Europe on a Plate: Top Urban Spots for Creative Cuisine

From the aromatic markets to the trip-worthy restaurants, Europe’s cities are a sensory overload for food-obsessed travelers. There’s a dizzying variety of palate pleasers to taste (or devour!) as you take an epicurean journey across the continent. Here we dip into some of the creative urban culinary scenes that are making waves across Europe. Whet your appetite with these insider tips from the experts.

When it comes to Greek food, the sun-kissed islands of the Aegean make headlines for the longevity-linked Mediterranean diet. But the country’s real culinary capital can be found on the mainland. Situated in the north near the Balkans, Thessaloniki is a vibrant second city influenced by its geography and history at the crossroads of civilizations (Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman vestiges remain). The cuisine is a vibrant expression of the city’s heritage, a melange of flavors with a sprinkling of spices.

One of the best places to discover this distinctive cuisine is Mamalouka, consistently excellent and adored by locals. Situated on historic Eleftherias Square (Freedom Square) in the heart of Thessaloniki near the port, Mamalouka offers gastronomic dishes at affordable prices, sourcing ingredients from local producers. (Think cheese, extra virgin olive oil, vegetables, fish and meat.) Chef Nikos Tzoumas riffs on classic Greek recipes using new culinary techniques.

“Thessaloniki's cuisine is a combination of Greek traditional recipes, Middle East flavors through herbs and spices, and the latest trends in cooking and serving,” explains Sidiropoulos Kosmas, the COO of  Mamalouka. “The culinary traditions that go back to ancient Greece are uncountable and the main philosophy that runs through their spine is the love for what the Greek land—bathed in sun and cultivated by our people—brings to our tables (and restaurant kitchens).”

Of the traditional dishes to try when visiting Thessaloniki, Kosmas recommends ordering oven-roasted young goat (in a Josper charcoal oven), with potatoes and gravy sauce. He also suggests spending time in the markets. “A stroll around the center's open market, the Kapani as we call it, offers glimpses of the past and at the same time a great opportunity to buy herbs, fruit, spices and other delicacies of high quality and taste, just as locals do!” 

Alongside other notable restaurants like Charoupi, Grada Nuevo, 7 Seas, Extravaganza, Marea, Opsopoion Maganeiai and Kritikos Restaurants, the city is brimming with local tavernas that Kosmas says “maintain the romantic spirit of Thessaloniki and its flavors.” Whether you’re looking for mezzes (small plates) or a carnivorous feast, you’ll find a convivial ambiance and authentic specialties at tavernas like Old Athens, Wall by Wall, Diagonios, Lola Ouzeri, Mezé MezéKronos Para Thin Alos and Tavern Kostas.

Traditional Portuguese Tapas // Photo by jackmalipan/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Crossing the continent, Lisbon also has an electric culinary scene. Where else can you bite into a hot pastel de nata (custard tart) overlooking the Belém Tower in the morning, lunch on grilled sardines in a bustling covered market, then snack on bolinhos de bacalhau (codfish cakes) while drinking vinho verde in the lively Bairro Alto when the sun goes down? Lisbon’s fantastic food is a reflection of the bountiful local larder and the diversity of Portugal’s regional specialties. The restaurant scene is just as spirited as its nightlife, fado music drifting from the bars into the wee hours. At Claro, the seafood is a highlight, explains Gonçalo Baluga, concierge at the Tivoli Avenida Liberdade Hotel. “Portuguese traditional dishes showcase codfish, octopus and sardines… All the seafood dishes are really good, sourced from over 800 kilometers of coastline.”

A landmark on the fashionable Avenida da Liberdade in central Lisbon, the Tivoli has a top-rated seafood restaurant called Cervejaria Liberdade and a trendy rooftop restaurant, Seen, that draws the cool crowd for people watching alongside appreciation of the city panoramas. “Olivier da Costa reinterprets the fusion between Brazilian and Portuguese gastronomy,"Baluga tells us. Plus, there's a superb view over downtown Lisbon, he adds.

Neighborhood food markets are an important aspect of Lisbon’s culture and social life. First opened in the 19th century, the Mercado da Ribeira, also known as Time Out Market, is a place of pilgrimage for foodies. “The food hall is a central point with eclectic stalls offering international dishes and local gastronomic specialties,” explains Baluga. “While you’re there, we also recommend exploring the surrounding area of Cais do Sodré, next to the river. We also recommend the Campo de Ourique Market, inaugurated in 1934 and remodeled in 2013. It combines modernity and tradition by offering two features: Fish, meat and vegetables of the day, along with restaurants that prepare their meals with precisely those fresh ingredients.”

Currywurst in Berlin // Photo by AndreasWeber/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

In vibrant, multicultural Berlin, you can eat your way around the world in an exciting, constantly evolving restaurant landscape. David Sihle-Wissel, concierge at the Orania.Berlin hotel, explains the appeal: “The culinary scene is a direct representation of its inhabitants! Berlin has 3.7 million residents, 55 percent of whom are under the age of 45. There are also 800,000 immigrants from 190 countries living here, with an increase of roughly 5 percent a year, and more than 250 religions are practiced here. Berlin is also well known for its great LGBTQ+ community. The term 'melting pot' might be cliché but the German capital has truly earned it."

Culinary experimentation is also spurred by entrepreneurial energy. “Compared to Paris or London, it’s still a very affordable capital to start a new culinary business—even though Germans are the kings of bureaucracy, it is surprisingly easy to open a restaurant," Sihle-Wissel says. "This leads to quite a lot of remarkable dining concepts across the city. There is always something new to discover and that is the charm of Berlin’s culinary scene.”

He adds: “This wide variety of nationalities and the uniqueness of each place brings forward a variety of new concepts. There is, for example, a restaurant called Coda, which serves a seven-dish menu composed entirely of desserts. Cookies Cream, on the other hand, is one of the first Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe with a menu that is 100 percent vegetarian. At Unsicht-Bar Berlin, you can dine completely in the dark, and Knofel presents a menu in which the main ingredient is garlic. Many Berlin restaurants try to keep their ingredients as local as possible. My personal favorites among these would be the fusion cuisine at Ernst and the “brutally regional” concept at Nobelhart und Schmutzig. Berlin is the city with the most Michelin stars in Germany and, by the way, most of these chefs are regulars at the Orania.Restaurant and fans of our signature dish: The X-Berg Duck!” (Note that Rutz in the Chausseestraße is the only Berlin restaurant to hold three Michelin stars and its chef, Marco Müller is close friends with the Orania.Berlin’s chef Philipp Vogel.) “So, we have a great connection to get guests into this coveted restaurant," Sihle-Wissel says.

The Orania.Berlin itself is located in one of the liveliest food districts; Kreuzberg is considered the cultural heart of Berlin. “If we follow the premise that 'people make the neighborhood' then Kreuzberg is the absolute center, the beating heart of Berlin,” says Sihle-Wissel. “It is the most multicultural part of the city, and you won’t find as many new and original restaurants in any other district in Berlin.” A few favorite local restaurants include Spindler, Lode & Stijn, Cocolo Ramen and Doyum for traditional Turkish cuisine. In fact, Kreuzberg is the birthplace of the famous Döner Kebab, which was invented on the Oranienstraße. Head to Hasir or Mustafa’s Gemüse Kebab to try the real deal, and don’t miss the city’s signature currywurst. “But my favorite traditional dish would be the Königsberger Klöpse at Max und Moritz,” says Sihle-Wissel.

Hungry for more creative culinary scenes in Europe? Start your day with skyr in Reykjavík; feast on braised beef and dumplings paired with local pilsner in Prague; sip local Dalmatian wine made with Pošip grapes in Dubrovnik; taste the best of land and sea in Rovinj, Istria, renowned for its gourmet bounty. Hungry for pasta? In Bologna—the birthplace of the classic dishes equated with Italian cuisine—order tagliatelle al ragù, topped with aged Parmigiano Reggiano. And don’t forget the gelato!

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