Eating on the Cheap in Europe’s Expensive Cities

By Rick Steves Modified: September 17, 2013 at 9:39 am •  Published: September 17, 2013
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Oslo recently overtook Tokyo as the most expensive city in the world. That doesn'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.

   Whether you’re in an outlandishly expensive country or just want to save money, there are plenty of strategies for stretching your food budget in Europe. Here are some tips:

   Ethnic Eateries: These places usually offer the cheapest hot meals in town. Almost every night I was in Oslo, I found myself walking down a street called Gronland into the immigrant district for food that was both spicy and affordable. 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.

   Cafeterias: “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 a plate and stack it like the locals do--high. Hungry sightseers also appreciate the handy, moderately priced cafeterias found in larger museums.

   Institution-Affiliated Eateries: 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 “milk bars.”

   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). Chains that sell good, healthful sandwiches, salads, and pastries are Britain’s Pret a Manger, Norway’s Deli de Luca, and Spain’s Pans & Company. Local deli-like shops are popular in many parts of Europe; try a "traiteur" in France or a "rosticceria" in Italy. The business-lunch crowd invariably knows the best place for an affordable fill-the-tank bite.