How often have you arrived at your destination only to find yourself thinking, with some annoyance, "Where the hell am I going to eat?" If you are like me, this happens more often than you'd like!
It's not that there are no options at hand; the problem is that there are too many, and you're not sure which window-paned trattoria or charming delicatessen is going to deliver what you're after. And when you can't decide on where to fill your belly, things have the tendency to go south, fast. Before you know it, you're having a sad meal inside a fast-food chain because indecision and hanger got the better of you.
The trick for avoiding this is obviously to come prepared. Here are five tips for finding the best places in town and avoiding the tourist traps.
1. Find and follow local Instagram handles and hashtags.
Instagram is one of the best ways to plan a delicious vacation, especially if you're going to a fairly well-known city. Chances are there's at least one Instagram handle dedicated to sniffing out all the best restaurants, desserts, and coffee spots in the zip code. Start following them a month before you leave, so you'll be ready when something interesting pops up in your feed.
For a real-life example, say you're going to Prague and want to make sure you hit all the best restaurants. Typing in "Prague food Instagram accounts" into Google will lead you to a link that says "Top 20 Foodie Instagram Accounts Worth Following." After a quick scroll, you'll discover @eatingprague which has a ton of suggestions.
You can also start your search on Instagram by typing in a few keywords. Things like "#praguefood," "#praguerestaurant," #praguecafe," and "#praguebar" would be goldmines.
2. Create an Instagram collection.
Once you find your drool-worthy spots and under-the-radar cocktail bars, it's easy to save and sort your favorite 'grams. Instagram introduced its save feature last year (to save an image, just click bookmarklet icon) and, as of earlier this year, you can create Pinterest-like collections for your trips.
Headed to Brussels? Simply go to your profile, click on the bookmarklet icon, and then "Collections." Use the plus symbol to create a Brussels collection and you're ready to go. The next time you save a 'gram, it'll offer you the option of saving it to your "Brussels" folder.
3. Scroll through Pinterest.
Of course, there's always actual Pinterest, which is one of my favorite ways to zero in on must-see haunts, mainly because I can judge if it's worth my time or not based on the decor. For example, typing in "Amsterdam bars" led me to this busy bar called HappyHappyJoyJoy, and a "Dresden restaurants" search unearthed Pfunds Molkerei, which is an insane art-deco, wildly elaborate milk shop that looks like something Marie Antoinette commissioned. Both immediately went on my itinerary!
You can also ask Pinterest what to eat: Literally type in "what to eat [city name]" or "[city name] food guide" and a bevvy of food guides made by bloggers and travelers will pop up. All of these recommendations were already vetted and tried out by the articles' authors, so these people did all the hard work for you. All you have to do is scroll and select!
4. Create a Google Map of your favorite spots.
It's all well and good to have a handful of options saved to your Instagram account, pinned to a dedicated Pinterest board, or written down on your itinerary, but what happens when hunger hits you and you're not sure which of those recs are nearest to you? An easy way to solve that problem (and keep all your options neatly organized) is to create a Google Map with all your restaurants and bars.
To create one, pull up Google Maps and go to "Your Places" in the menu. Select "Maps" and then click "Create Map" to make your food guide. "Layers" are basically lists, so you can break the layers into restaurants, cafes, and bars if you would like them all separated. Simply look up your recommendations, drop a pin on the map to mark it, and save it to its corresponding layer. Once you're in your city, pull up the map and see where you want to go!
For European Travelers Only
If you're going to Europe, check to see if your destination has a "Use-It" map. Made by locals for tourists, they share all the hidden gems of a city that a tourist would be hard-pressed to find if they were just in town for a handful of days. You can either come across them in hostels or bookshops, or download the app. And they're amazing. Some of them outline a walking tour for you to follow on the map (that way you venture into outside neighborhoods and walk down charming, tucked-away streets), and point out bakeries, bars, restaurants, cafes, galleries, and shops along the way.
For example, when I was in Ljubljana, it suggested I go to a cafe that was completely free except for the time spent there. So rather than paying for the cup of tea, you get charged a certain amount per 10 minutes. I literally got an old-school, 1950s alarm clock to carry around with me, and the cashier taught me how to make my own lattes and I got to play Scrabble with locals. Suffice it to say, it was one of the highlights of my trip!
5. Take a self-guided tour.
While social media apps and Google maps are indispensible, I also like to be a tourist with a capital T, fanny pack and all. Because of that, I love doing self-guided tours via audio guides on my phone, and honestly, I've found some of the most memorable places as marked pit stops on these city adventures. In Salzburg, my audio guide led me to a hole-in-the-wall spirits shop that let you sample schnapps for free, and in Krakow it led me to an underground restaurant that was converted from a WWII bunker.
Don't know where to start with audio guides? Rick Steves has some great ones, and my favorite app is PocketGuide. But also don't forget to use Google — there are a ton of free options if you just check!
What's your best advice for planning a food adventure you'll remember long after you've come back home?