How to Be a Gastro-tourist

Food-focused vacations can be immersive, illuminating, and fun. Here's what you need to know before you start traveling again.

“For many travelers, there’s a sense of ‘been there, done that,’” says Karen Rowley, founder of Napa, California–based Env Travel, which leads food-focused journeys worldwide. That’s one reason, she adds, that some people are embracing gastro-tourism, the act of visiting a destination primarily to experience its food and drink culture. This generally involves traveling with a group whose organizers can arrange cooking classes, chefs’ demonstrations, kitchen visits, and special dinners.  

By focusing on a region’s culinary offerings, you’re able to see a city or country through a different lens, Rowley says. Many travelers find these experiences to be immersive—imagine learning the personal history of a Moroccan souk vendor instead of just snapping photos of his spices. 

Gastro Tourism cheese

Gastro-tourism can include anything from an afternoon street-food outing in Tokyo to a weeklong encounter with northern Italy’s cheese culture, complete with a guided tour of the region’s biggest cheese festival and visits to wineries and truffle farms. Across the Adriatic, gastro-tourists can explore Croatia’s islands by day and learn to cook regional dishes by night aboard a luxury yacht.

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During vacations, people often eat out two or three times per day, says Rowley. Why not make those meals the most they can be?

If you’re in Milan, don’t just pop into any focaccia shop for lunch. Instead, visit one that’s been run by the same family for generations and let the founder’s great-grandchildren show you how the oven works. Don’t just eat the paella in Spain. Learn how to cook it in the kitchen of a Michelin-rated restaurant. 

Gastro-tourism doesn't benefit only the traveler, Rowley says; it can also aid the local community and economy. In some instances, you might even be helping the planet. When visiting Brazil, skip the Starbucks to meet with a coffee-shop owner who uses only shade-grown beans. By encouraging a bird-friendly habitat, the owner will tell you, the coffee plantation reduces its reliance on chemical pesticides. 

Gastro Tourism

Many of these experiences require engaging a guide or agency to offer transportation and translation services as well as provide access to the region’s growers, chefs, and producers. To ensure that a tour will meet your expectations, ask lots of questions, including about transportation and accommodations. Also, make sure you’re booking a custom tour, not a run-of-the-mill experience provided by a team that doesn’t specialize in gastro-tourism.