It’s a McDonald’s World – Why They Matter When You Travel

McDonald's Jordan

Some people get very fussy and pretentious when they travel, particularly when food is involved. I agree that discovering new and interesting experiences, including food, is a huge part of the adventure, but there’s also the very important pop culture element. I love exploring grocery and convenience stores when I travel, but I also make sure to stop by a fast food establishment or two. I don’t do this necessarily to eat, although that’s been known to happen, but I find the differences in regional fast food restaurants fascinating, nowhere more so than at McDonald’s.

McDonald's Paris

McDonald’s has long had a history of adapting its menu to better fit in with local sensibilities, even here in the U.S. Lobster rolls in Maine are a great example of how McDonald’s adapts its menu, but it gets really interesting outside of the United States. I’ve noticed this trend for a long time, ever since my first international trip way back in 1993 when I was a teenager. I remember stopping by a McDonald’s in Paris and being shocked to find beer, McBier to be exact. That created the fascination and since then I’ve really enjoyed finding these regional peculiarities including:

  • In Vienna they serve fried Emmentaler with a nice cranberry sauce.
  • In Paris they have a rich variety of deserts, including macaroons.
  • In Bangkok one can find a chicken and rice bowl, with a corn pie for dessert.

The food isn’t the only difference, the quality of the restaurant is many times different, and almost always better than in the United States. The first time I saw a McCafe was in Singapore in 2007. I was shocked at how nice it was and instantly wondered why they weren’t anywhere to be found in the United States. The McCafe was a refined, comfortable coffee shop attached to the main restaurant. It was packed with people sipping coffee, eating small cakes and working on laptops. McDonald’s had successfully created an alternative to Starbucks.

McDonald's Bangkok

Since then I’ve seen a few McCafes in the U.S., but nowhere to the degree in which they exist overseas. Every McDonald’s I’ve seen outside of the U.S. lately has had a McCafe, adding more dining options and dare I say a touch of elegance.

But why is a stop to a McDonald’s an important tourist experience? For the same reason that visiting grocery stores or book stores is important – they’re a window into the culture. A great part of this is seen in the menu. I always study them intensely, looking for the differences and peculiarities. Almost always you will see the country’s most popular food habits reflected in a few lines on the McDonald’s menu. McDonald’s is also a fantastic spot to people watch. Very rarely do I see many of my fellow Americans in these restaurants; instead they’re typically packed with locals. For the price of a cup of coffee I can rest for a few minutes and just watch people interact, learning more about them in the process.

McDonald's Bangkok

Most people would dismiss without thought the idea of visiting a McDonald’s while traveling through some far-flung, exotic locale. What these people haven’t thought about though is the value in studying the restaurants as pop culture, a medium through which you can see first hand how people live every day. Like it or not, the fact that there’s a menu of super fancy pastries on the Paris McDonald’s menu says something about the city and her people. It indicates where they place value and what they buy. That’s not just a nice bit of trivia; it’s a vital component when trying to learn about a new destination.

So the next time you travel, don’t feel bad if you stop by a McDonald’s, you may find it to be more interesting and informative than many of the sites listed in your guidebook.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve seen on a fast food menu when traveling overseas?

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.

65 thoughts on “It’s a McDonald’s World – Why They Matter When You Travel”

  1. I completely agree! I was shocked when I saw that the McDonald’s in Rome served fried brie, and they also had one of the McCafe’s. I’ve noticed a similar (but less immediately apparent) situation with Starbucks around the world–the pastry cases and snack bins vary in contents by location. Plus, both Mcdonalds and Starbucks are almost always good for free water, clean bathrooms and free wifi–all important while traveling! :)

  2. McDonald’s has been a lifesaver with free wifi when I travel. They’re a reliable source because there is almost always one nearby and they ALWAYS have free wifi. I’ve also found that because so many visitors are so against going to a McDonalds while abroad, it’s a great way to see the locals!

    1. It is good coffee. After they changed their coffee several years ago an independent taste test placed it amongst the best anywhere, even beat poor Starbucks LOL. And now I want a McGyro

  3. I try to eat at one McDonald’s in every country I visit. I worked at McDonald’s as a teenager growing up in Massachusetts and as a college student in Virginia, so I like to peer over the counters and see how crew members and managers work in other countries, comparing it to my own experience.

  4. Friends make fun of me for trying to find a McDonalds when I’m traveling abroad, but I do it for the exact reasons you stated! It is a peek into the culture. In Berlin, they show the kids a chart of Happy Meal toys and let them choose their own. That’s a big deal when you’re traveling with children! They also have shrimp on the menu, which I found odd as shrimp isn’t a German food. In Mexico you can get packets of jalapeno sauce, and the egg McMuffins are smothered in refriend beans.

  5. Singaporean :)

    I love looking at different McDonalds menus worldwide – and price differences are pretty interesting too. Macs is sold at a premium here, whereas I hear it’s dirt-cheap in the US. Also, did you manage to catch any special menu items during your visit here? Off to the top of my head, there’s been: seaweed shaker fries, rice burgers, chinese prosperity burgers, chilli fries, Horlicks Mcflurry and much more!

    1. Those are great additions, thank you.I didn’t remember those. I wouldn’t say it’s dirt cheap here, but it’s not expensive. A 2 hamburger meal costs between $5-$6 here

  6. I only like Maccas for breakfast. Not every country serves breakfast though, especially Eastern Europe. The free wifi in German McDonalds involves a password that can only be sent to a German cell phone so beware.
    The different things on their menu in each country is interesting. In Poland McDs they advertise the “stars of America” which are donuts haha.

    1. Good tip about the wifi, I haven’t seen that yet but it’s smart. As I said in an earlier comment, their wifi has saved me many a time when overseas.

  7. In Bangkok, Ronald McDonald is always in a wat-like bow.
    And my favorite ebi tempura burger is served in Japan (or in Tokyo Narita airport).

    I so agree with you regarding McDonalds. I also like to find out if McDonald’s offer free-wifi in different countries.

  8. I like KFC in Singapore/China for its chicken congee (it’s actually really good). When we were in India we got food poisoning and our first post-sickness meal was the McDonalds downstairs from the hotel. I was amazed by the no hamburgers (no beef!) and vegie burgers were the most popular!

    1. Yeah India has a bit of a challenge for them, given the reverence paid to cows and the fact that many people are vegetarians. But even there they’ve adapted!

  9. We always try fast food at least once during our trip — out of curiousity. Quik in France is one of the best chains out there.

  10. I saw a McArabia Kofta in Dubai airport and have a photo of it however I’m not sure how to share it on here..

  11. Brilliant article! I actually have always felt guilty about going to McDonalds when travelling but u have put a great twist on that! I will look at it in a different light from now on! :) And the differences in menu’s is fascinating- i loved the unusual flavour Mcflurries in Australia! :)

  12. I’m glad you mentioned the quality being better outside the US. I noticed this in Colombia and Ecuador. I personally don’t care for McD’s, but my son loves it so occasionally we go. The food is MUCH better in other countries as in surprisingly so.

    I also love that they serve local things: Carrots with chili in Mexico, baleadas in Honduras, etc., although I was a bit surprised they didn’t have cuy in Ecuador. LOL

  13. Travelling with a young child, we often hit McDonald’s – many times just for the restrooms! Her favorite was in Beijing where she got a free balloon and free icecream – maybe because she was the only blonde. I rarely eat at McDonald’s with her, but had a delicious sausage on bread roll in Munich…McWurst maybe?
    Great post

  14. I love visiting overseas McDonalds too. Most recently in Switzerland I had a delicious Toblerone McFlurry while there.

  15. Love it! Full disclosure… I’ve never even felt guilty visiting a MacDo, as they’re called here in France. G3 service is super expensive so in I go to check my iPad on wifi, for free, across the country. And a little McFlurry isn’t remiss while I’m there, either…

  16. This post is brilliant, a lot of people sneer when I say I go to the McDonalds of the country I visit but I’ll just point them here in the future! I’m glad somebody has said it!

  17. I love this because I got a great story about McDonald’s while traveling.

    In the US, I won’t step foot in a McDonald’s. I haven’t eaten there in years. When I travel, I tend to go to McDonald’s once on a trip. I went in Poland and Paris. I did go to a BK in Spain. However, here’s the story.

    Many years ago, I had spent a month in Europe. I finally broke down and just wanted something familiar so after wandering way off the beaten path in Paris, I went in to a McDonald’s. While I was there, I asked a girl in French “What time is it?” I ended up spending the rest of the day with this Lebanese girl. I went with her to the doctor, ate at a Lebanese restaurant, saw a movie in Parisian movie theater, and saw parts of Paris I could never see on my own.

    8 years later and we are still friends. Don’t knock McDonald’s when you travel (although I NEVER eat it at home)! :)

  18. One of my favorite things is to go to the McDonald’s in London for the Fried Apple Pies. Also, I like that the McDonald’s in Hawaii gives you the option of pineapple instead of fries…makes you feel like you are eating just a tiny bit better.

  19. Shanna Schultz

    I love how Mcdonalds locations in each different country have menu items unique to that place…like how the McDonalds in Thailand had a traditional Asian breakfast of rice (and that great statue of Ronald McDonald giving a wai!)

  20. McDonalds in the Philippines has McSpaghetti, and Fried Chicken with gravy and rice. Yummm!
    You forgot to say that for a lot of travellers anywhere in the world, should you develop “delhi-belly”, then the familiarity of McDonalds is such a life saver!!! ;)

  21. So funny how I found this post now. Just last Monday, I was in South Korea when my friend and I decided to just go to McDonalds for quick dinner since he is having a hard time deciding on where to bring me. I had a funny face after eating spicy Korean food LOL.

    McDonalds saved me a number of times like in Kota Kinabalu and when I was in Khao San Road. McDonalds in the Philippines serve smaller portions, but I guess they have a wider selection of food items. We have Chicken with Rice plus unlimited gravy and the sweet spaghetti! Some stores have McCafe too :D

  22. Ok – Matt now I have another reason to visit Mackers as a traveller – changing the mindset to Mackers as a “local” culture – what a great insight – thanks….

    and to add

    Mackers is the most awesome WIFI – (weefee in French) to get FREE internet in France!

    I’ll never forget you Mackers French style!

  23. Interesting post. I made a distinct effort to stay away from McDonalds during my travels through Europe and Central America. Perhaps that was a mistake – I am now curious to know what I would have found had a wandered into the McDonalds in Russia.

    1. I completely understand if people don’t want to eat there, that’s a personal decision. But as I said in the article, the pop culture value is just too great to ignore. :) Now you have an excuse to return to Russia!

  24. I have to admit that I’m always curious to see how McDonald’s has localized in different countries but do try my best to avoid it (when sober). Happy to use the free wifi though!!

  25. I’ve also heard that in certain countries, McDonald’s is the one surefire place where the bathrooms are guaranteed to be clean! On my upcoming RTW trip, I’ll also have to remember that they might be a good place to catch some free wifi!

    The last time I ate at a McDonald’s was actually the last time I was traveling abroad! I have no desire to eat at them in the U.S. or Canada, but I agree that they can be an interesting peek into the culture when you’re on foreign soil. I remember eating at one in Prague where I had to order the “McCountry” simply because it was obviously the regional specialty; given the local sensibilities it was essentially just a burger, but the beef patty had been replaced with a pork sausage type thing instead.

  26. Hhm interesting take! I hadn’t ever thought about it like that before but may remember to pay attention next time I see a McDonald’s abroad :-)

  27. I have a little bit of a biased opinion on this topic – I travel with someone who has a lot of food allergies, hence making some regional cuisines just too risky to mess with. So, as a means to an end, we often end up eating at McDonalds when in places like China. Without it, we wouldnt have been able to even entertain the idea of going to China due to the limitations of traveling on a budget. I realize there are other places to get western non-chinese foods, but mcdonalds always seem to be located well. And its priced right.

    So for that reason, I cant put down McDonalds since I am grateful that my husband and i were able to go fullfill one of my biggest dreams in a very dangerous eating place for us. (Dream was holding a panda at the panda base in Chengdu)

    The regional items too are really interesting – my favorite was Spaghetti McD in Java Indonesia.

  28. I will never ever forget the McDonalds in Moscow. It was 1992 when Yeltsin first took power and back then you still had to stand in line for everything you wanted. There was a line-up for each thing. A cheese line-up, a tomato line-up etc. My friends and I shared an apartment and every day we would each stand in one line-up, sometimes hours long, and buy something along our way. Sometimes it worked out and we were able to make dinner out of our assortment of items. Other times we had some carrots, some eggs and some vodka. I was off meat after I saw a cow slaughtered outside of my apartment and the cats in the meat markets creeped me out. There was no milk and the only fruit was bananas, the only thing I am allergic to.

    So when I went to McDonalds I was happy to stand in the line-up for 2 hours to get a cheeseburger. It was and still is the best hamburger I have ever eaten.

  29. Did you see the Kiwi Burger when you were in New Zealand? The injustice of it all; Maccas should know they’re endangered birds!

  30. I totally agree with this! As an expat, I usually indulge in McDonalds once a vacation, just to remind me of home. I love seeing the different things that they put on the menus. I heard that in India, they tried serving beef, but the population was so resistant to it (of course), they completely adapted the menu with no beef options. And you can’t beat the free wifi!

  31. Ok, I’m laughing because I have a post going live tomorrow about how sometimes I just *need* McDonald’s when I travel – written after I thankfully found one in Trabzon, Turkey open for breakfast when I arrived off an overnight bus at 6 a.m., couldn’t get into my hotel and was starving!

    Agree that checking out the cultural differences on the menus can be fascinating. :)

    I have also found it interesting that McDonald’s in some countries I visit are jam-packed (like in Russia) while others are consistently empty (barely saw a soul in the Micky D’s in Chisinau, Moldova or here in Trabzon).

  32. I avoid McDonalds in the US except for on occasional breakfast. When traveling I use it for bathrooms, wifi and to get a cold drink with ice in it.

  33. I completely agree that it’s fun to see the different food items on McDonald’s menus around the world. I was obsessed with the ice cream cones they had in costa del sol in Spain – the cones were so much better than what they had in the states. One thing that is universal for all McDonald’s though is that its golden arches are also a symbol for toilets. ;)

  34. Couldn’t agree more! Depending where you are on this island, it’s where locals eat when they need “fast” food…..nothing is fast here, but Mickey D’s is faster than the local establishments.

    Oh, and be aware, if eating here in areas outside of the tourist zones they may well tell you to get the H*ll back to your own country if you complain about anything, and they will also insist that the fact they ran out of Caesar dressing and gave you mayo doesn’t mean that it’s NOT a Caesar salad, and no, they won’t change it, because it IS the Caesar salad you asked for……..some stuff, actually, IS better in the US!

  35. While traveling in Europe for 6 months I probably ate at McDonalds 10 times. Sometimes for the wifi, sometimes for the prices, sometime because there wasn’t anything else. I’m not ashamed! I ate a lot of great food all over the place. Sometimes you just need to fill the void. My favorite thing? Kriz Kraz in Slovenia. AKA Waffle Fries! Also, the patatas bravas in Spain were pretty cool too.

  36. You’re completely right, Matt…the genius behind Mickey D’s is to notice the cultural differences in the locale…and bringing them to life to the consumer. McBier…genius! I’m a vegetarian, but I can totally see why people get into McDonald’s when they travel: it’s comfort food with a local twist.

  37. We pay no mind to McDonald’s while traveling (unless needing a restroom) but I will say that the one in the old town in Krakow is worth visiting because when they were renovating the building to add it in they discovered a medieval cellar that they ended up using as a dining room. It’s pretty cool.

  38. I love Mickey D’s, just not so much in America. McDonald’s is indeed a window into the culture and can be an invaluable resource for travelers.

  39. I think it’s a cultural thing from the travellers point of view too. I have no cultural connection with McDonalds and have probably eaten there 20 times in my 43 years. And they lock their toilets in many countries too, having got wise to people using them some time ago. The differences in food is kind of interesting, but then so is the differences in regular food – much more so. Anyway, don’t forget McDonalds have another use – check out this fabulous index from The Economist

  40. i too like to check out the world wide McDonald’s. and I agree the mcarabia in Egypt rocks. I was sad I didn’t get to make it into the blue “kosher” McDonald’s in Jerusalem.

  41. Being a vegetarian, I avoid McDonalds like the plague, haha, but I do see why some could find it interesting with rice patty burgers and that kind of stuff.

  42. I loved your article! I personally never thought about going there and people-watching, but that is right. McDonald’s has such a global impact because of its size. It’s also a way for people to experience a piece of American culture–the fast food experience. I also agree that it’s much better in other countries than in the U.S. It’s much more of an eat-in restaurant abroad, whereas here it’s just grab and go. Personally, I’ve always gone to McDonald’s to see how they cater their menu to local tastes. I do love how they adapt their menus. I’ve been to a McDonald’s in Portugal, Italy, England, Switzerland, and France. I also try Coca-Cola in every country that I visit. It’s just something you HAVE to try–an iconic American brand that’s interpreted differently around the globe. For example, Italy’s Coke is bitter and very bubbly, while Spain’s is sweet an not so bubbly. Those two countries are in the Mediterranean, yet have two completely different drinks.

  43. Big potato chunks served with mayonnaise labelled as special American food for “Americana Woche” in honor of the Olympics (the summer Olympics were in the US that year). This was about 20 years ago. I told them that potatoes with mayonnaise were not American food.


  44. I can proudly? say that I have eaten McDonalds in more than a handful of countries. When I was in Paris a few months ago I was SHOCKED at the quality on of their new McCafes. I ate macaroons and sipped on espresso and you know what? They were amazing! In Holland they often serve Hamburgers with sate (peanut butter) sauce on top to mimic the popular Indonesian cuisine. I love this post, and think you have made a very valid argument. Not to mention, after a few weeks gallivanting in China, a Big Mac can be just what the Dr. ordered.

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