There are so many aspects of travel that make it worthy of your time and money. We’ve done the math and… it’s sure to improve your quality of life. Seriously, the promises of increased sex and weight loss alone call to us at a deafening volume and pitch.
But, how could we possibly lose weight when at least 75 percent of our motivation (barring the sex thing) is dining? And, this isn’t necessarily because we have an unhealthy relationship with food, either… no matter what Aunt Liz said at Thanksgiving. The fact is: Anyone who isn’t getting a passport to scarf some street food and do some culinary flossing at a joint with a Michelin star is doing it wrong.
Among all the iconic travel/food experiences, eating a truly local meal reigns supreme. What’s better than wandering the markets of Madagascar to locate the juiciest zebu skewer or finally uncovering that perfectly proportioned fish taco you’ve been dreaming of in the Baja?
To get details on the best cuisine across the globe, we turned to travel influencer and writer Gillie Houston. Her whole gig is literally to search the planet for great food — often shared via her Instagram or in the articles she writes for any number of outlets — so she was the perfect pick to speak on this subject (she’s also 24, which just made every human on earth insanely jealous). When asked for her favorite cities for local food, Houston delivered, with recommendations for restaurants and specific dishes, along with explanations of what makes each food scene special.
Check out what she has to say and toss your personal faves in the comments. The more, the better.
The first place that comes to mind is definitely Vietnam. I traveled around Vietnam for about a month last year, and I was really shocked by how much I fell in love with the food in that country. I think it can usually be overpowered by Thai food and other really bold, spicy Southeast Asian flavors that we eat more of in the U.S.
I thought Vietnamese food was incredibly complex and subtle. Everywhere you go, they have their own signature dishes. If you’re up in the north, in Hanoi, you can get bun cha and plenty of pho.
My personal favorite place to eat in Vietnam is a city called Hội An, which is not only stunningly gorgeous but also home to the two best bánh mì I had in the entire country. I ate a lot of bánh mìs, so I feel pretty confident that these are some of the best around. One place is called Phi Banh Mi, and the other place is called Madam Khanh, the Banh Mi Queen. That is literally the name of her spot, which was kind of amazing.
I was blown away by all of the flavors around Vietnam. You’re eating dishes they’ve been cooking, that their grandmothers taught them, and they’ve been making for centuries. It is very amazing to taste and experience.
The second place, which is definitely fresh in my memory, is Morocco. I recently traveled there for the second time and the food there is just amazing.
It’s simple, but the flavors are so rich. A lot of that is due to the fact that they have an amazing spice trade history there. Obviously, Morocco’s at the intersection of Europe, and Africa, and the Middle East, so the amount of spices you can find is like nowhere else in the world. You go into different spice souks, and you’re like, “What even is 90% of this stuff?” They have the classics of course — like Ras El Hanout — which is their biggest tagine mix. The phrase means, I think, “the head of the shop,” so basically each spice-monger makes their own classic mix.
Cumin, turmeric and all of these other classic spices come together in the regions two main dishes, which are tagine and couscous. If you ask locals what they eat, it’s always tagine and couscous. The great thing about Moroccan food is that it’s very simple, and it’s very humble. They don’t have a flashy restaurant culture. It’s not about, “Oh, this place has Michelin stars,” or, “This place has a celebrity chef.” It really does come down to amazing, homemade food that tastes like something a family would make.
I would say, when you’re in Morocco, the best places to go are places that really do serve the essential dishes. If you look at a menu, and it’s just tagine and couscous, it’s probably going to be great. If it’s getting into cheeseburger territory, or, “Oh, here’s a couple spaghetti dishes,” to appease some tourists who are kind of tired of tagine, those are probably good places to steer clear of.
Other than that, you can find really amazing flavors pretty much everywhere you go, and the food there’s also exceptionally healthy. For the most part, it’s very simple, wholesome food. Vegetables; protein. I really always feel amazing when I come back from Morocco, and just love the food in that entire country.
3. Emiglia-Romagna, Italy
The third place that I’m obsessive about, I tell everyone about it, is a region in Italy called the Emiglia-Romagna. It’s a region in the northeast of Italy that is kind of lesser tread by tourists. The three main cities of it are Bologna, Parma, and Modena. What those places are known for is being the home of Parmesan cheese, balsamic vinegar, and bolognese…these basic, amazing, Italian fundamentals.
The food in this region is so incredible. I’ve traveled a lot of places in Italy. I’ve been to pretty much every major city, every big region. There’s nothing like the food in this region. It is so authentic. It comes from their heart. It comes from the kitchens of their grandmothers.
Obviously, Modena has kind of been put on the map of foodies, because it’s home to Osteria Francescana — which is constantly ranked one of the best restaurants in the world, and that’s definitely a destination for food lovers. But besides that, to me, it’s really almost impossible to have a bad meal.
Some of my favorite places are Trattoria Anna Maria in Bologna; they’re famous for this secret ragù recipe that Anna Maria has been making for decades and decades and decades. It’s just some of the best sauce you’ll ever have. Then, there’s also a place in Modena, called Trattoria Il Fantino, which had one of the best pasta dishes I’ve ever had in my life: their tortelloni, which is the famous pasta of that town, and also pork ribs, which are similarly famous for coming from that town. Italian pork ribs. That meal, right there, is just perfection. Carb-y heaven.
If you’re a food lover, and you’re looking to go to Italy, and really want to get an authentic taste, go to the Emiglia-Romagna. That’s my number one piece of advice for anyone who wants to travel to Italy and eat really great food.
4. Mexico City, Mexico
The next place I’m a huge advocate for is one of my favorite cities in the world: Mexico City. The food is a big part of that. I think Mexico City can be intimidating to some people because it’s got kind of a reputation, but honestly, it’s a city that I feel very safe and welcomed in. And it’s incredibly affordable to travel and eat there.
You can get some of the best street food and high-end culinary experiences on earth in the city. Obviously, the street food culture is insane. There are the best tacos you’ll ever have in your life. You get five tacos for $1.50, and you’re in heaven. So many fresh juices, and tamales, and incredible food that you’ve never eaten because they’re not part of the American-Mexican culinary theme. When you go down there, you won’t find nachos, but you will find sopas and other amazing street dishes.
It’s an up and coming destination for people who want high-end culinary experiences, too. I’m 24 years old, I don’t have $1,000 to drop on some of the tasting menu experiences across the globe, but in Mexico City, I can eat at Pujol, or Quintonil, or at Máximo Bistrot — which are some of the best restaurants in the world and far more affordable. They’re not impossible to score a reservation at, like a lot of the other biggest restaurants in the world, either.
The other dish I think you can’t leave Mexico City without eating is the tuna at Contramar, which is an amazing seafood restaurant. Higher end for Mexico City, but definitely not by American standards. That dish will stay with you forever. It’s absolutely delicious.
5. Paris, France
My next entry is my favorite city in the entire world, which is also my favorite food city, and that is Paris. I think it’s easy for some people to go to Paris, and leave with kind of an “Eh,” impression of the food because just like New York, just like any giant city, there are plenty of tourist traps. There are plenty of sidewalk bistros that look cute, but the food isn’t great. You’ll just kind of be like, “Eh, I ate a lot of soggy junk and steak frites.”
I think you have to know where to eat in Paris. To me, no matter how much I go back, I am always blown away by the cuisine there. Obviously, meals can be slightly pricier than in places like Mexico City and Vietnam, but that’s where I use a rewards card to treat myself to some amazing culinary experiences, and yet I still build up points to use towards other travel — so that I feel a little less guilty about having a really grand-seeming meal every day that I’m there.
I could literally go on and on all day about my favorites, but the restaurant Au Passage is great. If you want a really classic brasserie experience, Bistrot Paul Bert, for just the best, authentic, buttery French food.
Blé Sucré is a bakery that has, in my opinion, the best croissant you’ll ever taste in your entire life. My ultimate favorite food in Paris, in the entire world, of all time, is the pistachio escargot at the bakery Du Pain et Des Idées. It’s a spiralized pastry. It has nothing to do with snails, which is misleading to people. People walk in there, and they’re like, “I hear there’s good snails here?” But no. It’s a spiralized pastry called escargot. It is life changing. I can’t even describe how much I love this pastry. I think everyone who eats it is just totally blown away by how incredible it is.
6. Tokyo, Japan
Then, the last place on my list is the city most people who are obsessive about food and have traveled the world and eaten everywhere would say is probably their top food city, if not one of the top. Tokyo. I think a lot of that is due to the fact that there’s just endless, amazing restaurant options, but it’s also the fact that it’s part of the culture of that country, of that city, to put so much care into their work and into their food, whether it’s a three-star Michelin tasting menu omakase that costs a million dollars or a 7-11. Seriously, the Japanese love 7-11s, and their 7-11 food is great.
It actually is impossible to have a bad meal in Tokyo — whether you’re at a super high-end restaurant or you’re eating fast food in a train station. Everything is high quality. They put so much care into it. It’s served with a smile because there are no friendlier people I’ve ever come across on Earth than the Japanese.
I’d say the number one, ultimate Japanese food experience you can have is going early in the morning to one of the sushi stalls in the Tsukiji fish market and getting omakase. That is the ultimate, fresh, delicious experience you can have if you’re a sushi lover. I don’t think any other sushi experience in the world, even the highest end tasting menu sushi can really capture that because it’s the fish straight out of the water, onto your plate, not dressed up with too many ingredients. It’s just perfect.