By Jim Ferri
In my many years of travel I’ve found that the two things I enjoy most are being able to observe local cultures, and taste local foods.
I’ve often been able to do both by avoiding restaurants for lunch, and instead having a bite to eat – whether it be a sandwich or something more substantial – at a place where I can observe both the local sights and local people.
Many European cities are great grazing grounds for ad-hoc picnics. The key is to know where to go to make the best of both your culinary and visual experience.
Putting It All Together
The culinary aspect is simple – just find a small food shop in the area where you’ll have your picnic. This is usually much less expensive than dining in a restaurant or café, unless you go really over-the-top with local delicacies. It also gives you more control of your time, something especially important if you’re just in a city for a day or two.
The “where” is the more difficult part, since in an unfamiliar city you usually don’t have a clue as to where to go, especially if you’re on a tight budget or schedule.
While a chair or bench is great to have for a sit-down lunch – and a table is a major plus – there are those times when steps will do just fine.
So the next time you’re in one of the cities listed below, grab your guidebook, map and a good sandwich and set off to explore. Just leave any place you picnic cleaner than when you arrived.
Along the Thames
Between the London Eye and Westminster Bridge you’ll find riverside benches on the bank of the Thames. It’s a great place to relax and enjoy a wonderful view of Big Ben and Parliament across the river. An added bonus is that on weekends the promenade attracts musicians, mimes and other entertainers. On weekends you can also buy your food in the nearby Southbank Centre food market, which offers both street food delicious items. At other times find your sandwich or pasty in shops on local streets.
Jardin du Luxembourg (Luxembourg Garden)
Located in the 6th arrondissement on the Left Bank on Boulevard Saint-Michel, this is a beautiful park complete with a small lake and castle where you can spend hours wandering around before or after lunch. It was created in the early 17th century by Marie de’ Medici, the widow of King Henry IV of France to surround her Luxembourg Castle. Leave the main boulevard and wander up side streets to find a food shop. Nearest Metro stops are Odeon, Mabillon, Saint-Michel, and Cluny.
The Spanish Steps
In the heart of Rome, the Spanish Steps is a wonderful place to picnic. Comleted in 1717, the 135 steps connect the Piazza Trinità dei Monti at the top with the Piazza di Spagna below. It does have its negatives though – there are no chairs so you’ll be sitting on the steps themselves, and it can get exceptionally crowded in the summer tourist season. On the other hand, you’ll be lunching in a traffic-free zone where there are plenty of things to see. Wander the side streets off the adjacent Via del Babuino to find sandwiches or other snacks.
More formally known as Praça de D. Pedro IV, Rossio Square is a large square in the center of Lisbon that is home to the National Theater. It’s a beautiful square with fountains that has been one of the main squares of the city since the Middle Ages. It’s thought that an ancient Roman hippodrome originally stood on the spot. Seating on the square is on large stone blocks about its perimeter. You won’t find any shops to buy food very close by so plan in advance.
Paseo de Recoletos
The main boulevard that cuts across central part of the city, Paseo de Recoletos is a good place to picnic, especially if you’re on your way to the Prado, Museo Thyssen Bornemisza or another great museum in the area. While there are on benches scattered about under the trees here, you’ll find many more (and much better people watching) if you walk north up the boulevard for about 15 minutes.
The Petite Sablon
This is a wonderful place to relax and lunch since its actually a mini-park about a fountain dedicated to two counts who were symbols of resistance against the Spanish tyranny centuries ago. The little park is adjacent to the famous Place du Grand Sablon, where you’ll find many famous chocolate shops, and cafés. The Petite Sablon is also quite near the Royal Museum of Fine Arts and several other interesting museums, as well as the Royal Palace. You can easily spend the entire day in this area.
You don’t find a lot of park benches along the avenues of Amsterdam or even in its parks. Don’t let that deter you, however, since every canal in the city is a ready-made picnic spot. For the best experience and, perhaps mix with the Dutch, you’ll want to get away from the Central Station and Dam area. If you’d rather get away from the canalsaltogether head for the huge green space of the Museumplein, perhaps visiting one of the three major museums after lunch.
St. Stephen’s Green
The 22-acre St. Stephen’s Green, is a beautiful Victorian park right in the middle of Dublin, and the largest. It is a wonderful place to enjoy a break. Since it’s adjacent to Grafton Street, one of Dublin’s main shopping streets, you’ll find numerous shops in the streets surrounding the park. It’s there you can buy sandwiches and other items. Its central location also makes it a good starting point for several non-shopping afternoon excursions.
A Harbor View
Stockholm is known for two things: its spectacular harbor and for being a foodie’s heaven. Combine the two and you’ve got the makings of a great picnic. One of the best laces to enjoy your moveable feast is on Södra Blasieholmskajen on the east side of the harbor near the National Museum (closed until 2017). There are benches along the water there that provide a great view. You can also continue walking across the bridge (Skeppsholmsbron) to the neighboring island for another beautiful view.
The Esplanade and the Harbor
The focal point of Helsinki’s Esplanade, the beautiful boulevard that stretches from the famous Stockmann’s Department store down to the harbor, is the broad gardens in the center of the roadway. The walkway is lined with benches, perfect for picnicking and people-watching. In the famous Market Square on the harbor you’ll find several vendors offering a variety of foods, with seats and tables nearby.
Venice isn’t an easy place to find a picnic spot although you’ll often find benches in some small neighborhood squares off the main arteries. For a great view, on the other hand, take a vaporetto across the Grand Canal to Dorsoduro the home of the Gallerie dell’Accademia and the Peggy Guggenheim Museum. Head to the far end of the island where you can have lunch while enjoying a great view across to St. Mark’s Square. You won’t find many benches here but the view will more than compensate for it.
Rosenborg Castle Gardens
There are plenty of food shops and benches scattered about Copenhagen which provide the makings for a good urban picnic. But for a really interesting picnic venue enjoy your lunch in the beautiful park and gardens around the 17th-century Rosenborg Castle in the middle of the city. You’ll love it.