How To Avoid Tourist Trap Food When Traveling In a Tourist Town

So you are finally at your dream vacation destination, it might be Paris, Buenos Aires, or Singapore. You’re eager to taste the local cuisine and eat your way through the city.

But wait! There is an ocean of information online. Your destination has numerous restaurants all competing for your attention with their menus and food. How do you know that you will not end up eating tourist trap food?

Finding and showcasing authentic food is at the core of Authentic Food Quest. After years of moving to new countries and cities, tracking down local food specialties, we launched Authentic Food Quest.  

Our mission is to connect to culture through local food specialties. 

On your travels, you want to avoid disappointment in the food. We invite you to savor the local specialties. Avoid the catered food designed for tourists.

Getting an authentic food experience is not a simple task. Here are 5 tips to get you off the tourist trap food path.

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1.Visit The Local Farmers Markets

Farmers markets are a vibrant mixture of sights, colors, sounds and intoxicating aromas. No matter what’s for sale – fresh produce, food, crafts, or antiques, you get a sense of the local culture. If you really want to see what locals are eating and buying, get off the tourist path and get to know the more authentic side of a destination.

Wherever your travels take you, there will be some sort of market that will give you an authentic experience. When we were in Lima on our quest to discover the authentic food of Peru, we stayed in a local neighborhood or barrio called Lince. Little did we know when we picked this barrio, that it would be in the heart of several local markets and a very popular foodie destination for locals.

About four blocks away from where we were staying, was one of our favorite local farmers market. In addition to having fresh and delicious fruits and vegetables, they also had amazing lunch specials. For less than $5USD per person, we could get an appetizer, a main meal and unlimited amounts of fresh juice. The way the system worked was simple. Walk around the food stalls, find a menu that appeals to you and then pull up a stool to the counter. Here, we had some of the best ceviche (raw fish) that we could have imagined.

Eating raw fish terrifies many travelers. Eating raw fish at a local market for some is asking for trouble. What we enjoyed instead was fresh fish from that morning and a chance to chat with the cook, while watching her prepare our meals. Savor the delights at the local market, and taste the authenticity on your travels.

How to avoid tourist trap foodClaire enjoying fresh, local market food

2.Take The Streets Less Traveled  

You know the feeling on your travels, when you are so tired after visiting the museums or cultural sites and all you want to do is sit down and let your legs rest. Maybe you are a little hungry or you just want to quench your thirst and look at your maps or guide books and plan for your next stop.

Resist the temptation to grab a sit in a beautiful square of plaza close by. Walk as far as you can from the main tourist attraction sites. The further you go, you will find better and cheaper food.

Our quest to discover authentic food from the desert took us to San Pedro De Atacama in the north of Chile. San Pedro de Atacama is a small touristy town with an endearing charm and slow pace. The main streets are dusty and lined with adobe brown colored buildings and they all lead to the main plaza. This area is filled with many restaurants with servers standing outside inviting you with tourist trap food.

Claire’s birthday was approaching and we were looking for an authentic restaurant where we could celebrate.  We decided to get off the main tourist area and just walk and explore what was on the outskirts. No map and no guidebook. Just curiosity and a sense of discovery.

It was by taking the road less traveled that we stumbled onto Baltinache. Baltinache is known for serving indigenous fusion cuisine – a mix of Mapuche (indigenous Chileans) with local ingredients from San Pedro de Atacama.  Here, we had one of the most creative cuisines we have ever had. We also had the opportunity to meet with the chef and learn about her Mapuche upbringing.  

No matter how tempting the nearby restaurants may seem, keep walking and you will be rewarded with amazing meals and cherished moments.

How to avoid tourist trap food Baltinache restaurantNonedescript entrance to Baltinache Restaurant

3. Go To The Local Food Festivals

Participating in local festivals is a great way to learn about the people and the culture of the region you are traveling to. If you happen to stumble onto a food festival, even better as you really get to understand the regional specialties.  

Knowing about and finding the festivals is not always evident. The best ways we have found to learn about local festivals is by reading signs or flyers on the streets and definitively by asking the locals.

It was in Lima, Peru when our Airbnb host, Patricia told us about the local Sazón y Sabor Peruano – Misturita de Barrio or The Tastes and Flavors of Peru – neighborhood festival.

How to avoid tourist trap foodLocal neighborhood food festival in Lima, Peru

Here, we got to see the local specialties from all over Peru and try new dishes we had never seen before. It is at festivals like this that you can avoid tourist trap food.

How to avoid tourist trap food on your travelsAuthentic Peruvian food at local festival

4. Eat Where The Locals Eat

Maybe you haven’t had the chance to go to the market yet or maybe there is no market in the city you are staying at. How do you spot where the locals eat? Here are a few additional tricks you can apply to get you to local eats.

First, this might be obvious, but you want to avoid a place where the menu is translated in English. There is a high chance that this restaurant caters to tourists. More than likely you will find these tourist trap restaurants next to each other near a major landmark. Apply the first tip and walk a few blocks to steer away from these tourist places.

Another sign that you are in the danger zone of tourist trap food is a flashy menu and neon signs. The larger the sign, the further away you want to be from these places. Great restaurants serving local cuisine do not need a lot of advertising. Their story is shared through word of mouth.

Instead, look for places that have a simple and short menu. Aim for the restaurants that have a blackboard outside with their ‘menu of the day’. That’s your best bet for fresh food and local specialties.

Order from the short menu to avoid tourist trap foodGo for the short menu

The last test to perform before you walk into that so desired local restaurant is the “tourist scan”. From the outside, spot if the people seating are locals or at the very least a mix of locals and tourists. If you see people with cameras and guide book in hands? Walk-away. If you see a  busy restaurant with locals having conversations, walk-in. Mission accomplished!

How to avoid tourist trap food when traveling in a tourist townEat with the locals

5. Get Local Recommendations and Show Curiosity

It is easy to lose yourself in the sea of online recommendations. You know the ones I’m talking about: Tripadvisor, Yelp, food blogs, Pinterest, Google reviews and more. The more you search the more you find contradictory advice. Frustrating, right?

Here is one simple trick: ASK THE LOCALS! Just ask!  It might require you to get out of your comfort zone, but it works. Who should you ask? Well, if you started at the market, this is a great place to start. Just ask the vendors where they would recommend eating in the neighborhood.

Even if you may not master the language, they will appreciate that you want to get something local and will help you out. If you are staying at a B&B or Airbnb, ask your hosts, they will know where to go locally.

But there is another trick to avoid being sent to the usual restaurants that are a good fit for all. That happened to us in Valparaíso, Chile when staying with our charming Airbnb host Manuel.

Manuel has been a resident of Valparaíso for more than 60 years. No doubt he knows the city like the back of his hand. When we asked him where to go to get local good food, he didn’t send us to tourist trap food places. However, the places he told us to check were in the touristy parts of town. Let’s say that they were catering mostly to tourists.

Avoid tourist trap food by getting local recommendationsRosemary getting local food tips from Manuel

So we went to the local market, a bit further from the touristy neighborhood, in a local part of town. When we told him that we ate lunch at that market, he was shocked and surprised. And that’s when he gave us some golden tips on where to find best great local food. We nailed the second trick: SHOW CURIOSITY.

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In Summary

Don’t panic if you don’t have the time to plan for the local foods on your travels. Now that you’ve read this article, apply these 5 tips and enjoy authentic foods.

So, you want to know where we ended up after Manuel understood our curiosity for local and authentic food?  Well, we ended up at Caleta Portales, a fisherman’s village where we enjoyed the local specialty Reinata fish or pomfret in front of incredible ocean views. You can read more here about the experience.

Remember, it pays to be curious and go local!

How do you avoid tourist trap food? What tips would you add?  Share your comments below:

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46 comments

  1. Great tips. I love visiting the farmers’ market and the food festivals (if there are any in town when I visit). Unfortunately, in the big cities, many of the old and famous restaurants have become tourist traps, so sometimes I find myself eating there just for the sake of seeing the place.

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    • Hi Anda, that’s really interesting that from your experience you find that old and famous restaurants have become tourist traps. That is certainly not our experience. We have found that authentic restaurants tend to maintain their specialties over the years, including how they run their restaurants. Are there any particular cities where you have noticed this trend? As you mentioned, farmers markets and food festivals are great places to check out the local dishes. Please do let us know 🙂

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    • Thanks Laura for your comments. You are right, the longest lines at a food cart are a signal of something delicious. Sometimes that means having lots of patience, but the reward is often delicious. Cheers

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  2. I loved these tips. And the stories of your food adventures – just so amazing. It is so true that the best food is so often not where the tourists are. And if you eat where the locals eat, it is usually fresher and if you can see it being prepared, is often more hygienic than a tourist dive where you have no idea how the food is being treated.

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    • Thanks Serina for your comments. So glad you enjoy the tips and our adventures. Eating with the locals does give you a special insight into the local culture, that you would otherwise not get at a touristy joint. If you are going to take the time to travel and experience the culture, food is an easy entry. Thanks again. Cheers!

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  3. Ahh yes it’s always a bit hard to find the authentic places. I generally don’t always mind going to touristic places as long as they receive good comments. However, local is always better!

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    • Great point. The idea is always to eat at a place that is highly recommended. Our preference is always local, for the authentic experience and a chance to connect with the culture. Thanks for your comments.

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  4. Eating where the locals eat is definitely a great tip and also eat the local dish of the day instead of taking something off the menu that you wouldn’t expect to be there, like fish somewhere in a mountain village… however I’ll never be a big fan of Ceviche I think 😉

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  5. Another great place to find local food is at community events, like music festivals, yard sales, etc. Okay, granted it will be of the non-gourmet variety but chances are there’ll be different food stalls and food trucks set up selling inexpensive snacks that are popular with locals. Plus you might meet some interesting characters! This is how we discovered malasadas in Hawaii. We saw a long line at a white unmarked van at a flea market and just joined in, not knowing what it was. Worked out great!

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    • Love your story about how you discovered Malasadas in Hawaii. What you demonstrated was curiosity, which is critical to finding and having those local experiences. That’s great. Post a picture of malasadas on our facebook page. We would love to share it with the broader community. Cheers!

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  6. Great tips! We always try to eat authentic – and feel that food can reveal so much about a culture. These will be great as a reminder to people to seek out those authentic local experiences – thank you for sharing your tips!

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    • Thank you so much Vicki for your feedback. Totally agree, food does reveal so much about a culture. When you exploring the origin of the dishes, things truly get fascinating. Glad you are already practicing these tips. Please share with us any favorite local food you have discovered on your travels.

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  7. These are all great tips! I love your site. Food is such an important and fun way to experience a new place. Local recommendations are my favorite way to find great food when we travel.

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    • Thanks so much Jen. So glad you liked the tips and our site. Traveling through food is really a fun way to experience a new country or region 🙂 Glad you already ask locals…have you tried the farmers markets? Cheers

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  8. Heck yeasss… I am all about finding the BEST foods when I travel and try to avoid eating the foods I can find here. I especially love your tip to find the farmers markets, I did this in Italy and wowza… it totally made the adventures.

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    • Thanks Anna for your comments. What was surprising at the farmers markets in Italy? Was it exotic produce or local and unique prepared dishes? You used a great word …the farmers market is indeed an “adventure.” Thanks for sharing your Italian story 🙂 Cheers

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  9. Great tips! I am always so disappointed when I ask for a restaurant suggestion and we get referred to a tourist trap. I think because we are traveling with children we tend to get directed towards “safe bets”. But one of the reasons we travel is to expose our family to different foods. So, I will keep these handy suggestions in mind so we have better luck in the future.

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    • You are totally right, it is so frustrating when asking for recommendations and getting pushed to “tourists traps.” The farmers market is a great place to start. Consider starting your day out at the local market. I’m sure your children would love seeing the different fruits and vegetables. This would give you a chance to get the local gems from the vendors. Keep this guide handy and enjoy your travels. Thanks for your comments.

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  10. So true! I love eating new and exciting dishes, but I do want it to be food local people actually eat. I mean, nobody in Thailand eats scorpions, only tourists…

    I particularly like nr 4 and 5. I always try to eat where the locals eat and I regularly ask a local guide or one of the hotel staff members about their favorite food and restaurant!

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    • Thanks so much Lotte for your comments. It’s true, need to avoid the food experiences that cater to tourists. Asking locals is for sure one of the best ways to get solid recommendations. Glad that you already practice this. Cheers!

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  11. The quest for good food is often difficult but these are great tips. I love farmer markets. As well as good food you get to meet lots of locals and really learn about the food.

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    • Thank you so much, Caroline for your comments. It is true, the finding great food is often assumed, and if the homework is not done in advance, it can ruin the experience. Could not agree, local markets is indeed the way to go. Thanks for your comments.

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  12. Such great ideas!
    When people that I know visit San Francisco, I try to take them to places that most tourists don’t go. One it costs a lot less money
    Two I feel like they can really get the experience of the city
    Three much less crowded!
    Great post!! 😀

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  13. Great tips – we usually aim for apartments when we travel, and then hit up the local grocery store. It’s nice mingling with locals, and it’s much cheaper than eating out. This lead to an interesting experience in Iceland with having bought rotten shark!! So you can definitely still get a sense of a certain country’s distinct cuisine even if you’re cooking yourself 🙂

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    • Wow, that’s incredible “rotten shark”! What a story. The local grocery stores are really interesting,especially when looking for familiar items like yogurt. It does put you directly into the local culture. Staying local and in local neighborhoods is key. Thanks for sharing your story!

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  14. Informative post , especially in today’s world where so many people rely on tripadvisor and yelp while missing out great places which the locals know about!

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    • You are so right Prateek. Technology does help, but it also distances us from the local people who often have the best “gems” and knowledge about the local foods. That’s the double-edged sword of technology!! Thanks for your comments

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  15. This is an awesome guide! I always try to avoid tourist traps when I’m in a new town. I would have loved to have gone to the festival you went to. Local food festivals are the best way to really get to know a place!

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    • Thanks Nathan, glad you like the guide. Local festivals are great spots to see the food specialties and even chat with the cooks. Not to mention, they are so much fun as well. Appreciate your feedback.

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    • Thanks Rosemarie for your comments. Truly the farmers markets offer an in-depth view to the local food, culture and people. Great places to visit to get to understand the local culture while traveling.

      Reply

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