Rick Steves Is Picky About The Time He Goes To A Restaurant While Traveling. Here's Why

Rick Steves is no stranger to guidebooks. The travel expert has penned dozens of his own, covering the best sights across practically every corner of Europe. But in 2023, he branched out from his typical travel guide format and wrote a book focused entirely on food, entitled "Italy for Food Lovers."

The globetrotter opened up to Eater about the research process involved in the book, which, unsurprisingly, took place right in the boot-shaped country. Steves sampled a variety of foods in preparation for the project, becoming a "cultural chameleon" and accepting whatever dishes the chefs recommended.

However, he didn't just show up to restaurants whenever his schedule allowed — he timed his trips carefully for the most authentic experience. "[T]here's this prime time for researching restaurants because you've got to see them when they're full. If you go at 7:30, a restaurant may be full of tourists, but if you go at 9:30, it's going to be full of locals," he said of Italian eateries. "That's where you get the real energy."

Late dinners are common in destinations like Italy

Rick Steves shared a similar observation about Italian meal times in an article on his website. The avid traveler noted that people in Italy tend to take their time when eating and aren't in a rush to finish each course. "When you enjoy a full-blown Italian dinner, you don't get out until midnight; a three-hour meal is common," Steves added. According to his experiences while traveling, Italians treat evening meals as a special occasion (even if it's one that happens every day) and an opportunity for fun and quality time. Appropriately, servers will encourage diners to continue ordering food and drinks, and they won't offer the bill until it's explicitly requested.

Italy isn't the only country where meals are often late and drawn-out. Other places in the Mediterranean tend to start dinner late in the evening too. Similarly, people in Italy's neighbor to the northwest, France, also commonly serve dinner as late as 9 p.m. or even 10 p.m. in big cities. However, the country considered to have the latest dinnertime in Europe is Spain. If you're visiting the land of tapas and churros, don't sit down for mealtime until 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. if you want to experience the local lifestyle.

If you prefer an early dinner, head north

If you live by the "early to bed and early to rise" rule, dinner at 11 p.m. might not suit your routine. To still eat when the locals do, consider adding a Nordic country to your European travel itinerary. Dinners in Norway are scheduled as early as 4 p.m., and in Sweden, people commonly head to restaurants from 5:30 p.m. Finnish diners follow a similar pattern, eating as early as 5 p.m., though it's common to find restaurants that don't serve dinner until 6 p.m.

Note that these norms don't apply to all parts of the world. Take countries in the Pacific as an example. In Russia, for instance, dinner isn't usually considered the main meal of the day the way it is in places like Italy and usually takes place around 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. This is roughly the same time that many people in Thailand eat, a country much further south.

No matter where your travels take you, get to know the norms and customs of the people living in the destination. Learn about their food rituals and when they tend to gather. Following their lead can expose you to their authentic culture — and you might even make some local friends while munching on pizza and gnocchi.