Are food tours worth the money? We road test six

Discover Amsterdam's food and and learn about its history on an Eating Europe tour.

Discover Amsterdam's food and and learn about its history on an Eating Europe tour. Photo: Eating Europe

If you’re the type of traveller who books a restaurant before an airfare, exploring new cities on a food tour can be tempting, especially if you’re somewhere the food is as unfamiliar as the language.

The best tours will whet your appetite and teach you about the city you’re in – take them early in your stay so you’ve got time to return to places and areas you like.

They’re sociable and easygoing mixers for solo travellers, or those who don’t like talk-heavy historical tours. The best will teach you as much about a place as a conventional city tour.

Pricier private guides, like Ute in Berlin, will give you restaurant and hotel recommendations, and help with reservations once you’ve booked and paid. Group tours like Eating Europe give you a list of the places you’ve been so you can retrace your steps.

The best guides will happily share recommendations beyond what you’ve visited, too. But with many tours costing a much as a Michelin-starred dinner for two, are food tours worth your time and travel dollars? We tried six to find out.

Athens, Greece

The company: Athens Walking Tours
The cost: 49 euros (about $A79)
The tour: Athens Food Tour

This is what good food tours should be: poking around terrific neighbourhoods, finding a couple of great little places to eat to return to later, learning what to buy and try for the rest of your trip.

We wandered through the Central Market, tasted bougatsa, loukomades, feta and olives, sat in the conservatory of the pretty family-run Stou Meidani for tasting plates, finished with souvlaki on Aischylou Grill House’s vine-covered verandah. You get a map of where you’ve been with a list of other places worth visiting.

The verdict: Entertaining, knowledgeable guides give a broad view of their city’s food culture, perhaps a bit long in a Cretan-foods store, otherwise perfectly paced, ending with full bellies and satisfied customers.

food tours

The sights and sounds – and smells – of the Central Market in Athens. Photo: Janne Apelgren

Porto, Portugal

The company: Taste Porto
The cost: 65 euros per person (about $A105)
The tour: Downtown food tour

Our guide Miguel’s a musician and as a day job he’s hosting Taste Porto food tours, known for showing the late, great food writer Anthony Bourdain around.

We start with puff pastry crescents at a brother-and-sister shop. Next stop is inside the Mercado do Bolhao, relocated to a shopping mall basement while the beautiful original is restored. Bolhao Wine House offers us a vino verde, sardines and crusty bread. At 170-year-old Flor dos Congregados, Miguel plays piano while the barman pours a dry sparkling red, served with their juice-dripping pork loin and cured ham roll.

food tours

Pork sandwiches and a dry sparkling red at Flordos Congregados. Photo: Janne Apelgren

On Porto’s main avenue, we pull into Cafe Guarany, an old coffee house famous for its perfect espresso, the cimbalino, served with a square of chocolate for those who find it too bitter … pop it on your tongue and drink the coffee over.

We finish with a dessert Miguel tells us we’ll find challenging, a tiny custard, incredibly eggy from the first mouthful, paired with a golden fortified wine. Miguel says each portion contains 15 egg yolks. Its caramel richness is heady, but the yolkiness is too much. We’ve had too many carbs, not enough protein, but we’re way too full for dinner.

In avoiding the traditional and better known (tripe dishes, bacala, the epic francesinha sandwich), we’ve got some gaps in our knowledge about Portuguese food generally, but we’ve seen and tried some things that only locals might know about. A pocket-sized foldout brochure lists plenty more places to eat in the days ahead.

The verdict: 4pm is a slightly odd time of day to be out eating, and you might be uncertain about dining after you finish about 8pm. But it’s a good introduction to some of Portugal’s foods. The company offers several tours so choose one that feels like a best match.

Amsterdam, Netherlands

The company: Eating Europe
The cost: 115 euros per person (about $A186)
The tour: Amsterdam Food and Canals Tour

Like Australia, whether the Netherlands has a ‘national’ cuisine or dish is up for debate. Ask locals and they might send you to an Indonesian restaurant.

This tour, part guided walk, part hour-long canal cruise while sipping wine, scrapes together some local obsessions: Puffy poffertjes pancakes in an historic ‘brown’ cafe, bitterballen in a bar (leftovers like beef stew or curry rolled in breadcrumbs and fried), a Dutch wine shop (apparently even the Dutch are surprised they make wine), an 1800s bakery, a modern fishmonger.

You won’t get a sense of Amsterdam’s upmarket dining scene, or its markets, or the chocolate cookie bakery where a doorman manages the queue, but you’ll get to see a fair bit of the city while snacking on some of its idiosyncracies.

Plus, there’s architecture and history thrown in by a knowledgeable guide, so the less food-obsessed won’t feel left out. And the canal trip on an historic boat is delightful.

The verdict: A diverting introduction to the city, with food as a side dish. You might find your guide’s a vegetarian, or a bon vivant, and the experience might vary accordingly. The 10.30 start will leave you time and an appetite for dinner.

food tours

Poffertjes or a potted history of Amsterdam – you can have both. Photo: Eating Europe

Madrid, Spain

The company: Ibertours is the local agent.
The cost: About 70 euros per person, plus a $25 booking fee per group
The tour: Wine and tapas small group tour with Jaime

We started the night a group of strangers, meeting awkwardly at 7.30pm in Madrid’s Santa Ana square, and ended it, much later, at closing time in a hidden subterranean bar where we’d all happily lingered eating and drinking with our guide, well past the tour’s end, in the spirit we’d just learnt.

Effectively a crawl of four wonderful small tapas bars and restaurants, through lively historic neighbourhoods, this tour is a great introduction to the Spanish way of eating and drinking, with a low key but knowledgeable guide, with enough food, wine and beer to satisfy. How good was it? We’ve been back to one of the tapas bars, La Casa Del Abuelo, for its sizzling garlic prawns three times in the years since.

The verdict: Highly recommended for first-timers in Spain or Madrid, you won’t leave hungry. Go early in your visit.

Mexico City, Mexico

The company: Eat Mexico
The cost: US$89 (about $A130)
The tour: Journey Through La Merced

Thinking of tackling Mexico City’s La Merced Market alone? The concierge’s horrified face is enough to convince us otherwise.

“Don’t take your wallets, passports, credit cards, camera or cash. Take off your watch and jewellery,” she warns. Even the tour company declares “this tour is ideal for adventurous travellers”.

Why? Because La Merced has over 5500 permanents stalls plus street vendors sprawling over nearly 10 hectares, divided between produce, sweets, flowers and meats, and a guide says, the city’s most skilful pickpockets. It gets so crowded there’s human gridlock. Through it all vendors push loaded trolleys before which shoppers must scamper. Getting lost is a given, so a tour’s a wise investment.

Eat Mexico’s four-hour mercado tour is all-you-can-eat. As it turns out, that starts with meaty tacos topped with shoestring fries, followed by giant deep-fried tamales that top 700 kilojoules or 3000 calories per serve, followed by beef brisket taco.

food tours

Only for the brave: The cow’s head taco stall. Photo: Janne Apelgren

Into the market proper and chillies – from sweet and smoky to vegetal – perfume the air. We do a mole tasting, then meet a stallholder who specialises in pre-Colombian snacks like crunchy grasshoppers, mosquito larvae (like chia seeds), bits of flying ants. Next is the guy making tacos from a cow’s head, you can have the lean, beefy bits, or a bit of everything – cheek, eye, tongue – in your taco.

In the sweets market, bees swarm to the preserved figs, candied limes and caramels. We finish at the beautiful Roldan 37, an elegant old restaurant with its own wine and beautiful crockery – and crunchy grasshopper enchilada – perhaps best eaten eyes shut.

The verdict: Don’t miss it, and don’t try to do it yourself. Claustrophobes might prefer weekdays. We take the second tour of the morning and have our guide, knowledgeable food anthropologist Mario Aranda, to ourselves. Maximum per group, four people.

Tokyo, Japan

The company: Sushi University
The cost: $160-$830 per person
The tour: Sushi University Dinner

It takes two subways, a suburban shortcut and a walk through winding back streets to reach the Tokyo sushi restaurant where we are to dine.
Inside, just nine seats line the bar. It’s been run by six generations of the same family since 1868. There’s no English menu, it’s not in the guidebooks, or on Instagram.

Two of us and an interpreter are here to experience “Sushi University”, the brainchild of businessman and passionate traveller, eater and sushi scholar Tetsuya Hanada. It’s a private window into enjoying sushi the way Tokyo people do.

food tours

Sushi with history at a tiny, family-run restaurant in hidden Tokyo. Photo: Janne Apelgren

Before booking, you’ll choose how much you want to spend on dinner, and Mr Hanada will choose one of his trusted restaurants for you. An interpreter will meet you at your accommodation and guide you to the restaurant.

Throughout dinner, the chef and interpreter explain the traditions, preparation and etiquette of sushi. You’re left with a feeling of being far off the tourist trail, and experiencing something most tourists miss.

The verdict: a unique experience for serious food-lovers, or any devotee of sushi.

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