Of Shopping Malls and Supermarkets: Visiting the Unvisited

Shopping MallsWhen most people travel, they open their guidebook and visit the major tourist spots listed. In Paris, we go to the Louvre and the Eiffel tower. In Amsterdam, we see the Van Gogh museum. In New York, Times Square. In Sydney, the Opera House. In Peru, Machu Picchu. In Bangkok, the Grand Palace. You get the idea. Now, big destinations are big for a reason. They are fantastic. They are beautiful. They inspire. They may be touristy and expensive, but they are worth the visit.

Whenever I visit someplace new, I tend to walk around a lot. A real lot. I wander streets and alleys and turn myself all around because you never know what you will find just around the next corner. One recent walking adventure brought me little girls singing Abba on the streets of Stockholm. Aimless wandering is a wonderful way to see locals and their daily lives away from all those tourist destinations.

Two often overlooked places that tell us about the lives of locals are supermarkets and malls. These are where the locals go to shop, spend an afternoon, relax, and do errands. In short, it’s everyday life. And sadly, most travelers rarely go there. Yet I think they are two of the best places to get a real look at the lives of the locals.

shopping in shopping mallsShopping Malls
It may be hard to think of a mall as a cultural place, but let’s think outside the box for a moment. For starters, there are no tourists. In malls I go to, I still never see them, especially if I visit a mall outside the city center. The only reason I usually end up there is because I accompany my local friends on their errands.

Roaming malls can tell you a lot about the place you are visiting. What type of stores do they like? What fashions? What kind of fast food do they prefer? Do they like big box stores or small boutiques? Malls also give you an idea of cost of living because you can see how much goods cost. Once in Italy, I saw a sign that read “XXL Available- American size.” That told me two things about Italy: there was a clear perception that Americans were very fat, and that in Italy, fat wasn’t considered an Italian thing. Go shopping in Stockholm, and you’ll see a lot of trendy, high-end fashion. In Paris, you don’t see big Gaps and Abecrombies- you see top of the line fashion like Hermes, Prada, Gucci, and small boutique shops.

Malls give you a window into material lives of people and the material stuff they value. What value people place on “stuff” is as cultural as seeing the type of architecture in their buildings they enjoy.

foreign supermarketsSupermarkets
Supermarkets are another amazing place to spot culture. How people eat, what they eat, and what they don’t eat tells much about how they view food, life, and health. In America, our emphasis on big, quick, and easy shows that we aren’t foodies as a culture. Food isn’t as important as speed. We eat a lot of fast food, prepared meals, and on the go food. In France, however, food quality is important. French citizens living in Brussels drive back to France to get good French food. Every other street has small food shops – little stores for fish, pastries, fruits, and bread. Food is consumed for taste not convenience.

Going to the supermarket answers a lot of questions. What kind of food do people like? What are the local delicacies? You see a lot of fish in Scandinavia, lots of different meats in Austria, packed shelves of wine in France, and a wide vegetable and cured meat section in Italy. In Bangkok, you see a lot of prepared meals. All around the world, the emphasis on food is different.

Food is such an integral part of culture that no visit to any country should be without a visit to a supermarket. I’m always blown away when I go to them because I learn more about how people live their lives and what they value than I learn from any trip to a monument.

Travelers always hit the obvious destinations, but malls and supermarkets offer you something different, unique, and local. If travel is about getting to know the places you go to and peering into the lives of its citizens, then watching people go about their daily lives at malls and supermarkets is a great way to do just that.

  1. I wholeheartedly agree on your opinion on shopping malls and supermarket. Everyone, I mean, everyone has stepped in a mall in their lifetime. Some more than others. So, it is a slice of culture and life, especially in North America and Asia!

  2. Indeed – this has always been one of my favorite things to do when visiting a foreign city. The markets where “everyday people” shop are often vastly different in feel from the places more frequented by tourists.

    You can also find some fabulous deals on quality stuff.

    Great tip!

  3. Hey Matt-
    I agree. I LOVE checking out the supermarkets every where I travel. Besides the fact that I love food, it’s always a good peak into ‘real’ ordinary life.
    The same with malls too. I loved checking out the big malls in Istanbul. You would NEVER know how modern and interesting (architecturally) they are when you are in the old town looking at the Hagia Sofia! At the mall and neighborhoods around modern turks do their shopping…wealthy women, business men, families, etc. It’s a contrast from the tourist areas.

    Back in the US, I hate malls…but that’s not the point. And yes, outdoor markets are great and I enjoy them too. But, again,there is something so cool about the realness of checking out where people grocery shop and what products are popular in each country.

  4. I see your point and not that I totally disagree but I don’t like malls as a representative form of consumerism. However, with your points in mind – you know after all, I am a networker – I’ll give it a try. At least the idea about visiting supermarkets because I do agree with you: “Food is such an integral part of culture”!

  5. I completely agree! My dad taught me to always visit supermarkets when traveling. The best part is interacting with the cashier which in some places can be really tricky if you don’t know the language. Plus you get to see so many different brands that you’d never see otherwise.

  6. Ben

    I must say that I also prefer local and open air markets, but I must admit that “The Bullring” in Birmingham really impressed me!

  7. To go mall hopping with a different perspective, sounds nice. Never thought this way. If it’s not crowded I’d mall hop any day :) in a foreign country. This gave a lot to think about. and XXL-american size was kind of funny 😛

  8. Thank you for this post…although we never really thought of actually “visiting” the malls or supermarkets, we do always end up there to collect something we left behind! You are right – it is a great place to experience the local culture. The supermarkets in China were eye-opening….as were the controlled bookstores. I will take a new perspective the next time we travel and actually make it a point to go to a mall and supermarket! Thanks again.

  9. Forest

    It’s always a fun adventure to go to the local supermarkets when traveling. Trying to communicate with the locals and the experimenting with new things is a great experience. I had a hell of a time trying to get the nice signora behind the counter to understand that I wanted lettuce on my nice prosciutto sandwich. Small experiences like that are some of the highlights of travel for me.

    Great article!

  10. Ronald

    “For starters, there are no tourists. In malls back home, I’ve never seen one.” They’re there I think Matt, just not in such vast quantities, and perhaps have left their cameras behind so they can carry more purchases!

    Great article, and next time I’m in a foreign mall I will be viewing it with different eyes!

  11. Absolutely. We always spend time in grocery stores when we travel internationally, and love it! We end up buying all sorts of things we don’t know what they are and trying them. Pickled vegetables in Japan and delectable cheeses in France, odd beverages … great experiences.

  12. Carrie

    I agree, Matt! For me, I was living in South London, so I obviously needed to go to the market to, you know, live. And when I was bored I did what most women do… shop. I visit London every year since I lived there, and I STILL go to Sainsbury’s (market) in New Cross, the indoor mall in Lewisham, and the outdoor mall in Covent Garden.

    Every time I go to Sainsbury’s, I people watch for a bit. I see what people are buying, and if I see something intriguing, I’ll pick it up, bring it back to my friend’s flat, cook it and eat it. Same goes for the malls… I look to see what the ladies are buying, see the trends, etc. I once bought this winter hat (that was more like an old fashioned stocking cap). I brought back to the U.S. with me and I got compliments ALL the time. And I recently noticed it’s become a style around Chicago in the past year or so.

    You nailed it, dude. That’s all I can say!

  13. I too, love to get to know a place by virtue of where people shop. I used to be solely interested in markets and supermarkets, but after spending the better part of a week in a mall in Thailand (my boyfriend was dying in the hospital next door, and I didn’t want to venture further), I realized that (as Matt says) even malls have some degree of cultural authenticity….I didn’t see one tourist in that mall…

    • NomadicMatt

      That’s because there’s 1000 malls in Bangkok lol! But yeah, malls are more than malls here. They have good restaurants, bowling alleys, bars, movie theaters, and air con (a big reason people go!)

  14. One Philippine cabinet official once said that the best way to know the place is to go the palengke . He was referring to a wet (outdoor) market. But I too believe that in most cities, the best way to do some uhmm… “retail anthroplogy” is to go malling.

  15. I totally agree with Matt. Finding places (or events) that only locals frequent can really teach you about a community. While researching a blog post on “36 Hours in…” a local community last weekend, we didn’t just visit the obvious spots. A library book sale gave us a sense of what the community was reading (and some new books for our collection, too!) Wandering around downtown after 10 p.m., we had an enlightening talk with the tattoo artist about which customers come in late at night. In this town, it’s the papermill workers after they get off work. While in Scotland, we skipped the usual hotel tourist shows and joined in a local ceilidh fundraiser for a local mental health agency. The only non-Scots at the party, we met lots of locals, learned to dance and won two bottles of whiskey to boot! Follow the locals!

  16. Great post! I agree that malls and supermarkets are some of the best places to get a glimpse into everyday life of a place. I like visiting malls and local markets to see what the locals buy, try local foods, and to see what brands are popular. If anything, I enjoy trying to figure out what all the snacks are at the supermarket and how they might taste. Plus, a supermarket is a budget friendly alternative to eating out at restaurants everyday.

  17. I love going to the local supermarkets or outdoor markets of every place I visit. It offers great insight to the local culture and allows me to stay healthy when traveling as I can add some fresh food to my diet.

    After being away from Canada for a number of years I still remember being in awe when I visited a new big box grocery store. The most beautiful store and food packaging I had seen in years. But when it came time to find fresh vegetables and fruits, common in our diet abroad, the selection paled in comparison the multitude of potato chip varieties. Everything was prepared or frozen.

  18. I love going to supermarkets in foreign countries, but I’ll only wind up in a mall if it’s a rainy day… and all the museums are expensive or closed. Getting away from American consumerism is one of the high points of travel abroad, I think.

    Also, maybe this is because I’m from Texas (where everything is bigger!), but I see tourists in Texas shopping malls all the time. I think it’s part of why people travel to the States to begin with. It’s cheap, and you can shop non-stop.

  19. Supermarkets are THE BEST. THE BEST. I’m not crazy about the shopping mall scene — consumer frenzy feels the same all over the world to me, but I do love to wander around a shopping mall food court in a far away place because they’re so different everywhere. Once, in search of dinner, we ended up in a shopping mall food court in Richmond, BC — it was like a mini-vacation to China, so unexpected was it. Amazing.

    What you said, Matt, good advice.

  20. Agree so much with this tip. Always visit a mall when traveling and if in a city for an extended time go food shopping and make a local dish in your room (if you are lucky enough to have a kitchen that is).

  21. LOVE hitting the local grocery stores! We were so embarrassed when we got to checkout in Italy, tho, and found out we were supposed to pre-weigh and sticker our produce. They rolled their eyes and sent us back to do the deed. Lesson learned–watch the locals before you plow forward!

  22. karen

    There are no tourists in malls back home? Really? Where do you live? Of course there’s tourists in malls. Maybe not wearing backpacks and cameras, but they are there. Always. The more one travels, the more one should realize a mall is a mall is a mall. They’re basically all the same: an American-style tribute to consumerism. I don’t know about you, but I travel to get *away* from that. I will admit visiting a French hypermarche for the first time is an educational experience, but otherwise local markets are so much more interesting. ymm(obviously)v. Visiting a major department store in a city is a good way to gauge local culture, better than a mall, I would say. One trip to Europe years ago I made it a point to buy underwear in every large city I visited. Interesting, inexpensive, useful souvenir.

    • NomadicMatt

      If you think a mall is a mall is a mall, you aren’t looking hard enough. Yes, they all have shops. Yes, they are all there for people to buy things. But the food courts, the shops, the style of clothes, the items sold are all a local flavor. It’s like mcdonalds..looks the same on the outside but inside, the menu is actually different.

  23. I’m absolutely with you on the roaming around when traveling. You can have totally unique experiences that way, just wandering around and discovering streets and people and places not on your radar.

    I have to admit, I’m not into malls though – at home or when traveling. But supermarkets, 100%. Wherever I go, whether to a neighboring Swiss village or another country or continent, I always hunt down the local markets. And I always visit a supermarket – it’s so fun (and funny sometimes too) to see the local products, specialties, packaging and all. I head right to the chocolate aisle of course, but then just bounce around seeing what catches my eye. I love to bring back things that I can only find there. Whether or not I eat them when I get home is another story….! :)

  24. Amelia

    I know this was forever ago but it’s always nice to see someone likes a bit of Brum. I moved here years ago for University and I love it, contrary to popular opinion! I agree that markets are more fun, particularly in, say, the Middle East but anywhere locals go is going to be representative of their culture. Culture is not just found in art and architecture but in every aspect of life.

  25. Matt

    YES! I am so glad I found people that believe in this! I’m a very novice traveler so far (one trip coming up soon though) but when I was in Costa Rica with some classmates for a short holiday I was absolutely fascinated with the grocery stores and pharmacies we saw. Everyone I was with thought I was crazy for wanting to visit them just to have a look around, but I found so much enjoyment of just seeing locals go about their day to see how they live, rather than see how rich tourists live while on holiday.

  26. Definitely agree!

    Supermarkets are also a great way to learn the language. And you’re right, you’ll rarely find tourists in the mall near us in Salta. It’s definitely a slice of Argentine cultural life there.

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