To Truly Understand a Country, Go To the Grocery Store
This is the Travel Take, where Matador’s writers and editors make the case for their favorite travel hacks, tips, and personal tics.
The monuments and sights that make a place famous aren’t necessarily the best way to understand the people who live there. Yeah, Rome’s Colosseum is an important piece of history, but you’re not going to find insight into modern Italian life among the crowds of tour groups. Same for American culture while standing in front of Mount Rushmore. If you really want to learn about a place and its people, skip the tourist attractions and go to the grocery store.
Whenever I travel to a new city, state, or country, I make time to pop into the nearest grocery store. Sometimes I’m staying at a hotel or Airbnb with a kitchen, other times I have no place to cook. Regardless, there’s always something new I can find to eat on the go at the local grocery store. Strolling through a supermarket can give you a sense of the value the community puts on cooking, as well as some sense of what ingredients are most important. Fruit and vegetable sections are like exploring the flora of a region, while butcher and fish counters show different cuts of the fauna. The international aisles are just as insightful as the rest of the store, shedding light on how foods that may be familiar to me back home are seen in an entirely different context.
Where I often tend to linger most, however, is by the junk food. Chips can be found everywhere, but the flavors are regional. Anchovy and olive oil in coastal Spain, poulet (chicken) in France. Don’t limit yourself to just going to grocery stores when abroad, either, as it can be just as interesting in a new city or state. Case in point: Chili Limon Lays I ate religiously growing up in California that I haven’t been able to find in any other state I’ve lived in or visited.
While tastes and smells are obviously the main attraction, learning about regional customs comes with the territory. While solo strolling the wine aisle on a recent night in Cognac, France, I made my pick of a local wine that was cheap as Barefoot wine without tasting cheap. It was even labeled organic. I grabbed an obligatory baguette and paid at the counter. The cashier stared at me and said something that my very limited French didn’t understand. After a growing line of people and plenty of back and forth, I got it: I can buy wine early on a Sunday afternoon, but I couldn’t leave without putting it in a bag, which the grocery store did not provide (I lucked out that it was January, and the pea coat I was wearing had pockets just large enough for a wine bottle).
Grocery stores are an adventure of your own making. There’s just one rule to follow: Don’t take the word grocery store too literally. Convenience store: good, especially for junk food lovers. Food market: great no matter who you are. I’ve eaten some of the best locally grown autumn produce I’ve ever seen at Montreal’s Jean-Talon market, and did a whole impromptu spice tasting with a shop owner at Marseilles’ Marche de Noailles.
Markets and food halls like those aren’t in every city, but small and large joys can also be found in chain grocery stores as well.
These days, travelers crave hyper-local experiences — especially when it comes to food, exemplified by the sudden obsession with street food. Too often that means taking a tour with the word “authentic” in the description. Yet there’s nothing more real than interacting with locals in a place used daily by locals. Do not, by any means, treat grocery stores like a museum or harass people just trying to do their daily shopping. There’s no need for grocery store-focused travel influencers. Do, by all means, go for the local flavors you won’t find at your typical tourist attraction.