One of my early and most popular posts was all about the important role that visiting McDonald’s can play when we travel both internationally as well as around the US. I can almost hear your eyes rolling, but bear with me; I have a point, I promise. As you can imagine, that was a fairly controversial post and there were plenty of divergent opinions. I still believe in the incredible importance of McDonald’s in the travel context and so today I want to essentially rewrite that 6-year old post, but also add to it based on more recent travel experiences.
There are few things I hate more than pretentious travelers. Wait, hold on, that’s not quite correct, what I meant to say was pretentious travel writers and bloggers. Sadly, they seem to be the norm nowadays instead of the exception and their advice is unfortunately affecting the way that millions of people travel. I sort of understand where they’re coming from though. In the league of very frequent travelers, one’s perspective of the world shifts. We forget that travel is a luxury and that most people aren’t on a plane jetting across an ocean a few times a month. Travel for us becomes a little routine, so we look for ways to make it different, to make it even more special. That’s why every destination article advises that future tourists “go local” and “get off of the beaten path.” That’s fine and it’s good advice, but it forgets one thing – that experiences on the beaten path are usually amazing. If you visit Paris for the first time and don’t gaze upon the Eiffel Tower, you’ve failed as a tourist. The same holds true for every other mass-market tourist sight in the world. It’s not just the landmarks and museums though, this extends to the food culture.
I don’t know why talking about food brings out the worst in some people, but it does. I agree that discovering new and interesting experiences, including food, is a huge part of the travel adventure, but there’s also the equally 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, perhaps nowhere more so than at McDonald’s.
McDonald’s has a long 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 very 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 sparked my fascination and since then I’ve really enjoyed finding these regional peculiarities in all corners of the world 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.
But why is a stop to McDonald’s an important tourist experience? For the same reason that visiting grocery stores or bookstores 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.
Before starting my epic drive along Route 66, I spent a few days in Chicago to sightsee. One of the first stops I made was to a very special McDonald’s located in their brand new world headquarters in Chicago’s West Loop. It had only been open for a few weeks when I visited, and construction crews were working hard putting the finishing touches on the new office building. I was there though for what is the most unique McDonald’s menu in the world. In addition to all of the normal American menu items I know and love, McDonald’s also includes a special international menu. Rotating every few months, the menu highlights some of those regional items that I’ve been keeping track of for so many years. It’s the only McDonald’s restaurant in the world that does this, and it was a lot of fun to experience. Tasting items from Australia, Canada and Brazil, I enjoyed that lunch probably a lot more than I should have. Believe it or not, it helped set the tone for my Route 66 adventure because, like it or not, but McDonald’s is a big part of any American road trip.
I love driving, and those two weeks spent along Route 66 was one of the best trips I’ve ever done. When it’s a long time in between stops though, you start to look for any signs of life and, many times, that means a brief visit to the next McDonald’s is in order. Whether to replenish my coffee cup or get a quick bite, McDonald’s was just as important a part of my journey as were those many quirky stops along the route. This isn’t particular to just Route 66 or even the U.S., almost anywhere in the world where I road trip, McDonald’s is an important oasis whether for the bathrooms, free WiFi or more naturally, the food. It may be fashionable to want to dismiss mainstream fast food restaurants, but I have no doubt that everyone stops at them.
Many people might reject 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, an anthropological 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. One of my great travel dreams would be to travel the world, documenting these unique items and, in so doing, telling the stories of the cultures they represent. Until then, I’ll just have to be content with my own unorganized accounting of these undeniably popular restaurants around the world.
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.