Under no circumstances should you eat breakfast.
That was the line — tucked away in the advance instructions for my Eat Like a Local food tour in Mexico City — that made me realize it was going to be a memorable travel experience.
Outside of guided museum visits, I’d never done a tour while traveling, considering myself more of a self-guided explorer. But in Mexico, my husband and I signed up for this culinary expedition that promised a little bit of everything Mexico City had to offer — local cafes, street food, multiple marketplaces and modern restaurants.
Eat Like a Local (eatlikealocal.com.mx), a company founded in 2015 by Rocío Vázquez Landeta, delivers just what it promises — a local experience even the most adept planner would be hard-pressed to manufacture.
On the day of our tour, we were late to meet Vázquez Landeta at the meeting point and apologized for keeping the group waiting.
It’s just you two,” she said. “No one else is signed up for this tour.”
So off we went with our own personal city guide, and we’ve been seeking out food tours in every country we’ve visited since.
Here are four reasons (aside from the food) you should consider one on your next trip:
You'll see from a local’s perspective.
It’s easy to spend time in a country checking boxes off your list and never really interact with locals. Food tours can change that.
Vazquez Landeta, a Mexico City native and former food blogger whose mother is a chef, started her company after a bad experience on a tour in Turkey.
“It was horrible,” she said. “It was all tourist traps. You spent an hour watching people make rugs and then they just wanted you to buy them.”
She craved a more authentic and interactive experience. So she came home and created a tour that emphasized the local people who feed the city.
Most food tours are not as customized as Eat Like a Local, but still, in Amsterdam and Lisbon we also took tours led by a native and focused on establishments owned by locals.
In Amsterdam, we started our tour with Eating Europe (eatingeurope.com) at a converted canal house cafe at 10 a.m., drinking cappuccinos and inhaling tiny pancakes called Poffertjes. Looking around, the cafe was full of people speaking Dutch and eating and drinking what we were.
Kenny Dunn, chief executive of Eating Europe, said food tours bring a personal touch. "Enjoying the local cuisine was always a big part of traveling, but it used to be mostly left to chance or likely to some recommendations from the hotel or your guidebook."
You'll learn a different kind of history.
There are more ways to learn about a city’s past than through a museum exhibit or the plaque on a monument.
For example, while eating cod in Lisbon, we learned of the role explorers played in Portugal’s history and the impact of the country’s location as a port of Europe.
Though it’s not a native fish, cod became a staple of the Portuguese diet in the 14th century when it was first imported from the North Sea or as far as the eastern Canadian coast. “Although history plays a key role in order to fully understand a nation's identity, food is equally important,” said Ricardo Moita, who leads Lisbon tours with Urban Adventures (urbanadventures.com). “In a very unique way, [food] highlights the authenticity of a country's people and roots.”
In Amsterdam, the popularity of herring tells just one part of the canal-laced city’s history, which is heavily dotted with periods of poverty and famine. While herring is still widely eaten, the evolution of other popular foods in Amsterdam shows the city’s transformation to a cosmopolitan destination. Gone are the hearty fowl stews of Dutch culinary past, our guide told us, and instead, today’s dining scene is heavily influenced by former Dutch colonies in the East Indies. Especially popular is Surinamese food; we saw that later at a popular waterfront bar that served Surinamese dishes like chicken satay alongside more traditional Dutch pub snacks, like bitterballen (fried balls of meat and cheese).
And since going to Mexico, I’ve never looked at a tortilla the same way — not just as the workhorse of the superior taco scene, but as a symbol of the ingenuity of the Mexican people in manipulating maize into hundreds of nutritious and unique dishes.
You'll go beyond your comfort zone.
Did we want to eat insects, was one of the first things Vázquez Landeta wanted to know. We thought we’d need to ease into that as it was only our second day in Mexico City — but beef tongue, she suggested, was where we could start.
With the right research, I might have found my way to beef tongue tacos — but I’m not sure I would have had the courage or knowledge to place an order.
In Lisbon, we ended our trip with a ferry ride across the Tagus River to Cacilhas, where we sipped sparkling wine while we got our hands dirty peeling fresh prawns. Also on our plates were two kinds of cold, fried fish cakes. One of our companions on the tour, who has always hated seafood, gave in to the spirit and tried a fish cake.
“I had a moment of bravery,” she said.
You'll get recommendations.
Food tours tend to run about four hours long — but you can leverage that time into recommendations for your whole trip, including what not to do.
In Amsterdam, I was intrigued by the Tulip Museum but wasn’t sure if we’d have the time to go. When we walked by during our food tour, our guide, Rene Mastenbroek, advised me to save the 5 euro entry fee and instead gave us a brief history of tulips in Holland, including how the bulbs were eaten during a famine at the end of World War II.
In Mexico City, Vazquez Landeta was full of recommendations.
Did we want to buy some mezcal? She took us to the liquor store herself to show us her own favorites. Outside, we parted ways with her final tips about which high-end restaurants were must-do's and which we could skip.
We were far too full of food to think about eating again, but we appreciated the advice.
What to look for in a food tour
Local guides. Some websites offer detailed bios of their tour guides so you can even choose someone whose interests align with yours.
Tour size. Smaller tours will provide more opportunity for customization (and maybe more food for you). Look for companies that set a maximum (eight or less is ideal) and have no minimum.
Amount of food. Some tours offer more than others. If the website isn’t detailed, try reaching out to the company to learn more. (Some companies withhold information online so it’s harder for other tours to steal their secrets.)
The right price. Tours can range from about $40 per person to $100 for a customized tour. The price will likely cover all food and drinker.
Timing. Take the tour as early in your trip as you can. It’s a great way to acclimate to a new place.
Locations. Look for tours that specialize in off-the-beaten path neighborhoods, where you’re more likely to find authentic purveyors.