By Rick Steves
The best way to feast like a local — 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. And in a bustling park on a sunny day, many picnics quickly become potlucks, resulting in new friends as well as full stomachs.
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. This is not solely for budgetary reasons. It’s fun to dive into a marketplace and deal with locals in the corner grocery or market. Europe’s colorful markets overflow with varied cheeses, meats, fresh fruits, vegetables, and still-warm-out-of-the-bakery-oven bread. Many of my favorite foods made their debut in a European picnic.
To busy sightseers, restaurants can be time-consuming and frustrating. After waiting to be served, tangling with a menu, and consuming a budget-threatening 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. Nutritionally, a picnic is unbeatable. Consider this example: cheese, thinly sliced ham, fresh bread, peaches, carrots, a cucumber, a half-liter of milk, and fruit yogurt or a freshly baked pastry for dessert.
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, or supermarket. When staying several nights, I cozy up a hotel room by borrowing plates, glasses, and silverware from the breakfast room and stocking the closet with my favorite groceries (juice, fruits and vegetables, cheese, and other munchies). If your hotelier posts signs prohibiting picnicking in rooms (most likely in France), you’ll easily be able to find plenty of other atmospheric places to eat. But if you picnic in your room anyway, be discreet and toss your garbage in a public waste receptacle.
There is nothing second-class about a picnic. A few special touches will even make your budget meal a first-class affair. 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.
Try to incorporate a picnic brunch, lunch, or dinner into the day’s sightseeing plans. For example, I start the day by scouring the thriving market with my senses and my camera. 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.
Mountain hikes are punctuated nicely by picnics. Food tastes even better on top of a mountain. Europeans are great picnickers. Many picnics become potlucks, resulting in new friends as well as full stomachs.
Only a glutton can spend more than $15 for a picnic feast. In a park in Paris, on a Norwegian ferry, high in the Alps, at an autobahn rest stop, on your convent rooftop, or in your hotel room, picnicking is the budget traveler’s key to cheap and good eating.
Picnic Supplies: Pack resealable plastic baggies (large and small). Buy a good knife with a can opener and corkscrew in Europe (or bring it from home, if you plan to check your luggage on the plane). In addition to being a handy plate, fan, and lousy Frisbee, a plastic lid makes an easy-to-clean cutting board. A dishtowel doubles as a small tablecloth, and a washcloth or wet wipe helps with cleanup. A disposable shower cap contains messy food nicely on your picnic cloth. Bring a plastic, airline-type drink cup and spoon for cereal and a fork for take-out salad. Some travelers get immersion heaters (buy in Europe for a compatible plug) to make hot drinks to go with munchies in their hotel room.
Drinks: 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 Coke 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 (the kind with holes, 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.
Nearly every town, large or small, has at least one colorful outdoor or indoor marketplace. 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 kilo, 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.
Food can be priced in different ways. 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 $2.80 for 2.2 pounds, or about $1.25 per pound. If the scale says 400 grams, that means 40 percent of €2 (or 80 euro cents), which is a little over $1.
Not everything is strictly priced by the kilogram. Read the little chalkboard price carefully: Particularly in the case of specialty items, you might see things priced by the 1/4 kg, 1/2 kg, 100 g, 500 g, and so on. Or an item could be priced by the piece (Stück in German, la piéce 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 print the prices. Assume any market with no printed 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 considered rude for a customer to touch the goods.
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 merchant 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 he 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, many 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, Co-op, Despar, Dia, Konzum, Lidl, Mercadona, Migros, Monoprix, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Spar, and Tesco. Corner grocery stores give you more color and a better price — but are less efficient and have a smaller selection.
If it’s late in the day, you may be able to score some deals. One night in Oslo I walked into an ICA supermarket just before closing to discover that they’d marked down all the deli food by 50 percent. Back in my hotel room, I ate my cheapest meal in Norway — roast chicken and fries at almost US prices.
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 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. Nutritionally, a half-liter provides about 25 percent of your daily protein needs. 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). Buy cheap by the liter, and use a reusable half-liter plastic mineral-water bottle (usually found next to the soft drinks) to store what you can’t comfortably drink in one sitting.
If it’s hot outside, don’t expect the 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 McVities — are usually a good value, as are candy bars that might cost twice as much at airport gift shops.
Bring your own shopping bag or use your empty daybag, or expect to pay extra for the store’s plastic bags. You may even 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.
It’s easiest to pay cash at checkout, but if you want to use your credit card, be sure you know the PIN — the clerk may ask you to enter it (clerks may also ask for photo ID). No one will bag your groceries for you; expect to be bagging and paying at the same time. It’s smart to start bagging immediately to avoid frustrating the shoppers behind you.