One of the most enjoyable parts of a trip to Europe is the breathtakingly wonderful food. However, it breaks my heart to hear people come back from a trip and say they "didn't try anything new" or "couldn't find the nice places."
Large (and small) European cities are positively overflowing with amazing restaurants - here's how to make sure you're finding the "right" ones - even if they aren't where you'd think!
Disclosure: some of the links below are affiliate links. If you purchase a linked item, I will make a commission, at no extra charge to you. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. Updated February, 2020.
Think about your dining goals before your trip
One of the most important elements of being satisfied with your restaurant choices on vacation in Europe is knowing what you are looking for. If you're heading to Paris on a budget, more intent on seeing the sights than eating high-end food, then dining out at the Ritz every night might not be an option - and that's perfectly fine! Consider a good cafe! You'll still have a wonderful experience.
Do not be disappointed if every meal you eat is not "5 stars"- that doesn't mean it won't be good.
Pick restaurants in advance
No matter what level of restaurant you're looking to frequent, absolutely plan in advance if you even remotely can. I cannot emphasize this strongly enough. So many missteps can be avoided with just the slightest bit of advance research (which you're already doing - good for you!!) In addition to online research, I'd recommend a guidebook such as Rick Steves or Frommer's.
How to select restaurants before you leave
When I have my schedule for the day - more on planning a trip to Europe available here- I include a list of about 5 cafe-type/pub-type restaurants for lunch if we're doing to sit down. You never know where you'll end up on a given day, but the more you can pre-research restaurants, the better. Of course, that's not always possible - more on that below.
For dinner, I usually select a specific restaurant, rather than leaving it to chance, and make reservations, when possible. If I'm not seeing an option in my books, or I'm looking to mix things up, I often ask the hotel and have them make a reservation for me - this can make a world of difference, and can also make you feel more comfortable arriving somewhere, especially if there's a language barrier. We had the most lovely dinner for my 30th birthday during our stay in Paris at the Maison Astor, thanks to a recommendation from the concierge.
Picking a restaurant on the fly while exploring Europe
Now, if you aren't able to pick a restaurant in advance, or hunger strikes unexpectedly, how do you find nice restaurants in Europe when you're on the go?
Walk 3 blocks in any direction from tourist sights
The best food in the city is not going to be found right next to a major tourist attraction - it's just a fact. These restaurants have a steady stream of hungry/bathroom-needing tourists to keep their doors open, and original food is not their strong suit.
If you're hungry after leaving a tourist attraction and weren't able to select a restaurant in advance, just walk ever-so-slightly away from the tourist attraction. Even a few blocks makes all the difference!!
That said - while this sounds simple when you're reading it now, it's a lot more complicated in practice. There may be just a bit of wandering involved, so be sure to use the public bathroom in the tourist attraction before you set out looking for lunch. This was a tip I have learned the hard way multiple times.
For example, leaving the Colosseum, thinking I could beat the system and find a quicker bathroom, I skipped the facilities and we hit the first restaurant we could find next to the exit. And guess what - it was expensive, crowded, and the food was...fine.
Avoid restaurants where they try to drag you in
This is not necessarily a sign that you should continue your restaurant search, but it's definitely not the sign of a super classy affair. If you're looking for lunch or dinner, I'd generally say keep moving - if you're looking for a quick drink and a bathroom - go for it. You'll generally find tourist-geared food and flashy cocktails.
Avoid plastic/multi-language menus
The smaller the menu, the more authentic the food. You can stand fairly firmly by that rule. Long menus with every type of food imaginable (as pictured above) generally indicate expertise in none, and also that many of the items are microwaved upon being ordered.
Some restaurants have a separate menu in English as a courtesy for foreign travelers, not just native English speakers - remember that English is the lingua franca of Europe. These were fairly common in France and Spain - I would not put these into that category.
Throughout Europe, many of the restaurants frequented by the locals will display their menus on chalk boards that are changed every day - they use the freshest ingredients and those are always changing! Even better- tapas restaurants sometimes don't have menus at all!
Look for locals
This is admittedly difficult to do, certainly on your first few days in a city. However, as more time goes by, you'll get better at separating locals from tourists. Another, less nice, way to do it, is to say to avoid places that are visibly full of other tourists - see previous information above.
One easy way to do this is at lunch: seek out restaurants with people who are dressed for work! If you're in, for example, the City of London, look for those chic Londoners in their impossibly slimly cut suits - rather than somewhere full of people hauling around suitcases and A-Zs. In Italy and France, look for people drinking tiny glasses of wine (and often smoking) at lunch (for my European friends - this is why we love you! But Americans don't generally drink at lunch, unless it's Saturday or a very special occasion).
Do keep in mind, places full of locals likely will provide infinitely better food and an undoubtedly more authentic experience, but remember - the staff are less likely to speak English (they surely can still get you what you need) and they may be less "friendly." If you're concerned about this, definitely check-out my tips on How to Charm the French. Don't be intimidated, as long as you are dressed appropriately, if it's a formal place.
Finding food in a pinch
If you're definitely looking for a bathroom at a bar/bakery/cafe, be sure to ask before you make a purchase, because sometimes they don't have one (not common, but a disappointing surprise).
If you've already made a purchase at a Paul/Pret-type restaurant when you find this out, they'll often let you take your receipt and pop over to another store down the road that does have facilities.
If you're unsure what to do for lunch, feeling jet-lagged, stressed, or in the midst of a family meltdown, Pret and Paul are great options. You won't break the bank, you won't waste time or money on a restaurant that isn't great, and you can always get a fancier dinner that evening with the money you've saved!
Using the bathroom at restaurants in Europe
Thanks for stopping by!
I hope you have some phenomenal dining experiences in Europe, just as we always do! And remember - pick restaurants in advance if you can and if you're feeling flustered, hit a Paul or Pret rather than spending too much on somewhere that doesn't look nice!
And don't forget to subscribe below, for your free carry-on packing checklist for a trip to Europe!
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