Where to See Tulips in Holland

Tulips and Holland. The words go together like, oh, cheese and beer. Windmills and flower fields. Stroop and wafel. You can’t go to the Netherlands in spring without seeing tulips. But where is the best place to view them in all their glory? And how can you do it? Here’s a complete guide to where to see tulips in Holland.

Tulips and Holland–the two are inseparable.

Tulip Season, Netherlands: It Begins

As I write this—on January 18, 2020—people are picking tulips in Amsterdam. That’s because it is the third Saturday in January, National Tulip Day in Amsterdam or Nationale Tulpendag. It is the official opening of the tulip season in the Netherlands. Tulips—just the word makes me smile. Yes, it’s still winter. They might even still get snow or canals frozen hard enough for ice skating. But Tulip Day reminds everyone that spring will come.

But how did this passion for tulips happen? How did this pretty, goblet-shaped flower become the very symbol of Holland?

Tulips in Holland: A Long and Rich History

If you are like many people, when you hear the word tulip, you automatically think of the Netherlands: windmills, cheese, wooden clogs, and… tulips. But these magnificent and iconic flowers are not indigenous to these flat lands.

They actually came originally from the high mountains of the Caucasus and the Tien Chan Mountains, where China and Tibet meet Afghanistan and Russia, and all the way to the Himalayas and Mongolia.

As early as the 11th century, they were being cultivated in Istanbul. And by the 15th century, they had become a passion of the ruling class. One Sultan of the Ottoman Empire loved them so much he had 12 gardens full of them and needed 920 gardeners to care for them. He often wore tulips in his turban.

Tulips first came to the Netherlands in the late 16th century and took hold of the popular imagination immediately. They showed up in vases and windowsill flower boxes and in paintings by the Dutch masters. They were so popular, especially the rare, multi-colored varieties, that from 1634-1637, the speculation in tulip bulbs became a frenzy. You might enjoy watching the movie Tulipmania for a look at how that all went down. (Spoiler alert: Tulipmania itself did not turn out so well for many. Financial bubbles seldom do.)

Enough history. You want to know where to see tulips in Holland NOW. So let’s have a look.

It All Begins with National Tulip Day in Amsterdam

Every year, on the third Saturday in January, commercial bulb growers from around the Netherlands bring some 200,000 tulips in crates to Amsterdam and set them out in a pretty pattern in Dam Square, right in front of the Royal Palace. As many as 10,000 people, locals and tourists alike, line up behind the barricades to see and photograph the display. Then, when the gates are opened, they are invited in to pick a bunch of tulips to take home. For free.

The tulips are not cut flowers. You pick the whole thing, bulb and all. On the way in, you’re given a bag for your flowers. It used to be a handled plastic bag, but now they have changed to paper to be more sustainable. I don’t know that they count the number of flowers in your bunch as you leave, but it’s not cool to be too greedy. Most people seem to pick 20 or so.

Here’s a glimpse of what you will see if you head to Amsterdam for National Tulip Day.

If you want to experience Tulip Day in Amsterdam for yourself, here are the deets:

The growers start setting up at 8am. It’s fun to watch the process as they unload flat after flat of blooming bulbs in dozens of colors and set them out in elaborate patterns with walkways between. The gates for picking open at 1pm, but you’ll want to get there well before that to get near the head of the line. Unless you’re right at the head, you can expect to wait at least an hour to get in. The garden is then open until 4:30 pm.

And dress warmly! Remember, even though there are tulips all around you, it’s January. It’s winter.

Amsterdam Tulip Season and Tulip Festival

So Tulip Day can whet your appetite for more, but the actual tulip season doesn’t get into full swing until spring. And the month of April is the best time to see tulips in Amsterdam, during the city’s annual Tulip Festival, which runs all month. At more than 85 locations throughout the city, the showy, multi-colored and curvaceous blooms decorate the landscape, setting off museums and monuments, lighting up public parks and squares, and filling flowerboxes on the railings of many of the 1281 bridges crossing the city’s 165 canals running some 31 miles. Look for them in the flower bowls in the middle of the giant reflecting pool on the Museumplein side of the Rijksmuseum, in the Rembrandstplein, in the Vondelpark, and dozens of other city locations. They are impossible to miss.

Tulips in shades of white, yellow, and deep purple bloom in front of a building during the April Amsterdam Tulip Festival
The curvaceous blooms bedeck every monument and plaza in Amsterdam during the Tulip Festival in April.

Bloemenmarkt – The Floating Flower Market, Amsterdam

In the old days, flowers arrived daily in Amsterdam on barges from the countryside. To memorialize that custom, the shops of today’s Bloemenmarket, the famous floating flower market of Amsterdam, are still housed on barges that float on the Single Canal. But it doesn’t actually look like a floating market, since the flower and bulb displays spill onto the pavement where you walk along enjoying the technicolor display. And it not just flowers. You can buy a range of green and growing things—spider plants, trailing philodendron—an infinite number of seeds, and a range of gardening tools.

This is where you can buy cut tulips and other flowers in spring, to adorn your hotel room or take as a hostess gift to a Dutch friend. The bloemenmarkt is also where you can buy flower bulbs to take home. If you are flying back to North America, be sure to check that the bulbs are certified for importation. If not, they will be confiscated at U.S. or Canadian customs when you arrive. Ask the sellers about certification for importation into the U.S. or wherever you plan to take or send them. Also, be sure to ask the best time to plant your bulbs to get a good flowering. The sellers should be happy to tell you.

Bulbs, flowers and seeds galore for sale at the Bloemenmarkt, Amsterdam’s floating flower market on the Singel Canal.

But of course, the floating flower market in Amsterdam is not open only in spring and not just for tulips. You’ll find bulbs for daffodils, purple crocus, feathery hyacinth and that drama queen, amaryllis. You can find beautiful cut flowers, from roses and baby’s breath to lilies and giant sunflowers. And all sorts of bulbs at any time of year. Again, check for import certification and ask about when the bulbs you choose should be planted.

And even if you don’t buy a single flower, a packet of seeds, or a gardening trowel, the floating flower market in Amsterdam is a lovely sight to see. And to smell.

The Amsterdam Tulip Museum

Before we leave Amsterdam to discover more of where to see tulips in Holland, we need to make a stop at the Amsterdam Tulip Museum. The presentation walks you through centuries of tulip culture, from the mountains where they were first found through their cultivated history, up to the story of how the Netherlands became the largest grower and exporter of tulips in the world. Using photos, videos, and tableaux, it tells you everything you need to know about this glorious flower.

The Amsterdam Tulip Museum–the perfect spot in the city to learn the whole story of the queen flower. Photo by Rain Rabbit on flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

The museum is located at Prinsengracht 116, directly across the bridge from the Anne Frank House. It is open daily from 10-6 and admission tickets cost €5 (no senior discount available). If you get the IAmsterdam City Card, admission is included. As the museum is small, you should plan to spend 20-25 minutes here. However, the lovely shop might compel you to stay longer (and spend more!)  Because it is located in an historic canal house, the museum is not wheelchair accessible.

The shop at the museum is delightful. You’ll find hand-painted Delft tiles, jewelry, books, cards, toys, tea towels—a rich inventory of flower-themed items. Most importantly, the Amsterdam Tulip Museum shop is known for the high quality of the bulbs they sell. And all are pre-certified with stickers for import into the U.S. and Canada, so they will not be confiscated by customs on arrival.

If you can’t visit the Netherlands in spring and see the flowers in all their blooming glory, the Tulip Museum is the next best thing.

And while I mention it, the IAmsterdam City is something you should check out. You can buy it for several different timeframes. It gives you free admission to dozens of museums (including the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum, and the Tulip Museum), a free canal cruise (the best way to see the city), free public transport for the length of your card, discounts at many restaurants and cafes, and much more. It’s a real bargain and will get you to places you might not find on your own. You can get your IAmsterdam City Card here.

With the IAmsterdam City Card, you get a booklet that outlines every deal–all the free museum entrances, public transport options, discounted restaurants, and all the other benefits of your card.

Keukenhof – the Queen of Flower Gardens and of Tulips in Holland

You wanted to know the best place to see tulips in Holland? We’ve got you covered. The famous Keukenhof Garden, at Lisse, is one of the world’s great springtime parks, and most especially for bulb flowers—daffodils, hyacinths, and of course, tulips.

Miles of paths, acres of flowers, color forever: that’s Keukenhof Garden in the spring.

The gardens are only open for 7-8 weeks a year, during the blooming season, but during that time, almost a million and half people will come to enjoy the colorful spectacle. Besides the extensive gardens and ponds, there are indoor pavilions with flower shows, terraces and cafes, children’s playgrounds, and the largest sculpture garden in the Netherlands. Every year, there is a different theme for the gardens and flower shows. In 2020, the theme is World of Colors.

The dates for 2020 are March 21-May 10. The gardens change throughout the season, as some blooms die off and others come out. To ensure that the tulips bloom throughout the run, they are planted three deep. The shallowest bulbs will bloom first, the second layer down a few weeks later, and the lowest bulb will give a final showing the last few weeks of the garden season. The flowers tend to be at their absolute peek about mid-April.

The overall numbers are pretty impressive for Keukenhof:

  • 79 acres/32 hectares in size
  • More than 7 million bulbs planted every year, including 800 different varieties of tulips by 500 different flower growers
  • 9 miles/15 km of footpaths winding through the gardens
  • More than 20 flower shows
  • A 100-year-old windmill
Scarlet tulips with yellow stripes in a field in the Netherlands. Tulips in Holland are everywhere in spring.
Tulips in Holland: for a few short weeks they are everywhere.

How Best to Visit Keukenhof Gardens

It’s important to buy your ticket in advance, to avoid long lines at the ticket counter when you arrive. Tickets cost €19 for 2020. However, since the garden is some distance from Amsterdam, near the town of Lisse, I find it most convenient to buy a combination ticket that includes transportation from Amsterdam or Schiphol, plus a skip-the-line entrance ticket. With some packages, other activities are also included, like a boat trip, or drives through the tulip fields. I strongly recommend this approach, rather than trying to do it all yourself, including getting yourself there.

 

Practical Notes for your Visit to Keukenhof Gardens

The garden is open daily during the run from 8 am-7:30 pm, with smaller crowds before 10 and after 4. Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays are the least crowded days.

There is free wifi available throughout the garden. Get your Instagram on! The park is wheelchair accessible and has many accessible bathrooms throughout the property. Non-powered wheelchairs are available with advance reservations for a €20 refundable deposit. You can reserve a wheelchair here.

The Glory of the Tulip Fields, Netherlands, in Spring

You’ve seen the flowers, their pretty cups open to the sun, in singles, in groups in the parks, and in great planted swathes at Keukenhof. But you haven’t truly experienced tulip season in the Netherlands until you’ve seen the tulip fields in the Netherlands. Huge stripes of color, laid out like quilts for giants, stretching almost as far as you can see. These are the fields where Dutch tulip farmers grow the millions of bulbs they ship all over the world.

When the flowers bloom, they are only left to flower for a short time before being “topped,” i.e. the flower heads are cut off, because it is the bulb, not the flower, that is the farmer’s end product. So you have a fairly small window of time to travel out to the fields to immerse yourself in all that color.

The flowers begin to bloom about the last week in march and are usually at their best around April 15th, but that all depends on the weather, how cold the winter was. The bulbs develop more quickly in warmer conditions. So after a cold winter and spring, the bloom will be late. With a warm winter and spring, look for flowers much earlier.

You can sign up for email updates on the state of the fields–what is in bloom, weather forecasts, and the current state of the fields.

Visit Duin en Bollenstreek–Translation: “Dune and Bulb Region”

This coastal strip of fertile land lies between the cities of Haarlem, The Hague, and Leiden. There are beautiful inland fields, but the most spectacular views, I think, are the ones that combine flowers and the sea, all in one panorama. These are near Noordwijk and Noordwijkerhout, where the bulb fields grow up to the edges of the rugged dunes that then slope gently down to the shoreline of the North Sea.

If you like riding a bike, that makes a wonderful way to visit the fields, since you can stop when you like to take pictures or just breathe in the beauty. It is easy to rent a bike at the site. There are also many organized half-day and day trips from Amsterdam to see the fields in full bloom. Do remember, they are popular and the time window is short. Reserve as far in advance as you can.

Among the easiest flower fields to visit are the ones directly around Keukenhof, in Lisse. Combine a trip there with a tour of the fields, by car, boat, or bike. They are adjacent to the garden.

 

Follow the Tulpenroute – The “Tulip Route” Through Flevoland

You’ve probably heard that the Netherlands is bigger than it used to be because they keep adding landmass they have reclaimed from the sea. By walling off a part of the sea with dykes, them pumping out the water, they have created what are called polders, entire new areas of very fertile land. And the polderlands happen to be perfect for growing tulips. Flevoland is reclaimed polder land, under the Zuiderzee as recently as about 50 years ago. Now, it is the Netherlands’ newest province.

The best part of Flevoland for seeing the tulip fields is the Noordoostpolder. Exploring this area by bike is particularly rewarding. There are some 60 miles/100 km of roads and paths through the area, with nearly 2500 acres of fields, all ablaze with color in late April.

FloraHolland-The World’s Biggest Flower Market

For a completely different take on tulips—and flowers of all kinds—you might want to visit FloraHolland in Aalsmeer, close to Schiphol airport. The scope of this place is unbelievable. In a building with the largest footprint in the world at 5.5 million sq. ft./518,000 sq. mt. some 20 million flowers and decorative plants are traded at auction every day.

Just a few of the 20 million flowers to be traded in one day at FloraHolland, in Aalsmeer, the world’s largest flower market.

Unlike Keukenhof and the bulb fields, this is not a place to get up close and personal with the flowers on auction. This is a working business place and veritable hive of activity. You don’t want to be down on the floor where millions of flowers are being loaded, moved, and go whizzing by on train-like vehicles. You would be very much in the way. But visitors can watch the action inside this whirl of activity from elevated walkways. You can also go into the galleries to see how the auction process is carried out. The auction begins at 7 am on weekdays. You should arrive well before 9 am to see and understand how it all works before the morning sales are done at 11 (or 9 am on Thursdays). Admission is €8

For a much more complete description of what happens at FloraHolland, how to get there, and how you can best visit and enjoy it, go to this page on European-traveler.com

Hortus Bulborum—Keeper of the Tulip Genes

For truly hard-core tulip fans, I recommend a spring trip to the Hortus Bulborum in the town of Limmen, about 5 miles/8 km from the city of Alkmaar. This repository, which serves as a sort of gene bank for spring-blooming historical bulbs, more than 4000 of them, includes not only thousands of tulips but also narcissus, hyacinth, crocus and a few others. Some of their tulips date from the 16th century.

A butter yellow double tulip with a blush of pink centered on the petals, from Hortus bulborum, in the Netherlands, a sort of gene bank for the tulips in Holland.
A dark wine purple tulip from Hortus Bulborum, Netherlands

The garden at Hortus Bulborum is open to visitors only in spring, from April 6 to May 16 in 2020 (check their website for the correct dates for future years). Opening times are 10-5, Monday-Saturday, noon-5 on Sunday. Entrance is €5.50 for adults, €4.50 for over 65, free for kids under 12. It is not wheelchair accessible, but they do have a kind of wheeled beach chair available for use. The main garden paths can be accessed by those using a walker, although they can’t move into the narrow paths between the beds.

Learn more about the Hortus Bulborum here.


There is our springtime tulip tour of the Netherlands and the Amsterdam tulip season. Remember, the best time to see tulips in Holland is from mid-April to early May. These flowers wait for no man, nor woman. And they show up when they are ready and not before. But it is worth putting in a little planning to get yourself to the Netherlands at this magical time of year. There is nothing else on earth quite like it.

Check out these and other activities in and around Amsterdam. It’s a small country rich in wonderful things to do and sights to see.

 

Raw herring, with pickles and onion, one of the national dishes of the Netherlands available on an Eating Europe food tour in Amsterdam

Lekker! An Amsterdam Food Tour by Foot and Boat

A collage photo of me chowing down on several different foods on the Eating Europe Amsterdam food tour.

You might have heard it said that Dutch food is…well…boring. Well, I joined Eating Europe for their Amsterdam food tour of the Jordaan neighborhood, followed by a private boat trip through the historic canals of this so-beautiful city. And I’m here to tell you… you heard wrong. This tour will fill your mouth with rich flavors, your tummy with delicious food, and your mind and heart with history and wonderful memories.

This post contains affiliate links. If you click on a link for an item or service I recommend and make a booking or purchase, I may get a small commission on that sale. It won’t affect the price you pay. Also I was offered a discount on this tour to be able to write about it for you. But that has not affected my opinion. My enthusiasm for this experience is genuine.


One of my favorite Dutch words is “lekker.” It means delicious, tasty, good to eat. I love the way it rolls off the tongue, like you’re savoring the taste of it: “lllekkkkkerrr.”

Another thing about the word lekker. It can encompass many things besides food. A sweet girl is a lekker meisje. To tell someone to sleep well, you can say “Slaap lekker.” After spending an afternoon tasting typical Amsterdam Dutch food in the city’s atmospheric old neighborhood and on the city’s wonderful canals, I can say without equivocation that Eating Europe’s Amsterdam food tour makes for a lekker ervaring: a delicious experience all around.

You can learn a lot about a culture by eating their food. Even more when you have a great local guide leading you to some of the best of it while regaling you with stories about the neighborhood, it’s history and legends and tales of the locals. That is what Eating Europe does so well. In Amsterdam, they offer several different tours. I joined the four-hour Jordaan and Canals Food Tour, and I easily decided that for visitors, it was one of the best things to do in Amsterdam.

Where and What is the Jordaan?


A view of a prtty amsterdam canal, from a bridge with, of course, a bicycle and, of course, flower boxes hanging from the bridge railing. SYour Amsterdam food tour takes you along canals and narrow streets.
The Jordaan area of Amsterdam has its share of lovely canals…with, of course, bicycles leaning against the railings, and, of course, flowers in boxes attached there too.

Back in the early 17th-century, Amsterdam was booming, and bursting at the seams. As wealth poured into the city from its world trade, new houses, streets and neighborhoods were being built. And all that growth meant carpenters, stonemasons, bricklayers, and other manual workers also poured in. The Jordaan was built to be the working-class neighborhood for that influx, with tall, skinny houses on narrow streets. Over the centuries, it became more and more crowded and less and less desirable. In fact, it was a slum, so bad that after World War II, the city began making plans to tear the whole thing down and rebuild from scratch.

Fortunately, wiser heads and preservation activists prevailed, and the Jordaan was not only saved but eventually became one of the most desirable neighborhoods in the city. Today it is both hip and cozy, a destination and a community. And eating your way across this diverse and fascinating ‘hood is one of the best ways to experience it.

Cafe Papeneiland: Life is Short. Eat Dessert First

The initial meeting point for the tour was at what might just be the prettiest and most photographed corner in Amsterdam, where the Prinsengracht meets the Brouwersgraacht. And our first food stop on that corner was Café Papeneiland. And a worthy beginning it was. One of the oldest eating establishments in the whole city, this café is over 400 years old. It is what the Dutch call a “brown café” of bruine kroegje. They’re named for their brown wooden walls, stained from centuries of tobacco smoke and good conversation. (Not to worry; smoking is no longer allowed in restaurants in Amsterdam). The bar taps are vintage porcelain whimsies, the windows glazed with leaded glass. An antique stove heats the room in winter.

The bar at Cafe Papeneiland is a work of art unto itself. This is typical of the “brown cafes” found in the oldest parts of the city.

These neighborhood kroegjes are an extension of local people’s living rooms, where they meet to chat, drink, argue, laugh, talk sports or politics, and find out what the neighbors are doing.

They also come to Café Papeneiland for the apple pie, and that is exactly why we were there, beginning our walking “meal” with dessert. And why not? Many people claim this is the best apple pie in town. President Bill Clinton certainly thought so when he stopped in one day for a piece and went home with a whole pie to have in his hotel room.

Dutch apple pie is not what we think it is in the U.S. Nor is it the same as good old American apple pie. The crust is more crumbly and cake-like than its American cousin, and the fruit more lightly cooked. Thin slices of apple piled high, very high, are laced with raisins, cinnamon, less sugar than you’d expect and a bit of lemon juice. The result is a dreamy, not-too-sweet confection that calls out for a dollop of whipped cream and gets it.

The apple pie with whipped cream at Cafe Papeneiland, some of the best in town, and a perfect way to begin your Amsterdam food tour. Yes. Life is short; eat dessert first.
The apple pie at Cafe Papeneiland is some of the best in Amsterdam and the surprisingly perfect way to start an Amsterdam food tour.

Meeting Hungry New Friends

As we chowed down on our pie and coffee, we had a chance to get to know each other a bit. We were a group of nine from four countries and a range of ages. It was a friendly group of people who all loved to eat. That was enough.

We also had the chance to learn about our guide. Eating Europe has a high reputation for the quality, knowledge, and sheer fun of their guides. Some are professional chefs. Or historians. Or people who have lived here forever.

Our Eating Europe Amsterdam guide, Mirka, opens the door to invite us to visit a hofje.
Our Eating Europe Amsterdam guide was Mirka, who grew up in the Jordaan and knows every corner of it, including the hofjes. Here she invites us to visit the Suijkerhofje, built in 1670.

 

Our guide that day, Mirka, definitely added to that fine rep. She was born and raised in the Jordaan and knows every corner and alley of her childhood playground. Throughout the tour, she regaled us with Amsterdam history, family stories, childhood anecdotes, and the secrets behind some of the doors and shopfronts.

One Amsterdam secret she showed us was one of the hofjes dotted throughout the Jordaan. These are courtyard gardens surrounded by small houses, mostly built in the 17th-18th centuries as almshouses or housing for single elderly women. Mirka led us from the busy street through a nondescript door and down a corridor into the tranquil garden of the Suijkerhofje, built in 1670.

Colonial Tastes on an Amsterdam Foodie Tour

But on to more food. Our next noshing stop was designed to remind us that the Netherlands has a strong history as a colonial power. Its empire spread from Indonesia to the Caribbean. And those more exotic foods have had a strong influence on Dutch eating habits. We headed up the street to a toko, or takeaway counter, called Swieti Sranang, which specializes in food from Suriname and Indonesia.

I didn’t know what to expect of the Surinamese food served here, but it was complex, different and delicious.

The owner, Henk, and his Indonesian wife, Juliet, greeted us with huge smiles and began handing food around. Juliet was born in Indonesian and grew up in Suriname, and she does all the cooking herself. We tried two different foods here, standing at the counter or outside in the sunshine. The first was a sandwich called broodje pom, from Suriname, made with chicken, apple, and malanga, a South American root vegetable, topped with a complex sauce-of-many-spices that was punchy, tart, and delectable. We followed the sandwich with baka bana, a broiled sweet plantain covered with a spicy peanut sauce. I fell in love with satay/Indonesian peanut sauce right here in Amsterdam many decades ago and will eat anything covered in it. The plantain was a new one for me, but spectacular.

The Basis of Dutch Cuisine: Meat and Fish

Having had our dessert and more, it was time to back up to the two main pillars of Dutch food, meat and fish. These, along with greens and root vegetables, are what you’re going to find on steaming platters coming out of most Dutch grandma’s kitchens.

Sausage and other meats from Butcher Louman, probably the best butcher in Amsterdam. Photo by Eating Amsterdam

As we walked along the narrow streets, Mirka told us more stories about growing up in the neighborhood. She even showed us the house where she lived as a child, pointing up to her attic bedroom window, high up in the gable. The Jordaan was a wonderful place to grow up, she claimed.

One of her stories included shopping for meat and sausages at Butcher Louman, which she claimed to be the best butcher in Amsterdam. Now coming up on 130 years in business, it has customers not just from the neighborhood but from all over the city, who happily travel here for the quality of the meat. In fact, later in my visit, I ate in two restaurants that both stated proudly on their menus that their meat came from Butcher Louman.

We ate sausages here, one dry and deeply flavored. The second was an ossenworst, a raw sausage of which I was more than a bit skeptical. But actually, I loved it. It was not actually raw, but lightly smoked, with a smooth, fine texture similar to liverwurst. I’d eat it again.

And of course there was fish. The Netherlands has been a seafaring nation for hundreds of years, after all. We walked a few blocks to the Urker Viswinkel. And since the first fish everyone must try here is herring, the owner, Dirk, brought out a big platter of the stuff. There are a couple of traditional ways to eat herring in Holland. You can eat it head first, holding it by the tail above your open mouth and chomping away as you lower your hand. We went the other direction, with the fish cut into chunks with perky little Dutch flag toothpicks stuck in them, surrounded by chopped raw onion and pickles. Stab, dip, and eat. I love Dutch herring, even though the first time I had it I was doubtful I would, knowing it was eaten raw. But actually, it is more like Japanese sashimi. It is partially “cooked” in brine, leaving it with a light, sea-fresh taste and a firm texture.

Herring! You can't have an Amsterdam food tour without herring, shown here in chunks speared with Amsterdam flag toothpicks, surrounded by chopped onion and pickle slices.
Delicious briny herring, like the Dutch eat it–with pickles and raw onion.

We followed the herring with kibbeling, which is white fish—most often cod—dipped in beer batter and deep fried. Think classic fish and chips style, but the best you’ve ever had. The fish was flaky and steaming, the batter crisp but not too much. It was served with a garlic sauce for dipping that I think I could have made of meal of all by itself.

Kibbeling, breaded and deep fried cod, it's like the best fish and chips you've ever had.
The garlic sauce we ate with kibbeling was amazing. Photo by
Zoetnet on flickr. CC license.

Eating Afloat: We Head to the Water for More of our Eating Amsterdam Food Tour

It was now time for that promised canal ride, and I was ready to sit for a bit. We strolled over to the gorgeous Hotel Pulitzer, on the Prinsengracht, and boarded their private salon boat, called “Tourist.” A beautifully restored and maintained wooden salon boat built in 1908, it has an interesting history in itself. In 1946, when Winston Churchill visited Amsterdam to celebrate the end of the war, he and Queen Wilhelmina rode through the canals in this very boat.  Stepping inside, it feels like Sir Winston himself might greet you. The carpet is original. The teak glows, the brass is polished to a high sheen. And Captain Ton, in his epauletted uniform, smiled us aboard.


Inside, red upholstered banquettes line both sides of the boat with a table down the center already set with plates of cheeses and Dutch cider and champagne ready to be poured.

The polished brass steering wheel of the salon boat "Tourist," where Capt. Ton steered us up into narrow canals and past beautiful gabled houses.
Capt. Ton’s station, where he steered us confidently into tiny canals and under low bridges.

As we left the dock in front of the hotel, Capt. Ton steered us carefully up the Prinsengracht and through the system of canals. Since “Tourist” is so much smaller than the big canal boats you see plowing through the water all day, it can easily clear the lowest bridges and nose up into many of the smaller canals, leaving its younger but bigger brothers behind. Seen from the water, Amsterdam is even lovelier, if that is possible, and “Tourist” can get you up close and personal with her. As we floated by the elegant gabled canal houses, nibbling on a creamy young cheese and a three-year-old strong gouda that was divine, our gallant captain described what we were seeing out the windows.

One of those very narrow canals took us past the back of the Holtkamp Bakery. Capt. Ton steered us right up to the edge where a young woman waited with a bag. As he thrust out a hooked pole, she handed off the bag and he hauled it in. I was excited, because I’d heard that Holtkamp made some of the best bitterballen in Amsterdam, and yes! That’s what was in the bag.

A bowl full of bitterballen, just waiting to be speared by a toothpick and dipped in mustard. This is the real typical Amsterdam food.
Bitterballen ready to be speared, dipped in mustard and popped hot and fresh into waiting mouths. Photo by Takeaway-CC by SA 3.0

What are bitterballen? They’re delectable little balls of deep fried gravy, usually made with beef or veal. The gravy is chilled so it can be formed into balls, then rolled in a crumb coating and deep fried. Served up with mustard for dipping, they are probably the most common, most popular bar snack in the Netherlands and much better than the name would make you think. There is nothing bitter about these yummy treats. The name refers to the fact that they are often eaten with a local drink called bitters. Instead, we had ours with beer from Brouwerie ‘t IJ, the famous windmill brewery in Amsterdam (and whose beer is so much better than Heineken). The bitterballen were still hot, right from the fryer, and so so good.

A plate of Dutch poffertjes, puffy little mini-pancakes with a glob of butter to melt into them, and dusted with powdered sugar.
Poffertjes are quite possibly my favorite thing to eat in Amsterdam. And the more butter and powdered sugar the better.

After about an hour on the water, you’d think we were done with this afternoon’s adventure. But there was one more stop to make. After climbing back on land at the Pulitzer, we strolled a little way up the canal to another brown café, De Prins, for our final treat of the day and one of my very favorite things to eat in Amsterdam.

Poffertjes are heavenly little pillows of buckwheat pancake dough, cooked in a special pan and served up hot, slathered with melting butter and dusted with powdered sugar. I could eat them daily (and have been known to do so when I am in Amsterdam).

Finally we were done. Mirka waved us all goodbye and left. But our group had bonded over the last four hours together. We ended up sitting on a while at De Prins, chatting, exchanging contact info and suggestions we’d gleaning about what else to do in Amsterdam. There also might have been the fact that we were so full of excellent typical Amsterdam food that we couldn’t walk and needed to let it settle a bit.

In a narrow street in Amsterdam's Jordaan, a woman sits in her open front doorway, reading a book and enjoying the sun.
Sunny days in Amsterdam are for enjoying, however and wherever you can!

I can’t recommend enough this experience of tasting the city with an Eating Amsterdam food tour with Eating Europe. Everything about it was professional, friendly, efficient, and top notch.

Eating Europe now offers a range of food tours and cooking classes in several European cities, with more being added every season. Going to Portugal? Try a tour of Lisbon’s eats and street art in the Baixa and Mouraria neighborhoods. Or dive into a Porto Food & Wine Tour. In Prague, you can dine in the cafe where Albert Einstein ate. Or check out their other tours, night crawls, and cooking classes in London, Rome, Florence, and Naples and Paris and Strasbourg, in France. Eating Europe Food Tours covers them all. And I can’t tell you how anxious I am to taste test them all.

Need to Know: Eating Europe’s Amsterdam Food Tour–Jordaan and Canal Tour

  • Your tour might not be a duplicate of mine. Depending on season and day of the week and the vicissitudes of small, family-run businesses, some providers might be different from the ones described here. But they will all be well chosen and equal in substance to what I experienced.
  • COME HUNGRY! You will be enjoying something like a dozen different tastings, plus coffee/tea, wine, cider, and beer. You want to start on empty.
  • They can make adjustments for vegetarian travelers if you let them know in advance.
  • Except for one hour on the canal boat, this is a walking tour. It’s a flat city walk at an easy pace, but you should wear comfortable shoes.
  • The tour runs rain or shine. If it looks gray or damp, take an umbrella and/or a raincoat with you.
  • This trip involves stairs and stepping into and out of the boat and is not suitable for people with serious mobility problems.

Pin it to Save for Later:

A collage of headshots of me stuffing my face at various stops on the Eating Europe Amsterdam Food Tour - Pinnable image

 

Pinnable image -- "Come & eat Amsterdam" with small photos of some dishes.

 


Check out some other wonderful activities you can book for your trip to Amsterdam.

 

How to Visit the Mucha Museum, Prague

The Mucha Museum, in Prague, is one of my favorite “almost hidden” treasures in the City of 100 Spires. Located in Nové Město, just a quick walk from Wenceslaus Square, it should be on your must-see list of things to do in Prague.

This post contains affiliate links. If you click on a link for an item or service I recommend and make a booking or purchase, I may get a small commission on that sale. It won’t affect the price you pay. Also I was offered a discount on this tour to be able to write about it for you. But that has not affected my opinion. My enthusiasm for this experience is genuine.

December 26,1894 – The workshop office of Lemercier Printers, Paris:

The phone rings and Maurice de Brunhoff, manager of the publishing firm, picks up. On the other end is the most famous actress in Paris, if not the world, Sarah Bernhardt. Her current production of Gismonda is being extended and she wants a new poster designed at once. Of course, Madame, M. de Brunhoff replies. Then Bernhardt drops the bomb; she wants the poster ready to distribute by January 1.

Let’s imagine the rest of the conversation, shall we?

“But, ma chère madame, that is only one week away!”

“Mais oui, mon chèr Maurice. And I want something different, non? Something unique. I am going to plaster Paris with them. See to it, please, will you, mon chèr?”

Well, clearly, M. de Brunhoff now found himself in a pickle. You just did not say no to the world’s greatest actress, not to mention one of your firm’s best customers, as they had been printing Bernhardt’s posters for some time. But it was the holidays; all his artists were unavailable. Where was he to find someone to design such an important commission and get it ready and printed in seven days?

Fortunately for him, and for the future of the art world, a not-well-known but talented artist/illustrator, a fellow from Moravia, was in the print shop at that moment, correcting some proofs. “Can you do it?” the manager asked after explaining the problem. Well, of course he could, replied Alphonse Mucha. And he did.

The Sarah Bernhardt poster for Gismondo, her gown in shades of gold, as seen at the Mucha Museum, Prague.

One week later, Paris was indeed plastered with Mucha’s 6 ½’ high poster. Bernhardt was delighted with the design, full of complex details and subtle colorations. It showed her full length and bigger than life, dressed as a Byzantine princess with orchids in her hair, holding a palm frond. Her head was outlined with an arc that looked like a halo, a design feature that would become a signature element of Mucha’s work. So popular was the piece that people were pulling it off walls and kiosks, taking it home to decorate their own walls. 4000 posters were printed. Bernhardt immediately offered Mucha a six-year contract to design posters, costumes, and stage sets for her.

Alphonse Mucha, who had been struggling to make his name known, to say nothing of paying his café bill and the rent on his atelier, had been designing restaurant menus, advertising posters, and illustrating popular novels. With this poster, he became one of the most popular artists in Paris almost overnight.

You can see this beautiful Gismonda poster—yes, the original proof print, from 1894—at the Mucha Museum in Prague. And I heartily suggest you do.

How to Get the Most Out of a Mucha Museum Visit

I have been a fan of Mucha’s work since my college days—a long time ago!—so I was thrilled to see so many of his pieces in person. Also, since I knew almost nothing about his life, I enjoyed seeing the photos, drawings, and the reproduction of his Paris studio. The museum is small, but rich for anyone who loves the work of Mucha or Art Nouveau in general.

I suggest you plan to spend at least an hour here—I stayed closer to two—and that you begin your visit by watching the excellent 30-minute film—in English—shown in the video room at the very back. It gives a great overview of the artist’s life and work, and is the perfect introduction, especially if you are not familiar with the breadth of his work.

After the film, return to the front of the museum and work your way through the sections one by one.

“The purpose of my work was never to destroy but always to create, to construct bridges, because we must live in the hope that humankind will draw together and that the better we understand each other the easier this will become.”

– Alphonse Mucha

The Decorative Panels and Posters

The first sections are where you’ll see the Mucha works you probably know best—decorative panels and posters. In fin-de-siècle Paris, there was a hunger among the middle class for beautiful but affordable artworks to adorn their homes. Mucha was happy to supply them with a stream of decorative panels, calendars, and prints. He developed an archetypal style that would forever mark his work—flattened, subtle colors, curved lines, flowing hair and fabrics, and strong outlines.

He often worked in series—The Four Seasons, The Four Flowers, The Four Times of Day. I particularly loved The Four Arts–Dance, Poetry, Painting and Music. Its warm golden tones, the lushness of its flowing lines contrasted with the rigidly round crescent behind each figure, drew me in.

Mucha's The Four Arts, a four-panel piece. Each panel has a woman in slowing dress and hair, in warm colors of yellows and golds.
The Four Arts, by Alphonse Mucha–Dance, Poetry, Painting, & Music

The Four Flowers has a quite different feel, although a similar palette. The thing that most struck me about it was how modern the flowing dresses on the four women seemed. You could put these gowns on any woman walking the red carpet at a celebrity-heavy awards ceremony and they would not look out of place.

A set of four tall, narrow panels, each with a woman adorned with a different flower. The shades are pastel pinks, yellows and golden tones. At the Mucha Museum, Prague.
For Mucha, The Flowers are a full-blown expression of his Art Nouveau style.

This is also where you can see some of the famous Bernhardt posters. I was intrigued by the Medée poster, which captures the actress’s powerful presence in the look of horror on her face as she stands over the bodies of the children she has killed. The snake bracelet she is wearing was a design detail the artist added. Bernhardt liked it so much, she commissioned the jeweler Georges Fouquet to make her one just like it.

Mucha’s style was also perfectly adapted to the growing need for printed advertising materials in turn-of-the-century France, and he was glad for the commissions. He designed advertising prints for champagne and chocolate, beer and Benedictine, bicycles and corsets. And his ads sold merchandise, making him much in demand.

In this section, you can see his famous ad for JOB cigarette papers, featuring a scantily clad woman in flowing fabric and even more flowing long black hair. This wild mass of almost Medusa-like hair was another signature of Mucha’s work, often called “macaroni” or “vermicelli.” The woman’s pose is flirty and sensual. Even in such early advertising, it was already clear that “sex sells.”

An advertising poster for JOB cigarette papers, it features a woman in a strapless red gown with exaggerated long black hair that flows around her in waves. She holds a cigarette in one hand.
The Alphonse Mucha JOB cigarette papers ad shows that
even 125 years ago, he knew. “Sex sells.”

Documents Décoratifs and Czech Posters

The next section of the museum contains a number of what are called Documents Décoratifs. These are primarily pencil drawings highlighted with white paint showing his designs for everything from furniture to fireplaces, tableware to cutlery, hair combs, fans, chandeliers, and jewelry (much of which was produced by the famous Parisian jeweler Fouquet).

These works are followed by more posters, Czech ones this time, created after he returned to his country of birth in 1910. He was very much a Slavic nationalist, and the work he created at this time shows a distinct difference from the Paris posters. Folk costumes, Slavic faces, and strong Slav sports figures replace the flowing, almost liquid lines of so much of the Parisian work. Social commentary in speaking out against the Germanization of the Czechs is also present.

Alphonse Mucha Paintings

Although Mucha made his name and fame as an illustrator and graphic designer, his first love had been painting, which he studied in Munich. There are not a lot of examples of his painting work here, but one drew me to it and I stared for a long time, taking in every detail. It is a powerful work, called variously “Star,” “Woman in the Wilderness,” and “Siberia.” It shows a Russian peasant woman, wrapped in a shawl, sitting alone on a field of snow, her face turned upward to the night sky with a single bright star hanging above her. There is defeat, acceptance, and finally a sense of peace in her posture. The artist’s wife, Marie, posed for the painting.

Mucha's painting "Woman in the Wilderness," also called "Star" and "Siberia." A field of snow and a blue-gray night sky with a single bright star lighting a Russian peasant woman wrapped in a shawl sitting on the ground.
“Star,” by Alphonse Mucha, is also called “Siberia” and “Woman in the Wilderness.” It is a powerful evocation of aloneness, defeat, and acceptance.

A Man of Many Talents

The final section of the museum seems specifically designed for the artist to just show off his astonishing versatility. There are drawings and pastels and studies, jewelry and sculpture, a design for a stained-glass window at St. Vitus’ Cathedral (which you can see while you are in Prague). There are examples of the Czech banknotes and stamps he designed.

You’ll also see here a small reconstruction of part of his Paris studio. That studio must have been a lively, happening place (especially when the painter Paul Gauguin lived with him for awhile). You can tell by looking at the many photographs on display. Mucha made glass-plate photos of models in preparation for many of his pieces, and they are fascinating. Look beyond the models at the studio itself, the furnishings and objects of the exotic Bohemian interior.

Paul Gauguin (left) lived in Mucha’s studio in Paris for a time. On the right is Gauguin’s teenage mistress and model, Annah la Javanaise.

“Advised to “Find a Different Career”

This is the feast of the Mucha Museum. Once you have seen the astonishing brilliance and breadth of his work here, it’s amusing to learn that in 1878, when the budding young artist was 18 years old and applied to attend the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, he was rejected. The person rejecting him told him to “find a different career.” I don’t suppose anyone remembers that man’s name. While Mucha went on to be hailed not only as the greatest of the Art Nouveau artists, but even as “the most famous artist in the world.”

After working your way through the entire Mucha Museum, I hope you end up loving Alphonse Mucha and his work as much as I do. This visit was one of the high points of my time in Prague. See this post for other high points and “insider tips” to what you should see in Prague.

If you’d like to get a good meal near the museum, I suggest heading to Bistro Spejle, just a block away; good food and a fun concept, with everything served on a skewer, with your bill calculated by how many skewers you consume. You can read my full review of Bistro Spejle here.

Fast Facts for Visiting the Mucha Museum:

Where: The museum is located at Panská 7 in the Kaunický Palace. This is in Nové Město, just a short walk from Wenceslaus Square. With your back to the National Museum at the top of the square and the venerable good King Wenceslaus astride his horse, walk about 2/3 the length of the square to Jindřišská and turn right. Go one block to Panská. You will see the museum on your right.

When: The museum is open daily from 10 am to 6 pm

Cost: Regular admission tickets are 300 CZK, about US$13.25. NOTE: There is a senior discount for visitors over 65 with tickets costing 200 CZK, about US$8.85

Amenities: There is a wonderful gift shop at the front near the entrance, full of Mucha inspired gifts, books, posters and other items.

Accessibility: The museum is wheelchair accessible.

Facilities: Clean, free restrooms are located near the front of the museum across from the ticket desk.

The Grocery Store Tourist: What You Can Learn About a Culture with a Visit to the Supermarket

Supermarket tourism—it’s one of the best ways to get the inside scoop on a culture. So make a visit to the supermarket one of your first stops on your trip abroad.

This post may contain affiliate links. That means that if you click on a link to a product or service I recommend and you make a purchase, I may get a small commission.

A picture of a supermarket cold food aisle with the words "Supermarket Tourism: It's a Thin" superimposed over it.

I have a secret habit. Whenever I travel, I become a spy. I peek through doorways and into corners and peer into people’s faces—discretely, I hope—because I want to get inside the culture of the place as much as I possibly can. I want to see what is behind the touristic surface. Oh, I know I will never fully understand the intricacies of how the people of another country see the world. After living in Mexico for 17 years, there are still things about the culture here that baffle me. But I want to at least try.

And I have discovered one of the best ways to learn about a people and how they live, is to see how they eat and cook. And how they shop for food. That’s why I always try to make one of my first spy outings a visit to the supermarket or local grocery store.

The Grocery Store as a Window on Culture

It’s amazing what you can learn as a supermarket tourist in the local grocery store. What do the people like to eat here? When you walk into the biggest supermarket in my town of San Miguel de Allende, in central Mexico, and one of the largest sections of shelf space is taken up by dozens and dozens of brands of hot sauce and chiles, what does that tell you? Right, Mexicans like their food spicy.

A Mexican supermarket section six shelves high and many feet wide full of hot sauces and salsas. And this is only part of it! Dozens of types and brands.
This is just a part of the display of hot sauces and salsas available at my local supermarket in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

The grocery store is where everyday life happens. The people are not there to serve you a meal, take your entrance ticket, tour-guide you through town. They just want to buy something for dinner. And while they do it, they are opening a window on the culture for you to look through. Do they have a wide variety of herbs and spices to choose from? Are there mountains of fresh fish for sale? How many fruits and vegetables can you find that you’ve never seen and can’t name? How many different brands of beer are lined up on the shelves? These are clues.

Supermarket tourism is also a fine way to discover unique souvenirs. My kitchen tells the stories of my travels in the speculaas cookie butter from Amsterdam, a bag of flavored salt from Tbilisi, in Georgia, pickled kelp from Alaska, and even the little orange ceramic pots I bought yogurt in from a neighborhood grocery store on the Île de la Cité in Paris.

I’m not alone in this quirk, I’ve discovered. I asked a number of travel blogger friends and regular traveling pals about the oddest, funniest, or just different things they have seen in a supermarket in their travels. More than 20 of them came up with an answer, so I’m sharing them all below.

Sightseeing in European Supermarkets

You’d think that European supermarkets would be quite similar to those in the U.S, and in many ways they are. But there are differences, subtle clues to the things that mark us as different from each other. For instance:

Dutch Licorice: “Drop” from the Netherlands, by Rachel at Rachels Ruminations

The Dutch are absolutely crazy about licorice, and in more variety than any non-Dutch person can imagine. Every supermarket in the Netherlands has multiple shelves of the stuff, called drop in Dutch, ranging from super-sweet to dubbelzout (double salt). It comes in all shapes and sizes too: cars and coins and objects of all sorts. Sometimes the licorice is combined with other flavors: half licorice, half some other chewy candy, much like gummy bears, in “fruit” flavor for the most part. Almost all of them have a hard, rubber-like texture: the kind of candy that sticks in your teeth and drives dentists to despair—though sugar-free varieties are also available.

I have a theory about the Dutch love for licorice. In this country where it can stay cloudy for weeks on end, parents give their children vitamin D drops every day from September until April. Newborns get the drops all year. My son’s exclusive diet for his first six months was a) breast milk and b) vitamin D drops. It’s not surprising, once you realize that the drops taste like licorice, that Dutch people love the stuff. It’s comfort food!

Shelves full of packages of Dutch "drop," or licorice, in various shapes and degrees of sweetness or saltiness
“Drop,” Dutch licorice, comes in dozens of varieties.
Most are definitely an acquired taste.

And while we are talking about licorice, it’s not just the Dutch who are crazy about it. The Swedes apparently love the black stuff too, so much so they even flavor their chips with it.

Salty Licorice Potato Chips from Sweden, by James Ian at Travel Collecting

Grocery stores are always an insight into local tastes and culinary culture. Before visiting Sweden, I had heard about their love of licorice. Especially salty licorice. There are hilarious videos on You Tube of Americans trying salty licorice for the first time. It doesn’t go well. I already knew I hated the taste of anise, so I was steering well clear of all things licorice when, while browsing the shelves of a grocery store in Stockholm, I saw something I had never imagined would exist—licorice flavored potato chips. I was intrigued—and fortunately my husband actually does like licorice—so we bought a packet. He ate the entire packet bar one chip. Yes, I tried them (it). Yes, it tasted like licorice. Yes, it was definitely out of my culinary comfort zone. Yes, one was most definitely enough. Nonetheless, it was fun to see the different things you can buy in a Swedish grocery store. And this is something that you will most assuredly not find in an American supermarket!

A man about to eat a single salty licorice potato chip in Sweden.
Have you ever tried salty licorice potato chips?
Do you want to? If you do… why?
??

Plopp Ice Cream in Sweden, by Suzanne from Meandering Wild

In winter, in Sweden, in a blizzard, the best thing to do if you still need an adventure is to explore the warm supermarket. Even in a country very similar to your own, you can find unusual items, usually where translation really doesn’t work well. Browsing the ice creams for a treat to match the outside weather we came across Plopp. The name jumped out as we sauntered by. Amongst the strawberry ice creams and fruity ice lollies sat a box of chocolate Plopp. I am sure you can see why this had to be photographed and then tested. As an evaluation, I can confirm that these frozen ice creams taste far better than their name suggests even when consumed while walking across a parking lot in sub-zero temperatures. This really is a case of bad translation; anything other than Plopp would not have grabbed our attention or secured a purchase for the store.

A package of Plopp chocolate ice cream cones
I think this must be as much fun to eat as it is to say… Plopp!!

Spanish Cold Meats, by Sabine de Gaspari of The Traveling Chilli

One of the things that intrigued me the first time I walked into a Spanish supermarket was the copious amounts of cold and cured meats on the shelves. In most countries, you can find a nice yet often modest selection of various cold meats, both local and international. In Spain however, looking at the almost infinitely long shelves filled with cold and cured meats, it seems like that is the daily staple food, which in fact, it almost is. Most cold meats, or embutidos as they are locally called, are served as tapas, appetizers or prepared in the main dish itself. Serving a meal of Spanish food without cold meats doesn’t happen very often.

The most popular and famous cold cuts are the Spanish ham and chorizo which are also sold internationally. However, the variation seems endless. You can buy thin sliced meats, from small to large cuts of sausages to whole pork legs of cured ham. On top of that, the quality of the cured meat in Spanish supermarkets is of very high standards and tastes just delicious. So next time you walk into a Spanish grocery store, look for the aisle with the cold meats, which is in fact very hard to miss.

Packages of cured meats in Spain, some marked "tasty" and some marked "intense."
A very small fraction of the meats and cold cuts available in your average Spanish supermarket

And for some supermarket tourists, it’s about the stores themselves, not just what is in them.

SPARS stores in Vienna, by Gemma Armit from Two Scots Abroad

Spar brand stores in Vienna, Austria, could be confused for upmarket delis and off-off license shops. In contrast to Scotland’s Spars (and their equivalents) which stock beige food and cardboard boxes. The first time I stepped into a European Spar, not only could my eyes not believe what they were seeing but also my nose was surprised! The smell of fresh bread and pastries in contrast to the smell of, well, nothing because pantry goods found on Scotland’s shelves don’t tend to have a smell. Instead of the tinned peaches we are accustomed to in our corner shops, fresh fruit and vegetables! Forget stale bread in plastic bags, European Spars have baguettes, rolls, and deliciously sweet filled pastries.

Then there is the drink aisle, which admittedly Scotland does do well if you’re not too picky. Vienna has quality wine and craft beers as well as local schnapps. Avoid buying souvenirs at the airport; you can pick up Milka and Mozartkugel at most grocery shops too. So, when thinking about where to stay in Vienna, you might want to think about accommodations with a kitchen if you like to cook in and save money. You can just stock up at the nearest Spar.

Pork and Bacon Snacks in Denmark, by Lesley from Freedom 56 Travel

When it comes to eating pork, Danes eat more than any other country in the world per capita. As ardent pork and bacon lovers, Danish people have for years designed creative ways to prepare their favorite meat. Stegt Flæsk (fried pork belly with potatoes and parsley sauce), frikadeller (flat, pan-fried meatballs), flæskesteg (roast pork with crackling) and so many more are beloved pork dishes in Denmark that are regularly served at family meals and special occasions, particularly at holidays.

But, if you ever feel a craving for pork on a Danish afternoon and it’s hours until dinner, don’t worry—there’s a fast food waiting for you in the nearest grocery store or convenience store. Enter Bacon Snacks. I happened on these crispy pork confections during a holiday in Denmark and can’t get them out of my mind. Similar to pork rinds but fluffier, these delicious salty, porky snacks are as addictive as the best potato chips. Just don’t look at the calorie count. Try them on your next Danish shopping trip!

A bag od Danish "Bacon Snacks"
Yummmm…. bacon, bacon, bacon!
Sometimes supermarket tourism really pays off.

Binned Goods in Bulk in Tbilisi, Georgia, by Chris Backe from Worthy Go

Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, is one of many Eastern European cities formerly under Soviet control. While few of these cities look to the past with any level of fondness, some cities have kept some of the Soviet traditions alive more than others. While I’m sure you’d see it elsewhere, the Carrefour inside the Karvasla mall (a few hundred meters southeast of Station Square) features large bins of staples like noodles, sugar, and so on, sold in bulk. Much as you would with fruits or vegetables, you fill a bag, then take it to be weighed. 

I’m unsure if this was originally done as part of a rationing program, or if locals preferred it to get the exact amount of something they needed. You can always buy the standard sizes of things, but sometimes a holdover from the past still works for people today.

In a Georgian supermarket in Tbilisi, large bins holding dried pasta and meal, to be sold in bulk.
Is buying goods in bulk from bins in Georgia a leftover from Soviet rule and rationing?

Hard-boiled Eggs in Switzerland, by Will from The Broke Backpacker

Swiss grocers uphold the positive cliché that many will recognize of the Swiss: dedication to organization and efficiency. These stores are best approached with a game plan. There is an obvious route that begins at the entrance, passes each aisle exactly once, and deposits the shopper at the register. On the way you’ll see an array of Ricola lozenges (a word I only learned upon seeing them here), mayonnaise and other pasty condiments in stiff metallic tubes, and racks upon racks of eggs decorated for Easter. Actually, it doesn’t matter what time of the year you visit; the eggs are always brightly colored. Half of them are, anyway.

These brightly colored half (never mixed with the other, unembellished ovals) are marked so peculiarly because they’ve been hard-boiled. For us egg lovers, this is a huge convenience. These eggs are ready-made to throw in salads. Plus, you’ll have no difficulty discerning bits of eggshell to pick out when they accidentally fall into your meal.

For more on Switzerland, check out TBB’s Switzerland Travel Guide

A package of 4 "pic-nic" eggs, colored red, yellow, and gold.
Easter-colored eggs in Sweden let you know hard-boiled from not…any time of year.

Supermarket Tourism in Asian Grocery Stores—Not for the Faint of Heart

Europe is easy; Asia and Africa can present a bit more…culture shock. Our blogger friends came up with some interesting finds from the shelves of Asian supermarkets they visited.

Horse Milk in Kazakhstan, by Ellis from Backpack Adventures

The oddest thing I have ever seen in a foreign grocery store was in Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan’s culture is strongly influenced by its nomadic past on the steppes. Horses were and still are very important to Kazakh people and this is also clearly visible in the average Kazakh supermarket. Often there is a special section with horse meat. Horse sausages are popular and an integral part of Kazakh cuisine. The national dish of beshbarmak consists of noodles in a broth with horse meat on top.

If the horse meat section isn’t odd enough, there is also the dairy section where you will find Kazakh’s national drink. Kymyz is fermented horse milk. A less common variety is shubat or fermented camel’s milk. It is an acquired taste and not one that many foreigners appreciate. Still, if you are in Kazakhstan, it’s a must try and in the supermarket it is relatively cheap to buy kymyz and shubat.

Bottles of horse milk and camel's milk on a supermarket shelf in Kazakhstan with very decorative labels.
Aren’t these bottles of fermented horse milk and camel’s milk in a supermarket in Kazakhstan pretty?

Ramen-Tofu-Kimchi in South Korea, by Cal from Once In a Lifetime Journey

When I first landed in Korea, I was taken to a gigantic “Mart” to do my food shopping. This is actually one of the best things to see in Seoul. It’s a megastore several stories high with different departments on each level, food usually being in B1. I never knew you could get so many different types of tofu, some for stewing, some for frying, with different textures and packaging. There must have been 25 different brands and varieties. Then there was the ramen. Where I’m from, ramen is a snack for you don’t want to cook or can’t afford a proper meal, but in Korea ramen is a very competitive market. It ranges from sweet to spicy, from thick (udon) to thin (soba) to gourmet. I chose Mashitneun Ramen (맛있는라면 – Delicious Ramen) because it looked nice and I’ve never turned back.

After walking past the fishtanks with staff shouting all kinds of sales phrases I got to the kimchi section. Us Westerners who know only a little about kimchi, don’t understand how many types there are. There are, wait for it, over 100 types of kimchi. From bossam (rolled) to chinggak (young) to kkakduki (spicy), it takes a while deciding which you like best and which goes with what dish.

Probably the best things about shopping for food in Korea, other than the glorious product packaging, are the “events” and the free samples. Sometimes each aisle will have a free sample, from kimchi to fried sausage or spam. And the events are constant, we say “buy one get one free.” They say “1+1 Event”. I still find it difficult to get only one toothbrush at a time. 

Supermarket shelves and shelves full of every kind of ramen in bags and cups, i Korea.
All the ramen….
in a South Korean supermarket

Beondegi (Silkworm Pupae) in South Korea, by Marie of Be Marie Korea 

After living for a while in South Korea, I’m used to most of the food and find the cuisine quite delicious. There are only a couple of dishes that I really don’t like and will never eat. One of these is beondegi or boiled silkworm pupae. You’ll find this snack canned in local supermarkets as well as fresh at any street food market. To me it just smells and tastes really weird. I tried it when I first came to South Korea three years back, but I have never gotten used to it. Beondegi became popular in Korea during the 2nd World War as it has excellent nutritional value and was widely available when other food was scarce. A can of beondegi at a supermarket costs around 2000 krw, and it’s about the same at the Myeongdong street food and night market.   

A pot full of Korean beondegi, or silkwork pupae, cooking in a brown sauce.
Beondegi – Boiled silkworm pupae. I’m not at all sure these are ever going to become a regular part of my die

Coconut Worms in Vietnam, by Josh and Sarah from Veggie Vagabonds

For us, one of the highlights of adventuring to foreign lands is experiencing supermarkets and the bizarre products they have on the shelves. In Vietnam, you’re absolutely spoiled for choice. And this is in supermarkets; go to one of the local street markets and things get even more extreme. One of the things that really caught our eye was the first time we saw packaged coconut worms in the chilled section of a supermarket in Hanoi. A pack of them, wrapped in clingfilm and for a cheap price, right next to the regular meats.

If you’ve not seen coconut worms before, they’re a form of beetle larvae which look like huge maggots. Beetles lay their eggs inside coconuts and the larvae grow inside. They ruin the coconut, but the worms are a delicacy to the Vietnamese who eat them in a number of ways. They are becoming more popular with tourists. Sometimes they’re fried, sometimes fermented in stew and sometimes eaten raw. We’re vegan (here’s our Vegan in Vietnam Guide) so they weren’t appealing to us, but in Southern Vietnam they’re highly sought after as it’s believed they enhance men’s sexual abilities!

A metal bucket full of maggoty-looking fat coconut worms.
Coconut worms are a delicacy in Vietnam, found in the street markets and also in Vietnamese supermarkets. Hmmm… I think I’ll take the coconut instead.

Snake Wine in Vietnam, by Ben at Horizon Unknown

Shopping in Vietnam can provide you with plenty of memorable sights, even at the local markets and grocery stores. While this tourist hotspot is known for many things, shopping was always interesting. That is especially true when you first encounter snake and scorpion wine, which I first encountered during a free walking tour of Hanoi. Clear glass bottles of these wines are for sale throughout the markets and grocery stores of Vietnam. Filling the gaps between the snake and scorpions is a white wine-type alcohol that soaks in the flavor, and there is usually some sort of spices added to the mix. While this drink is certainly unique, at least to an Australian like me, you can find it in many shops around the country.

A word of warning: if you want to try this beverage while in Vietnam, know that some of these wines can be watered down. This watering down lowers the alcohol percentage and won’t preserve the snakes and scorpions. This lack of preservation causes the animals to decompose—not great for drinking.

A jar of Vietnamese snake wine, showing coiled snakes marinating in the liquor.
Snake wine? Scorpion wine? Perhaps if I’d had too many drops of some other kind of alcohol first!

Fruit Syrups from India, by Somnath Roy from Travel Crusade

The most interesting items that stole my attention in foreign grocery stores was the syrups made of strawberry and green mango. They are stored and sold in glass containers capable of holding quantity up to 1 liter. These syrups are mostly available in the summer season as they are the perfect soothers and refreshers to keep us cool. They are normally mixed with water and one teaspoon of sugar. They have the real flavors of strawberry and green mango, which are perfect for mocktails to serve during the scorching summers.

Glass bottles of strawberry and green mango syrup, ready to mix into refreshing fruit drinks in India.
A fine way to cool off on a hot summer day, strawberry and green mango fruit syrup for making cold drinks.

The Tiny Grocery Shops of Kathmandu, Nepal, by Michelle from Full Time Explorer

Being an American, I’m used to going to the grocery store, buying a cart full of food, then heading home until next week. Something I found intriguing about living in Kathmandu, Nepal, is how every food item seems to have a separate store. Food shopping for one meal involves going to at least five different locations. We have a dairy store, a fish shop, a chicken butcher, a vegetable stand, a fruit stand, a tea shop, a spice shop, and more. I think Americans are often in a rush, so we demand convenience, but in Nepal everyone has a pretty laid-back attitude. One of the first phrases I learned to say was “Ke garne?” which means “What to do?” If something isn’t working or is inconvenient, the people just shrug and say “Ke garne?” and let it go.

Another interesting insight is that there aren’t many chain stores. Most of the shops are owned by families who live nearby, so you aren’t buying from a corporation. You’re buying from your neighbor. It’s something I admire despite the hassle of running to five different stores every day.

A tiny, open-front shop in Kathmandu, the size of a newspaper kiosk, selling dozens of packages of different spices and teas, including cumin, garam masala, saffron flower, and ilam leaf tea.
A tea and spice shop in Kathmandu, Nepal. Can’t you just imagine the heady smell?

What Oddities Can You Find in an African Supermarket?

Biltong in South Africa, by Alya of Stingy Nomads

Biltong is South Africa’s favorite meat snack. I remember clearly the day my husband first placed this peculiar item in our shopping basket in a supermarket in Cape Town. It is made by cutting meat into strips, marinating it with rock salt, pepper, coarsely ground coriander, and vinegar and just hanging it out to dry. Popular biltong is made from game such as kudu, springbok, and wildebeest, but the most common biltong found in South African supermarkets is made from beef—usually fillet, sirloin, or silverside—due to its lower price and widespread availability.

These pieces of meat hung out to dry can be seen in most supermarkets, where you can choose a piece according to dryness and taste, specifying a “wet” (moist), “medium,” or “dry” piece. Fat content is another criteria used to choose biltong; some customers prefer it with a lot of fat, while others like it as lean as possible. Voortrekkers, the Dutch settlers in South Africa, preserved their meat in this way when they migrated away from British rule in Cape, because there were no refrigerators in those days. The word biltong comes from the Dutch bil (“buttock””) and tong (“strip” or “tongue”).

Long strips on biltong, dried meat, like beef jerky, hanging in a shop in South Africa.
Biltong, available in every South African supermarket. It looks similar to some jerky.

Soya Mince in Lesotho, by Wendy of The Nomadic Vegan

When traveling in Lesotho and in other southern African countries, I was surprised to see row upon row of boxed “soya mince” on the grocery store shelves. It’s a powdered soy product that, when mixed into a sauce, clumps together and resembles minced meat. Plant-based meat alternatives like this are becoming common in Western countries, because many in the West are adopting vegan or vegetarian diets or at least trying to cut down on their meat consumption. In Lesotho, on the other hand, the concepts of veganism and vegetarianism are virtually unheard of. So why are these products so popular? It was explained to me that soya mince is both cheaper and more practical than meat. It is shelf stable and doesn’t need to be refrigerated, which is a huge advantage for people living with a sporadic electricity supply, or perhaps no electricity at all.

As vegans traveling in Africa, my husband and I found our options for eating out were somewhat limited at times, so we decided to give the soya mince a try. We added it to a tomato-based sauce with beans and ate it over pasta. It was pretty tasty!

Boxes of packaged soya mince, in chicken and mutton flavors, in Lesotho. "More meaty taste."
Soya Mince in Lesotho, seems like a good way to “beef” up a vegetarian or vegan meal.

Braid Spray in Namibia, by Shara of SKJ Travel

When traveling in rural northern Namibia, I’ve noticed a paucity of hair care products. In America, it’s overwhelming the number of shampoos, conditioners, hairsprays, gels, coloring kits, etc. you see on the shelves, but not here. However, the one hair product on every shelf, even in the small convenience stores, is braid spray. I had to read the bottle to figure out what it was. I’d never heard of it. Simply enough, it’s a spray to condition the scalp and keep braids or hair extensions (and “all kinds of bonded hair”) soft and supple. In a region where so many of the women, and even men, wear their hair in elaborate braided styles, it makes perfect sense! It’s also an important part of the African Hair Salon.

Going into grocery stores in northwestern Namibia also happens to be one of my very favorite activities because they are a concentration of great diversity in a very small area. Nowhere else have I been where in one check-out line there can be people dressed in regular Western clothes (shorts, tee-shirts, flip-flops); women dressed in brightly colored, long hoop skirts with huge, puffy, fabric hats like bullhorns; men in “skirts” fashioned from two pieces of brightly printed fabric secured by a rope around their waist; and women in stiff cowhide skirts with bangles and jewelry, barefoot and completely topless. I laugh trying to imagine this in America! 

A woman in Namibia with tightly braided hair wrapped in a scarf. And a beautiful smile.
All the elaborately braided hairstyles in Namibia need braid spray to keep the hair soft and conditioned.

South American Supermarkets: What’s Different?

An Eye-Opening Tea in Peru, by Carol Perehudoff from Wandering Carol

“Is this what I think it is?” I asked my friend, as we stared at a grocery store shelf in Lima, Peru. In front of us was a long row of packages of coca leaf tea. “Does coca leaf tea contain, like, cocaine?” Short answer, kind of. But you can’t equate the leaf with the drug. While you can’t make cocaine without coca leaves, the tea is such a mild stimulant that it’s more akin—as one Peruvian told me—to having a cup of coffee.

Said to quell hunger, quench thirst, and help with pain and fatigue, coca leaf tea is also widely used as a cure for altitude sickness. It’s especially popular in the Andes, and when I flew to Lake Titicaca, the highest commercially navigable lake in the world, it was freely offered at the hotel I stayed at. This was a good thing as the altitude sickness hit me like a sledgehammer, and I’m always up for trying to stay healthy while traveling. After sipping a cup, I can’t say I felt any effects, but now, if I saw it in a grocery store, I wouldn’t blink an eye.

A green box of "Mate de Coca," Coca leaf tea, common in Peru and the Andes.
Not everything about the coca leaf is bad for you. Especially is you live in the Andes.

Dulce de Leche in Colombia, by the team at One Weird Globe

Strolling through the Colombian megasupermarket Éxito, past a dozen Fabuloso floor cleaner products decorating the aisle in more colors than a Pride Parade, and not far from the brick-like sugar called panela (coming in blocks ranging from paperweight to paving stone), you eventually come across arequipe. This Colombian delight is caramelized and goes by the names of dulce de leche and manjar in other regions of Latin America. Its uses are general, potentially replacing both chocolate and Nutella. In Colombia, you can find arequipe scattered about the grocery store, in tins beside the sweeteners, in plastic bags by the refrigerated dairy, in personal-sized tubs with the snacks, and in cookies in the bakery section. Mmmm…. alfajores.

Careful of those chips. Make sure they’re not dulce de leche flavored. And compare prices before you buy that manjar! Products can be more expensive when bought in bulk in Peru—due to the extra packaging, it was explained to me. If you end up in Juan Valdez (not Starbucks), snag one of those iced arequipe (not caramel) macchiatos. Here’s our list of Hostels in Medellin.

And Even in the Caribbean…Grocery Store Tourism Can be a Thing

Old Amsterdam Cheese in Aruba, the Dutch Caribbean, by Michele from A Taste for Travel 

If you’re browsing the deli and dairy sections at a grocery store on the Caribbean island of Aruba, you’ll quickly notice that the aisles are packed with a vast assortment of Dutch goods including drop (licorice), cold cuts, and cheeses. The reason is that, along with the Netherlands, Curaçao, and Saint Maarten, Aruba is one of four countries that are members of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. This Dutch influence, along with contributions from 90 other nationalities that have left their mark on the island’s culture and identity, have helped shape Aruba into one of the Caribbean’s most diverse culinary destinations. 

While the glossy red rounds of Edam cheese you’ll see are a key ingredient in Aruba and Curacao’s national dish of Keshi Yena (a rind of Edam cheese stuffed with spiced meat), one of the most popular cheeses in grocery stores in Aruba is Old Amsterdam Aged Gouda Cheese. It comes available in sizes from bite size portions to huge pizza-sized wedges, designed as crowd-pleasers. Not only does it come wrapped in almost indestructible packaging that makes it very portable, the intense flavor of this yellow gouda is so full of character, it’s a popular food in Aruba for taking to parties and get togethers. For visitors, it makes a delicious and affordable snack to enjoy during Happy Hour at your condo rental or during a day at the beach. When your visit to Aruba is over, if you haven’t yet eaten your fill of Old Amsterdam Cheese, you can pick some up at the Queen Beatrix International Airport in Oranjestad. Make a stop in the Duty Free area where certain shops have whole sections devoted to Dutch cheeses and meats. 

An assortment of "Old Amsterdam Aged Gouda Cheese" in a supermarket in Aruba.
Dutch cheese in the Caribbean… it makes sense you’d find it in an Aruba supermarket, since the island is part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Being a Tourist in an American Supermarket

Of course, what travelers may find odd or funny in a foreign grocery store is not at all weird to the locals. It’s simply what they eat. And we should remember that things we find commonplace at home, might seem distinctly weird to a visitor from abroad. Do you wonder what things would jump out at a foreign visitor to the U.S.? Like how much people on the western side of the Atlantic like dry cereal!

Packaged Cereal in the USA, by Annick from The Common Traveler 

Are you a breakfast eater? And when you eat breakfast, is it cereal that you’re eating? If you visit the United States of America, a walk into any grocery store reveals America’s fascination and love of all things cereal. When I was growing up in South America, we rarely ate cereal, and the cereal we ate was either Rice Krispies or Puffed Rice. But in America, you will find large aisles devoted to shelves upon shelves of any type of cereal you can imagine (and many you wouldn’t have dreamt of!)

Apparently, in the USA cereal is not just a breakfast food. Many people eat cereal for lunch or dinner, or even as a snack, with milk or dry. And there are multiple versions of some favorite cereals. For example, I counted 16 types of Cheerios on the supermarket shelves: Original, Honey Nut, Maple, Blueberries, Oat Crunch, Peach, Apple Cinnamon, Multi Grain, Chocolate, Fruity, Frosted, Banana Nut, Very Berry, Pumpkin Spice, Honey Nut Medley Crunch, and Chocolate Peanut Butter. And that’s just one type of cereal! Healthier, more conscious versions of cereal are available, or you can select from the opposite spectrum with a shameless version of cookies or candy bars in your cereal bowl. You won’t believe the cereal variety available in the U.S. compared to other countries! 

A very, very long supermarket aisle in the U.S. stacked with dozens of types and flavors of dry cereal.
Have you ever really thought about just HOW MANY brands and types of dry cereal there are on the shelves of every U.S. supermarket? It’s kind of staggering.

There you have a taste of some of the things you might (or might not) find odd when you let yourself be a grocery store tourist while on your travels. Wherever you go, a trip to the supermarket can be an entertaining and culturally enlightening experience.

Have you come across some treasures of your own while on a grocery store tour? Tell us about it in the comments!