If you’re down, out, hungry and feeling adventurous head off the beaten tourist track and spend leisurely time at one of the many food markets of the world – probably the best opportunity to glimpse locals going about their essential daily rituals of shopping and eating. Historic or futuristic, pristine or chaotic, rural or urban, food markets are not only a food lover’s dream but also the way to get right inside the heart and soul of any city and its people.
It is a given that no serious traveler would forgo visits to museums, cathedrals, castles, monuments and legendary streets. But while some tourists are lining up at a museum exhibition or a Romanesque church, other travelers (like us!) are scouring local food stalls, farm stands and barnyard wine merchants at the food markets of the world to get a real taste of place.
Don’t waste too much of your precious time researching restaurant reviews and making long lists of tourist attractions, rather spend some time at a market for as little as one morning, or afternoon, and you can witness and be a part of living history. Markets truely are one of the last great bastions of cultural tradition in our world today. In countries of the world, where the tradition of the local farmer’s market has been preserved, such as food fanatic France, exploring food markets can be a memorable, life-enhancing experience.
If your aim is to really get to know and experience the heart of a city and it’s people, and you’re faced with the choice between seeing a fine Gothic altarpiece or eating an unusual local cheese, it’s no contest. The altarpiece will have to wait. Nothing disappoints at a market – the setting, the people, the atmosphere and the fresh local produce are all an authentic look into everyday life. And of course, the added cost-benefit of tasting and sampling goods (often for free) as you go about your explorations just adds to the allure.
At museums, the tourist encounters other tourists. At the food markets of the world, you enter into the daily existence of the locals. As inspiring and informative as the more regular sights can be, they do not rival the exuberance of modern-day markets and their colourful links to the economy, customs and even dialects of a city.
Travelling can take many forms, but connecting with local people and their food at a market is sometimes the most rewarding on many different levels.
Markets epitomize the very essence of life in a city, and it is culturally informative too. You can get a sense of the local economy by noting the quality and variety of foods available and compare prices. One can also observe how locals treat each other, their particular social interaction speaks volumes. Is there much haggling such as at the ancient Ballaròmarkets in Palermo where fish counters groan with giant swordfish heads and also in the heady fragrant spice markets like the Levensky in Tel Aviv where hand-waving bargaining is a well-loved local sport. Or is the process calm, collected and to the point such as in the Market Square of Helsinki where dealings are truly a cordial one-price-only affair?
It is there, amongst the bakers, delis, cafés, cheesemongers, butchers and chocolatiers where you will discover the life-force and true taste of place of wherever you’re traveling. So whether you are traveling to Spain, Italy, Bangkok or France you are bound to discover a history of lively, sprawling markets ranging from the exotic to the festive. And if you head to one of these mazelike hubs of life, you’ll also get to sample the best food the city has to offer. Guaranteed.
Campo De‘Fior, Campo de’Fiori, Rome
The Piazza Campo dei Fiori is one of Rome’s few outdoor markets left and operates every day but Sunday. This beautiful square, which was once a field of flowers, now is the stage from which to witness the flow of life in the heart of Rome. Lively and bustling during the day with its flower, fruit and vegetable market, it turns into a hub of rowdy social interaction when the sun begins to set. Locals and visitors alike fill the terraces of the many restaurants and drinking holes lining the square to take part in an honour held tradition of the city: aperitivo hour. Here the Romanesque leisurely sit and watch stall owners packing up their day’s toil, pre-dinner drink in hand.
Marche Raspail, Paris
On Sunday mornings, there’s an organics market on Boulevard Raspail in Paris where everything screams “Eat me”. Even in the depths of winter, the place manages to make some of the best markets of the world look shabby. Here you will find only the freshest vegetables such as deep black radishes and the darkest green savoy cabbage, but also the to-be-expected but nevertheless mind-boggling cheese assortment, seafood and yogurt that looks just as rich as crème fraîche. Amongst the oui-oui’s and merci beaucoups of local shoppers we dare you to resist buying a hunk of oozy Camembert, confiture de fraises des bois (wild strawberry jam) and a still-warm baguette.
Market Square, Helsinki
Located at the eastern end of the harbour Esplanade with the Baltic Sea to the south, Market Square is the perfect introduction to Helsinki and its varied offerings. Flanked by the harbour, ferry ports, the Presidential Palace, the Uspenski Cathedral and market hall the square is the veritable central hub of life in Helsinki. From spring to autumn, you can find anything from tiny almond-flavoured potatoes, golden cloudberries, varieties of fresh herring, salmon soup and smoked reindeer tongue, depending on the season. The market is a mixture of fresh local food, souvenirs by local merchants and artists and many outdoor cafés offering pastries and other local delights. In tune with local custom, here you can shop at truly one-price-only rates with no fear of heavy thumbs on scales. No-one would dare stick their neck out and question a price for fear of being impolite.
Oranjezicht City Farm Market, Cape Town
New trendy and hugely popular, the Oranjezicht City Farm Market situated near the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town lead the way with organic and locally produced goods developed along ethical, eco-friendly lines. This is where you will see in-the-know Capetonians connecting in true laid-back fashion, swopping ideas, chilling and generally celebrating the good things in life. This local farmers’ market with views of Table Mountain on the one side and stunning sea views on the other is where you come if you are after fresh-from-the-garden veggies, herbs, fruit, bread and ethically sourced meats and seafood. Everyone is welcome: kids, dogs, the works.
Bryanston Organic Market, Johannesburg
In Johannesburg, the Bryanston Organic Market, the city’s original outdoor market that has been in existence for 40 years, has long been the custodian of organic coffees and tea, speciality olives, hand-made farm cheeses, fresh herbs, flowers, organic baked goods and quality handcrafted goods (including clothing). Locals kick back with live music while savouring delicious, freshly prepared preservative-free delicacies, colourant-free home-baked goods and shop plenty of dream catchers and hammocks. Rest assured, this is where families go about their daily life – there is not a hipster in sight.
Borough Market, London
One of the oldest markets in London with roots that can be traced as far back as 1000 years ago, Borough Market is a sprawling outdoor hub of trading. This is the place to find locally grown produce, amazing British cheeses, wild game and ingredients and street foods from all over the world. A testament to Britain’s trading past, the market is a hotch-potch of local and imported flavours from as far and wide as Ethiopia, India and the East. Discover fresh produce in the large open area and then venture off through the many hidden passages to explore stalls with diverse artisanal products such as ciders, mead, small-batch roasted coffee, clotted cream and goats milk ice cream.
Munich’s oldest farmers market, Victualienmarkt is situated in the heart of the city’s Altstadt (old town) and has been in its current spot just off Marienplatz for over 200 years. Locals, tourists, and the city’s top chefs come here to fill their shopping baskets with fresh fruits, vegetables, meat and seafood as well as pastries, honey, spices and flowers.This outdoor foodie haven is bordered by shops selling meat, hot liver pâté, leberkäse and fresh, smoked and pickled fish. Perfect for those who love to snack, here you can munch your way through Brezen (pretzel), soup with Leberknödeland morning weisswurst and don’t have to feel bad washing it all down with potent, lemon-sparked Munich weissbier. Because that is how the locals do it.
La Boqueria, Barcelona
A trip to Barcelona is just not complete without a visit to La Boqueria. This culinary rich public market has been in existence since the Middle Ages (the year 1217) and is arguably one of Europe’s most famous markets. The market is filled with an array of fruits, vegetables, fish and game. If the whole rabbits (fur on) hanging from the meat stands don’t stop you in your tracks, the displayed heads from just about every four-legged animal will. With hundreds of stalls side-by-side displaying typically Spanish ingredients it is like a cultural lesson on Spain in physical form. Offal, spices, shiny olives, fresh seafood and fillets of salted cod all tell a story of local ingredients in abundance and the intimate bars selling drinks, tapas and pintxos sprinkled throughout the market accentuatea way of life. Follow the huge legs of Jamón Ibérico dangling from the ceilingto find Iberico Ham from Jabugo, the world’s best air-cured pork, which you absolutely have to taste.
Mercado da Ribeira, Time Out Market, Lisbon
Side by side under the roof of a massive warehouse building near Lisbon’s river banks, the fresh produce market and Time Out Food Court co-exist as one massively popular food destination. Hungry locals and visitors stream to this market to shop, feast and play. The produce market is Lisbon’s longest running market and operates from early morning with vendors selling meat, fish, vegetables and flowers. By afternoon trading slows down and stalls are closed till the next day. The trendy Time Out Market on the other side keeps buzzing deep into the night. The innovative concept of its namesake, Time Out Lisboa Magazine, the market is a more recent addition (2014) and showcases the best of Lisboa’s local fare by the hand of the city’s best chefs and artisans. It is the first market in the world where every single thing has been chosen, tasted and curated by an independent panel of city experts bringing the best of what is local and delicious under one roof. Think stalls with menus created by award-winning chefs such as Alexandre Silva, Henrique Sá Pessoa, Marlene Vieira who hails from northern Portugal, and Porto-born Miguel Castro e Silva, and producers at the top of their game such as Santini (one of Lisbon’s best ice cream companies), Nós é Mais Bolos (serving a variety of local sweets) and Manteigaria (for more than a bite of Lisbon’s famous pasteis de nata). And then, of course, there are the best of Portuguese wine and port. Order whatever you feel like, really, you can’t go wrong!
Check out the Time Out Market website for more info.
Varvakios Agora, Athens
This huge old wrought-iron market hall that has been in business since 1886 is between Apthinas, Evripidou & Sophocleous Streets, slap-bang in the center of historical Athens. The Varvakios Agora is dedicated to fish and meat, row upon row. It has been a tradition for locals since forever to visit this market on Saturday mornings to stock up on the best fish and meat as well as herbs and spices. Of course, you also have to grab a bite in one of the historic tavernas where the most popular dish is patsas, a tripe soup made with veal hooves, tripe and belly, all boiled. Nothing else, and definitely not for the faint-hearted.
Egyptian Spice Bazaar, Istanbul
A veritable feast for the eyes and all other senses the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul will leave your head spinning with a heady mix of colours and smells. Here you will find spices. Lots of it, obviously. But don’t think that is where it stops. The market is packed to the brim with all kinds of foods, from floral tea and sheep’s cheese to Turkish delight and grape leaves. Pyramids of dried peppers, sumac and nigella seeds mingle with towering bowls of almond stuffed dates. It is exotic and delicious and noisy with customers haggling with shopkeepers and humming with the exuberance of life, just as you would expect in one of the most densely populated cities of the world. On your way out there is an alfresco café selling kanafeh (a cheese filled pastry soaked in a sweet syrup). Order one and enjoy it perched on a little stool, elated to be alive.
Machane Yehuda in Jerusalem, Israel
One of the largest shuks (markets in Hebrew) in Israel, the Machane Yehuda in Jerusalem is a labyrinth of winding side alleys and hole-in-the-wall stalls trading rugelach (Jewish pastry generally made with cream cheese dough), etrog (citron) juices, Middle Eastern spices and housewares. The market represents the heart of Jerusalem. In a special way it integrates the old and the new, a bustling market and neighborhood intertwined with food, drinks, shopping bars and restaurants. This is not a place that you leave before eating really, really well.
In a city where winter temperatures go way, way under zero it is no wonder that the food markets are under roof. Technically a huge glamorous grocery store, Yeliseyevsky in Moscow is notable for it’s tsaristic grandeur that has prevailed despite the Soviet rule. Moscow’s oldest grocery store, founded by former owner and millionaire, Grigory Yeliseev, the store is now over 115 years old. It became famous not only for its vast variety of products but for the luxurious shopfitting in Neo-Baroque style. Massive crystal chandeliers, reminiscent of bunches of grapes, decorate immense arches off-set by stained glass windows and gilded wall decorations. Here you can buy anything, from vodka filled Fabergé eggs to fresh produce to cakes and caviar.
Wangfujing Snack Street, Beijing
The vast street food Donghuamen Night Market in Beijing closed a while back due to hygiene and noise complaints. But in this city that never sleeps there is no shortage of roadside eating.
Near the Forbidden City the streets fan out in a mesmerizing maze of narrow streets and it is there that you will discover the Wangfujing Snack Street and come face to face with roasted bats, deep-fried insects and snake eggs (good luck with tucking into those babies). It is easy to loose yourself in the labyrinth of stalls and roadside eateries where it seems that any part of any animal on earth is served somewhere here, either on a stick or in a bun.
Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo
Every morning at 5 a.m. the much talked about tuna auction takes place at Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market. It is one of the largest food markets of the world and this dramatic display of trading, which happens each day before most folks have even had their morning coffee, sits at the heart of it. The frenetic section of fish wholesalers and processors is where retailers and chefs come to pick their daily fish supplies. Wander about taking in the spectacle and once the auction is over, park yourself at one of the many counters for breakfast. This is where you will have sushi as fresh as it comes. And if you are still in the mood for shopping you will also find produce, real wasabi and sashimi knives to take home with you.
Or Tor Kor (OTK) Market, Bangkok
If you love to eat you simply can’t miss out on the Or Tor Kor Market in busy Bangkok. It is where you find mangoes as big as your head, a vast array of gleaming seafood and fresh meat. Most of the cooked food vendors’ foods are takeaway only, but there is also a small food court and a scattering of restaurants to be found. Expect to see literally millions of pots of curry, jumbo herbal sausages and sesame egg rolls for days.
St Lawrence Market, Toronto
In the center of Old Town Toronto in three buildings that have always served as Toronto’s social hub sit the beautiful St Lawrence Market Complex. There is a good reason why National Geographic highlighted this as one of the world’s best food markets in their story named “Food Journeys of a Lifetime. A visit to the market makes it easy to understand why. The sprawling market houses restaurants, artisans, food vendors and cooking classes in the South Market building, the freshest of fresh farmers market produce in the North Market building, and St Lawrence Hall is where social and business functions are housed. Shop for fresh fruits and vegetables, take cooking classes, taste Toronto’s Peameal Bacon sandwiches and search for collector’s items at this local favorite hangout
Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, San Francisco
San Francisco is situated in the epicenter of one of the USA’s most abundant agricultural areas, which naturally led to the sprouting of some of the first farmers’ markets in the States. The markets of the beautiful city are all about giving back to the community, supporting civic education and local music. The Ferry Plaza Farmers Market held three times weekly is no exception and is a California certified farmers market operated by the non-profit Centre for Urban Education and Sustainable Agriculture. Situated in the iconic Ferry Building at the scenic Waterfront it is home to over 100 of merchants selling artisanal products and fresh produce that is widely acclaimed as one of the best food markets of the world for its quality and diversity.
Mercado de la Merced, Mexico City
Dazzlingly colourful, the 150-year-old La Mercado de la Merced in Mexico City is a vast fiesta occupying four whole blocks. Dozens of zany piñatas dangle above the stalls as shoppers jostle past stacks of chiles, nopales (cactus paddles), blocks of queso blanco (white cheese), rainbow-coloured blankets and sweet-smelling guavas. It is jam-packed and overwhelming for sure, but once you start taking it all in and tasting your way through red pancita (soup made with cow stomach), quesadillas and candied fruits, you’ll be captivated by the sheer vibrance of it all.
Queen Victoria Market, Melbourne
It may have been established in 1878 but the Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne are forever moving with the times. Veteran stallholders are passionate and vocal about their produce and the market is lively and busy. With a huge number of stalls selling fresh fruit, veggies, meat and an outstanding variety of dairy and small goods, this market is popular with locals and a ‘must visit’ for tourists. Cafés line the outskirts of the market and are usually humming with brunch goers every weekend. Keep an eye on the market’s website, there are many Europe night markets dotted in the yearly calendar focussing on different European cuisines such as Italian, French, Iberian and Mediterranean. During the night market, the market takes on a new format featuring designers, food trucks and live performance.
NOW GET OUT THERE AND EATSPLORE!
In this world of mega commerce and globally interconnected alliances with everything looking and tasting more and more the same, what better way to experience a foreign city but to enjoy a simple meal on the streets, surrounded by the people who live there. It has its own unique joys and benefits – an endless opportunity to ingest the tastes and smells of a city from the hands of the artisans who work hard to keep up traditions and methods passed on to them through the ages and its most genuine and colourful inhabitants.
Which is your favourite food market in the world? Shout out in the comments ! ↓↓
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PHOTO CREDITS: Or Tor Kor (OTK) Market, Phat Phil’s Food Files | Bryanston Organic Market, Eco Atlas | Jerusalem, Tim Mossholder & Cole Keister | Mexico Frederik Trovatten & Jeremy Lwanga & Jezael Melgoza Rosalind Chang | Toronto Tourism | Queen Victoria Market | Oriental Food