I’m an advocate for solo travel. I built up to going overseas alone by moving in ever-widening circles away from home. Prior to that, all my travels were with family members, friends, or a partner. But once I tasted the freedom and joys of solo travel, there was no turning back.
Traveling solo gives you the satisfaction of planning your own itinerary and fully engaging in your unique interests. There’s a sense of pride and accomplishment in pulling off a successful trip and opening yourself up to the world. And even when things go wrong, there’s a feeling of empowerment in conquering a difficult situation. There’s only one downside to solo travel: Dining alone can feel uncomfortable -- if you let it.
I’ve met a number of solo travelers who share this sentiment. But we shouldn’t feel this way. There’s no stigma attached to solo dining except the one we conjure up in our own minds. In Japan and South Korea, solo dining is commonplace. In Canada, there’s been a 75 percent increase in solo bookings since 2017, while in the United States, solo dining has risen 35 percent in the last five years.
So let’s allay the fears. Chances are if someone gives you a second glance when you are dining solo, they are not being critical, but rather looking at you with respect and envy. You are doing what they dare not. When they notice that you are comfortable dining by yourself and see that you can look them in the eye and smile, they realize that you are the one racking up a lifetime of experiences. Conversely, they are the ones in the unenviable position, since they have to wait for somebody else before they can go out for a meal, never mind a vacation. You, on the other hand, are on the move.
The joys of dining solo while traveling struck me some 20 years ago. I was out with friends in my hometown enjoying high tea at the Hotel Windsor, a Melbourne institution for high tea in a lavishly furnished lounge.
An American woman was seated near us. She told us how she had arrived on the luxury liner Queen Mary 2 that morning. She’d stepped ashore, hailed a taxi, and here she was. She wasn't the kind of traveler to be restricted to a regimented shore excursion. We became so engrossed in conversation that we merged tables. I still have a photo of this admirable role model. She is seated between my best friend and my daughter, who was 10 at the time. The image reminds me -- and hopefully my daughter as well -- that the prospect of dining solo should never deter a woman from experiencing the best of what each port of call has to offer.
Since that inspiring encounter, I have grazed my way across continents, mostly solo. I’ve learned a few lessons along the way to maximize the joys of solo dining and minimize the discomforts.
1. Avoid Becoming Ravenous
Positive solo dining experiences are about enjoying a country’s unique food and the way it differs from your normal fare. If you carry light snacks, you’ll avoid becoming so ravenous that you end up ordering Westernized room service or ducking into a convenient but lackluster nearby restaurant. These kinds of options will rarely offer memorable travel moments.
2. Eat At Hotels Other Than Your Own
Hotels are comfortable dining spaces for solo travelers, since they already cater to solo business travelers. But don’t restrict yourself to eating where you stay. Venture forth!
I’m passionate about exploring both historic and trendy hotels, and this can easily be accomplished by having meals there. In Egypt, I ate at the Old Cataract Hotel looking out over the grand sweep of the Nile and thinking about how Agatha Christie wrote chapters of Death on the Nile there in the 1930s. I don’t remember how much the meal cost, but I do remember the experience.
3. Research Solo Hot Spots
When looking for local restaurants, type solo dining near me into your search bar. This will pull up a list of nearby restaurants that cater to solo diners. More importantly, it will list restaurants where solo diners have mentioned having positive experiences.
4. Choose Your Seat
Sitting at communal tables provides a chance to chat. Bar seating might result in sitting next to another solo traveler or a convivial couple who might welcome an exchange with someone outside their bubble. Bartenders are invariably personable. My least favorite place to sit is in the middle of a noisy room if I am the lone solo diner in a sea of groups.
5. Be Assertive
There are times when you’ll wish to experience the local food, recover from a busy day of sightseeing, and do some planning for the next day. In that case, don’t let staff lead you to bar seating. Ask for a quiet table or booth on the edge of a room.
Being pleasantly assertive when you first enter sets ground rules. Solo diners don’t always get the best service. I’d never click or holler for a waiter who is slow to take my order because they’re being more attentive to larger groups, but I would get up and take my business elsewhere. And I’d write the one-star review that good companies dread but also heed. For me, it's about paving the way for other solo travelers.
6. Banish Boredom
Most solo travelers don’t get bored with their own company, or they wouldn’t travel solo. But sometimes the wait between courses or for a check can become tedious.
Again, it's all about seating. A Parisian sidewalk table means you can sip wine and watch well-dressed women catwalk past. Balconies or patios can offer scenery to soothe the soul. You can whisk me back to the Terrace Coffee House & Restaurant overlooking Coniston Water and the sublime scenery of the Lake District any day.
7. Reconsider Technology
When my son was backpacking in Europe, he would FaceTime us on the few occasions he was eating more than a kebab and was eating alone. It’s an option. But technology also alienates us from our surroundings and stops us from being mindful of and open to others. Take out a device, and you put up a wall that stops anyone from speaking to you. Better options might be journaling, reading a book, or browsing the local paper.
That said, I must admit that I’m one of those annoying people who Instagrams a beautifully presented meal -- except I’m not keeping anyone from eating except myself. Dinner for one, indeed! I could be sharing my meal with up to 4,000 followers. And to paraphrase Anais Nin: “We photograph food to taste it twice -- in the moment and in retrospect.”
8. Consider Alternatives To Restaurants
I don’t self-cater when traveling -- I do enough cooking at home -- but I do forage for interesting local foods in markets and supermarkets. In Paris, you can buy wonderful cheeses and a baguette and eat them on your balcony overlooking the city. Food trucks can be a great way to try out popular local dishes in relaxed settings.
In Victoria, British Columbia, the owner of my accommodation in the Janion recommended I grab takeout at least one night and eat it on the rooftop patio. “You’ll meet travelers from around the world,” he said. And I did.
9. Lunch Is The New Dinner
Lots of people eat out solo at lunchtime, and restaurants tend to be cheaper then, so make lunch your main meal. You can tie this meal to attractions you’re visiting. Lunch at a place like The Morris Room at London’s V&A or The Wright at New York City’s Guggenheim is a memorable experience, not just a meal.
10. Don’t Miss Out
Every city has an iconic establishment or a celebrity chef's restaurant that tourists desperately want to eat at. Traveling solo should not prevent you from adding this experience to your treasure trove of memories. Sure, the place will be busy, but you can time your visit carefully to dine earlier or later than the crowds.
I have fond memories of eating at Rick Stein’s Fish in Falmouth, Cornwall. It was 3:30 p.m. I had the place to myself and a scenic view of the masts of old sailing ships encircled by a drift of snowflakes. Snow is a novelty for an Aussie!
11. Break The Dry Spells
Traveling for months on end can result in long stretches of eating alone. Someone could probably write a book on it: The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Diner.
To avoid such dry spells, incorporate social dining experiences into your itinerary. Major cities usually offer food tours or cooking classes with a shared meal at the end. Chef’s tables, where chefs share their best dishes and cooking tips at communal tables, are a growing trend.
Consider Airbnb Experiences in which locals cook their national dishes for tourists. Eatwith runs events where you dine with other tourists at venues like supper clubs in London or canal houses in Amsterdam. Culinary Backstreets offers discovery tours covering local food traditions in more than 30 cities, including Mexico City and Lisbon.
So, put on your best dress and step out for a meal you will remember for the rest of your life. You can do this!