bar-hopping your way through the city. Just be sure to keep your toothpicks after finishing each pintxo, since the waitstaff might calculate your bill by counting the toothpicks on your plate!
If you can somehow score an invitation to a gastronomic society, take it! These are essentially clubs where locals use a communal kitchen to cook for their friends and family. There, everyone eats together and splits the tab (which includes the cost of admission, a fee for using the kitchen, and the price of the ingredients). You can’t visit a gastronomic society unless a member invites you, so you might want to befriend a few locals if you’ve got your heart set on eating at one.
Even the most ardent foodie might struggle to come up with the name of a Senegalese dish. Be that as it may, Senegal’s capital city is a top foodie destination, and its restaurants and markets sell some of the tastiest food in West Africa. Last year, Dakar even caught the attention of Anthony Bourdain.
Given its location on a peninsula, it’s no wonder that Dakar serves up deliciously fresh seafood. At the Soumbédione market, which is only open in the evening, hundreds of fishers return from the ocean and bring the day’s haul with them. If you’d prefer to purchase a meal, rather than raw fish, you can find dibiteries (kiosks offering grilled fish and meat) elsewhere in the market. For a more upscale seafood experience, try restaurants like Le Ngor and La Calebasse.
The city fuses several culinary influences from Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, so there’s more to Dakar than just fish. At Le Lagon I, a restaurant built on the wharf, customers enjoy seaside views while chowing down on chicken, beef, lamb, and duck (and, of course, seafood). Noflaye Beach offers savory and sweet crepes, and Chez Loutcha is a local favorite specializing in regional cuisine. Thiéboudienne (grilled fish served with rice, tomato sauce, cassava, and carrots) is more or less the national dish in Senegal, but poulet yassa (chicken marinated in peanut oil, onions, lemon juice, and chile peppers) is almost equally popular. So why not try it all?
Colombo, Sri Lanka
The capital of Sri Lanka is — first and foremost — street food heaven. Colombo’s specialties include tasty curries and spicy samosas, but you’re bound to discover new foods during your visit. Make sure to try the isso wadey (lentil cakes served with shrimp) and kottu roti (a smorgasbord of flatbread, vegetables, spices, eggs, and meat), as well as string hoppers (steamed rice noodles pressed into patties) and egg hoppers (eggs fried inside crêpes). When you’re ready for dessert, saravita (colored, shredded coconut strings bundled in a leaf) is a sweet option.
So, where should you go to find all this food? Galle Face Green is a great starting point. This oceanfront park is a beloved site among travelers and locals alike and, if you’re lucky, you might spot a few colorful kites in the air during your visit. There are plenty of stalls lining the beach, so take your pick and dig in!
As far as kottu roti goes, the Hotel de Pilawoos (usually just shortened to Pilawoos) is the place to be. The open-fronted locale is a favorite for those in search of this particular dish. If you’re in the mood for samosas, try visiting Bombay Sweet Mahal, another small open-faced restaurant. Meanwhile, Ministry of Crab is a reservations-required, prestigious restaurant. It’s famous for two reasons — partly because it was founded by famous Sri Lankan athletes, and partly because it’s committed to serving the country’s best crab. No matter what brings you to the restaurant, you’ll love this dining experience!
And, if you’d like to shop for produce, meat, or seafood during your time in Colombo, add Pettah Market to your itinerary. Heads up, though — the crowded thoroughfares can feel a little overwhelming, so you might want to schedule some relaxing beach time after you’re finished!
Melbourne doesn’t enjoy the fame that Sydney does, but it’s an excellent vacation spot for foodies. Thanks to its substantial immigrant population, Melbourne is a multicultural city, making it possible to find almost any type of international cuisine in any of its many neighborhoods. In fact, the city map is littered with various ethnic food offerings.
In general, Melbourne’s tastiest foods include Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Malaysian, but areas like the Greek Precinct and Little Italy are also worth exploring. You can even try fusion foods (which unite multiple culinary influences in a single dish) at restaurants like Rice Paper Scissors, Supernormal, and Hochi Mama (known for its pho dumplings, or “phoplings”).
Just remember to refuel in between your meals! Melbourne has an unrivaled coffee culture, and the city is home to over 1,600 cafés. For a flaky pastry or classic cup o’ joe, it’s best to stick to the inner neighborhoods, although outlying districts are developing their own coffee cultures as well. And although some cafés (like Seven Seeds and Industry Beans) are world renowned for their specialty roasts, most coffee lovers agree that it’s hard to find a mediocre brew anywhere in Melbourne.
You’ve probably seen colorful photos of this Caribbean city, but you might not have known that its food scene is equally vibrant. Whether you’re looking for healthy eats or indulgent treats, you can always find something tasty on Cartagena’s menus or streets.
Given the city’s coastal location, several culinary influences are at play in Cartagena. There’s plenty of Caribbean cuisine and traditional Colombian fare, so make sure to try the sancocho (traditional stew, usually made with seafood), bandeja paisa (pork served with red beans, rice, chorizo, avocado, lemon, and more), and ceviche. Some of the city’s best restaurants include Carmen and La Cevicheria (another Anthony Bourdain pick), but plenty of other options lie around every corner!
For fresh tropical fruit, take to the streets and find a brightly dressed palenquera (fruit vendor). If you’d prefer something a little more refreshing, keep your eyes peeled near the city’s plazas and busy streets — there are plenty of juice stands waiting to whip-up a concoction for you. And, if you’re in the mood for something fried, you’ve come to the right place! You’ll find empanadas and countless other fried snacks across the city.
Header image by Luis Vidal