In July, my husband and I took our two kids (both under the age of 3) to Europe. No, we are not insane, and yes, we actually did have a marvelous time.

One of my favorite things about traveling is getting to know the city or town that we’re staying in. Sure, going to museums is nice (as long as they’re children’s museums, or at the very least the ultra-valuable items are well-protected from tiny, willful humans who are still in diapers), and checking out the local attractions is always fun. But my favorite way to really get to know the place I’m staying?

By checking out the grocery store.

Over the past few years, when we’ve taken trips we’ve opted for home stays (Airbnb, VRBO, and the like) over hotels, which is great on a lot of levels, but one of the main ones being you don’t need to eat Every. Single. Meal. in a restaurant when you’re on vacation. (On average—and keep in mind that vacation spending can vary wildly—Americans spend $33 per day on food when they’re on vacation, and about 80 percent of that is spent at restaurants. And when you add food and booze together, it accounts for about 27 percent of an American consumer’s budget.) And as an added bonus for yours truly, it means an even bigger excuse for me to prowl the local groceries and markets and see what people who actually live, work, eat, and breathe in that town are buying (or at least offered) to fill their CPG needs. You can tell a lot about a town from what’s on their shelves.

For example, we spent the bulk of our trip staying in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and on one of my trips to a local chain called Mercator, I discovered a bag of kebab-flavored potato chips. (They were, in a word, delicious.) (I also nabbed a bag of BBQ rib-flavored potato chips, which I’m still trying to decide if I liked. I’m leaning toward yes.) What does that show me about Ljubljana? That Slovenians are potato chip connoisseurs, obviously. (Though they rival the Brits, who offer such intriguing flavors like honey roast ham and cranberry and sausage and mustard, both of which I am more than willing to try.)  

Kidding, of course, but it does make for a good tack-on of what I love about touring grocery stores in a new town—seeing how flavor profiles differ from city to city, country to country, continent to continent. When I was in California in the spring, for instance, a friend introduced me to pepperoncini-flavored potato chips, which were heavenly. Sadly, here in the Midwest, I’ve yet to find them. (Another friend said she once spotted them in a Target, but she hasn’t seen them since. Which makes me sad all over again.)

Lest you think I’m alone in my love of touring grocery stores as a way of checking out the vibe of a new town, I’m not. “The secret museum in every city is a grocery store,” declares a recent story in New York Magazine, which goes on to talk about all of the amazing wonder local stores can provide when traveling. 

And writer Camille Poire writes that yes, people travel to escape their daily lives, including tasks like grocery shopping, “But if you approach it with the right amount of curiosity and enthusiasm, the supermarket can turn into a great field of exploration, and (window) shopping in a foreign country becomes an exciting adventure full of insights and discoveries that will inform the rest of your holiday.”

And it doesn’t have to be in a foreign country—it can be simply a city that is new to you, no matter where it’s located. My husband often tells a story of when he attended a conference in Rochester, New York, and he asked his concierge what he should do on a Wednesday night. “That’s easy,” the concierge replied. “You should go to Wegman’s.” (Very smart, that concierge. Every single person I’ve met who has experienced Wegman’s loves it. And having shopped there myself on several occasions, I, too, am a devotee when I am on the east coast, and will make any excuse to stop there. How could you not, when they really emphasize the experience, the “theatricality” of visiting a Wegman’s store?)

I do have one regret from our European vacation involving grocery stores: I never got a chance to shop at a Hofer (the Slovenian name for what we call Aldi in the U.S.). As a huge Aldi fan, I can’t believe I never added this to the itinerary, in between the Lipizzaner horses and the wine country.

Ah well. Guess that just means I have yet another reason to return.

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