I’m pretty sure one of the main things my travel buddies remember about me is that I would drag them around a city looking for the best ice cream.
Ice cream is great. It’s my favorite food
group. Arriving in Italy, where there is a gelato stand on every corner, was paradise. I dutifully accepted the self-appointed task of trying just about every cold, creamy dessert that came my way as I wandered around the continent in order to one day present this very list to the world: the best ice cream in Europe.
It was a delicious challenge and an adventure from which my waistline and my coin purse suffered. After I returned from Europe, I thought I was spoiled for store-bought ice cream forever. (Luckily, that hasn’t proven to be the case.)
I know that gelato and ice cream are technically not the same thing, but for my purposes, I am grouping them together. The requirements for this list are that the ice cream was good enough to be memorable.
Oh my goodness, the food in Italy. Every meal there exceeded my expectations. And the desserts, from cannoli to pastries to gelato, were no exception.
I scoured the internet for “Best Gelato in…” lists in every city we visited. Given that we only had a few days in each place, I sometimes had multiple gelatos per day. Minimal regrets.
There are a couple problems with gelato in Italy. The first is that “Best” lists on the internet tend to direct you to “artisan” or fancy gelato. I am not sure how to distinguish these kinds from any other, except that they taste kind of weird! A friend and I waited in a long line to get gelato from a place in Florence that was top-ranked by numerous blogs and websites. The texture was so strange (gritty?) that I had to get another cone somewhere else to wash the taste away. I’m sure there are many reasons that that gelato was listed as #1, such as how it was made and stored to keep it fresh, but to be honest, I’m not that sophisticated. I just want it to be a great experience for my tastebuds.
The other problem with Italian gelato is that there is simply so much of it. Stopping at a random stand on a random street in Venice or Florence probably won’t get you mouthwateringly wonderful gelato. It will just be regular gelato, which is good—but not memorable. Not the kind you plan the rest of your itinerary around to go back and get more, the kind you think about fondly months later.
Here are the gelatos that did it for me:
Gelateria lo Squero, Venice
Located on an unassuming corner in a quiet neighborhood near the Gallerie dell’Accademia, marked with nothing but a generic-looking awning, this was, hands down, the best ice cream I had my entire time in Europe.
My favorite ice cream flavor is banana, and while sometimes you get that awful, yellow, sweet, banana Laffy Taffy flavor (not usually in gelato—more likely in a milkshake or something), or more often just a medium-strength banana-y taste, this gelato had enough real banana in it that you could tell. Not pieces of banana, just hints of pieces. The flavor and the texture felt homemade (I know because my mother uses a juicer and frozen bananas to make ice cream).
I also got a scoop of berry, which was phenomenal as well, and I heard my classmates expressing how good their flavors were too.
I tried a few of the big-name gelato chains in Italy like Venchi and Grom. Of course they were good, but I wasn’t blown away. Pompi is also a chain—it has a couple different locations around Rome. I went there twice during our time in the city.
The first time, we happened upon it because it was the only place open near Mercato Testaccio, and we’d been wandering around the non-Catholic cemetery all morning. The guy behind the counter offered us samples of a flavor I assume they were trying to promote—something like dark chocolate hazelnut—and I liked it so much I bought a dish of it. It was very creamy and rich with a subtle hazelnut flavor. I knew I needed to have it again, so we stopped at a location near the Spanish steps the next evening and enjoyed our cones on the edge of the fountain in front of the steps. Even my friend who’s not a fan of hazelnut admitted how delicious it was. She commended my patience for resisting all the other gelato shops we passed that day in order to wait for the “perfect” gelato from Pompi.
Il Gelato Mennella, Naples
After Pompi, I was craving more hazelnut, so that’s one of the flavors I chose at Il Gelato Mennella in Naples.
Naples is less of a tourist city than Venice or Rome, so there are fewer gelato shops—it’s closer to the number of ice cream places you would expect to find in a typical city. Mennella is located along one of the main shopping roads, Via Toledo. The shop has a picture of a cow on the awning, suggesting, I assume, that the ingredients of the gelato inside are fresh from local farms (the text on their website states that this is the case).
There was a line at Mennella—it’s a popular place in downtown Naples. We saw people walking around with simply massive amounts of gelato before we went in, so we knew that the portions were generous. As usual, I ordered a larger amount than I probably should have, but I enjoyed every locally sourced bite.
I’m not really sure what Scandinavia is known for, but I don’t think it’s their ice cream. Regardless, we were consistently impressed by the desserts that we discovered in our brief travels through Denmark and Sweden.
Paradis is a chain that has many smaller locations in Copenhagen and a few larger ones. We tried to find a larger one where there would be more of their unique flavor options. All of the flavors are listed on their website, and some of them look really original and interesting. However, the locations we visited all seemed to have similar flavor offerings. I ordered a limited-time-only forest berry flavor, if I recall correctly, and it was very good.
Cafe Järntorget, Stockholm
Cafe Järntorget was on Lonely’s Planets list of restaurants and other eateries in Stockholm. It is located in Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s colorful and strangely Italian/Spanish-vibey Old Town. Since Stockholm is a pretty big city with a lot of outer suburbs, and we were limited to where we could walk, we spent a lot of time exploring the cafes and shops of Gamla Stan.
Some ice cream places are good overall, and some ice cream places have great flavors. Cafe Järntorget was one of these. I had the vanilla pear flavor, for which I did not have especially high hopes, but it actually turned out to be amazing. I’m not sure how the other flavors there compare, but I’m sure they are good as well. Mostly, this cafe has a lot of unique and interesting flavors (Lonely Planet lists lemon licorice and saffron and honey), which are always fun to try. The cafe felt more commercial than some of the other smaller, independent ice cream places mentioned on this list, but it was good nonetheless.
I didn’t get a close-up picture of my vanilla pear ice cream; posing with it in this graffitied alleyway with someone crouching in the background is as close as I got. 😛
The UK likes to put things in their ice cream. Christmas pudding, Cadbury eggs, and so on. I have no problem with this trend at all; the ice cream in England and I got along well. I felt like a regular at the local Shakeaway, where they blend up five (five!!) scoops of vanilla ice cream, whatever dreadfully unhealthy candy mix-ins you choose, and, like, a tablespoon of milk.
I saw fewer actual ice cream places around the UK than in some other places in Europe, maybe because it’s wet and chilly most of the year. But there were lots in the touristy seaside towns. And never fear—in the regular cities and villages you could usually get ice cream with your dessert pudding or on top of your pancakes or waffles at a restaurant.
The Old Mill Museum, Lower Slaughter
This one requires a true pilgrimage. You can’t get to the Cotswolds by train, and honestly I’m pretty sure we trekked through prairie land on foot to reach Lower Slaughter.
If you take the Cotswolds in Spring bus tour by London Walks, the Old Mill Museum is a stop along the way. The ice cream there was very much hyped by our tour guide, and I was not disappointed. The museum has a tea room that looked lovely, though we didn’t have enough time to order anything there. Inside the gift shop, in the back next to the cashier, sits a little cooler with about four flavors of handmade ice cream in it.
The top flavor you see in the picture is salted caramel, which usually isn’t one of my favorites. This one, however, was excellent. The saltiness was just the right amount, and ribbons of caramel were swirled into the base flavor.
Chatsworth House, Bakewell
Last but not least!
Confession time…I love soft-serve ice cream. McDonald’s ice cream? Perfection.
Chatsworth House, a stately manor, now a museum, known for its appearance in one of the Pride and Prejudice films, had what was supposedly Mr. Whippy ice cream in the quick-service snack van just behind the back exit from the house into the gardens. Maybe it was because it was hot out, and I was hungry, but something about this soft-serve ice cream was just right. The perfect sweetness, the perfect density. I’ve tried Mr. Whippy ice cream from other ice cream carts in the UK since then, and they weren’t the same. This one seemed to be filled with less air than the others.
I hope you enjoyed reading about my ice cream journey through Europe as much as I enjoyed experiencing it. After writing all of that, I think I’m going to go have some Ben & Jerry’s. 😉
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