Cultural Immersion When you Travel

Museums, landmarks and tours are only part of the travel experience. Just as important, some would say more important, are the experiences you have and what you learn from the destinations you visit. Getting off of the tourist map and learning to peel back the sightseeing veneer isn’t always easy, but here are some of my favorite ways to learn more about the real cultures of the places I visit.

Grocery stores
Different from a market experience, grocery stores are a fantastic way to gaze into the stomach of a new country. I first started visiting supermarkets as a way to save money on sodas, water and snacks. It became quickly apparent though that the visit was about much more than just saving money. While perusing a store on the outskirts of Madrid last year, I noticed something odd. There wasn’t just a nice selection of olive oil, there was an entire olive oil section. Hundreds of different kinds lining at least two rows in the huge store. Obviously the Spanish mean business when it comes to good oil. Another favorite are potato chip flavors from around the world. Last year Gary Arndt started a drive to collect as many examples of Pringles flavors as possible, and the results are hilarious. My personal favorite, but not to eat, is the soft-shelled crab flavor from Indonesia. Many groceries are pretty generic, but there are always regional oddities that pop out and reveal a lot about the area.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Pikaluk
I don’t care what anyone says, there is always down time on a trip when you need to sit back and reenergize. Personally, if the jetlag is severe I find myself taking afternoon naps. (ok, not an entirely uncommon occurrence for me) During this much needed rest period, I usually turn on the TV in the hotel room not just for CNN International and the latest from Richard Quest, but to see what the local area has programmed for my viewing pleasure. Even if I can’t understand the language, I oftentimes find myself mesmerized by glitzy game shows or bizarre interview programs. My favorite TV travel moment is from London, where we spent some time during the NFL playoffs. My partner is a huge football fan and was desperate to find out who had won the games. I couldn’t get the internet to work, so we were stuck with trying to find something, anything on TV that would have the winners and losers. We thought we were in luck when we found an international sports program that covered everything from Pakistani cricket to endless rugby matches. We sat, somewhat impatiently, only to find that they decided to rattle off some cricket scores before returning to live coverage of a snooker tournament. Cricket and snooker, two “sports” that have as much global interest as a quilt making competition were headlined and not even a mention of American football. We went to bed clueless about the scores at home, but had become experts in the finer points of snooker strategy.

Fast Food Restaurants

This is a sensitive subject for travelers, but no matter what anyone says I guarantee that most people have fast food at least once while on a trip. The culinary aspect to travel is one of the most important, and you should absolutely sample the best the region has to offer. But, venturing into the familiar yet oddly alien world of fast food restaurants overseas can be a great experience. While most outlets, such as McDonalds and KFC, have similar offerings, they also have unique, regional specialties. In France you can get McBier and in Austria McDonalds has a great variant on the region’s famous fried Emmentaler appetizer. My favorite though wasn’t a menu item, it was the Ronald McDonald symbol itself which, in Thailand, is shown in the traditional Thai position of hands clasped together.

I am an unrepentant, dyed in the wool bibliophile. In high school I even worked in a bookstore so I could better afford my book buying habit. No matter where we go, we almost always saunter through a bookstore at least once, marveling at the titles and interest areas on display. One of my favorite literary cities is Singapore and the bookstore I visited near Orchard Road was very similar to an American style Borders or Barnes and Noble with the sprawling layout, multimedia section and of course coffee shop. The differences lie in the popular books. There were some international favorites, but many regional ones as well. It was in Singapore where I bought both Lee Kuan Yew’s autobiography as well as an intense portrait of the Thai monarchy. My favorite find though was a collection of short stories by Neal Humphreys, a Singaporean humorist. Singapore is a different place and his ability to point out its eccentricities poignantly and with a sharp wit is a literary tightrope he balances well.

There are many ways to get under the skin of a place, to learn more about the people and culture that no museum or landmark can provide. What are your favorite ways to better understand a new culture and region?

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

11 thoughts on “Cultural Immersion When you Travel”

  1. Nice post. These are all great ways of going beneath the surface of a culture. Funny, I try to avoid fast food as much as possible, but agree it’s a great way to learn about a country. For instance, no beef but numerous veggie options at McDonald’s in India! Great pic, by the way, of the Thai version of Ronald McDonald. ;-)

  2. Wifey of a Roadie

    I agree much with this article. I watched Greek television on Santorini and learned a lot about Greek cooking even though it was all in Greek LOL. I grabbed inexpensive meals at grocery stores in London and headed to the parks and when I was in Paris and Rome, I always found a McDonalds — if anything because I knew they had a decent restroom!

    Wifey of a Roadie -Out!

  3. Wifey of a Roadie

    Hey Bob,
    Thanks for the info about the McDonald’s in India! Definitely won’t pass one up there whenever I go.

    Wifey of a Roadie – Out!

  4. The TV argument is one that often surprises me. What’s wrong with watching the news when you travel? Oftentimes local cable will carry one English-language channel and it’s a good way to stay updated when you’re on the road. I don’t think it makes me less of a traveler because I want to catch a broadcast in English, and as you’ve said sometimes you just want to relax and feel (for a moment or two) like you’re in a familiar place.

    I’ve actually never had Western fast food on my travels, but that’s partly because I have celiac and can’t do bread. There are certainly fun cultural quirks in each country’s chain, and as you’ve noted, the Ronald McDonald ‘wai’s’ at you outside the resto to say hello. There is also a “KFG Fried Chicken” street cart here in Chiang Mai, but somehow I don’t think KFC endorsed that ;)

    For getting under the skin of a place, my go-to pick is morning food markets. There’s nothing like the chaos and bustle of locals buying their food for the day or week, and no matter where I’ve been (South America, Asia or otherwise) it’s an excellent introduction to social interaction and of course to great food!

  5. >>>Cricket and snooker, two “sports” that have as much global interest as a quilt making competition…

    I just bumped into your site. I haven’t gone through it any great detail yet. Have you visited India/South Asia? Cricket is larger than life here. Billion+ people live and breathe cricket here. Spend a week here and you will realise that cricket is tad more important than Quilt Making competition :)

    Great post. Sorry to nitpick :).

    1. haha, no worries, and the popularity of cricket has been brought to my attention on Twitter. Maybe I should add a footnote. :)

  6. I LOVE nosing around supermarkets when I’m in a new place. In Turkey they have an entire ‘white cheese’ section in most supermarkets, with all the different types of (what most people would call) feta. I lived there long enough to develop a favourite too! ;o)

  7. Hi Matt. I do several things – going to grocery stores and bookstores, mentioned here by you, is a must. I also like hanging out at a cafe or pub and reading, talking, observing the environment, reading a local weekly. That’s a really great way to absorb the essence of a place. Let me also throw in using public transportation and going to sporting events, and my list is pretty complete.

    If you care to read my piece on the subject, here it is:


    P.S. In Ukraine and Russia I stumbled upon great local fast foods that had surprisingly good, local dishes (e.g. dumplings in St. Peteresburg). Fast food can have many faces. :)

  8. I just found this post via Twitter, and like you I like to watch TV and eat at fast food joints every now and then while travelling because it gives you such a sense of the place Game shows in Japan are so bizarre that they make for great viewing, and the recent coverage of the Olympics here is Sweden was very much focused on the handball and sailing (i.e the sports that Sweden does well in). I watched Andy Murray win his gold medal in Tennis but then was sad that they cut away right at the end of the match so I didn’t see him receive the medal :-(

    Your story about London really made me smile as Cricket is HUGE in the UK (probably because it’s one of the sports we’re actually good at!) and snooker is pretty big too. Don’t ask me why because I think they’re both boring. But I have never seen American football mentioned in the news/sports shows etc… as we have our own Football and Rugby leagues which many Brits are die-hard fans of. Again, don’t ask me why – the only sport I like is Tennis. I would actually even go as far to say that, unless you speak to a huge general sports fan, many Brits would not even know what the Superbowl is.

    Fast food joints are also really interesting places. In McDonald’s in Tokyo slim, pretty women pick at salad and drink water, in India there’s no beef on the menu, and in Sweden McDonald’s is the main hangout for scary looking punk rock/goth teenagers :-)

  9. Enjoyed your list and the rationale behind each choice. We’re expats living in the Netherlands and lifelong travelers. Sometimes we stay in apartments, so love to see what’s in a local grocery store while picking up breakfast items, beverages, etc. In Istanbul we found a little store that sold wine (harder to find than you think in the neighborhood we were in) AND willing to uncork it for us as the travel corkscrew was misplaced. Our stopping in almost daily to also pick up fruit and water let him know that we appreciated his service. Another place for your list is the local big department store; of course we scour small shops and markets, but the department store gives you a slightly different insight into the culture, too.

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