Discovering the new and diverse flavours of the world is surely one of the most captivating things about travel. From experiencing the chaotic and sense-provoking street food markets of Southeast Asia and Mexico to savouring the best local ingredients in Italy’s gastronomic capitals, food is a window into the heart and soul of the country’s culture. So let’s embark on a global tour of the 13 best foodie destinations, each with its own unique culinary story and specialty.

As a fellow foodie, I hope this collection of my favourite gastronomic destinations will inspire your next culinary journey.

 

Hanoi, Vietnam

Pho Soup, Hanoi
Pho soup

The bustling Vietnamese city is a majestic destination for street food lovers. It’s definitely one of those destinations where the presence of cheap plastic stools and tables (and locals) is an omen for the best food you can find. Vietnamese cuisine is perhaps best known for its soup (pho), and the French-influenced Vietnamese baguettes bahn mi, but Hanoi’s street food scene offers enough variety that you’ll be trying something new for weeks.

Some particular Hanoi specialties worth savouring are bun cha – caramelised pork meatballs served with noodles, herbs and delectable dipping sauce, and the pungent steamed rice pancakes. To get the most out of it, take a street food tour to make sure you get the full array of Hanoi’s offerings.

Coffee lovers will be happy to know the local brew is top-game (another French influence), including some of the more unusual but excellent variations with coconut or egg yolk.

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul is undoubtedly one of those special and fascinating cities that will keep you returning. And the array of food on offer is a part of that charm.

Turkish cuisine is a wonderful marriage of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean flavours, and there is so much more to it than kebabs and baklava. Arguably home to some of the best and wholesome breakfasts, you can be confident of starting every day in the best possible way. After that, the city is your oyster. You can explore the popular restaurants of Istiklal Street, head down to the Eminönü Port for the simple but traditional fish sandwiches, or explore the endless variety of street food and unassuming family-run restaurants.

I wholly recommend taking a foodie tour early in your trip to try out foods you never knew existed from restaurants you’d have walked past – and come back to later to enjoy more of your favourites. We went with Culinary Backstreets (no, this isn’t a sponsored post), but there are plenty of options. It’s more than worth it – just come hungry.

Be sure to try salt-baked fish in one of the specialist restaurants as well as cig kofte, a vegetarian bulgur “meatball” wrap bursting with tangy and spicy flavours.

Osaka, Japan

Takoyaki octopus meatballs, Osaka, Japan
Takoyaki (octopus balls)

Without doubt, you will find excellent food all over Japan – a rare case of a country where even the airport restaurants offer high-quality meals. Yet Osaka stands out above the rest for its variety of local dishes and thriving street food scene. It’s no accident that the city is also known as “Japan’s Kitchen”.

For the best introduction to Osaka’s specialties, visit the Dotonbori district – a street food paradise. Some of the regional must-tries include okonomiyaki (a very satisfying Japanese omelette), takoyaki (fried octopus balls), kushikatsu (deep-fried skewers) and udon suki (udon noodle based hotpot). For a more unusual delicacy, try pufferfish (known as fugu) which is usually served as raw sashimi or in a hotpot.

Osaka has a big Korean population, and if you head to Korea Town (Tsuruhashi), the local eateries will offer you a perfect introduction to the spicy gastronomy from the neighbours across the sea. It may just make you want to start planning a trip to Seoul (see below!).

Lima, Peru

Ceviche, Lima, Peru
Ceviche

Peru is the undisputed gem of South America’s otherwise not the most world-class food scene. This is in part thanks to its unique blend of historical influences from across the world including Japanese, Chinese, African, Spanish and of course indigenous Incan ingredients.

This melting pot gave birth to some of the most interesting and diverse dishes, including its most famous food export – the ceviche – raw seafood marinated in lime juice usually served with onions, chilli and coriander. Ceviche was born thanks to Japanese fishermen who moved to coastal Peru way back. Chinese influence, meanwhile, created the hybrid Chinese-Peruvian “chifa”, with dishes like lomo saltado (stir-fried beef) and caufa (fried rice) especially popular in Lima.

All flavours of foodies will enjoy Lima. For those that prefer haute-cuisine, Lima is home to ~30 Michelin Star restaurants. But honestly, you can find a great ceviche in one of the hole-in-the-wall establishments and many of Lima’s markets. Meanwhile local street food stalls boast the likes of beef heart skewers (anticuchos), empanadas, hearty soups and a head-spinning variety of freshly squeezed juices from fruits you’ve never seen before. Alpaca meat and spit-roast guinea pigs are also on the cards.

 

Naples, Italy

Fritto Misto, Naples
Fritto Misto

Italy’s food scene needs little introduction, but it never fails to impress me how much the food varies by regions, each a specialist in something. The southern Campania region and its capital Naples is arguably one of the best regions for foodies.

Of course, Naples is the birthplace of pizza. And not just a select few restaurants that you have to queue for (e.g. Pizzeria da Michele) – you will find the delicious thin, soft-crust creations with the freshest ingredients all over the city.

But there’s plenty more. Naples has an impressive street food culture. Come to the markets (like Mercado di Pignasecca) to savour fritto misto (fried seafood mix, as pictured), fried pizza or the little sfogliatella pastry to go with your espresso. Napoli’s pasta game is equally strong, dominated by tomato and a variety of regional pasta shapes like scialatielli and paccheri.

Naples is an incredibly characterful (if gritty) city and somewhat underrated, so makes for a wonderful trip that can be extended to visiting one of the nearby islands (Ischia, Procida, Capri) or indeed the Amalfi Coast.

 

Bologna, Italy

Pasta al ragu, Bologna
Bologna’s ragu sauce

It’s too hard to include only one Italian city on this foodie destination list, and a sin to leave out Bologna.

Lovingly known as “The Fat One” (La Grassa), Bologna is at the very heart of Italy and the country’s gastronomic scene. The medieval city is probably best known for fresh pasta dishes including ragu (better known abroad as Bolognese). But the city and the wider Emilia-Romagna region is also home to many of Italian staples – cured meats, mortadella, parmesan, tortellini, balsamic vinegar and piadine, to name a few.

You don’t even need to visit restaurants for the excellent food. Italian cuisine is all about the very best ingredients, and you’ll find proof of this in local markets and fruit & veg stalls of Bologna. The tomatoes alone are to die for! I recommend a Visit Mercado di Mezzo or Mercato delle Erbe.

Read More: 15 of the Best Hidden Gem Destinations in Italy

Tbilisi, Georgia

Georgian Cuisine

Georgian cuisine isn’t very well known outside the former USSR, and that is a shame as it is outstanding (especially for a cheese lover).

The country is a true foodie destination and it’s cuisine is like no other. Imagine if Italian and Middle Eastern cuisines had a child, but with a little Russian influence mixed in too. Its capital Tbilisi is an intriguing mix of the old and the modern, and this is reflected in its dining scene. You have the many traditional restaurants serving up the traditional Georgian fare, and then there is the growing fine dining scene with sophisticated modern twists on the eternal classics. Either way, just a few highlights to anticipate:

  • Khachapuri. Be prepared for a cheese coma when you visit Tbilisi. Georgia’s signature “cheese pizza” comes in many varieties depending on the region and is available pretty much everywhere, from the finest restaurants down to a roadside stall. Probably the most famous variety, khachapuri adjaruli, comes with an egg on top and is an absolute delight for the cheese lover.
  • Khinkali. Every country has their own take on dumplings and Georgia’s version is one of the most unusual. Theirs are of the massive, delightfully juicy variety designed to be handheld. Usually stuffed with meat but you’ll often find cheese and mushroom options.
  • Nigvziani badrijani –  Arguably the king of Georgian starters, the walnutty-garlicky paste sat inside soft aubergine slices and topped with pomegranate seeds melts in your mouth and makes for a perfect starter
  • Lobio bean soup – Georgians love bean dishes and the hearty lobio soup is the best version for me. Just be ready for the consequences.
  • Churchkhela. You’ll see these unusual candle-shaped candies hanging up on strings in local markets. These are made of grapes, nuts and flour and definitely worth a try.

The grilled meats (often served as shashlik skewers) are deliciously marinated and yet another reason to visit the country. On top of all of this, Georgia is one of the oldest wine-producing countries (with a particular focus on semi-sweet wines), which goes down well as an accompaniment to the dishes.

Read More: Where to Visit in Georgia – Italy of the Caucasus

 

Taipei, Taiwan

hidden gem travel destinations

Adventurous foodies will not be disappointed in Taipei. As with the best cuisines, each region or city boasts their own specialties and the variety of foods you can try across what is a small country is impressive.

Street food is king in Taipei. Night markets play a central role in Taiwanese culture and for a good reason – it’s where you’ll find the best versions of Taiwan’s famous dishes. They are an experience for the senses and if you’re tempted to find a sit-down restaurant instead, I urge you to just go for it and try as much as you can – even if you don’t always know what you just bought. Some of the night market classics include oyster omelette, grilled squid, grilled Taiwanese sausages, fried oysters and the infamous stinky tofu. To find the stall, follow the stink – you’ll smell it from 100 meters away. it genuinely is tasty if you brave it.

There are multiple markets to choose from in Taipei, most with their particular specialties. So try visit a different one every time to get the widest variety of Taipei’s offerings. That said, Taiwan’s dining scene is also strong. Here you should try the household staple – beef noodles – as well as hot pot which is more of a shared experience.

Read More: The Perfect 2-Week Taiwan Itinerary

London, UK

Objectively, British cuisine is far from being one of the world’s finest, varied or intriguing. However, London is undoubtedly home to what is probably the largest diversity of cultures and cuisines in the world – with roughly 270 nationalities calling it home.

So London really is blessed with a crazy variety of dishes to explore, all within at most an hour’s travel from your doorstep. As a fun challenge, I decided to prove it by eating my way across the alphabet and finding a restaurant that represents a country for every single letter from A to Z, all in UK’s capital. I managed to find a restaurant for just about every letter there is a country for, often spoilt for choice for specific letters.

From the sumptuous flavours of Southeast and South Asia (Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Malaysia) to the hearty meals of Eastern Europe (Romania, Poland, Lithuania) and the more exotic or region-specific cuisines (Uganda, Xinjiang, Eritrea), London is truly a foodie’s playground. If you are a foodie living here, consider yourself lucky. If you’re visiting, know that you don’t have to limit yourself to fish & chips and jellied eels. That’s not to say English dishes should be avoided – a good Sunday roast or pie and mash make for a satisfying meal accompanied by a pint of British ale.

Read more: The A to Z Guide of World Restaurants in London

 

Penang, Malaysia

Penang Laksa, George Town, Malaysia
Penang Laksa

Malaysian cuisine is blessed with a fusion of Malay, Indian and Chinese influences which makes it probably the most varied Asian cuisine and a paradise for food enthusiasts.

The island of Penang, once a former British colony, perfectly represents this cultural mix. A short walk through the historically rich and colourful George Town (the main city on Penang) will take you from its many open-air hawker food stalls to Little India and Chinatown.

Must-try dishes include Penang laksa soup, fried roti canai, dim sum, nasi lemak, char koay teow noodles and the Indian-inspired nasi kandar. For desserts, try the local shaved ice specialties – cendol (with coconut milk and palm sugar) and ais kacang (crowned with various sweet toppings). And don’t forget the much loved and equally hated “king of fruits” – durian. Widely available in all forms on the island, it’s a fruit worth braving the smell for – just don’t bring it back to the hotel.

If the tropical heat gets too much, head up to Penang Hill to enjoy a spot of afternoon tea and scenic views of the city at David Brown – like the British occupiers once did to escape to a cooler climate.

Mexico City, Mexico

Mexican cuisine (very different from Tex-Mex!) is especially known for its rich flavours and diverse dishes (far more than the burritos and fajitas Tex-Mex exported from US globally).

Many would consider Oaxaca as Mexico’s foodie capital and while it is indeed impressive for its moles, tlayudas and memelitas, Mexico City also offers this and much, much more from every other region of the country. Plus there’s a lot more to do and see in the capital!

The metropolis is especially known for its multitude of vibrant street food markets and street food vendors. Tacos, tamales, elotes, carnitas and tostadas are but a fraction of the dishes you can try, with some of the biggest markets worth visiting being Mercado de la Merced and Mercado de Coyoacan. If you don’t want to play the stomach bug roulette (the risks are fairly low), Mexico City’s restaurant game is also strong, often showcasing modern interpretations of traditional Mexican cuisine.

The wonderful breakfast dishes like chilaquiles and huevos rancheros are surely some of the most satisfying breakfasts anywhere in the world. Just accept that you’ll put on a fair bit of weight if you stay for a while.

Read More: 10 Unique Hidden Gems to Visit in Mexico

 

Seoul, South Korea

Korean Bibimbap, Seoul
Bibimbap & accompaniments

South Korea’s capital is a fantastic foodie destination. Korean food is known for fresh ingredients and some of the boldest flavours in Asia, something you’ll notice regardless of whether you prefer the restaurant scene or the vibrant street food markets.

The variety in the land of kimchi and spicy red sauce is incredible, some of the must-try dishes being:

  • Bibimbap, Korea’s flagship rice dish topped with a mix of sauteed veggies, some form of meat or seafood and the spicy gochujang sauce
  • Korean BBQ – perfect for a Korean sharing experience
  • Korean fried chicken – probably some of the most flavoursome in the world
  • Tteokbokki: deliciously chewy rice cake cylinders usually covered in that same spicy orange sauce
  • Mandu: a delectable Korean version of dumplings
  • Kimbap: another classic probably best described as Korean sushi, often featuring kimchi

For the most adventurous foodies (definitely not for everyone!), you might be tempted to try the small live octopus. Yep, the one that still clings onto your mouth as you chew it, or tries to escape from the plate.

 

Lisbon, Portugal

hidden gem travel destinations
Portuguese limpets

As well as just being an all-round fantastic destination, Lisbon is a city of outstanding seafood and pastries.

The Portuguese capital’s proximity to the abundant Atlantic Ocean ensures an excellent variety of fresh seafood. The octopus alone makes Lisbon a worthwhile gastronomic port of call. It’s served in numerous styles, including the most classic Polvo a Lagareiro – roasted and generously drenched in olive oil. Amongst the huge variety of fresh shellfish, you’ll find the more unusual barnacles (percebes) – the tube-shaped things that grow on rocks and are surprisingly delectable if you enjoy the raw taste of the ocean.

Then there’s Portugal’s national obsession with cod (bacalhau), which gave birth to a wide range of codfish dishes ranging from the popular snack pasteis de bacalhau (salted codfish cake) to roasted, shredded or fried.

Amongst the pastries, Lisbon’s most famous sweet export is the custard cake – pasteis de nata – available in just about every cafe and pastry shop. But there’s much more to try, including bolas de Berlim (cream-filled balls with a nod to German influence) and papos de anjo (soft, sugar-soaked egg yolk cakes).

Lisbon’s dining scene is quite affordable for European standards, but local markets are another great way to savour your way across Lisbon’s specialist offerings. Mercado da Ribeira was my favourite market for its variety.

 


Any other cities you’d recommend for a lesser-known foodie destination? Anything you think I criminally left out? Let me know in the comments!

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