While on holiday abroad, we’ve all had the less-than-happy restaurant experience: the food could have been better, the service more attentive, and then there’s the shock on receiving the bill. No tourist has failed to be a victim to the tourist trap!
A tourist trap, of course, is a bar or restaurant which caters predominantly for tourists. Many of these establishments are excellent, and in many countries there is a strong tradition of hospitality.
However, the management of such places can be tempted to fall into lazy habits, because they are not building long-term relationships with their customers. They might feel they don’t have to make an effort because it is often not rewarded with repeat business.
Also, when we travel, our view of money becomes distorted. Even if we can make rapid currency exchange calculations, we are likely to be willing to spend more on holiday than we would at home, so tourist traps feel free to overcharge.
Where are the tourist traps?
Tourist traps tend to be in town centres, especially on a famous square or street. You’ll also find them near visitor attractions such as museums and landmarks. In beach resorts, tourist traps occupy the entire beachfront, because the whole town is geared up to the tourist economy.
Because tourists tend to congregate, so do the tourist traps. You’ll find many of them in one street or square. But have a look around. How many locals do you see there? Are they merely friends and family who are helping out by adding authenticity? Are there many diners speaking the local language, or are they all tourists? Is there a man whose job it is to beckon people in? These are all warning signs.
You’ll also find that tourist traps tend to be larger restaurants, because they can pack in lots of tourists at high prices. They also often have neon signs, have a menu translated into English and other non-local languages, or advertise “English spoken here”. If the menu has pictures of the food, that’s a bad sign: why would they need to show locals what the local dishes look like?
Now for a subtle clue for finding places popular with the locals: see what time the locals eat, and see which restaurants are busy at that time. For example, in the UK we tend to like to eat dinner quite early, but in France or Spain the locals often don’t eat until 7.30pm or later.
How to find better restaurants
Some of the best restaurants are tucked away from the tourist haunts, and these are the ones you need to seek out. So walk away from the tourist hotspots, and see what you can find. Hopefully you’ll see places which are unpretentious because they know their culinary reputation alone attracts a regular clientele of locals.
Of course, these days, you might be tempted to trying finding the best places using online review sites like TripAdvisor, but these reviews can be deceptive or even fake. Sometimes, people genuinely review an eatery as being good, but their view of good differs wildly from yours! Reviews written in English are provided by tourists who haven’t had the time to savour all that the city has to offer, so they can often only have limited knowledge of an area’s restaurants to draw upon.
You could always ask your friends on social media if they’ve been to a place, and which restaurants they would recommend. You’re likely to know whether to trust their tastes!
Fortunately, traditional guidebooks are not dead and buried. Get a good one, and make sure it’s this year’s edition. You could get the Kindle version, and read it on your phone, so that it’s always with you. It will list restaurants that you otherwise wouldn’t think of visiting, covering a wide range of culinary styles, and can be a valuable source of useful tips.
You can also ask the locals who work at your hotel, who work in a shop, or your taxi driver, if they can recommend a restaurant which is good quality and reasonably priced. You can often phrase this question as “Where would YOU go?”, to get a more authentic recommendation. One thing to watch out for: if they ask you to mention that they referred you, they might be getting some kind of commission, which could colour their recommendation.
With these tips, you’ll have some great meals and an unforgettable trip.