The world's 18 best food cities, ranked
We spend a lot of time, here at Thrillist, trying to figure out the best things to eat. And we also spend a lot of time arguing about the places we’d want to live all over the world. So, we decided to take those two arguments and make a case for the 18 best cities on this planet to eat and drink. We tried to keep in mind several things: uniqueness of traditional food/drink style, quality of restaurants/bars, diversity of cuisines, and also, for the most part, a feeling that it is changing and improving.
Some staples of these sorts of lists were left off, and while you can argue all you want about the merits, we feel strongly that if a place is resting on its laurels, they should consider stepping off said laurels, and doing something new and interesting. Anyway, here are our 18 favorites, feel free to make the case for your own in the comments below:
18. Penang, Malaysia
What you’re looking for: Ong Cheng Huat Seafood’s garlic steamed red snapper; “hawker food”, especially pan mee or assam laksa from any good food stall; all the soups ever.
There is a reason that the state of Penang is often called “the food capital of Malaysia”, and that its capital city of George Town and the surrounding areas attracts tourists from all over the world (Australians! Spaniards! People from Upper Michigan!). First of all, it’s so very cheap. Second of all, the mix of all these different styles (Indian, Chinese, Thai, Malay) creates a mish-mash of flavors that feels at once familiar and very unique (Rojak is essentially donuts, shrimp paste, and fruits, and it works, OH DOES IT WORK!). Third of all, they have basically infinity soups that are all so different (pork and duck with cinnamon and star anise; shrimp and pork-bone with noodles and fish balls; mackerel, tamarind, and chili) you could just have soup every day for a week, and never try the same thing twice. Fourth of all, did we mention how cheap and delicious everything is?!? Do yourself a favor: go to the Gurney Drive Hawker Centre, and eat all the food for less than $10.
17. Melbourne, Australia
What you’re looking for: A table at MoVida so you can sample the spicy Wagyu beef tartare; chili baked mussels from Cumulus; sweet “laneway” dining
If Sydney is the New York City of Australia, Melbourne is basically a less hilly San Francisco: smaller, a little more Victorian in its stylings, with an impressive food scene to match. Though famous chefs from all over the world have opened outposts in Sydney (see: David Chang), Melbourne’s scene happened more organically with chefs that came up there, as evidenced by now-ultra-famous toques like Frank Camorra of the MoVida empire, and Andrew McConnell of Cumulus, who turned laneway (like alleys, but much cooler sounding) dining into something more hep, less sketchy. Their Italian immigrant population created a formidable cafe scene (check out Cafe Di Stasio, the old standby Caffe e Cucina, newer moves like Twenty & Six Espresso). Also, it’s worth pointing out that one of the best newer Korean restaurants is named for the family from The Cosby Show (Huxtable), and would only be more awesome if it was named for Rudy’s friend Bud.
16. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
What you’re looking for: A breakfast banh mi with fried egg; bun thit nuong; the soft-shell crab at Cųc Gąch Quán in District 1
Sooo... first of all, most of the locals call it Saigon, still. Second, this city -- full of conflicting imagery, passions and flavors left over from colonial France, combined with Vietnam’s own flavorful cooking led to the creation of one of the best sandwiches in the world (bahn mi). Third, there is a reason nearly every trendy coffee shop in the states serves their intensely sweet yet addicting coffee. On top of that, one of their iconic bars has a drink called Journalist’s Juice, and The Australian’s travel columnist reported that Brangelina has been seen all over the place, and IF IT’S GOOD ENOUGH FOR THE GUY WHO HAD A SMALL ROLE IN THELMA AND LOUISE, well, I think it works for us too.
15. Buenos Aires, Argentina
What you’re looking for: All of the steaks, and red wine, and empanadas ever
What used to just be a bit of a one-trick pony (do you like steak? do you like wine?!?) has -- in the past few years -- blossomed into one of the top eating and drinking destinations in the world for anyone who wants to eat like a king, but only has the money of maybe a viscount. Whether you’re hitting their parillas (just go to Don Julio, and get the entraña), snacking on empanadas (we like them at Peron Peron) and choripan sandwiches (there might literally be no better street food in the world) on the street, drinking incredible Mendoza, Salta, and Patagonia wines in their wine bars, or even going to one of their trendy “closed door restaurants” (restaurantes a puertas cerradas) inside a chef’s home, BA has to be on any food enthusiast’s radar.
14. New Orleans, USA
What you're looking for: A po'boy at Domilise’s; a Sazerac at the Sazerac Bar; a local family to bring you to a lunch-turned-dinner at Galatoire’s
The city that invented the cocktail has enthusiastically and boastfully long-since mastered the art of padding the stomach for said concoction. You could spend an entire visit only eating Cajun and Creole dishes, like jambalaya, red beans and rice, and gumbo, and never touch a fraction of the dishes available. Yet, I promise you’d never be disappointed. NOLA also brings its own soul-food institutions (the fried chicken at Willie Mae’s Scotch House and Dooky Chase’s both deserve their own litany), while classic French restaurants in the Quarter could vie to be the most beloved of the grand-dames of America’s eateries (Arnaud’s, Antoine’s, and Galatoire’s are each in the running). And then there are the po’boys: fried shrimp, peacemakers (fried oysters with bacon and cheddar), roast beef with extra debris sauce -- whatever your tastes, it still works packed between that crusty Leidenheimer bread. And then you should go drink a Sazerac or three.
13. Montreal, Canada
What you’re looking for: A table at Au Pied de Cochon; a bagel from St-Viateur or Fairmount; Schwartz’s Special at Schwartz’s Deli
Just because you went here when you were 19 because your older brother’s friend told you about Club Super Sexe doesn’t disqualify it from being a top food city. The center of innovative Québécois cooking, Montreal makes the list both for what it brings in history (the famous smoked meat, which, if you have it done right at Schwartz’s, will ensure you never eat “Canadian bacon” again; poutine of all shapes and flavors) and modern cooking, with places like Au Pied de Cochon, Olive et Gourmando, plus crazy forward-thinking food and drink being cooked out of dépanneurs (essentially convenience stores) like Le Pick Up and Depanneur A.S. It also helps that they have an open-every-day farmers' market (Jean-Talon) in Little Italy, and arguably the best kind of bagels in the entire world, which, unlike your older brother’s friend, are even becoming popular in -- gasp -- New York.
12. Copenhagen, Denmark
What you're looking for: Smørrebrød from Aamanns; Døp's hot dogs; Mikkeller beers; someone to bribe to get you into Noma
Let’s get this out of the way first: the Scandinavian comestible capital is much more than Noma, the much-lauded former Pellegrino World No. 1-ranked restaurant. You want Michelin stars? 15 restaurants in their city have them. But enough about the fancy stuff, the best part of Copenhagen is the quality of their comfort and street foods, like open-faced sandwiches called smørrebrød from Aamanns (pork rillette w/ thyme, mustard, pickled squash, and gooseberries); or Danish-style hot dogs from Døp or Harry’s Place, or pickled herring if you’re feeling particularly Danish/adventurous. It doesn’t hurt that Mikkeller and their amazing beers originated in the Danish capital. Oh, and in case you didn’t know: Noma is here, too.
11. Hong Kong, China
What you’re looking for: Steamed flower crab at The Chairman; BBQ pork buns at Island Tang or Tim Ho Wan; all the steamed dumplings you can eat
Skyscraper City shan’t be a surprise on this list -- its range of upscale restaurants on the top floors of, um, skyscrapers, alongside tiny but grand dim sum shops, and its past as a former British colony make it the sort of perfect mixing pot of Western/Eastern food culture, and you see that in both the restaurants and clientele. Do you like BBQ buns? Go to Tim Ho Wan (oh, yeah, it has a Michelin star), and lose your mind eating as many as you can. Or hit up Island Tang and revel in the retro “old Hong Kong” of 30 years ago while crushing steamed dumplings. Or maybe you’re getting homesick (ALREADY?!!?), in which case Yardbird gastropub has a Canadian chef (Matt Abergel), incredible yakitori, and our vote for the drink with the best name in the city-state (the Bloody Kim Jong Il made with vodka, kimchi, and tomato).
10. Barcelona, Spain
What you're looking for: Any of the Adriàs' new spots; as much jamón Ibérico as you can stuff in your face
Ferran and Alberto Adrià reshaped culinary thought with elBulli, but, since its 2011 shuttering, they’ve made Barcelona their culinary playground, wedding gastronomy to Catalan tradition in a surprisingly seamless move. Besides the bougie tapas dance at Tickets, there’s Bodega 1900 -- with plates from, well, the turn of the century. There’s also elBulli alum Albert Raurich’s Dos Palillos, which blends tapas with Asian cuisine. But even without the toque bros and their offspring, Barca woos us hot and heavy with its stalls in La Boqueria -- gorgeous, marbled jamón Ibérica, fresh-pressed oil from Catalan olives, fresh fish from fourth-generation mongers -- and the less-tourist-filled Mercat de Santa Caterina that offers up just as much fresh bounty without the tourist swarm.
9. Tokyo, Japan
What you're looking for: Sushi in Tsukiji fish market; tsukemen (dipping noodles) at Rokurinsha
If Tokyo were a learning institution, it’d be a vocational school that churns out the best damn specialists in their fields. From Michelin-starred, shoebox-sized udon shops to (again) Michelin-starred, French fine dining bistros. The city is dripping with hyper-specialized eateries that range from every single type of Japanese cuisine (soba to tempura) to perfected Chinese and Italian and French (and it goes far beyond Joël Robuchon’s epic namesake). And with 400 restaurants with stars or Bib Gourmand status in the city, Tokyo holds the highest number of Michelin labels anywhere, Paris included.
But you don't have to be the heir to a lucrative paper towel company to eat well. When you head to fish market Tsukiji, grab a stool at Sushi Bun for an unrivaled omakase experience. And be sure to go to Ramen Street for any number of steaming bowls of noodles -- we like Rokurinsha and their tsukemen. For a visual feeding experience, there's Tokyo's depachikas -- a portmanteau of the words for department store and underground mall. Think your local food court on steroids -- take an Alice in Wonderland-like descent to the basement-level for thousands of square feet of prepared foods, gourmet French pastries, and whatever has reached cronut-like hype in the city that week.
8. Istanbul, Turkey
What you’re looking for: A sebzeli kebab at Zubeyir; baklava from Diyar Burma; a meal at Ciya Sofrasi
For the typical American, a trip to Istanbul can be, at first, overwhelming, with all of the hosts standing outside their restaurants trying to sell you on coming inside, and the strange number of cats roaming the streets, but once you acclimate, you might never leave. From the tea culture (turns out, apple tea is delicious) and the beautiful spice bazaar, to their delicious Turkish versions of scrambled eggs with onions and tomatoes (menemen), and pizza (lahmacun!), to the kebabs (get the sebzeli at Zubeyir), to the baklava, to pretty much any of the homestyle eats at Ciya Sofrasi across the water on the Asian side, Istanbul is a food paradise. Once you get over the whole cat thing.
7. Cartagena, Colombia
What you're looking for: Anyone serving fritos; oysters and cholados on the beach, the Malagana Cafe in Getsemani
With all due respect to Bogotá, our choice for the top eating destination in Colombia is this beachside bombshell, which mixes a ridiculously gorgeous atmosphere overlooking the Caribbean with a food culture that is currently growing both in scope and in quality. Our favorite part is the street food (they call it fritos, ALSO THE BEST BECAUSE OF THOSE SNACK CHIPS), specifically the egg-filled fried arepas, but you also can do no wrong with the fresh seafood, especially out on the beaches eating just shucked oysters touched with lime, or shaved-ice cholados, or sitting in the trendy restaurants of the quickly gentrifying Getsemani, scooping up fresh ceviche at Malagana Cafe.
6. Marrakesh, Morocco
What you're looking for: Good khobz; roast lamb done Mechoui style; Cod tagine at Bô-Zin
Another of the cities that has always had the history but only recently really come into its own, Marrakesh sits in the Southwest by the Atlas Mountains, and -- like so many places on the list -- draws its foodie chops from the mish-mash of influences (France, Africa, the Middle East) that make it so unique. Eat well from the food stalls within the old city walls, where you can sample kefta, and merguez, or put on your much fancier clothing and hit up Bô-Zin outside the city walls for a fancified version of a traditional Moroccan tagine in a space that occupies a giant mansion, and will make you feel like one of the French celebrities that often purchases homes in this city.
5. New York City, USA
What you're looking for: A slice of pizza on the street; a Reuben at a Jewish deli; all the famous chefs from everywhere else
New York has to be on this list. It just does. Nowhere else in America combines the cutting-edge techniques and trends (wait, ramen ravioli at a Whole Foods?), with its own unique style of cuisine (coal-fired pizzas, Jewish delis, dirty water hot dogs) and THEN, on top of all that, serves as proving grounds for so many American and foreign chefs. Since we already spend so much time talking about NY every day (check out our city edition here) we don’t feel the need to go further, but that just might be another trait of the NY food/drink scene: extreme confidence.
4. London, England
What you're looking for: Meat Fruit at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal; steak & cocktails at Hawksmoor; any part of the animal at St. John; lunch at Borough Market; a tasting menu from Gordon Ramsay
(EDITOR'S NOTE: This was penned by our Cities Editor, Jason Allen, a London-based British person) Twenty years ago, this list would have been comprised of a crumpet, a curry that no Indian person could blame themselves for, and some indignation about the perceived hilarious quality of the food scene here. Then, about 10 years ago, we saw the start of some kind of ongoing global intervention by literally everyone who visited, and everything changed.
Pubs became gusto pubs, and punters became gastro-punters (The Harwood Arms beckoned them). Suddenly, a lobster cost less than a month's salary (thank you, Burger & Lobster). Vans became food trucks, and restaurants became *good*. Two of the top 10 “world’s best restaurants” are now in London (Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, The Ledbury), and perennial favorites like St. John, are -- through the art of nose-to-tail dining -- getting people to pay more for the crappier parts of the animal. Nowadays however, we’ve moved beyond the giddily excited, nascent stage of culinary revolution, and into the new world of freshly entitled diners watching food trends wash over the city with awe. Currently Latin American (Lima!), and Korean food (On the Bab serves delicious anju) is taking over, but watch the skies for incoming ramen places by the dozen...
3. Bombay, India
What you're looking for: All the street chaat (but pani puri and vada pav if we’re choosing); a mutton Frankie (most ubiquitously at Tibbs Frankie); butter chicken
There are 20 million people in greater Bombay. It sits on India’s West coast on the water. It has people from basically everywhere, and they bring with them their own cultures: from the Persians with their delicious mutton dhansak, to the British-sounding mutton Frankie sandwiches and the seafood-heavy dishes of the South. Plus, there's almost all of the street chaat foods, like pani or bhel puri. And we are barely scratching the surface here. Bombay has to be near the top, because Bombay is essentially a small country doubling as a city, and when you can bring that kind of diversity into a place that already has a delicious food culture, magical, magical things can and will and do happen.
2. Bologna, Italy
What you're looking for: Pasta at All’Osteria Bottega; mortadella and fresh cheeses in Mercato di Mezzo
You know that joke about how a great Italian restaurant smells like a Grandmother spent the entire day cooking Sunday supper for her family? Bologna’s like the red sauce-stained Grandma of Italy. The city invented, of course, Bolognese sauce, the wonderfully rich red ragu that’s so often butchered by hastily scrambled together preparations here in the America. A trip to the city is basically a contractual obligation to get a plate of Tagliatelle alla Bolognese and a plate of lasagna. Cover both in all the Parmesan you can handle -- that’s coming from Parm just down the road. But don’t ignore the city’s other main pasta dish, a tortellini that’s served in a warm broth. And while you’re learning what Bolognese actually tastes like, let the salumerie of Mercato di Mezzo change your mind on another food we’ve done our best to destroy in America: bologna (i.e. mortadella).
1. Bordeaux, France
What you're looking for: Oysters from Arcachon Bay, duck confit at La Tupina
While Paris rested on its buttery laurels, Bordeaux, the place you always knew for its wines, silently rose to be the more interesting food destination for France and, we think, the world. From the basics, the rich French dishes you’re totally thinking of pairing with your glass of red are from here: fatty duck confit and, well, also fatty foie gras. Grab either at La Tupina, arguably the most famous restaurant in the city.
The City You Think Is Just The Name Of A Wine also embraces the simple roast meat dishes of Southwestern France, like the entrecôte at Brasserie Bordelaise. But Bordeaux’s real quality comes from its diversity -- its location right by the Atlantic means seafood and heaping raw platters of oysters (France’s most famous bivalves come from nearby Arcachon Bay), clams, mussels, shrimp, and langoustines are plentiful. Bistro Le Petit Commerce offers all that fishy bounty with fresh catch choices crawling into the teens daily, plus platters of the raw goods. But you can stay simpler at Chez Phillipe with a plate of oysters served with sausages: a land-and-sea combo that’s a traditional snack in the region we wish they'd export everywhere. Oh, and did we mention the 700 million bottles of wines produced in the region around the city?
Kevin Alexander is Food/Drink executive editor and still mildly frightened of the street cats in Istanbul and he hasn't been there in seven years. Follow his ban from entering Paris airspace: @KAlexander03.