Cooking paella in Spain.
Indulging my passions for food, wine, and film at a food film festival.
Exploring bakeries, food shops, and markets in Paris with a knowledgeable guide.
These are some of my favorite–and tastiest–travel memories. I might not have had these experiences, though, if I hadn't done a little groundwork in advance. As I begin to research the culinary options for my upcoming trips, I thought I would share with you my best tips for food and wine travel planning.
How to Plan for Delicious Food and Wine Travel Experiences
Surf the Internet
The internet is your friend. I start out searching very broadly, getting a feel for the country or region I plan to visit, and what is unique to that area. What grapes are grown there? What are the notable vineyards? How can I get to them, or where else can I taste their wines? I look for local food specialties and everything from famous chefs to street food to local markets. I research what produce is grown there, what the traditional dishes are, and what is popular now. Are there farmer's markets nearby, food festivals or community dinners at the time I will be there, or unique culinary events like the New York City Food Film Festival?
Subscribe to Mailing Lists
Subscribe to newsletters and mailing lists. I sign up for email from restaurants, wineries, food shops, cooking schools, local food writers, tourist bureaus, tour companies–anything food and wine-related, really. You will pick up all sorts of useful tidbits of information along the way. After your trip, just unsubscribe so your inbox is not constantly overflowing. Then, when you choose your next destination, repeat the process.
Learn from Others
Take advantage of the experiences of others by mining message boards, joining Facebook groups, or checking review sites. Chowhound can be a good source of information, both at home and away. You can post on your home board and ask for recommendations, and also post on your destination’s board and seek advice from local food lovers. But beware: browse the existing posts first, then ask specific questions, as the regular posters can become quite annoyed by being asked “I’m travelling to your city. What should I eat?” over and over again. Our Solo Travel Society on Facebook is a great place to post questions, with the advantage of getting personal recommendations from others who have traveled solo to the same destination. Review sites such as TripAdvisor can give you an idea of how other travelers enjoyed certain restaurants, food tours, or cooking classes as well, though you need to use a critical lens when using these sites, as you won't know the tastes or experience of the reviewers, which may differ greatly from yours.
Read everything. Read publications geared to tourists – travel guides, tourism websites, official city sites – but also regular periodicals geared to local residents. How do you find out what’s going on at home? Use the same techniques for your destination. I scan the local daily newspapers, weekly entertainment guides, websites containing event listings and restaurant reviews, magazines, and food blogs. I'm a fan of TimeOut, which features local food news, restaurant reviews, “best of” lists for everything from street food to coffee shops to fine dining to wine bars, and sometimes even discount offers. It's how I found my favorite pizza in London and the wonderful Cork Wine Bar and Market in Washington.
Take a Cooking Class
Taking a cooking class can be an incredible way to really get to know a bit about the cuisine and culture of a new place. Often, you can find classes that include a bit more than just participating in cooking a meal, such as guided food shopping or touring a local farmer’s market. In Spain, I took a class with Cook & Taste Barcelona which began with a guided tour of the famous Boqueria market, where we picked up fresh ingredients for our meal. This is a great way to meet other food lovers and travelers, and the classes usually conclude by sitting down to share the meal that you have created, along with a glass of local wine. Or two. It's also a great opportunity to get food, wine, and restaurant recommendations from a local chef, so try to schedule the class very early in the trip so you can take advantage of the insider information.
Take a Walk
Walking tours led by food experts combine a number of interesting elements. Not only do you get to taste lots of food, but you also get to see a bit of the city, pick up tips from your guide, learn about the food culture and history of the area, and also get some exercise in between food stops. If you find yourself in Paris, I recommend taking a walking tour with Lisa Rankin of Flavors of Paris. On the half-day tour that I took with her, we tasted and shopped at a wide variety of stores, bakeries, and markets that I never would have discovered on my own; met the shop owners, bakers, and wine merchants; heard great stories about Paris; and ate so much food that I didn't need to buy lunch or dinner that day. At the end of the day, I sat down at an outdoor patio with Lisa and a lovely couple from the United States who had joined the tour, and enjoyed a wide range of cheeses, all washed down with French wines. Food tours are a great way to spend an afternoon and can also set you up for further exploration with suggestions and local expertise gained from the tour leader.
Hop on a Tour
If you want to explore vineyards and taste local wines, I suggest you relax, leave the driving to someone else, and get the added bonus of interesting information and anecdotes along the way by taking a tour. I am not a swirl and spit kinda gal–I like to fully enjoy the experience of drinking wines in the setting where they were created–so I never drive when I visit wine regions. I parked the car and had a great time in the Annapolis Valley with Grape Escapes Nova Scotia Wine Tours. I joined a small group of 6 other travelers along with a very knowledgeable and engaging driver and host. After tasting your way through a couple of vineyards, enjoying the scenery on the drive, then dining together with, you guessed it, more wine, strangers feel like old friends. In addition to discovering new wines, it's a great way for a solo traveler to have a very social evening.
Or, Don't Plan At All
Planning far ahead provides the opportunity to cast a wide net, and to learn a lot about the local food scene. But not planning at all can also result in fun and surprising experiences, and it’s important to leave yourself open for spontaneous opportunities. I once walked into a tourist office in Penticton, British Columbia to ask about the area, and within the space of 15 minutes I was given an overview of the region, along with maps, guides and postcards, was interviewed by a journalist and had my picture taken for the local newspaper, and found myself on board a minibus with 7 other solo travelers, headed for an afternoon of vineyard tours and wine tastings! You just never know.