Roll off the overnight ferry from Portsmouth or Poole and into the enchanting Bretagne port city of Saint-Malo, with its walled old town, broad sandy beaches and history of seafaring.
Book a table at Breizh Café, on Rue de l’Orme, a Saint-Malo institution that serves superior crispy pancakes made with golden buckwheat flour. Its sweet and savoury specials tap into the flavours of the season, while the regular menu matches local produce with an occasional nod to global cuisines. It started in Tokyo, when Breton owner Bertrand Larcher opened the first creperie in Japan, then brought the concept home and now has branches all over Paris, too.
Galettes from €8, breizhcafe.com
Rue de l’Orme is also packed with foodie stores, so try Maison du Beurre for top-quality Breton butter in myriad flavours, from yuzu to Madagascan vanilla, as well as a great selection of cheese. There’s a bakery, La Maison du Pain, a few doors up for your baguette. Also try La Maison du Sarrasin opposite for buckwheat in all its guises, as well as salted caramel and bonbons. Wander over to L’Epicerie Roellinger (10-12 Rue Saint-Vincent), a cornucopia of spices, peppers and herbs from around the world, created by top chef Olivier Roellinger and inspired by the town’s links to the spice route.
If all the galettes, crêpes and salted caramels don’t give you a big enough butter hit, then book a table at the Bistrot Autour du Beurre. It belongs to Jean-Yves Bordier, the chef behind Maison du Beurre, and his menus of succulent fish married with fresh local produce weave the butter in gently, with a selection of decadent desserts, such as hazelnut mousse and roasted figs.
Mains from €23 (three-course lunch menu is also €23), lebeurrebordier.com
Saint-Malo’s Plage de la Hoguette is a sweeping fine-sand beach; low tide sees sand yachts darting about, while at high tide the waves beat the mighty sea wall. You can enjoy it all from the sea-view rooms at Les Charmettes, a friendly hotel in two 19th-century villas right on the front. The 16 rooms, eight in each villa, feature bright walls and lively art, and there are triple and quadruple rooms for families. The popular restaurant is set on the ground floor with a large deck at the front and serves a varied menu of salads, surf and turf.
Doubles from €74 room-only, hotel-les-charmettes.com
Just over an hour south of Calais, the little town which inspired some scenes in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables reinvented itself in 2017 as “la destination gastronomique”, with about two dozen foodie businesses joining forces to offer a gourmet hotspot and events throughout the year.
The hottest table in town is the brand-new Grand Place Café from local chef Alexandre Gauthier. His Michelin-starred restaurant La Grenouillère is down the hill in La-Madelaine-sous-Montreuil, while he also has the more casual Froggy’s Tavern and Anecdote to his name in Montreuil. The Grand Place Café brings his flair to local bistro classics, such as Le Welsh (a north-France version of the croque-monsieur, €15) and mussels (€15) in its airy space with exposed brick walls and wooden tables.
After strolling around the ramparts of the town’s mighty Vauban citadel, duck into the cobbled streets that run between the fine-bricked architecture and out into the main square, Place du Général de Gaulle, to pay a visit to the potent Fromagerie Caseus for a huge selection of cheeses, including local delicacies such as mimolette and maroilles. For wine to match, head to La Cave, also in the square, where they’ll kit you out with well-priced vintages to enjoy back at the hotel, and to take home.
Stay on Place du Général de Gaulle and book a table at Le Clos des Capucins, an elegant restaurant with a sunny terrace. Run by ebullient chef Guillaume Duvivier and his wife, Isabelle, their dishes blend top market produce with locally caught fish and seafood, along with classics such as sole meunière.
Mains from €14, on Facebook
Maison 76 is a beautiful four-room B&B set in an old apothecary, complete with a pretty little garden and its own dinky swimming pool. Spend the evening relaxing in the elegant wood-panelled salon, and the breakfast is nothing short of gourmet. It’s run by Tim Matthews, one of the brains behind the Destination Gastronomique enterprise, so he can give you all the insider tips on what to eat and where.
Rooms €175 B&B, maison76.com
French picks by Carolyn Boyd
Ghent is a pioneer in ecotourism, it’s offbeat and fun, but it’s also a great destination for food lovers. As the birthplace of the Flemish Foodies movement, it offers many farm-to-table, local and seasonal dishes, with zero carbon footprint.
Roots is set in a romantic 17th-century cottage where chef Kim Devisschere specialises in the creative use of vegetables and sustainably caught North Sea fish. There are only fixed tasting menus, but you will not be disappointed with dishes such as chunky poached cod with crunchy garden peas, a herring fillet smothered with chives and dunked into a hollowed-out cucumber filled with a tangy mustard sauce, or succulent pork cheeks accompanied by smoked mashed potatoes, topped off with fermented daikon and a plump oyster.
Lunch €35 for three courses, rootsgent.be
Ghent’s reputation as a sustainable destination is symbolised by the Lousberg market (open Mon-Sat), a 20-minute walk from the city centre. It is housed in a luminous former textile factory that is also home to a city dairy, Het Hinkelspel. As well as showcasing the dairy’s organic cheeses, three farms sell their seasonal fruit and vegetables, bakers bring along different kinds of bread, and two cooks, Stephanie and Sofie, run a canteen, preparing main dishes, soups and cakes using market produce.
The speciality shop not to be missed is Tierenteyn, which looks more like an apothecary than a delicatessen. Everyone comes here for its unique mustard, dating back to 1790; the recipe is shrouded in secrecy.
Craft brewery Gruut is housed in an old leather factory filled with copper vats, long wooden tables for beer tasting and comfy leather sofas. The menu is minimalist: Ghent’s most famous recipe, waterzooi (a tasty chicken-and-vegetable stew), beef braised in its own brown ale or vegetarian lasagne. The artisan beers are delicious, brewed from a secret mixture of herbs rather than hops.
Dishes from €17-19, gruut.be
The cosy Restaurant Alix is a popular spot for lunch and dinner, with brunch and picnics served in their townhouse garden. But you can also base yourself here in their comfortable three-room B&B, Chambre d’Amis.
Doubles from €125 room-only, breakfast €15pp, alixtablejardin.be
Antwerp became a global food hub last month when it hosted the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards, dazzling visitors with a dining scene that ranges from innovative Michelin-star restaurants to old-fashioned estaminet bars serving traditional recipes such as beef slow-cooked in beer (carbonades Flamandes).
The Butcher’s Son offers the total Antwerp foodie experience: with an open kitchen and communal tables, it serves classics such as a huge entrecôte steak, béarnaise sauce and frites, or the best “vol-au-vent” (€33) you have tasted, bursting with creamy veal sweetbreads. It is in the red-brick De Koninck brewery, so you can also enjoy a tour and beer-tasting. Then visit the Van Tricht cheese refiners and an artisan chocolate maker, all in the same 19th-century building.
Mains from €32, butchersson.be
After a walk through the botanical gardens, plunge into the teeming stalls and crowds that pack Antwerp’s outdoor Exotic Market every Saturday (23 Meistraat). The square historically hosted the city’s vegetable market, and today it’s known for its multicultural mix of products: Moroccan spices and harissa paste, Tunisian olives and dates, Turkish dried apricots. But it’s also the place to pick up organic fruit and vegetables produced on surrounding farms, surprising Flemish cheeses, many, such as Westmalle, aged with a local Abbey-brewed beer, freshly caught shrimp, and tasty maatjes soused herrings.
On the square you can also discover local wines at Belgian Wine Bar (their Entre-deux-Monts bubbly is excellent), vegan ice-creams at Icelab, or delicious cheese and shrimp croquettes sold in the unmissable Faro, a red-and-white-striped street-food lighthouse.
Invincible may be closed on Saturday and Sunday but weekend visitrs can still kick off in style by reserving a Friday-night slot at this local favourite. A three-course meal comprises creative dishes mixing classic Flemish ingredients, such as sautéed crunchy brussels sprouts with intense bone marrow, or pairing flaky line-fished hake with the salty sea vegetable salicorne. Owner Kenny Burssens is host, chef and sommelier, making everyone feel at home. Try to bag a seat at the kitchen bar to get the whole Invincible experience.
Meals from €39, invincible.be
The modern design hotel Tryp by Wyndham’s rates are good value. It’s located in a residential art nouveau neighbourhood, 10 minutes’ walk from Centraal station.
Doubles from €62, trypantwerp.com
Belgian picks by John Brunton
One of the world’s top gastronomic destinations, San Sebastián glitters with Michelin stars. But don’t worry if your budget won’t stretch to a string of fancy tasting menus – the quality filters down to more workaday bars and restaurants in this gorgeous seaside city, where strolling, surfing and shopping will help build up an appetite between lunch and dinner.
Eating at Casa Urola in the old town is a terrific way to kick off a gastronomic weekend. Whether you go for pintxos (tapas) in the bar or a proper meal in the restaurant upstairs, you’ll want to return. It’s all about the best local produce – off the scale in this part of Spain – prepared in seemingly simple yet ingenious ways by chef Pablo Loureiro Rodil. Try the delicate kokotxas (hake necks), the artichokes and cardoons on ajoblanco (a smooth almond and garlic emulsion), the lobster salad and any mushroom dish on the menu when they are in season.
€60 a head or more in the restaurant (about half of that being for pintxos), casaurolajatetxea.es
You could spend all morning mooching around the magnificent La Bretxa market, but if you have left your gourmet gift shopping until the last minute – which is quite likely with all the tempting distractions – save yourself time by popping into Zapore Jai in Parte Vieja for carved-to-order ibérico ham, artisan Basque country cheeses, and wine, oils and vinegars from all over Spain. Behind the counter, Sylvain Foucaud and Aurkene Etxaniz Ituarte are more than happy to offer advice on local specialities and will pack it all up nicely for transporting home.
While there is more than enough to keep gastronomes amused in Parte Vieja forever, there are a few other neighbourhoods worth venturing into. Gros, just across the river, is another foodie paradise, particularly for cool, contemporary places to eat. At Galerna Jan Edan, Jorge Asenjo and Rebeka Barainka are only just in their 30s but already have a lot of fans in gourmet circles in Spain. Working with small local producers, they create intriguing menus that always feature oysters. This winter, dishes include red tuna with aguachile (shrimp ceviche), wasabi and pickles, and organic chicken with mushroom ragout.
Tasting menu €82,galernajanedan.com
On an elegant square in the town centre, Room Mate Gorka delivers oodles of style without the designer price tag. It’s walking distance from the restaurants, shops and beach, and has a smart bar for cocktails.
Doubles from €123 room-only, room-matehotels.com
Elegant Santander is one of those places where people live – and eat – very well, day in day out, but don’t make a massive song and dance about it. Superb local produce (meat and cheese as well as seafood), spectacular beaches and a dynamic cultural scene make the Cantabrian capital a clever choice for a city break.
It may look like a bright-and-breezy gastrobar but Vermutería Solórzano was actually founded 80 years ago and is a Santander institution. Ask the barman to recommend a vermouth (from a list of more than 100) to sip while you have a look at the menu, then pick a few things to share to get a flavour of the traditional dishes of northern Spain. Rabas – strips of super fresh squid in batter – are the quintessential tapa here, so start with those. Order the Santoña anchovies with peppers grown in Isla, a few miles along the coast, too, as well as the pastel de cabracho, scorpionfish terrine (a lot better than it sounds). And leave room for the homemade cheesecake.
Around €25pp, on Facebook
The iron-and-glass Mercado de la Esperanza has been Santander’s main market for more than a century. Most of the dazzling array of fish on sale downstairs has been landed earlier in the day at the wholesale market on the quayside, while upstairs you can buy fabulous cheeses produced in Cantabria, such as the punchy blue picón bejes-tresviso or the creamy gomber from the Cabuérniga valley. Pretty cans and jars of the excellent bonito del norte (albacore tuna) make great gifts. For the full experience, grab a stool at the bar for a quick beer and a few tapas.
For the best contemporary Cantabrian cuisine and an idea of what life in Santander is all about, book ahead at Cañadío – or just snag a space in the tapas bar or on the terrace. One of its specialities is hake, maybe in tempura batter with a mild allioli sauce, or with salsa verde and clams. There are superb steaks and the oxtail with lamb sweetbreads is also popular. And its rice pudding and homemade ice-cream with liébana cheese make dessert a memorable part of the meal.
About €50pp, restaurantecanadio.com
Overlooking the marina, Vincci Puertochico offers the full-on seaside vibe with wonderful views across the bay. Beaches are a stroll away along the promenade, and the streets behind the hotel are lined with bars and restaurants.
Doubles from €99 room-only, vinccipuertochico.com Spanish picks by Annie Bennett