To Know a Place, You Must First Know Its Snacks

The case for getting lost in a convenience store everywhere you go.

The foreign convenience store—small but mighty—captures the very essence of travel: You enter the space thinking you know exactly what you want, and end up discovering a whole lot more. Whether you’re in a Japanese konbini peeling open a plastic-wrapped onigiri, in a Mexican tiendita exchanging centavos for de la Rosa mazapan, or in a Swedish pick-and-mix scooping up handfuls of salty licorice, the convenience store is a place that encourages curiosity—and the unbridled joy that comes from getting lost amongst technicolor labels you don’t understand.

While larger grocery stores certainly offer something special—cut to unrefrigerated milk bottles in France—it’s the convenience store that often beckons to travelers. Perhaps, riddled with jet lag, you get hit with a craving in the early hours of the morning. Or possibly you need a snack to hold you over until that coveted, late night dinner reservation you didn’t think through when booking months in advance. Maybe you’re simply not accustomed to the domestic tap, so you pick up a bottle of water.

What at first seems like a mundane activity becomes an experience that’s culturally worthwhile, one that’s worth revisiting each time you travel. “I always like to seek out new flavors of potato chips when I visit other countries,” says Kori Perten, senior travel editor at Thrillist. “I buy paprika-flavored chips whenever I go to Berlin, and I daydream about the specific ketchup chips I always got when I was based in Portugal, which in my opinion taste exactly like everything that’s good about McDonald’s fries, only intensified.”

Those hard-to-find, international snacks also foster friendly exchange, at once a recommendation before you go and a cheap souvenir to bring back. “When my friend told me there was something special about the Lay's chips in Greece ahead of my trip last summer, I was sold,” says Helena Fistel, supervising producer. “I bought a bag of Oregano Lay’s straight off the plane to have as a snack for my layover to one of the Greek islands, and barely made it to my gate before devouring the entire bag. Naturally, that same friend asked me if I could bring some back to the States for her.”

The obsession with foreign convenience store snacks prevails on TikTok, where users conduct hauls of what they’ve picked up at 7-Elevens across Thailand, Korea, and Japan: Kewpie-soaked eggs sandwiched between plush milk bread, vitamin C-rich blackcurrant jelly drinks that squeeze out of pouches, and neatly packed bento boxes filled with panko-crusted pork cutlets. It’s a far cry from those glossy weiner dogs that rotate for hours on end.

Reddit is filled with threads devoted to the topic, in which users swap stories about getting lost in convenience stores abroad, or list the Japanese snacks they’re going out of their way to find. Spoiler alert: The latter includes karaage fried chicken from Family Mart, giant cans of Sapporo, and varying flavors of Fanta, from melon to white peach.

In the convenience store, not only can you get a taste of the country’s domestic products, but you can also learn about how patterns of immigration—and sometimes, a history of colonization—are reflected in its snacks: Why it’s so easy to find chow mein noodles at a Belizean mart, or a jar of sambal at a corner store in Amsterdam, for example. While restaurants are one way to experience local cuisine, they might actively try to appeal to what they perceive tourists want. Convenience stores, on the other hand, connect you more intimately to daily life. It’s one thing to dine at a neighborhood pub, but to get a sense of the Cadbury chocolate bars British schoolkids carry in their backpacks is something else entirely.

So next time you need to pick up a pack of gum before a day of sightseeing, allot yourself a little extra time and make the convenience store a veritable item on the itinerary. It’s not just about convenience, in the end—It’s about the whole experience.

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Jessica Sulima is a staff writer on the Travel team at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram