Picnic Like a Pro in Europe

Picnic near Seine River, Paris, France
There's nothing second-class about a picnic, especially in Paris.
Sidewalk picnic, Assisi, Italy
This happy gang in Assisi is living simply and well on the cheap.
By Rick Steves

The best way to feast like a European — enjoying tasty local specialties economically — is to picnic. You'll eat better while spending half as much as those who eat exclusively in restaurants. In my book, there's no better travel experience than a picnic sourced from local markets and grocers, eaten outdoors with a lively square, peaceful park, or rejuvenated harborfront as a backdrop.

I am a picnic connoisseur. While I'm the first to admit that restaurant meals are an important aspect of any culture, I picnic almost daily — and not just for budgetary reasons. It's fun to dive into a marketplace or corner grocery and interact with locals. Europe's colorful markets overflow with varied cheeses, meats, fresh fruits, vegetables, and warm-from-the-oven bread. Many of my favorite foods made their debut in a European picnic.

To busy sightseers and budget travelers, restaurants can be time-consuming and frustrating. After waiting to be served, tangling with a menu, and consuming a pricey meal, you walk away feeling unsatisfied, knowing your money could have done much more for your stomach if you had invested it in a picnic instead.

To bolster your budget, I recommend picnic dinners every few nights. At home, we save time and money by raiding the refrigerator to assemble a pickup dinner. In Europe, the equivalent is the corner deli, bakery, produce market, or supermarket. You can also pick up a picnic from nearly anywhere willing to pack a meal to go, such as a souvlaki stand, sausage truck, crêperie, pizza shop, or market hall.

In a park in Paris, on a Norwegian ferry, high in the Alps, at an autobahn rest stop, or on your convent rooftop, picnicking is the budget traveler's key to cheap and good eating.

Picnic Tips

Picnic Supplies

Buy a good knife with a can opener and corkscrew in Europe (or bring it from home in your checked luggage). In addition to being a handy plate, fan, and lousy Frisbee, a plastic lid makes an easy-to-clean cutting board. Resealable plastic baggies (large and small) are great for containing messy food and packing up leftovers. Bring a reusable cup as well as a spoon and fork for eating takeout soups and salads.


There are plenty of cheap ways to wash down a picnic. If you're tired of filling your water bottle, you can buy drinks in supermarkets and corner grocery stores. Liter bottles of soda are inexpensive, as is wine in most countries — and local wine gives your picnic a nice touch. Neighborhood wine shops have a great selection — and most will open your bottle if you forgot your corkscrew.

Stretching Your Money

Bread has always been cheap in Europe. (Leaders have learned from history that when stomachs rumble, so do the mobs in the streets.) Cheese is a specialty nearly everywhere and is, along with milk and yogurt, one of the continent's most affordable sources of protein. The standard low-risk option anywhere in Europe is Emmentaler cheese (what we call "Swiss"). Buy fruit and veggies that are in season; see what's inexpensive and plentiful in the produce section or market. Anything American is usually pricey and rarely satisfying. Cultural chameleons eat and drink better and cheaper.

Selecting a Site

Proper site selection can make the difference between just another meal and le pique-nique extraordinaire. Since you've decided to skip the restaurant, it's up to you to create the atmosphere.

I might start the day by scouring the thriving market with my senses. Then I fill up my shopping bag and have breakfast on a riverbank. After sightseeing, I combine lunch and a siesta in a cool park to fill my stomach, rest my body, and escape the early afternoon heat. It's fun to eat dinner on a castle wall enjoying a commanding view and the setting sun. Some of my all-time best picnics have been lazy dinners accompanied by medieval fantasies in the quiet of after-hours Europe.

Punctuate a hike with a picnic — food tastes even better on top of a mountain.

Picnicking in Your Hotel Room

I don't want an earth-shaking dinner every night. Every second or third night I just like to have a relaxing and cheap picnic in my home away from home.

When staying several nights, I cozy up my room by borrowing plates, glasses, and silverware from the breakfast room and making a pantry stocked with juice, fruits, vegetables, cheese, and other munchies. Some hoteliers dislike picnicking in rooms, as they worry about cleanliness, smells, and insects (this is especially true in France, where hoteliers uniformly detest it when guests bring food into bedrooms). If you do picnic in your room, be tidy and considerate, and wrap up your garbage really well (or, better yet, toss it out in a public waste bin).


I love the marketplaces of Europe. To me they're as important as the museums. Nearly every town, large or small, has at least one colorful outdoor or indoor marketplace. Find out when they are up and running, and make it a point to be there. You'll enjoy the local push and shove.

Assemble your picnic here; you'll probably need to hit several stalls to put together a complete meal. Make an effort to communicate with the merchants. Know what you are buying and what you are spending. Whether you understand the prices or not, act like you do (observe the weighing process closely) and you're more likely to be treated fairly. Gather your ingredients in the morning, as markets typically close in the early afternoon.

Learn the measurements. The unit of measure throughout the Continent is a kilogram, or 2.2 pounds. A kilo (kg) has 1,000 grams (g or gr). One hundred grams (a common unit of sale) of cheese or meat tucked into a chunk of French bread gives you about a quarter-pounder. If you don't know the local language, just point to the food you want and write the amount on a scrap of paper or type it into your phone's notepad or translation app.

Check how the item is priced. Watch the scale when your food is being weighed. It'll likely show grams and kilos. If dried apples are priced at €2 per kilo, that's $2.20 for 2.2 pounds, or about $1 per pound. If the scale says 400 grams, that means 40 percent of €2 (or 80 euro cents), which is less than $1.

Not everything is strictly priced by the kilogram. Read the little chalkboard price carefully: Particularly in the case of specialty items, you may see things priced by the ¼ kg, ½ kg, 100 g, 500 g, and so on. Or, an item could be priced by the piece (Stück in German, pièce in French, pezzo in Italian), the bunch, the container, and so on. If the pâté seems too cheap to be true, look at the sign closely. The posted price is probably followed by "100 gr."

If no prices are posted, be wary. Travelers are routinely ripped off by market merchants in tourist centers. Find places that post the prices. Assume any stall without posted prices has a double price standard: one for locals and a more expensive one for tourists.

I'll never forget a friend of mine who bought two bananas for our London picnic. He grabbed the fruit, held out a handful of change, and said, "How much?" The merchant took the equivalent of $4. My friend turned to me and said, "Wow, London really is expensive." Anytime you hold out a handful of money to a banana salesman, you're just asking for trouble.

Point, but don't touch. Most produce stands and outdoor markets are not self-service: Tell the vendor (or point to) what you want, and let the merchant bag it and weigh it for you. It's generally considered rude for a customer to touch the goods. But if you see baskets laid out (as at some markets in France), you can select your own produce, then hand it to the vendor.

Want only a small amount? You'll likely need only one or two pieces of fruit, and many merchants refuse to deal in such small quantities. The way to get what you want and no more is to estimate what it would cost if the merchants were to weigh it and then just hold out a coin worth about that much in one hand and point to the apple, or whatever, with the other. Have a Forrest Gump look on your face that says, "If you take this coin, I'll go away." Rarely will they refuse the deal.

Appreciate the cultural experience. Shopping for groceries is an integral part of everyday European life for good reasons: People have small refrigerators (kitchens are tiny), value fresh produce, and enjoy the social interaction.

Supermarkets and Grocery Stores

I prefer local markets, but American-style supermarkets, some of which hide out in the basements of big-city department stores, are a good alternative — and some of them are very upscale. Common European chains include Aldi, Carrefour, Coop, Dia, Konzum, Lidl, Mercadona, Migros, Monoprix, Morrisons, Sainsbury's, Spar, and Tesco. Corner grocery stores give you more color but have a smaller selection.

Ready-made food

Many supermarkets offer cheap packaged sandwiches, while others have deli counters where you can get a sandwich made to order — just point to what you want. Most supermarkets offer a good selection of freshly prepared foods, such as quiche, fried chicken, and fish, all for takeout.


Don't be intimidated by the produce section. It's a cinch to buy a tiny amount of fruit or vegetables. Many have an easy push-button pricing system: Put the banana on the scale, push the picture of a banana (or enter the banana bin number), and a sticky price tag prints out. You could weigh and sticker a single grape. In Spain and Italy, if there is no one to serve you, the store provides plastic gloves for you to wear while picking out your produce (a bare hand is a no-no).


Milk in the dairy section is always cheap and available in quarter, half, or whole liters. Be sure it's normal drinking milk. Strange white liquid dairy products in look-alike milk cartons abound, ruining the milk-and-cookie dreams of careless tourists. Look for local words for "whole," "half," or "light," such as voll, halb, or lett. Get refrigerated, fresh milk. Or look on the (unrefrigerated) shelves for the common-in-Europe but rarer-in-America "long life" milk. This milk — which requires no refrigeration until it's opened — will never go bad...or taste good.

European yogurt is delicious and can often be drunk right out of its container. Fruit juice comes in handy liter boxes (look for "100% juice" or "no sugar" to avoid Kool-Aid clones). Don't expect soft drinks, beer, or wine to be chilled — most supermarkets sell these at room temperature.


To satisfy your sweet tooth (or stock up on gifts for the folks back home), check out the dessert and candy section. European-style "biscuits" (cookies) — made by companies such as Lu, Bahlsen, or McVitie's — are usually a good value, as are candy bars that might cost twice as much at airport gift shops.

Supermarket Etiquette

Bring your own shopping bag, use your empty daybag, or expect to pay extra for the store's plastic bags. You may have to insert a euro to use a shopping cart — although you'll get your deposit back when you return the cart to its rack. Some stores' plastic shopping baskets have wheels and pull-out handles as a handy alternative.

No one will bag your groceries for you; expect to bag and pay at the same time. It's smart to start bagging immediately to avoid frustrating the shoppers behind you.