There's a moment near the beginning of almost every trip when you hang briefly between wanting to fall madly in love with the place you have arrived at and not knowing exactly why you came.
That's the moment to head out for groceries. Find a market, bodega, bakery or food shop of some kind. Any kind.
Food is the one factor that crosses all cultural lines: We all have to eat. And drink. Here's why spending time shopping for food should always be part of your travel plans.
1. You get an understanding of the food.
Walking the aisles of a market connects you to the food of your destination. You can see at a glance what is fresh and what is canned. Low prices and abundant quantities reflect goods that are produced locally. Conversely, high prices and small quantities show you what is likely imported from distant lands, either as special treats for residents, or perhaps to cater to visitors like yourself.
2. It connects you to the people.
Besides ogling the food, walking through markets lets you rub shoulders (often literally) with locals.
Imagine yourself back home at the store, kids in tow, filling your basket before you dash home to prepare dinner. Look around you in the market: It's the same everywhere you travel. That's a connection you can't get very often during your travels.
3. It elevates the senses.
To fully experience a place, all your senses need to be engaged. Food markets fit the bill perfectly with aromas of food both raw and cooked, the colors of the produce and the sounds of people chatting with neighbors or haggling over prices.
4. It's a fun way to learn bits of a new language.
What the heck is inside a package of frozen aardappels? The picture on the package might tell you, or you can ask a clerk or you can buy them and find out.
In any case, you will have learned the Dutch word for potatoes — and it's far more likely to stick with you than if you learned it from a language program.
5. It's fun to compare distant markets with what you have at home.
This can be especially illuminating when you travel within the States. Did you know, for example, that the Wal-Mart in Honolulu shares a three-story building with Sam's Club and that they have a water sports section that is larger than the average sporting goods store elsewhere?
6. It saves you money on meals.
From a practical point of view, the fewer times you eat in restaurants, the more money you will save. Even if your accommodations don't offer the opportunity to cook, picking up basics such as bread, fruit and cheese for picnics can help keep your trip within budget.
7. The beer and wine are cheaper.
On a recent trip to Europe, I enjoyed an excellent bottle of wine in Milan, purchased for 4 euros in a grocery store at the Milano Central train station. Then there were beers purchased from corner markets in Athens, Frankfurt, Murano and Santorini — all for half the price I would have paid at a restaurant or from the room service menu at my hotels.
And I would have missed the experience of shopping for them.
8. There are cheap souvenirs.
Whether it's a tin of sardines from Slovenia or a package of cookies from a Caribbean market, there are things in food markets that are better souvenirs than you will find at the touristy shops. Just like back home, grocery stores usually also have more traditional souvenirs on display, as well, often for far less than on the street.
9. It usually gets you off the tourist track.
Without sounding trite, leaving the touristy areas behind in favor of the kind of neighborhood where you can find groceries is exhilarating, no matter what city you are in. Destinations come to life once you get a few blocks away from the tourist hot spots.
10. It gives you a sense of accomplishment.
Not only did you navigate the neighborhood to find the market, but you found suitable sustenance. You are now officially a hunter-gatherer traveler.