Breakfast in Europe

English breakfast
Across the British Isles, you'll find a version of the stick-to-your ribs breakfast fry.
Hotel breakfast, Regello, Italy
Italians traditionally start the day with "cappuccino e cornetto" — coffee with frothed milk and a croissant dusted with powdered sugar.
By Rick Steves

Not long ago, I grabbed breakfast at a hotel in southern Spain. The only cereal available was a local version of frosted corn flakes, so I readied myself to enjoy a bowl of my childhood favorite. But my sweet indulgence wasn't what I'd expected: The cereal milk was heated — apparently standard in this part of Spain — and my poor frosted flakes immediately turned to mush. Not so grrrrrrreat.

Soggy flakes or not, I find breakfast to be a fun part of my travel day, especially because the experience varies so much from one country's breakfast table to the next.

The farther north you go in Europe, the heartier the breakfasts. The heaviest is the traditional British "fry." Also known as a "Plate of Cardiac Arrest," the fry is a fundamental part of the bed-and-breakfast experience, and is generally included in your room price. A standard fry comes with cereal or porridge, a fried egg, Canadian-style bacon or sausage (and sometimes mackerel or haggis), a grilled tomato, sautéed mushrooms, baked beans, and fried bread or toast. This protein-stuffed meal can tide me over until dinner. You'll quickly figure out which parts of the fry you like. Your host will likely ask you up front which breakfast items you actually like, rather than serve you the whole shebang and risk having to throw out uneaten food.

The Scandinavian breakfasts buffet is the perennial favorite for the "most food on the table" award. It pays to take advantage of breakfast smorgasbords when you can. For about $20 (a cheap meal in these parts), you can dig into an all-you-can-eat extravaganza of fresh bread, cheeses, yogurt, cereal, boiled eggs, herring, cold cuts, and coffee or tea. In place of cereal and milk, Scandinavians like to pour thick yogurt over their granola.

Throughout the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and most points east of there, expect a more modest buffet — but still plenty of options (rolls, bread, jam, cold cuts, cheeses, fruit, yogurt, and cereal). In these countries, there's a good chance of finding hard-boiled eggs, but scrambled or fried eggs are relatively rare. In Poland, track down jajecznica, the local wake-up call of eggs scrambled with kielbasa sausage, served with a side of potato pancakes. The breakfast of choice in Russia is oladi, pancakes perfectly fried to be crisp on the outside but soft in the middle, then topped with sour cream, honey, or berries.

Germans have an endearing habit of greeting others in the breakfast room with a slow and dour "Morgen" ("Morning" — short for "good morning"), though they have plenty to be happy about. Breakfast is usually included, and offers hearty fuel for the day: ham, eggs, cheese, bread, rolls, and pots of coffee. In Switzerland, don't miss an opportunity to try Bircher Muesli, a healthful mix of oats, nuts, yogurt, and fruit that tastes far more delicious than it looks. If breakfast is optional, take a walk to the nearest bakery — every German, Austrian, and Swiss town has at least a few bakeries offering a world of enticing varieties of bread and pastries, baked fresh every morning.

As you move south and west (France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal), skimpier "continental" breakfasts are the norm. You'll mostly likely get a roll with marmalade or jam, occasionally a slice of ham or cheese, and coffee or tea.

The good news? These little breakfasts compel you to sample regional favorites: In Spain, look for chocolate con churros (fritters served with a thick, warm chocolate drink), pan con tomate (a toasted baguette rubbed with fresh garlic and ripe tomato), or a tortilla española (a hearty slice of potato omelet). Italian breakfasts are particularly tiny, but the delicious red orange juice you get is made from Sicilian blood oranges. And you can buy a delightful toasted sandwich from a corner bar anywhere, anytime in Italy to make up for the minuscule breakfast. In France, locals just grab a warm croissant and coffee on the way to work. Queue up with the French and consider the yummy options: croissants studded with raisins, packed with crushed almonds, or filled with chocolate or cream.

If you expect breakfast to be too sparse, plan ahead to supplement it with a piece of fruit and a wrapped chunk of cheese from a local market. Being a juice man, I keep a liter box of OJ in my room for a morning eye-opener. Coffee drinkers know that breakfast is the only cheap time to caffeinate yourself. Some hotels will serve you a bottomless cup of a rich brew only with breakfast. After that, the cups acquire bottoms and refills will cost you. Juice is generally available at breakfast, but in Mediterranean countries, you have to ask…and you'll probably be charged.

In many countries, breakfast is included in your hotel bill, though if you make prior arrangements with the hotelier, you may be able to skip breakfast and pay a lower price for the room. If breakfast costs extra, it's often optional, and you can usually save money and gain atmosphere by buying coffee and a roll or croissant at the café down the street or by brunching picnic-style in the park. When deciding whether to request breakfast, consider your timing; if you need to get an early start, skip the breakfast — few hotel breakfasts are worth waiting around for.

Come to the European breakfast table with an adventurous spirit. I'm a big-breakfast traditionalist at home, but when I feel the urge for an American breakfast in Europe, I beat it to death with a hard roll.