11 Underrated World Cities You Have to Visit for the Food

street vendors in Hanoi, Vietnam
street vendors in Hanoi, Vietnam | Iryna Hromotska/Shutterstock.com
street vendors in Hanoi, Vietnam | Iryna Hromotska/Shutterstock.com

The pleasures of eating turn downright mysterious when you combine them with world travel. Why should a cup of coffee taste like angel tears just because you're drinking it on a hotel balcony looking out over Florence? How can a taco curl up in your soul like a warm cat just because it came from a steam-belching street cart in Oaxaca? Why does a coconut taste sweeter than flame-kissed crème brûlée when a dude machetes it open right on a Hawaiian beach?

Maybe travel makes you hungry. (It does.) Maybe travel opens you up to romance, and the passions alive inside new flavors. (It must.) And maybe travel gives you the feeling of true discovery, as if you, and only you, have communed with this dumpling or sashimi or empanada that you flew 14 hours to track down.

If that feeling of exploration drives your foodlust, you should head to any of these cities that traditional foodie travelers might overlook. (If you don’t want to stamp your passport, the US also has some scandalously underrated food cities you have to visit to believe.) Some of these destinations are close by, while others will require a legit journey. In every one, you’ll find a meal that may change the way you taste everything you eat from here on in. You’ll try to explain it to your friends later, but -- you know, sometimes you really just have to be there.

Rocky Basile's mobile cart sells pane ca meusa, a specialty sandwich of beef spleen packed into a sesame roll with grated ricotta cheese.

Palermo, Italy

Italy’s overlooked godfather of street food
They don’t make cities like Palermo anymore. Its 2,500-year history is a tale of conquests and reconquests, as Sicily was relentlessly squabbled over by a who’s-who of Mediterranean superpowers: Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Byzantines -- hell, even the Normans popped in for a while. Each left its mark on Palermo’s storied streets, where baroque palaces stand alongside Moorish mosaics. At the crossroads of the Mediterranean, this is a melting pot of cultures -- and some seriously good cooking.

They call it cucina povera: the kitchen of the poor. Forget polished pop-up trucks and artisanal superfoods; in Palermo, the street food is served quick and dirty at wizened markets around town -- Ballarò, Capo, and the granddaddy, Vucciria. Kick off with a slice of spongy sfincione pizza and a North Africa-inspired pane e panelle, a carb-tastic sandwich of chickpea fritters and fried potato cazzilli (literally “little penises,” but not literally little penises); add some eggplant if you’re feeling guilty. Now steel your stomach for the main event, stigghiola -- a skewer of lamb's guts stuffed with fat, scallions, and parsley, all barbecued to a crisp. Finish up like a don, with some exemplary cannoli, made with candied Sicilian orange and whipped ricotta fresh from the hills.

If you have just one meal: Palermitanos won’t take you seriously until you’ve had your first pane ca meusa, preferably from Rocky Basile’s mobile cart -- they don’t call him King of the Vucciria for nothing. The specialty sandwich consists of beef spleen sliced up and sizzled in lard, then packed into a sesame roll with a generous helping of grated ricotta. OK, it sounds kinda gross, but with a pinch of salt and a squeeze of lemon, it’s an offer you can’t refuse. -- Jonathan Melmoth

A street vendor makes pav bhaji, a Mumbai tradition of potatoes, spiced vegetables, tomatoes, and unimaginable quantities of butter.

Mumbai, India

A movable feast of India’s flavors
Mumbai is a riotous urban kaleidoscope: the pace is frenetic, the streets manic, the energy pulsing. Its 500-year journey from fishing village to megapolis is rich with Hindu kingdoms, Muslim dynasties, Portuguese and British colonists, and rabid modern development. Colonial buildings stand alongside modern towers, seaside mausoleums face Portuguese churches, and hipster enclaves serve the same clientele as dusty Irani cafes. Even when this city overwhelms you, it’s electrifying.

The fast pace cues everything in Mumbai, even the food, the best of which is eaten on-the-go and found on the streets ‘round the clock. Look for the vada pav, which pairs batata vada (a chickpea-coated potato fritter) with the Portuguese-origin pão (bread roll) and a host of red-green chutneys -- Mumbaikars swear by Anand vada pav stall in Dadar. Then there’s chaat, a catch-all phrase for crunchy sour-spicy snacks, the most famous of which is bhelpuri, a flavor punch of puffed rice tossed with potatoes, onions, tomatoes, crispy sev, and tamarind chutney. Try the coastal Konkani cuisine next: fresh and tangy fish curries fiery with chili and coconut, and if you still have room, get a meat fix with tender kebabs and chicken tikka rolls at the always-packed Bademiya. Finish up with a glass of sweet, part-dessert part-drink falooda from Badshah at Crawford Market to abate the fire that’ll no doubt be raging in your belly, by this point.

If you have just one meal: Make a beeline for a plate of pav bhaji, Mumbai’s most powerful culinary metonym in popular culture. A crimson mash of potatoes, spiced vegetables, and tomatoes, with unimaginable quantities of butter, pav bhaji might not sound like much. But when you eat it seaside from one of the many stalls on Juhu Beach, it becomes a definitive experience in Mumbai. -- Nidhi Chaudhry

Arancini (fried rice balls) at Corso 32.

Edmonton, Alberta

A smorgasbord of gustatory adventure in North America’s northernmost metropolis
Despite the best efforts of poutine promoters and maple syrup maniacs, Canada has no widely recognized national cuisine. The Great White North remains a blank culinary canvas where chefs can draw whatever they want. For many restaurants in Edmonton, that means the chance to make shockingly good food that was invented somewhere else. Edmonton is the capital city of Alberta, Canada’s version of Texas -- fewer guns, more snow, but the same number of pickup trucks per capita. And it’s fair to say, like Texas, it’s low-key diverse as heck.

You want Italian? Jasper Avenue downtown has three top-notch joints standing back-to-back-to-back, all owned by the same culinary savant with Italian roots. Bar Bricco, Corso 32, and Uccellino each offer different flavors prepared with consummate skill and passion.

You want Mexican? Tres Carnales slings some of the tastiest traditional tacos north of Tijuana. Skip the line by grabbing takeout, or head to Rostizado for more modern Mexican and succulent rosti puerco or arrachera.

You want Asian? NongBu slings a charming mix of classic and modern Korean banchan, while Boualouang’s pad thai is legendary. You want dessert? Duchess Bakery is a world-class patisserie with macarons that will make you go all Anton Ego.

If you do make the trip, consider heading up in the summer, when a chain of festivals turn the city’s too-brief warm weather into a continuous party. Interstellar Rodeo, the Folk Music Festival, and the Edmonton Fringe, which is the second-biggest in the world behind Edinburgh’s, all pair very well with copious eating, as do the brief and never-quite-dark nights.

If you have just one meal: Arancini and tonnarelli at Corso 32 might make you wonder if Italian cuisine has reached its apogee thousands of miles from Italy. -- Lewis Kelly

Bun cha from Bun Cha Huong Lien, a rice vermicelli dish with grilled pork and greens.

Hanoi, Vietnam

Where food is refuge from the barely contained hurricane of daily existence
Hanoi is a trick. The city has a pulsating, perpetual cadence everyone eventually gets lost in. The never-ending rumble of its busy highways, the constant honking of its innumerable scooters and motorcycles, the beckoning of its vendors... it’s an unblinking madhouse that makes you want to curl into a fetal position and wait for death’s sweet release. Then something wonderful happens. The city takes you in as its own. You become a part of it. Then you learn to keep the beat, because the alternative is to get caught in the crossfire.

There’s order in Hanoi’s quotidian chaos, a method to all the madness. That strange polarity is evident in its food as well. The secret to its gastronomy -- and really, Vietnamese food at large -- is that balance it strikes as light yet hearty, subtle yet robust, modest yet complex. Food here fuels the city’s ceaseless energy and reveals its intricacies. But leave all the pretentiousness at the airport. The best way to experience it is on sidewalks, beset by chaos, slurping soup at a low table, on a short plastic stool.

If you just have one meal: You would be hard-pressed to find Hanoi’s incredible bun cha done properly anywhere else in the world. This rice vermicelli, grilled pork, and greens concoction will make your shoulders drop at first bite. The best spot for it in the city is Bun Cha Huong Lien, where Anthony Bourdain and Barack Obama themselves dined. Admire the president’s framed photos on the wall as you revel in the sticky floors, the messy tables, and the unceremonious way the servers usher you to a spot. -- Michelle Rae Uy

Grilled fish over Israeli couscous at Box-E.

Bristol, England

Where ubiquitous art irradiates a diverse, adventuresome food scene
While Manchester and Birmingham duke it out over who gets the official claim as England’s second city, Bristol does as Bristol does: ignores the fuss and forges its own path to glory. This is the birthplace of Banksy, after all, and the internationally renowned street artist shares his hometown’s sense of independence, irreverence, and offbeat creativity.

Gawk at the soaring suspension bridge, take a guilty selfie by a Banksy mural, then dive into the booming, diverse food and drink scene. Quirky community cafes, atmospheric pubs, and buzzy restaurants dominate. Service is friendly and the cooking down-to-earth. If you like your apples squashed and fermented -- and who doesn’t? -- a glut of pubs are here to serve you up a local craft cider or two. Ambitious joints such as Casamia, meanwhile, may pair local crab with a dashi jelly -- a taste very much of the city, very much of the now.

If you have just one meal: A restaurant inside a shipping container? Yawn. But hang on, because BOX-E is actually quite interesting. The pint-sized eatery sits on the city’s Wapping Wharf and has a pork-themed bar downstairs. Upstairs the concept is all about prettified small plates washed down with unusual wines. Chef Elliott Lidstone does some exciting things with quotidian ingredients. Cauliflower, for one, is dreamed up alongside almonds and Gouda; courgette comes with burrata, olive, and chilli. Bristol on a plate. -- Isaac Parham

Blue agave rounds at the Casa José Cuervo.

Guadalajara, Mexico

The Mexican you already know, from its cradle
On first impression the second-largest city in Mexico cuts the figure of a lost Spanish town, its Mediterranean climate and architecture belying its location on Mexico’s western plateau. The European look and feel of Guadalajara’s home state of Jalisco might be unfamiliar, but the cuisine here is comfortingly familiar: California’s first wave of Mexican immigrants were largely Tapatíos (the demonym for people from Jalisco), and their cuisine came to define much of what we know as Mexican food in the United States today.

In Guadalajara, you find the original no-foolin’ versions of Mexican-American classics like enchiladas, carne asada, quesadillas, birria, and pozole. But the city’s most beloved culinary creation is the torta ahogada, the drowned sandwich, a fried pork sandwich dunked in spicy tomato-chili sauce.

If you have just one drink: Nestled in the agave-spiked hills outside Guadalajara is the charming colonial town of Tequila. Yes, you’re right, that Tequila. Take the hour-long drive (or board the tourist-tastic Tequila Express at Guadalajara’s train station) to Tequila’s colonial center and visit one of the familiarly-named distilleries: Herradura, José Cuervo, and the rest of your favorite clear-to-brown liquors. -- Conor O’Rourke

Grilled meat from Mzoli's Place

Cape Town, South Africa

A juxtaposition of culinary, terroir traditions and outdoor enterprises
Capetonians call it FOBO: “Fear of better options.” In the Mother City, you’re bound for a cup runneth over with cool events, as on the first Thursday of every month when art galleries open against all-night street parties, and in the picnic concerts at Kirstenbosch Garden. You can shop on the Waterfront or grunged-up Woodstock. Hit up a white-sand beach replete mountain vistas or with penguin huddles. Hike up 2,200 feet above sea level at Lion’s Head, or go sideways in neighboring wine country. The options would be overwhelming if the locals weren’t ready to advise while drinking unsuspecting visitors under the table.

Your goal -- your best option -- is to impose upon a gracious local to invite you to braai. Don’t miss it. Barbecue in South Africa is a national treasure of the same pinnacle as America. Rain or shine, outdoor cookouts go off, with hot coals and smoke-pluming open flame. Beef and chicken skewers, ostrich fillets, boerewors sausage or rib-sticking curries -- the braai master is the boss. All you’ve got to do is sit back and chew the fat.

If you have just one meal: Make it Mzoli’s Place, a township shack of cult status for its open-air braai and dance parties (Jamie Oliver himself called it a “totally sexy” time). As per traditional shisa nyama (an ethnically Zulu township term for barbecue), theses affairs are BYOB -- paper plates, napkins, and cutlery are on you too, so arrive equipped. Once inside, pick your morsels slathered in secret marinade from the on-site butcher, choose a grill station, then tuck in while DJs and musicians bust out house, hip-hop and jazz. Eating by hand is acceptable; food comas are not. Among a hundreds-strong crowd of Cape Town’s funkiest tastemakers, you have to be able to really move. -- Barbara Woolsey

Wood-fired grilled fish at Bastard.

Malmo, Sweden

Sweden’s plucky up-and-comer is punching well above its weight
Truly, this is a tale of two cities. First we have Copenhagen, Denmark, an internationally recognized capital of culture and gastronomy, the home of Noma, and birthplace of New Nordic cuisine. Across the water, connected by bridge, sits Malmo, the third-biggest city in Sweden -- handsome, yes, but lacking the star attractions or world-renowned chefs found in the Danish capital. You have one day to eat and drink your way round either city, where do you go?

Epicureans, let me tell you: The answer has to be Malmo. There’s something so thrilling about witnessing a food and drink scene in the formative throes of rebellious youth. Immerse yourself in its multicolored mishmash of Scandi-style townhouses, capacious squares, and medieval ruins. Then, when the cold starts to bite, retreat to a hipster coffee shop or, better still, a moodily lit bar or diner. Here, you will likely find Scandi fare -- open sandwiches, pickled fish, and gallons of aquavit, sometimes all at once -- prepared without the stilted reverence you’ll find across the water. Instead, Malmo leans into headline-grabbing innovation. And there’s plenty of that at Rude Food, a cafe that concocts dishes out of would-be food waste, and Fool, a razor-sharp food mag based in the city. Malmo can be hit-and-miss, sure, but it’s never boring.

If you have just one meal: Look past the cheekily provocative name and accept that Bastard is a legitimately provocative kind of place. Not for this restaurant the dainty, delicate creations found elsewhere in the city; here you will find charcuterie, offal, and some exquisitely full-blooded cocktails. At peak times, a table may be hard to find, but if you do find a seat, prepare to be won over. -- Isaac Parham

Preparation of octopus for pulpo gallego, a classic Vigo dish that is part carpaccio, part sashimi, featuring rounds of octopus sprinkled with smoked paprika, olive, and salt.

Vigo, Spain

Tear into undiscovered marine treasures in Spain’s eclectic northwest
You’ll eat like a royal anywhere across Spain. But for a real treat, head out west to Galicia. A far cry from the dusty olive groves of central Spain or its sunbaked Mediterranean coast, Galicia’s temperate, rainy climate brings to mind places like Ireland and Brittany (and with good reason: they all share a Celtic history). Galicia’s mist-shrouded hills and islands conceal hidden strands with barely a soul on them. Visit Praia das Rodas, a perfectly crescent-shaped beach on a fairytale island a short boat ride from the city center, and a perennial contender for best beach in the world.

Yes, in Vigo, it’s all about the sea. So much, in fact, that they have a whole street for oyster restaurants (Rua da Ostras). You aren’t limited to the slimy half shells, though. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll order chocos (fried chunks of cuttlefish) and chipirones (grilled baby squid) and then wash it all down with some Albariño, the peppery white wine characteristic to the region.

If you have just one meal: You haven’t eaten Vigo until you’ve pulled up a plate of pulpo gallego: Part carpaccio, part sashimi, this beloved dish consists of thin rounds of octopus served lukewarm and sprinkled with smoked paprika, olive oil, salt, and nothing else. -- Conor O’Rourke

A sesame Montreal-style bagel from Fairmount Bagel

Montreal, Quebec

Canada’s culinary capital puts a new spin on the past
In Montreal, restaurants are full every day of the week, and Montrealers are bold enough to order whatever the new, young maverick chefs are putting on their menus. These days that includes liver, poultry served whole, and beef tongue -- a nod to traditional Quebecois ingredients and dishes.

If you're feeling less adventurous, stick to the basics: smoked meat from Schwartz's, medium fat, either as a sandwich or, if you're really hungry (or coming with a friend), a plate. Locals order it with a pickle and a Cherry Coke. Cutting back on meat? Try Le Vin Papillon or Candide, where chef John Winter Russell showcases a vegetable-driven menu with seasonal dishes like hedgehog mushrooms, cauliflower and onions, or dry-roasted carrots with yogurt and tarragon.

If you have just one meal: Make like a local and head to St. Viateur or Fairmount Bagel for a Montreal-style bagel, which is baked in a wood-fired oven and looks smaller and thinner than its New York counterpart. Boris Volfson, former owner of Chez Boris, orders half a dozen sesame with salmon spread (mayo and fine cut smoked salmon) from Fairmount. His advice: “Go out of the shop, sit on a bench, and eat them while they are piping hot.” -- Jenn Mattson

Pasja Smaku's famous steak tartare/

Warsaw, Poland

Some of the most daring fine dining in Europe is also the cheapest
People don't normally head to Eastern Europe when they're looking for gourmet meals, but a killer exchange rate, a modernizing economy, and a thriving foodie scene make Warsaw an unexpected treat. Here, your dollar -- or euro, or złoty -- stretches farther than elsewhere on the continent, so feel free to go upscale: high-quality, typically expensive dishes like steak tartare, pâté, and the rest are all totally attainable options here, often for less than 10 euro each.

What is Polish food, you ask? Starting with the ubiquitous and beloved pierogi (ravioli-like dumplings stuffed with sauerkraut, potatoes, meat, or mushrooms and eaten with sour cream), most traditional Polish foods take a geographically characteristic meat-and-potatoes approach to nutrition. But fear not! Enterprising Warsaw chefs have taken advantage of their relatively newfound access to world markets to design some of the most adventurous menus seen this side of the Atlantic. Head to Bar Pacyfik, a restaurant and cocktail bar inspired by all things Pacific Ocean -- from Hawaiian-Japanese poke and sushi to Peruvian ceviche and Mexico City-style street tacos.

If you have just one meal: Get traditional Polish food in a modernist exterior at Pasja Smaku, a trendy Soviet-chic bistro serving up good meat and cold vodka. Reach for the homemade sausages, or if you’re feeling truly indulgent, get the best rendition of steak tartare this side of the Rhine. -- Conor O’Rourke

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