A solo meal in Tokyo
2018 will mark my twelfth year of solo travel. In that time, I’ve gone all over the world by my lonesome, and I still take great joy in travelling on my own. I’m already planning one or two (or twenty) solo adventures for next year, because solo travel is still one of my very favourite ways to see the world; I believe I learn so much every single time I embark on a trip on my own.
And even though I run this travel blog that purports to (somewhat) focus on solo female travel, the truth is that I often feel like a failure in that regard, because I don’t have that many articles with advice or tips about solo female travel. I’ve always been pretty independent and self-assured – perhaps to the point of arrogance or cockiness, I never can tell – so I don’t have many articles on being nervous to travel solo or any of the anxieties that come with it (but make sure to check out my friend Lauren from Never Ending Footsteps – she often writes about overcoming travel anxiety). After twelve years, like most things would, being on my own is just natural and normal for me. I’ve always been a loner, both at home or when travelling, so to do things on my own doesn’t phase me in the slightest.
I do know, however, that there are some aspects of solo travelling that are especially nerve-wracking to people who perhaps don’t yet have as much experience as I do, and one of those things – something that comes up quite often in emails and messages – is feeling comfortable while eating alone, especially when travelling solo. And yes – walking into a restaurant you’ve never been to before in a place you’ve never been to before surrounded by a language you don’t speak can indeed be a scary experience.
A solo brunch in Copenhagen… this meal was so good that I returned to the same restaurant a year later and at it again… still solo
Here, then are my top tips for feeling comfortable while eating alone when you travel, because I’ll let you in on a little secret: eating on my own while travelling is actually one of my very favourite things to do.
How to Feel Comfortable Eating Alone:
Practice eating on your own before you even travel.
I would say I eat alone 90% of the time, because I’m single, I live alone, I work from home, and, as already mentioned, I really enjoy eating solo at restaurants. Eating alone is just kind of the norm for me, whether at home or in public. I often go out for meals by myself, when I’m either craving something in particular, wanting to get out of the house for a bit, or wanting to try a new place, especially when travelling. The reason I’m so comfortable doing this, however, is because I’ve been doing it for over fifteen years.
If you’re nervous about eating alone while you’re abroad, try doing it at home first. Start small; go to a café you’re familiar with and sit there with a coffee. Build up to lunch on your own, and finally – if you’re up to it – try going out for dinner. Going to places you already know will help ease some of those jitters you might be feeling.
Pizza for one in Nervi, Italy
Research restaurants ahead of time, especially their peak hours.
One of the great pleasures of travelling, whether domestically or internationally, is trying all of that place’s local cuisines! I don’t research that much before a trip – I usually like to keep it spontaneous and/or rely on locals for information and advice when I get there – but I do love to research the food I can look forward to and the best restaurants I can visit. This is especially important if there is one restaurant in particular that you want to check out; not all places can accommodate walk-ins, especially at peak hours. Find out if it’s best to make a reservation.
Ask your hotel/hostel for their best restaurant tips.
I always ask the front desk where the best local restaurant is, and it’s usually been extremely helpful. Make sure to use your judgement, though, and do a little bit of online research of your own!
Solo in Italy (though I joined a food tour this day, which was a fantastic way to meet new people)
Get a little bit dressed up.
I’m not saying you have to wear a ballgown and heels out to dinner every night, but I always find that wearing clothing I feel great in gives me that extra boost of confidence. Regardless of the trip I’m on I’ll always take a few pieces that I can dress up if necessary, especially if I’m staying in a city for a while. Keep in mind some restaurants may have a dress code, and you’ll always want to research what may or may not be appropriate in the country you’re in!
You know what they say – fake it ’til you make it. Hold your head high and act as confidently as you can; remember that, unless you’re in a very isolated place, you are definitely not the first tourist to walk into this restaurant and you won’t be the last. I often tell myself to act more confidently when I travel solo – I almost imagine myself trying on a different personality, one that’s more sophisticated, self-assured, and comfortable – and just thinking about it makes me stand taller and act with more confidence.
Another tip: if I’m feeling a bit nervous about something – let’s say I’m feeling nervous about not speaking the language – I try to remember that, in all likelihood, I will never see any of these people again. In fact, that’s the thought that gets me through a lot of situations when I’m travelling solo and am worried I’m about to make a dumb mistake.
My friend Kate from Adventurous Kate swears by ordering champagne when travelling on her own – any advice that includes drinking champagne is always going to be all right by me!
Solo crepe in Paris
Go as local and as family-run as possible.
This is not only because the food will be that much more authentic – and it will – but because you’re more likely to have a more intimate experience and actually get a chance to chat with the servers and/or the chefs. I find that, when I visit family-run establishments, people tend to have a little bit more personality and are more willing to take the time to help you order and/or give recommendations.
Go at a slightly off-peak time, when the restaurant won’t be as busy.
If you don’t have a reservation, this will help you get a table, and it will also give you a bit of time to chat to the servers as they won’t be as rushed. My suggestion is to go about an hour before it gets overly busy so you can get a bit of special attention but then watch as the real action starts to happen. Once you’re done eating, head the bar for a drink or a coffee!
Learn a few words of the local language.
This always helps, always. It will not only make life easier for you, it will endear you to the local people and show that you have an interest in and a respect for their culture. While standards like hello, thank you, and please are always great, if you’re going to eat out solo I’d recommend bringing along your phone or your guidebook just in case you have trouble translating something on the menu and your server doesn’t speak English. It also helps to know how to explain your allergy or dietary requirement in the local language. And hey, how sophisticated do you feel when you order something in another language?!
If possible, sit at the bar and/or sit somewhere where you can people-watch.
If the restaurant seats people at the bar to eat, it might be a fun way to interact with more people. If you go when it’s not so busy, it’s a great way to chat to the bartenders, who are most likely very used to making small talk and giving recommendations; you might also meet other diners this way. Similarly, I try to sit in the window or on a patio for optimal people-watching.
I deliberately sat solo at this bar in Limerick so that I could talk to other people, and I ended up getting great advice about the city!
Bring along things to keep you busy.
If you’re worried that you’ll feel self-conscious or bored, bring along a few things to keep you entertained while waiting for your food, like a book or a journal. I’ll sometimes write in my journal or look through my photos from the trip on my camera, but I usually spend my time people-watching anyway. I have no problem sitting on a patio and drinking a
glass bottle of wine with nothing but my imagination, but that took some time and some practice (both the being comfortable without a book and also the ability to down an entire bottle of wine in one sitting).
Ask the server what they recommend.
Don’t just order what you recognise on the menu. This is a chance to have a unique experience, one that may become a highlight of your trip, so trying the restaurant’s best or famous dish is part of the fun of eating abroad. This also helps you start talking to your server, which is one of the best things you can do. I always immediately try to make them laugh or engage in a little conversation if we speak a mutual language – something like, “It’s my first time to try this pasta!” or “WOW do I need a glass of wine after climbing all those stairs!” – anything to get talking. I usually ask their name and if they’re from that particular place, too. Do you know how many free desserts I’ve gotten by just
flirting being friendly?!
Oh, and make sure to research beforehand whether or not tipping is expected in the country you’re visiting!
When in doubt, point.
If you see something delicious on a table next to you, there ain’t no shame in pointing to it and asking for your own. Sometimes sign language is the best way to communicate in a foreign country!
Look at this as a fantastic way to experience the local culture on your own terms.
One of the biggest reasons I love solo travel so much is that I can do whatever I want, whenever I want. This means I can eat whatever I want, too. Whenever I’m feeling a bit lonely or nervous about being on my own, I think about how lucky and privileged I am to be travelling and doing this thing that I love. Remember that this is an amazing experience, something that so few people get to do in their lives, and own it!
Go ahead, take photos.
Honestly, nobody cares if people take photos of their food anymore; in fact I’d say most tourists do it now anyway. Just because you’re alone, don’t let that stop you from taking photos of your meal or of the restaurant. Even better, ask someone to take a photo of you – it may seem embarrassing at the time, but it’s super fun to be able to look back at them later.
I did this while alone in Venice; after essentially being dumped by an Italian the DAY BEFORE I WAS MEANT TO FLY THERE TO SEE HIM, I decided to go to Italy anyway and have a great time. I asked for a photo in Venice as a reminder that I don’t need a dude to enjoy Italy (but indulging in Aperol Spritzes is never going to hurt).
And selfies? Why not?! Seriously – nobody’s going to notice or care. I’d personally rather sacrifice five seconds of feeling awkward in order to have a fun photo memory to look back on.
It’s cheesy, but it’s true. Be friendly, polite, and open to chatting to the staff or fellow diners (if you want to, that is!). Around the world, I have found people to be so open and so friendly when I make an effort to smile, chat, and engage. Also – look for the other solo travellers! I’ve made quite a few friends over the years by chatting to someone at the table next to me.
Don’t be ashamed to return to the same spot again.
If you have a delicious meal and a great experience, it’s totally fine to return to the same spot. Just because you’re in a new place doesn’t mean you have to see it all and check off every place in the guidebook; in fact, you’ll probably make even better memories if you return to a place and start to feel like a regular.
I went to Bologna on my own and ended up sharing many meals with many new friends, all of whom I met on a food tour and on Tinder
And finally, always remember: NOBODY IS PITYING YOU.
You know how they make such a big deal about people dining on their own in the movies? Like, the server will be all, “Oh… FOR ONE?!?” with this horrified look on their face? THAT DOESN’T HAPPEN. I have eaten alone thousands of times and NOT ONCE has anyone ever treated me in this way.
Think about it: do YOU actively look at solo diners and think, “Oh wow, how terribly sad. That person must have no friends.” Um, no. IF anyone even pays attention to you – that’s a big IF, because for the most part the majority of people will be in their own little bubble at a restaurant – I highly, highly doubt anyone will pity you, and I guarantee nobody will make fun of you. We’re all so wrapped up in our own lives that we sometimes forget that everyone else is wrapped up in their own.
Think about it: imagine you saw a woman walk into a restaurant on her own. She’s dressed nicely, she’s smiling, and she immediately engages with the server. She sits by the window and pulls out a journal and a camera. She orders a glass of wine in the local language. Do you know what I would think? I’d think, “Damn, who is that amazing woman?!” Trust me, nobody will be pitying you; instead, I like to think most people are going to be like, “Wow, who is that confident, mysterious woman and how can I be her best friend?!”
OK, not solo in Barcelona but I needed a photo to end with
Are you comfortable eating on your own? Would you like to see more articles about solo travel on this blog?