Part of travel is embracing the habits and traditions of another culture. No matter the sights you see, you’ll need to know how to navigate Europe from a culinary perspective. Each nation has particulars when it comes to cuisine, but Europe as a whole has certain culinary quirks.
In this article, we will explain the particulars behind breakfast in Europe. This includes timing and content, as well as general etiquette.
When is breakfast served in Europe?
One way in which breakfast for many will be familiar is the time it is served. Breakfast in Europe is usually served between 07:00 AM and 09:30 AM You may want to check specific serving times if you’re staying at a hotel or bed and breakfast. Otherwise, this is the time when most restaurants and cafes will serve breakfast.
At 10:00 AM, brunch service begins. This is a heartier meal, halfway between breakfast and lunch. However, if you want to eat early, you may have a light or heavy meal. The exact serving time largely comes down to where you are receiving your breakfast and where in the continent you are.
What can I expect from a European breakfast?
The type of breakfast you receive largely depends on cultural norms. Southern and Western Europe tend to provide lighter, “continental” breakfasts. These are the norm in France, Spain, and Portugal.
If you want a more extravagant morning meal, we suggest looking toward northern Europe, especially the Scandinavian nations. These are often more calorie-dense and flavour-dense meals.
Eastern European breakfasts are a middle ground between the two. The options are more varied than continental breakfasts but less expansive than northern European breakfasts. Regardless, the below are crucial to most breakfasts you’ll encounter.
The day you eat breakfast also alters what kind of meal you receive. In many cases, weekday breakfasts are lighter and simpler. This is so those getting to work, or travelling can do so unrestrained. The weekends are when many of the richer buffets are produced.
The first standard across all European countries is the presence of pastries at breakfast. They may be sweet or savory, though sweet pastries are more common. Each national cuisine highlights particular pastries.
In many places, croissants are served. You may also have the opportunity to savor a Cornetto, an Italian version of the croissant. These are often stuffed with fillings, adding to the taste and texture.
Waffles are also a staple of many breakfasts. Belgian waffles readily take additions to dress them up for a truly Belgian culinary experience.
Porridge or cereal
Cereal and porridge are common in Europe, though they usually look quite different from cereals elsewhere. European cereals are usually plain staples rather than sweet. Granola, cornflakes, muesli, and oats are some of the preferred cereals and grains for porridge.
The biggest difference between the process of eating these in Europe is what you put into them. Many times, milk isn’t used for cereal. Instead, many eat them plain or spread yoghurt over them. This creates a thicker, more nutritionally rich meal.
Cereal isn’t necessarily the focal point of a European breakfast, but it is especially popular for weekday breakfasts. This is because it’s easy and simple to both prepare and eat.
Bread is a universal constant across Europe. However, national preference may vary by area. The choice of bread is often plain and simple, the type of loaf easily gotten at a bakery.
This may mean white bread or rye, with plain loaves or loaves with fruits and other details added. Rye bread is especially popular within Scandinavian and Baltic nations. Depending on the breakfast, flatbreads may also be available, with toppings to match local produce.
The options you have to pair bread with are also varied. Olive oil, jam, butter, and cheese are all common options for spreading or dipping your bread.
Meat and cheese
The type of meats you encounter varies based on the area. In many countries, cold cuts and cheeses often complement the pastries and other items in the dish. Some nations even serve pate as a regular accompaniment, and it makes a spreadable addition to your plate.
Other types of breakfast meats include blood pudding and sausages. In Poland, kielbasa is an especially popular choice as a breakfast accompaniment. The smoked flavour and density make for a hearty option to begin your day.
For breakfast, many kinds of cheese have mild flavours not to overwhelm the rest of the meal. Jarlsberg, for Norwegian visitors, is one of the most popular breakfast cheeses. It has a distinct yet mild nutty flavour. A creamy texture also makes it easily spreadable on bread and pastries.
In many nations, beans are not necessarily a national staple in the breakfast diet. However, cultural diffusion means many bean-related breakfasts are available, especially in metropolitan areas. Take, for instance, Shakshuka, a North African dish in which beans are sometimes added.
Beans may be had on their own or cooked in a soup or stew. By the numbers, Italy and Spain consume the most legumes of any European nation. Be sure to try local varieties if you have the chance.
Crepes and pancakes
Crepes, pancakes, and assorted creations are a staple across Europe. The specific type you’ll encounter often depends on your area.
In France, you can always start your day with a flavorful crepe. These are often slender and filled or topped with a variety of sweet, fruity, or savoury fillings. The virtues of the Belgian waffle have made it an evergreen breakfast option, as mentioned earlier.
Sveler, which may be found in Norway to the north, is a great crepe alternative. Sveler uses buttermilk in its preparation and is fluffier and thicker than a traditional pancake. Due to their size, Svelers are frequently covered in buttercream, fresh fruit, and other delectable components.
Potatoes are a staple food in daily cuisine in many European countries. Complex potato-based dishes are often for lunchtime or dinner. However, there are still various options to incorporate potatoes into your breakfast.
Potato pancakes, in many places, are a common side dish on breakfast plates. In Western and Southern Europe, look for omelettes that incorporate them.
When travelling through Central Europe, potato-based goulash may also be a popular meal served at various times of the day.
Coffee or tea
One of the most complex topics when discussing European dining is coffee. The health benefits and pleasant taste have made it an essential part of every meal.
Cafe au lait is one of the more popular ways to prepare coffee for breakfast. Coffee is drunk at all hours, though coffee with milk or cream is traditionally common at breakfast. Coffee may be more “dressed up” in the morning, with sweet and creamy additives.
Be aware of local traditions and habits, too. If you order “un café” in France, you will receive a shot of espresso, for instance. Tea is also a popular, potentially caffeinated breakfast option.
What is European breakfast etiquette?
When eating breakfast, the way you eat matters just as much, if not more, than what you eat. In many ways, European breakfast etiquette is similar to North American dining etiquette.
Despite the similarities in dining etiquette, some specific details are distinctively European. We’ll explore these below to help you make the best impression possible.
Keep your elbows off the table
The first essential detail is how you comfort yourself at the table. Your posture should remain straight, and your elbows off the table.
Much of Europe uses what is called Continental European dining etiquette. It is polite to rest your hands on the table during the meal.
Silence is golden, especially when dining in Europe. Feel free to converse politely, but keep the noise to a minimum. At breakfast, everyone is slowly waking up for the day, engendering a peaceful environment.
Wait until everyone is served
It’s polite at breakfast, and all other meals, to wait until others are served. In addition, you should serve others before yourself if that becomes relevant.
There is one exception to this rule, which comes where the temperature is in play. One can, in some situations, politely ask to begin eating if not all food arrives simultaneously. This is exclusively where hot food is concerned, as temperature may impact the quality of the meal.
Don’t call for the waiter
In Europe, it is considered poor form to call for the waiter. This is the case regardless of whether you are seated or trying to pay for your meal. This also extends to noisemaking, non-verbal gestures like snapping.
Make eye contact if you are attempting to get someone's attention to be seated. If you are not greeted, or they are too distant to talk, hold up your fingers to signal party size. Similarly, when paying for the cheque, you will want to draw attention and mime signing it. This is a fairly universal symbol recognisable throughout Europe.
You should be aware of server etiquette as well. In many countries, like Spain, many servers will rarely approach except to bring food and drink. This is to respect guests' privacy and not intrude upon them. In instances like this, the onus is on you to contact your waiter.
Use the proper utensils
It’s important to use the proper table setting, especially in multi-course dining situations. This is as essential an etiquette rule as any and requires you to be able to read European utensil settings.
The knife and fork above your plate are for desserts, should you order them. On either side of your plate, you will see several forks, spoons, and knives. Use your best judgment on which to use for a given dish, starting from the outside and going in.
When you do eat, don’t use your hands. Europeans use their hands to eat less frequently than many international counterparts. In formal and semi-formal settings, even traditional finger foods like burgers are eaten with a knife and fork.
When you use a knife and fork, take note of hands: a fork in the left hand, tines down, and a knife in the right. Only lay both utensils on the same side of your plate when you finish eating. Laying utensils parallel to the same side of your plate is a signal to be done with your present meal.
Bring a gift
Usually, bringing a gift for breakfast is not expected. However, the exception is for dinner, when you should aim to bring a gift with you when invited to someone’s home (sweets or wine are two of the more popular choices for host gifts).
Your gift should reflect both your status and your hosts. The expectations for a 20-something travelling through and meeting a near stranger are different from that of old friends.
You should also keep interests and personal history in mind when choosing a gift. It should ideally reflect either an understanding of your host's interests or a reflection of your personal identity.
Giving something culturally significant can be an endearing way to share a piece of your culture. Alternatively, an interest-based gift shows a fundamental understanding of your host.
Clear your plate with ETIAS
Dining in Europe, especially breakfast, is a wonderful experience. It showcases a different side of life as society moves from inactivity to starting the day. However, breakfast is just a small part of the day and a small part of what to consider when travelling.
Etias.com is positioned as an authority on travel throughout Europe. Starting in 2025, an application is required from residents of certain countries to ensure safe and authorised travel throughout it.
The process is simple and meant to be as expedited as possible. Visit the ETIAS requirements page for more travel advice and to get started on your European travel plans.