I often preach that travel is more rewarding when you get beyond the blockbuster sights and touristy cliches and get intimate with a culture and its people. One of the easiest ways to interact with locals is to visit a grocery store or marketplace. Food shopping is an integral part of daily European life for good reasons: People value fresh produce, have small refrigerators (kitchens are tiny) and enjoy the social interaction. Nearly every town, large or small, has at least one outdoor or indoor marketplace.
Colorful people scene
Recently, I discovered many French cities now have modern and efficient farmers markets in practical indoor halls, with parking garages overhead. These were built so this important slice of culture can survive the competition brought on by France's "hypermarches" (huge suburban shopping centers). At these markets you'll find lots more than a charming and colorful people scene; you can also eat well and affordably. These days, in nearly any European city, I find sitting down with local shoppers at the traditional market to be a great way to enjoy lunch and feel the pulse of everyday life.
Ducking into the corner grocery is just as fun as diving into a marketplace. While St. Petersburg, Russia, has lots of earthshaking turnstile sights, simply visiting a corner mini-market was one of the highlights of my last trip there. Buying some hand-picked blueberries gave me a chance to exchange smiles with the owner, who rarely encountered tourists, resulting in fun memories for all.
Europeans love their public outdoor spaces, and on any nice day, you'll find its parks, squares and waterfronts filled with families, lovers and old-timers enjoying a cheap afternoon or evening out. Joining them is a wonderful way to spend a few hours and become a part of the local scene.
Revels in a royal courtyard
In Copenhagen, you can have a drink at the hotel bar with other tourists -- or you can buy cheap beers at a convenience store and revel with young Danes along the canal or in a royal courtyard. In Vernazza or any Italian harbor town, do laps with the pensioners who've been strolling back and forth from the breakwater to the parking lot with the same crowd for decades. In Wuerzburg, Germany, spread out a picnic on the parklike stretch of riverbank, which comes with plenty of benches, beer-or-wine-drinking students and great views of the river, bridge and castle.
Even mundane tasks can be fun when you're somewhere different. For me, one of the small delights of travel is getting a haircut. I used to dread this task, as it was one time that the language barrier had real and enduring consequences. But lately, I've relished the opportunity to get a haircut in Europe because it gets me in a chair talking with a real person who's not in the tourist trade.
To find a barber, I simply keep an eye out for a place that feels right -- away from the tourist zone, and with a successful but not too trendy vibe. Last summer in Vaxjo, Sweden, I enjoyed getting to know my stylist Maria -- an immigrant from Bosnia -- who gave me unique insight into Swedish culture today.
My beautiful launderette
As a hard-core advocate of packing light, one of my main travel chores is doing laundry. While I tend to rely on elbow grease and hotel room sinks for a good month, sooner or later it becomes fragrantly clear that a thorough wash is needed (usually when people stop sitting next to me on the train).
All over Europe, self-service launderettes provide machines with clear English instructions, a relaxing place to unwind and a very local experience. At most places it takes about an hour and $10 to $15 to wash and dry an average-size load. Use the time to picnic, journal, correspond with people at home (many launderettes have Wi-Fi) or chat with other customers. Launderettes throughout the world seem to give people the gift of gab. Take advantage.
As a tourist, it's helpful to enjoy the little chores and rituals of daily life. You'll find that an afternoon spent doing laundry or shopping for groceries can be just as valuable -- and memorable -- as seeing Europe's great sights.