One of the best ways to learn about a destination’s personality, its history, and its customs is to eat your way around town on a guided walking tour. You get to sample food from places that have been vetted by the tour company and you get some insight into local dining habits. If you’re going to stick around that place for a while, it’s also a way to figure out which dining spots are worth returning to later.
I’ve been on a lot of terrific food tours over the years, both in the U.S. and internationally, plus I run a company that hosts them myself in my adopted home in Mexico. Here’s a taste of what to expect, based on some good ones that have filled my belly in the recent past.
Savannah, Georgia With Savannah Taste Experience
When I visited the historic Georgia city of Savannah last month, it was the first time either of us had set food in the city so we were taking it all in. We rode the sightseeing trolley, walked through every plaza, and went on a ghost tour. We only had a couple days there though, so there was a limit to how many restaurants we could visit. The answer was to connect with Savannah Taste Experience to get a good sampling.
Our entertaining local guide Pamela made it all fun and information as she took us to six varied stops to try food from six very different places. I was a little skeptical when our meeting place was 22 Square at the definitely non-historic Andaz Hotel, but when plates of shrimp and grits came out, we were off to a good start. When our next stop featured steak and potato pie at the British Pie Company, I knew this wasn’t going to be a predictable tour.
We had a form of shepherd’s pie at the only surviving Scottish Pub from when the Scots were here in droves, with some 230 varieties of Scotch Whisky you can try. We had some tasty wings at Prohibition, which set us up for the decadent highlight of the day. At a place called The Ordinary Pub, we got something that was far from ordinary and about as southern as you can get: pork belly doughnut sliders with bacon onion jam, accompanied by bread pudding sliced French toast. Man oh man. Thankfully Savannah is a great city for walking it all off.
We made one last stop at the Savannah Bee Company and learned about what makes local honey so special and got to see the difference the particular flowers can make when you get the good stuff. They also have a mead bar in the back where you can taste a flight or get a glass full.
The First Squares Food Tour from Savannah Taste Experience runs daily for three hours and is currently $54.
What I learned: When Savannah was first established in the 1700s, the rules were “no slaves, lawyers, Catholics, or alcohol.” (Now you can order a drink and carry it onto the streets in a go cup.)
At the Chef’s Table in Greenville, South Carolina
I’ve been going to Greenville for more than a decade because my late father was living there. Thanks to a well-planned downtown renaissance that has been evolving since the late 1990s, Greenville has suddenly become one of the hot spots of the Southeast. I decided to see if the new hype was justified by going out on an eating tour with At the Chef’s Table.
I wrote about this in detail over at the Perceptive Travel Blog, so you can see more in my Greenville travel article there. I would highly recommend this tour, both for the quality of what you get and the terrific value it is. You get full-sized portions of some items rather than just a taste and the $49 price tag is an unbelievable bargain when you add up everything: at every stop there’s some kind of accompaniment to the dish. So the ricotta dumplings with garlic sauce and fennel salad with asparagus pictured above came with a mimosa. The tenderloin meatballs with a peanut and pimento sauce, accompanied by polenta, came with a nice pinot noir. That last one was at Soby’s New South Cuisine, one of the hottest restaurants in town.
There’s a little trick to this tour that explains the great value: all the restaurants are owned by the same parent company. They want you to come back for dinner—or maybe the next day if you’re too stuffed after this tour. These are some of the highest-regarded dining spots in the city though, so you really are tasting a good representative sample of what downtown Greenville is all about these days. If you have simpler tastes though, the guide and company owner John also does a barbecue tour of the area that hits the countryside.
What I learned: In the days before shopping malls, downtown Greenville had huge department stores from Belk, Kress, and J.C. Penny.
Ithaca is Foodies, Upstate New York
In September I was on a trip that involved drinking lots of wine, cider, and craft beer in the Finger Lakes region of New York state. In Ithaca though we connected with the Ithaca is Foodies tour company to taste our way around the city. This three-hour tour hits six very different places while also teaching you a little about the history of the area.
For some of us, the first stop was the highlight: Hawi Ethiopian Cuisine. America is a nation of immigrants after all, which is why we have such great food variety in most of our cities. We had a few delicious items to pick up and eat with our injera bread and our guide/co-owner Sarah gave it a local touch with the best thing we drank all day: pear cider from Eve’s Cidery. We then moved on to an unassuming vegetarian restaurant that is nevertheless one of the most famous places north of NYC: Moosewood Restaurant. If you know a vegetarian who likes to cook, you’ll probably find one of their Moosewood cookbooks in the kitchen. They’ve one three James Beard awards, still operate as a collective, and change their menu four times a year with the seasons.
We kept walking around town, stopping in a shop with olive oils and vinegars then sat down for a while at the hot local restaurant and cooking school Coltivare Culinary Center, where we had some farm-to-table flatbreads accompanied by New York state wine or beer. (All the taps in their bar are dedicated to local breweries.) We visited the bizarre Ten Forward Cafe that’s got a Star Trek theme and had a vegan “milkshake” before ending up in dairy bliss at Sweet Melissa’s Ice Cream. Yes, they serve a dairy-free version too. Obviously this is a good tour if you have dietary restrictions.
Along the way we learned a bit about downtown Ithaca and our printed guide with map had coupons on the back for revisiting every place we had been. The Downtown Ithaca Food Tour is $57.
What I learned: There are 100 waterfalls within 10 miles of the city.
Istanbul Food Tours
As I’ve mentioned recently on this blog, Istanbul is cheaper now than it has been for more than a decade, but it’s also a scarier, less democratic and secular place than it was in the past too. Not since the Ottoman Empire has so much power been concentrated in such few hands, with so few checks and balances.
Putting all that aside for now though, this is one of the world’s greatest food cities. I did plenty of my own self-guided food tours when I lived in Istanbul in the mid-90s as an English teacher, then went on more formal ones on subsequent visits. The last one I went on was a Kadikoy Food Tour, touring one of the city’s hippest neighborhoods on the Asian side after a ferry ride.
The company I booked it with pulled out of the country when the political situation got bleak, but I’d imagine the local guides just switched teams and are doing tours for Context, GetYourGuide, or others now. GetYourGuide.com actually offers a Karikoy night food tour, and a day tour, the latter looking a lot like what I went on.
You can read a detailed rundown on that Istanbul Asian side food tour here, but this was definitely a rich cultural experience as well as a culinary one. We went from yogurt with honey to borek to a Turkish version of a charcuterie platter before moving on to pickles. Then it was time for lunch!
After feeling too stuffed to eat another thing, I managed to scarf down a baklava at a Turkish coffee stand.
There are loads of food tours in Istanbul, taking in different neighborhoods, so browse the options from those links above and see what looks interesting. Prices range from $21 to $100+. I liked the Kadikoy one though because it got well away from the tour bus crowds and cruise excursion throngs, into a cool and vibrant neighborhood where people live and go out, away from the tourists.
What I learned: They call Kadikoy the “Brooklyn of Turkey.” Hey, everybody’s got to have one now, right?
A Walking Food Tour of Karakol, Kyrgyzstan
Last year I went to Kyrgyzstan to go hiking and that part was spectacular. After a week of tent camping and eating cross-legging in a dining tent though, I was psyched to get back to something resembling civilization in the city of Karakol. We set out on a Karakol food tour a couple days after getting there and ate our way around several restaurants.
When I’m old and looking back at my life, this will probably go down as the cheapest organized food tour I have every done. It is arranged by the local tourism office and isn’t really meant to be a money maker, so for now anyway the price is a screaming bargain at $9!
We went to four different restaurants for sit-down servings of typical local dishes, though be advised you should be a meat-eater to join this tour since what you get is what you get. It was all delicious and all the items turned out to be things we had never had in the capital or on the trail. See more information on the Destination Karakol site and if you follow that link there’s a special surprise: you’ll see me on the far right in the main photo.
What I learned: Our favorite dish on the tour turned out to be Kyrgyzstan’s favorite hangover food. Azuu is a strange and wonderful mixture of beef tips, onion, garlic, beans, french fries, and dill pickles.
Guanajuato Street Food Tours
This last one is my baby. I started running food tours in Guanajuato when I lived there last time, partly to fill a market void since there were no tours in town besides the very typical sightseeing tours. It was also a way to make myself get out of the home office and mingle with travelers passing through. Since then this little side hustle pursuit has grown into an operation with five guides and three different tour offerings.
There’s the original daytime street food tour, which samples fresh juice, baked goods, tamales, gorditas, sopes, and other goodies that are typical fare for the locals. You walk off some of it while winding through our curvy pedestrian-friendly city and get a lot of background on this history of this UNESCO World Heritage center.
We also do a Guanajuato Bars & Tacos night tour that includes a michelada, pulque, mezcal, and tequila. Guanajuato is a college town, so many of the drinking spots in the city can best be described as dive bars. You might be a little hesitant about waltzing into them, especially if you don’t speak Spanish well, so with this tour you can do it with a local guide, eating some street corn and tacos along the way.
In either case, you’ll get a lot of insight into the fascinating history of this city, from it’s colonial Spanish silver mining days centuries ago to its role as the site of the first battle of Mexico’s war of independence in the early 1800s. You’ll learn about the tunnels, the traditions, and the local market foods.
I could go on for another few thousand words of this if I reach back to tours I’ve taken in Puerto Vallarta, Budapest, Quito, and elsewhere, but this is enough for now. I’ve gotten a lot out of all of the good ones I have taken and learned a lot about the destination through the guided walks and the local cuisine.
Have you gotten a great experience from a local food tour you booked? Give a shout-out in the comments below.