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10 Incredible Gap Year Destinations for Food Lovers

food, global, cuisine

Let’s face it, gap years full of great food are the best. No matter where you spend your gap year, you’re pretty much guaranteed to try something new and delicious, but some destinations are simply better than others for the self-described foodies and adventurous eaters.

Keep an open mind, don’t be afraid of food on a stick, and enjoy the wild, wonderful world of international cuisine.

As a gapper, you'll surely want to get off the beaten path, discover night markets, boat markets, and local street food. But where exactly can you eat great food and still check off all the other great requirements for your gap year? Below are ten destinations that make excellent gap year trips for food lovers:

Italian food, gelato, pasta, pizza

I’m sure you saw this one coming. Travelers have been flocking to the Italian peninsula for generations, tempted by food that is more than just part of the culture, it’s a way of life. Open air markets, whether perched on the hillsides or aboard a Venetian barge, provide fresh luscious ingredients that become simple, flavorful mini-masterpieces in the local trattorias, osterias, or ristorantes.

Italian food goes way beyond the confines of the American interpretation of pizza and pasta, and the best part is that each region has its own specialty so you’ll never get bored. Delicious, authentic Italian food is so much a part of the way of life that it’s accessible and affordable. Chow down on some suppli in Rome, gelato in Milan, or pull up a chair in one of these hole-in-the-wall cheap eat favorites in Florence.

While a gap year in Italy would be dangerous to the waistline, it would be pretty incredible for your palette.

While Rome, Venice, Naples, and Florence are traditional hot destinations for foodies, don’t forget about Sicily's home cooking, Sardinian food, and Umbrian cuisine. Whether you’re taking classes, learning Italian, teaching English, or volunteering, there are plenty of ways to keep busy during a gap year. And while a gap year in Italy would be dangerous to the waistline, it would be pretty incredible for your palette.

south african food, sushi, braai

When you think of a gap year in South Africa, you might think of lions, leopards, and elephants, but South Africa is also a fantastic destination for an adventurous foodie. This is a perfect gap year locale if you’re interested in working with wildlife, teaching, or volunteering in local communities. And there's great food!

South Africa, the rainbow nation, has a unique culinary heritage that blends European, Asian, and African traditions.

South Africa, the rainbow nation, has a unique culinary heritage that blends European, Asian, and African traditions. Here, the traditional meets the modern and you could have fresh sushi one night and enjoy a typical braai (Africaans for a barbecue) the next.

You would be remiss not to try kudu or springbok, two species of antelope, or ostrich, which is surprisingly flavorful and tender.

Traditional South African dishes include biltong (salted dried meats), bobotie (similar to Shepard’s pie but with a curried filling), mealie (corn used in a variety of ways), and boerewors (thick farmer’s sausage).

For dessert, don’t miss a melktert (milk tart) and for a typical dining experience, seek out a potjie, or three-legged cast iron pot that is perfect for slow-cooking stews.

Moroccan food, tajine

The fantastic Moroccan street food scene is one of the worst kept secrets in the foodie world. The reason Morocco is such a stand-out in the culinary world is because it blends the best of Spanish, French, and Arabian flavors and techniques. Tart, citrusy, tangy, salty, and sweet, these flavor profiles can’t be found anywhere else.

With an inspiring blend of flavors, cultures, and languages, Morocco is the ideal foodie gap year adventure.

Additionally, Morocco is an excellent location for anyone on a gap-year -- where else can you spend a year teaching English or surfing while immersing yourself in vibrant, north African culture, and still afford to eat like a king? To take advantage of the best food souks in Morocco, head to Fez for street food or Marrakesh's infamous Jemaa El-Fna and dine on Harira soup, m’semmen, and -- if you're up to it -- snails.

Of course, spend any time in Morocco and you’ll soon discover your favorite tagine – chicken? Lamb? Eel? For dessert, be sure to try the fluffy, sugar-coated doughnuts, and if you're hungry in between, snack on avocado juice and cheap egg sandwiches. With an inspiring blend of flavors, cultures, and languages, Morocco is the ideal foodie gap year adventure.

Malaysian food, noodles

Regardless of the food, Malaysia is an amazing gap-year destination. Safe, interesting, and affordable, Malaysia caters to almost every interest and ambition. Work with orangutans, rebuild habitats in the rainforest, teach English, volunteer at an orphanage, or just wander (jalan, jalan) around this varied and beautiful country.

Some may even say that this is where the street food movement really gained momentum, as travelers sat up and took notice of the apom baliks, satays, koay chiap, laksa, and char kuey teow.

From bustling metropolitan cities to deserted pristine beaches, Malaysia has it all, especially when it comes to food -- the best of which is often sold along bustling urban streets.

Most globally-minded foodies know that Malaysian cuisine is a fascinating blend of spices, flavors, and traditions. Some may even say that this is where the street food movement really gained momentum, as travelers sat up and took notice of the apom baliks, satays, koay chiap, laksa, and char kuey teow.

Don’t know what all of these are? If you decide to add Malaysia to your gap year, you will soon...

Spanish food, tapas, pimento

Travel in Europe can be expensive, but time spent on your gap year in Spain is definitely worth the investment -- especially if you love food. Some foodies claim that Spanish food might just be the best in the world right now.

You will be sure to experience something unique and delicious while learning Spanish, or volunteering on your gap year in Spain.

Spanish cuisine varies throughout the country -- Basque flavors in the northeast, Arabian in the southwest, but it is a valued part of the culture everywhere.

Madrid, a relatively young city in this ancient land, offers a fascinating blend of cuisines and techniques and Barcelona is an exciting laboratory for experimental new-age cooking.

Whether you’re enjoying the heavily Mediterranean flavors of Valencia or hearty meat dishes of La Roja, you will be sure to experience something unique and delicious while learning Spanish, or volunteering on your gap year in Spain.

Thai food, pad thai

Colorful, flavorful, and affordable, Thailand is a classic destination for intrepid, food-loving gap-yearers. Full of opportunities for internships, volunteering, or just interesting travel, it’s impossible to be bored. Or hungry.

While many think of hot curries, there is much more to this careful blend of east and west (like, all 40 of these must-try Bangkok foods!) Often, the heat is tempered with lemongrass and fresh herbs and its cuisine has evolved over time to reflect the coastal culture. To experience true Thai cuisine, try everything from busy restaurants in urban Bangkok to shacks on remote beaches.

If you’re going to make Thailand your home for a period of time, don’t miss out on the open air markets.

For cash-conscious travelers, be sure to enjoy plenty of street food and the friendly atmosphere that goes with it. If you’re going to make Thailand your home for a period of time, don’t miss out on the open air markets (talaats) teaming with colorful fresh fruits, vegetables, fish, and other delicacies. The Damnoen Saduak floating market remains a favorite.

Also, did we mention that you can spend your gap year in Thailand learning how to cook Thai food? For foodies on a gap year looking for adventure, Thailand is a sure thing.

Mexican food, tacos

A gap year in Mexico is bound to be an unforgettable experience. Friendly, welcoming people, vibrant culture, and affordability make this an ideal destination for anyone. The fact that Mexico has some of the best food in the world -- and we don't just mean the burrito-taco-quesadilla cliche of Tex Mex spots throughout the U.S. -- is definitely a bonus.

Increasingly, Mexican cuisine is gaining recognition, escaping the stereotypes associated with the bastardized Mexican food found in many American strip malls. Foodies are discovering rich and layered flavors, excellent use of local ingredients, spice and heat, and a complexity that can elevate the ‘taco.’

Like many food destinations, Mexico has regional specialties and a long and diverse culinary heritage. The Mexican state of Oaxaca, for example, is located in a region known as ‘the land of seven moles’ (a mole being a rich, complex sauce), and a popular spot to try mezcal, chapulines and any number of classically Oaxacan dishes.

The best part about living, working, or traveling throughout Mexico is that it’s all here, from chic restaurants in Mexico City with celebrity chefs to simple but delicious street food.

Furthermore, if you want to learn to make any of the tasty dishes you encounter, Oaxaca City has numerous cooking classes that cater to travelers.

The best part about living, working, or traveling throughout Mexico is that it’s all here, from chic restaurants in Mexico City with celebrity chefs to simple but delicious street food throughout the country. Also, if you DO decide to gap year in Mexico, we recommend grabbing a copy of Eat Your World's guide to food in Oaxaca or Mexico City before you go.

Indian food, tandoori, rice

We all think we know what Indian food is all about, but it would take a lifetime to truly explore and understand the deep complexities of traditional Indian cuisine. As much a way of life as it is an expression of flavor and art, food in India is paramount. Not only that, but it has long attracted backpackers, travelers, and gap-yearers alike with it's myriad of opportunities to explore, volunteer, and learn. That’s why a gap year in India is ideal for any gap-yearer with a culinary heart -- especially vegetarian travelers.

"For [Indians] food is the music inside the body and music is the food inside the heart."

-- Gregory David

There are endless ways to get involved beyond just ordering and eating in India. Here, you can take a cooking class, visit local farms and tea plantations, explore crowded Indian markets full of street food, shop at open air markets, and ask questions -- most people are happy to give a recommendation.

With all there is to see, do, and experience in India, taking in the food scene has to be top of the list. Remember, as Gregory David Roberts wrote about India “for them, food is the music inside the body and music is the food inside the heart.”

French food, pasta, cheese

No list of food destinations is complete without France. It may be relatively expensive for someone on a gap year, but if food is the goal, it’s impossible to miss. Teach English, become an au pair, or learn French -- whatever excuse you need to eat croissants every day!

Food in France is so good because they live it and breathe it. It is such an inherent part of the culture that the French seem a bit perplexed by our obsession with it.

I spent a gap year in France teaching English in an elementary school and can personally attest to how wonderful this country is for a foodie gap year. Furthermore, I learned that the best cooking is in small family-owned restaurants or in the home of good friends. Food in France is so good because they live it and breathe it. It is such an inherent part of the culture that the French seem a bit perplexed by our obsession with it.

Simple, classic dishes made with fresh ingredients are the hallmark of French cuisine. And a healthy dose of butter, of course. So, save your pennies and count Michelin stars if you want, but you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how good the traditional fare at any nice bistro can be.

To truly begin to understand the French culture, take a cooking class, explore beyond the tourist routes, visit markets (and don’t be afraid to practice your French phrases!), and show an interest. Also remember that France is composed of dozens of small regions, each with a culinary identity all its own -- so be sure to travel around while you're there.

You’ll want to try the curry mussels of Charente Maritime, quenelles in Lyon, flambé in Strasbourg, and the best socca in Nice. Learning about French food within French culture is a rich and rewarding experience. And a daily croissant is a must.

Chinese food, noodles

For its wealth of experiences, adventures, cultures, and unusual cuisines, this list would be incomplete without China. Increasingly a destination for globally-minded students and gap-yearers, China offers a myriad of opportunities for study, work, internships, volunteering, and travel. On top of all of that, China also has some of the best, and varied, food in the world.

No matter what one’s taste or gap-year goals, if you’re looking for adventure, both in food and life, you need to be in China.

Diverse regional specialties ensure that the adventurous foodie will never be bored. The major cities, Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, offer excellent restaurants, street food, and snacks galore in Chinese markets.

The true explorer, though, will venture out, chopsticks in hand, and discover new gastronomical landscapes. Chengdu, for example, is a UNESCO City of Gastronomy (there are only a handful worldwide), and Lanzhou is home to one of the most exciting night street markets in China. No matter what one’s taste or gap-year goals, if you’re looking for adventure, both in food and life, you need to be in China.

Hungry For a Foodie Gap Year Yet?

This list is by no means exhaustive, but it contains some of the world’s most cutting-edge culinary destinations that also happen to be excellent gap year destinations.

This is an exciting time in your life. It’s the time to be carefree, to seek adventure, to make new friends, to get lost, to learn a new language, and to fall in love. It’s also the time to eat fried crickets, because I promise, the day will come when you think that’s gross.

Think anything is missing from our list? Tell us in the comments below!
Photo Credits: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 Italy - Pug Girl and Erika Witt | South Africa - Monica Bi | Morocco - Jonl1973, sdostal77, and Antony Stanley | Malaysia - Connie Ma, Basil Strahm and Sham Hardy | Spain - Christian Van Der Henst S., rafa_luque, and Jonathan Pincas | Thailand - Bfishadow, Missbossy, and Jessica Spengler | Mexico - Cloud2013, Neil Conway, and William Neuheisel | India - Liv Unni SØdem, Seemz, and Gustavo Andrade | France - Chris Buecheler, Javier Lastras, and Pug Girl | China - Christopher, and Alpha
Kate Evans

Kate Evans is a freelance writer currently based in San Jose, California. She has a BA with Honors from Davidson College and has studied, lived, traveled, and worked throughout Europe and Africa. Published internationally, travel is her favorite pastime and writing subject. Follow her on Google+ or on Kate Evan's website.