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By Rick Steves
When Oslo overtook Tokyo as the most expensive city in the world, it didn’t surprise me in the least. The last time I was in Oslo, a plain cup of coffee cost $4. Beer, while very good, was $8 a glass. Fortunately, there are plenty of strategies for stretching your food budget on the road. Besides picniking — your cheapest option, and my personal favorite — most towns and cities offer a range of basic eateries. While cafeterias, street stands, and “to go” meals are not high cuisine, they’re undeniably cheap — and Europe offers a bounty of options for eating inexpensively.
“Self-service” is an international word. You’ll find self-service restaurants in big cities everywhere, offering low-price, low-risk, low-stress, what-you-see-is-what-you-get meals. A sure value for your euro is a department-store cafeteria. These places are designed for the shopper who has a sharp eye for a good value. At a salad bar, grab the small (cheap) plate and stack it like the locals do — high. Hungry sightseers also appreciate the handy, moderately priced cafeterias they’ll find in larger museums.
If your wallet is as empty as your stomach, find a cheap, humble cafeteria that’s associated with (and subsidized by) a local institution — such as a university, city hall, church, hospital, charity, senior center, fire station, union of gondoliers, retired fishermen’s club, and so on. (These are sometimes called “mensas.”) Profits take a back seat to providing good food at a good price — and many of these eateries welcome the public to pull up a chair. Options range from a semi-swanky City Hall cafeteria in Oslo, to student canteens in university towns (such as Salzburg, Austria), to Poland’s dreary-looking but cheap-and-tasty “milk bars.” Don’t be afraid to take advantage of these opportunities to fill yourself with a plate of dull but nourishing food for an unbeatable price in the company of locals. University cafeterias (generally closed during summer holidays) also offer a surefire way to meet educated, English-speaking young people with open and stimulating minds. They’re often eager to share their views on politics and economics, as well as their English, with a foreign friend.
Bakeries and Sandwich Shops
Bakeries are a good place to pick up basic sandwiches, tiny pizzas, or something equally cheap and fast but with more of a regional flavor (such as savory pasties in England or a croque-monsieur sandwich in France). Britain’s Pret à Manger, Norway’s Deli de Luca, and Spain’s Pans & Company are chains that sell good, healthful sandwiches, salads, and pastries. Local deli-like shops are popular in many parts of Europe; try a traiteur in France or a rosticcería in Italy. The business lunch crowd invariably knows the best place for an affordable fill-the-tank bite.
Every country has its own equivalent of the hot-dog stand, where you can grab a filling bite on the go — French crêperies, Greek souvlaki stands, Danish pølse (sausage) vendors, Italian pizza rustica take-out shops, Dutch herring carts, and Turkish-style kebab and falafel kiosks in Germany (and just about everywhere else). A falafel (fried chickpea croquettes wrapped in pita bread) is a good vegetarian option that’s also popular with meat eaters. Of all of these options, the ubiquitous kebab stand is my favorite. The best ones have a busy energy, and a single large kebab wrapped in wonderful pita bread can feed two hungry travelers for €4. Don’t miss the ayran — a healthy yogurt drink popular with Turks — which goes well with your kebab. In general, if there’s a long line at a particular stand, you can bet that customers appreciate the value that vendor provides.
Throughout wealthy northern Europe, immigrant communities labor at subsistence wages. Rather than eat bland and pricey local food, they (along with savvy residents and travelers) go cheap and spicy at simple diners, delis, and take-away stands serving Middle Eastern, Pakistani, and Asian food. These places usually offer the cheapest hot meals in town.
Fast-food restaurants are everywhere. Yes, the hamburgerization of the world is a shame, but face it — the busiest and biggest McDonald’s in the world are in Tokyo, Rome, and Moscow. The burger has become a global thing. You’ll find Big Macs in every language — it isn’t exciting (and costs more than at home), but at least at McDonald’s you know exactly what you’re getting, and it’s fast. A hamburger, fries, and shake can be fun halfway through your trip. For a change of pace, you’ll also find KFC, Subway, and Starbucks almost everywhere.
American fast-food joints are kid-friendly and satisfy the need for a cheap salad bar and a tall orange juice. They’ve grabbed prime bits of real estate in every big European city. Since there’s no cover charge, this is an opportunity to savor a low-class paper cup of coffee while enjoying some high-class people-watching (unless you’re at Starbucks, where your paper cup will be high class, too). Many offer free Wi-Fi as well.
Each country also has its equivalent of the hamburger stand (I saw a “McCheaper” in Switzerland). Whatever their origin, they’re a hit with youths and a handy place for a quick, cheap bite to eat.