Are you a cultural traveler? Always interested in history, art, architecture, music, and, of course, food?
There’s no better way to delve into a place than through its culture and cuisine. Here are our top 10 foodie travel destinations for cultural connoisseurs:
Alaska is known for its deep history and majestic landscapes. The state’s cultural history includes indigenous Alaskans (229 tribes, including the Tlingit and Haida Nations), a diverse group of immigrants (including Russian, Japanese, European, and Spanish), and a motley assortment of gold miners.
History lovers can visit the Alaska Native Heritage Museum in Anchorage, as well as the Anchorage Museum. But perhaps the most traditional of all Alaskan pursuits is the enjoyment of the outdoors.
The state’s geographic location ensures a harsh winter climate, along with a gorgeous (but short) summer. Alaska's 24 national parks are considered a global treasure. You can see coastal wildlife in Katmai National Park, over 100 glaciers in Kenai Fjords National Park, the wilderness of America's largest national park (Wrangell-St. Elias National Park), and the world-famous Denali National Park, home to North America's tallest peak.
In terms of food, Alaska’s historic culinary traditions are rooted in farm-to-table and foraging. Seafood fans can enjoy fresh wild salmon, King and Dungeness Crab, fresh fish, and delectable cold water oysters. There are beautifully named berries (see: cloudberries, watermelon berries), kelp, and other sea vegetables, and wild game (including caribou). But perhaps the best part of Alaskan cuisine if being surrounded by the natural beauty from which it came.
Patagonia, which encompasses parts of Argentina and Chile, is an area of great biodiversity and magnificent wilderness. For outdoor adventures galore, visit Torres del Paine National Park, the Perito Moreno Glacier (and learn more about it at the Glaciarium Museum), and the Andean Lake District.
Argentina is full of diverse cultural influences, with over 40 spoken languages. This rich mix of indigenous and immigrant cultures can be seen in the country’s architecture, arts, cuisine, music, theatre, and dance. Perhaps the most globally recognized Argentinian tradition is the tango. Argentina's national musical symbol, the tango is comprised of music, lyrics, and dance, which was birthed in the Buenos Aires neighborhoods of San Telmo and La Boca.
Many Argentinian foods are considered national treasures, including asado (grilled meat), chimichurri (a salsa-like condiment made from herbs, garlic, olive oil, and vinegar), empanadas, and dulce la leche (a caramel-like sweet paste). Try yerba mate, a very social beverage made from dried leaves, put into a gourd, and passed around a group, with each person taking a sip.
Argentinian wine is world-renowned. With over 2,000 wineries, the nation is one of the most important wine producers in the world. Visitors can travel the wine route through eight different provinces, all linked by Route 40, which traverses the entire western edge of the country. Of special note is Mendoza, the most important wine region in Argentina.
Brazil has long been home to a cowboy culture– the nomadic horsemen known as gauchos. In the Rio Grande do Sul, the rich cultural history of gauchos (who composed and sang legendary songs, and grilled their meals under an open sky) led to proud traditions that are still celebrated in Brazil today.
From the diverse cultural mix of gaucho music, carnival, and food festivals to a national diet that includes barbecued meat (churrasco), travelers will enjoy digging deeper into Brazil’s cultural customs.
Speaking of delicious food, you can visit a churrascaria (Brazilian steakhouse) to sample all kinds of delicious barbecued meats. Also, try feijoada (a traditional stew of beans and meats); a fish stew called moqueca; açaí, a local fruit packed with energy; and pão de queijo, gluten-free cheese bread bites that are extremely addictive. Wash it all down with a caipirinha, an alcoholic beverage mixed from sugar cane liquor, lime, and sugar.
Nature lovers, take note: The types of animals found in Brazil are extraordinary, from jaguars to giant anteaters, capybara to caiman, maned wolves to pink dolphins, tapirs to ocelots, and birds of all kinds to a wide variety of primates. In addition to the Brazilian Amazon and Pantanal, you can also see wildlife (and stunning scenery) at Iguaçu National Park, the Preserve Muriqui at the Caratinga Biological Station, and Caraça, Jaú, and Canastra National Parks.
Greece is known as the birthplace of democracy and the cradle of Western civilization, with a rich, globally influential culture. Its thousands of islands (of which some 227 are inhabited) boast myriad histories to explore.
Start at the Acropolis in Athens, where you'll see the Parthenon (one of the world's most important cultural monuments) as well as the Propylaia, Erechtheion (home to the Caryatids), and the temple of Athena Nike. At the Athenian Agora, visit the Museum of the Ancient Agora. Another museum of note in Athens is the Benaki Museum of Greek Culture, which covers prehistory to the 20th century.
There are countless other archaeological sites to visit, including the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, the Temple of Athena Lindia in Rhodes, the Hagia Sophia in Thessaloniki, the site of the original Olympic games in Olympia, the Temples of Aphrodite and Apollo in Corinth. and the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion. Theatre, music and dance are important and popular and feature in festivals and cultural events throughout the year.
Ancient Greek cuisine was composed primarily of wheat, olive oil, and wine. The modern Mediterranean diet incorporates those items and expands upon them with fresh ingredients and cheese, honey, and foraged items. Must-try dishes include fresh Greek salad with olives and slabs of feta, pasta dishes such as pastitsio, grilled seafood, roasted meat such as gyros and kebabs, and savory pies like tiropita and spanakopita.
In addition to Greece’s large variety of wines, there are also traditional spirits to imbibe, such as ouzo, retsina, and raki. Coffee is also important to Greek culture. It’s generally a lighter version of Turkish coffee, with grounds left in the cup. You can ask for filtered coffee if you prefer, as well as iced coffee in the very hot summers.
One of the world’s earliest civilizations, India is an enormous, ancient country filled with a large, multicultural population. This leads to a varied and vibrant culture (with over 22 official languages), history, landscape, and cuisine.
India’s cultural and archaeological treasures are many. In Delhi, travelers can visit a 13th-century Islamic minaret, the Qutub Minar. In Mylapore, they can explore a 7th-century temple to Shiva (Kapaleeshwarar Temple) as well as a 15th-century fort. In Puri, one of India's most holy Hindu cities, check out the Jagannath Temple and the 13th century Sun Temple. In the northern city of Dharamsala, you can spend time at the seat of the Dalai Lama and visit the Norbulingka Institute, which preserves the art and culture of Tibet.
Indian food is just as varied as its geography, history, and people. Try idli, a South Indian breakfast food made from ground rice and lentils. From Kashmir, a Persian dish called rojan josh (made from lamb) will set your taste buds tingling. The Mughals brought biryani, a rice dish made with meat, yogurt, onions, and spices. Most Americans are familiar with curries, tandoori, and kebabs, but the spices and manner of preparation change wherever you travel across this immense sub-continent.
You can soak up any delicious juices with roti or naan (flat breads), or masala dosa, a southern coastal rice crepe. An inexpensive street food from Mumbai, vada pav (also called Bombay burger) is a beloved dish comprised of a hamburger bun containing a spicy fried potato dumpling, chutney, and a chili pepper. And never pass up an opportunity to try chaat, a term for savory Indian snacks.
Art, music, architecture, religion, and cuisine are all hallmarks of Italian culture and are intertwined in daily life in Italy.
The nation’s rich history is evident in the enormous variety of ancient architectural structures that still stand today. In Rome, you can time travel to the Classic era by visiting the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Pantheon, Circus Maximus, and more. To explore Gothic Roman history, see the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore and Santa Maria in Trastevere. Renaissance history can be seen in St. Peter's Basilica and palazzos across the city, while Baroque architecture is present in piazzas and palaces alike.
Italy’s museums are bursting with history and culture. Visit Rome's Doria Pamphilj Gallery and the extraordinary museums of Florence, which showcase the majesty of Italy's master artists. But art is everywhere, from the Baroque splendor of the Trevi Fountain to Bernini’s sculptures that adorn Rome’s Pont St. Angelo. For a taste of Italy’s rich musical history, see an opera at Milan's La Scala or Venice's La Fenice theaters.
The communal aspect of Italian life can best be seen in its cuisine. For a true taste of Italy, start with an espresso and end with gelato. In between, enjoy antipasto (appetizer), pasta, cheese, cured meats, seafood, salads, and fresh produce. Of course, regional variations are vast, and there is a seasonal emphasis throughout the country. Meals here are meant to be shared, and lingering at the table and enjoying your meal with friends and family is important.
Wine is an ancient tradition in Italy, cementing itself in Italian culture during the Roman Empire. There’s an expansive array of wines available, and vineyards can be found across the country. Tuscany arguably boasts Italy's best vineyards, but there are 20 wine regions Look for DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) certification to find the highest quality wines.
Japan is unusual in that, due to closed borders for most of its history, it has maintained a strong, artistic indigenous culture. Its ancient traditions can be seen in architectural wonders such as Nijo Castle in Kyoto, the 12th century Himeji Castle, Matsumoto Castle, and Kumamoto Castle in Chūō-ku.
Religion (Buddhism and Shinto) plays a huge role in Japanese culture. The Golden Pavilion, the sacred waterfall at Kiyomizu-dera Temple, and the Heian-jingu Shrine in Kyoto are all important landmarks. Landscape gardens featuring ponds, streams, flowering trees, and meandering walking paths are highly valued in Japan. Three of the best include Korakuen (located beside Okayama Castle), Kenrokuen (Kanazawa), and Kairakuen (Mito). But the most photographed religious site in Japan is Miyajima, home to the enormous red torii (gate) of the Itsukushima Shrine.
Painting and calligraphy are important cultural traditions in Japan. Other traditional arts include ikebana (flower arranging), the beautiful ritualized tea ceremony, musical performances on stringed instruments and taiko drums, noh and kabuki theatre, bunraku puppetry, and the martial arts of jujutsu, sumo, aikido, and kendo. The historic tradition of Japanese pottery dates back to around 10,000 BCE: Visit the towns of Hagi, Mashiko, and Shigaraki to watch master potters in action.
But perhaps the most artistic of all Japanese traditions is the cuisine. Simplicity, seasonal ingredients, careful preparation, and beautiful presentation are all important aspects of Japan’s culinary art form! The basis for most meals is sticky rice: Eat every grain, as it’s considered wasteful to leave any. As an island nation, seafood is integral to Japan’s cuisine, as are sea vegetables.
My favorite dishes include sushi (which is not only raw fish, but an entire cuisine in itself), griddled meat and vegetable pancakes called okonomiyaki, tempura, noodles, grilled meats, and pickled vegetables. Travelers will also enjoy famous beverages such as green tea (matcha), barley tea (mugicha), brown rice tea (genmaicha), and sake (fermented rice wine).
Learn more about traveling Japan here: Japan Travel Guide
With roots dating back to 9,000 BCE, Peru offers a diverse array of ecosystems, including the Andes mountains, coastal areas, and the rainforests of the Peruvian Amazon. This has created an incredible biodiversity, with almost 25% of all known animals being endemic. Peru excels in extremes: The Amazon is the world's mightiest river, Colca Canyon is the world's deepest, Lake Titicaca is the world's highest navigable lake, and there are more than 50 peaks higher than 18,000 feet.
There are numerous important archaeological sites to explore in Peru, many of which are UNESCO World Heritage sites. There’s Huaca del Sol (the largest pre-Columbian structure in Peru) and Chan Chan (the largest adobe city in the world) in Trujillo, pre-Incan ruins at Chavín de Huántar, Ollantaytambo (which has been inhabited since the 13th century), Sacsayhuaman (an Incan fortress complex near Cusco), and, of course, Machu Picchu.
Of course, given the country’s cultural diversity, Peru offers a wide range of music, dance, and cultural festivals. Colonial-era architecture and art can be seen in many mansions, museums, monasteries, and cathedrals. And textile art– such as gorgeous Incan weavings made from alpaca and vicuña fiber– can be seen (and purchased) in markets throughout the country.
Peruvian cuisine is the epitome of fusion, due to its Amerindian, Incan, Spanish, African, Asian, and Italian influences. There are four foundations of Peruvian food: corn, potatoes, grains, and legumes. Must-try dishes include ceviche, chupe de camarones (shrimp cioppino), tamales, pollo a la brasa (marinated, roasted chicken), and pachamanca (a stew made from meat, herbs, and vegetables, which is baked underground).
Afterwards, there’s rice pudding, pastries, and other sweet desserts. And don't forget coffee (there are over 110,000 coffee growers in the country) and the Pisco Sour, Peru’s most iconic alcoholic beverage.
Spain has been invaded countless times, by the Celts, Basques, Roman conquerors, Moors, Huns, Greeks, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, and others. The country’s largest ethnic minority is the nomadic Roma (a.k.a. Gitanos), who are best known for the flamenco dance. These disparate cultural influences can be seen in Spain’s language, art, architecture, and music. Interested in tracking this historical chronology? Visit Madrid's newly renovated Museo Arqueológico Nacional for an excellent timeline.
Cultural travelers in the know head to Barcelona for its architecture (including the Gothic Quarter and the phenomenal buildings by Antonin Gaudi), Granada for the Alhambra (a stunningly beautiful 14th century fortress), and Sevilla for three UNESCO World Heritage Sites, (the Seville Cathedral, the Royal Alcazar Palace, and the General Archive of the Indies). Toledo, a medieval city in central Spain, is another UNESCO World Heritage Site, protected for its many important monuments and cultural heritage.
What to eat? Along the coasts, you can partake in fresh seafood, including the Valencian dish of paella– a seafood, rice, and vegetable dish cooked in enormous flat pans over an open fire. Cheese is important, and the most well-known is Manchego. There are a variety of preserved meats, including chorizo sausage and dried ham from many areas (jamón serrano, jamón ibérico, and jamón de bellota are but a few). Spanish soups and stews are also delicious, as are freshly grilled meats and seafood. The flavoring isn’t spicy, but rather savory and fresh.
Popular beverages in Spain include coffee, beer, and a variety of wines, including a sparkling wine called cava. Spain is wine country, so explore some of its many wine bars and vineyards to discover what vintages you like best.
The Land of a Thousand Smiles is an intriguing destination for nature lovers and cultural travelers. There are dozens of National Parks in Thailand, with geography ranging from beaches and mountains to forests and plains. Traditional arts– including painting, writing, music, and dance– are everywhere, from the architecture of the ancient temples to the beautiful silks everyone wears.
Cultural festivals populate the calendar and are often held at temples. Songkran is a water festival celebrated in April, where people perform a ritual cleansing of Buddha statues and then head outside for a three-day long water fight. Loi Krathong sees rivers filled with biodegradable platforms of offerings and coincides with Yi Peng, where the skies around Chiang Mai are filled with floating, illuminated lanterns.
Bangkok offers much to see, including the architecture of the Grand Palace and the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. Take time to visit the Bangkok National Museum, which holds the largest collection of Thai art and artifacts in Thailand. The Bangkokian Museum in Bangrak (a.k.a. the Bangkok Folk Museum) is a slice of Thai life from the late 1800s and early 1900s. In Chiang Mai, tour two of Thailand's most sacred temples, Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Then head to nearby hill tribe villages to learn more about the Karen, Palong, and Padong tribes.
Thai cuisine can be salty, sweet, sour, spicy, and/or bitter, often all at the same time. The unique flavors are balanced very well and use aromatic ingredients such as lemongrass, galangal, herbs, leaves, and spices. Beautifully carved vegetables are widespread and originated here over 700 years ago.
Popular Thai dishes include Pad Thai (the national dish), green curry with chicken or fish balls, Tom Yum soup with lemongrass and shrimp, noodles, and sticky rice. Also look for Gai Med Ma Moung (cashew chicken), Kao Phat (a fried rice), Jim Jum (a hotpot brought to the table, allowing you to cook the vegetables, meats, and glass noodles), yam plah duk foo (an incredibly tasty fried fish with green mango salad), or a spicy salad called som tam. If you’re still hungry, finish up your meal with sticky rice and mango, which is topped with coconut milk. Delicious! –Jessie Voigts
BIO: Jessie Voigts has a PhD in International Education, has lived and worked in Japan and London, and traveled all around the world. She’s published eight books about travel and intercultural learning, with more on the way. Jessie is constantly looking for ways to increase intercultural understanding and is passionately sharing the world through her site, Wandering Educators.