Artisans, farmers, and makers of all types have brought their wares from the fields to the towns since humans first began to live in towns and cities. Many of these original farmer’s markets are now full-blown, full-time ventures and have grown to be great city food markets.
Walking through the city market, stopping for a refreshment, or buying local produce allows a traveler like me a chance to get the know the people and the culture of the place I am visiting.
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Below are eight great city food markets I have visited. There are many more out there, of course, most likely one for every city you can name. But let’s start with these!
1. Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market – San Francisco
I’ll start close to home at the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market. This market is relatively new dating back to just 1993, which is when the Embarcadero in San Francisco re-emerged. While still a youngster, it’s easy to see why this is one of my choices for great city food markets.
The Embacadero Freeway, built in the late 1950s, was an elevated two-deck roadway that hid the Ferry Building and separated it from the City. After the collapse of a similar freeway during the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989. The remaining double-decker freeways in the area were demolished. Two neighborhoods in San Francisco greatly benefitted from these removals: Hayes Valley and the Embarcadero.
With the Ferry Building now reconnected to the City, the Embarcadero is a vibrant pedestrian-friendly neighborhood. Inside the Ferry Building are a wide array of vendors from Cowgirl Creamery to the Slanted Door. You can find just about anything you want restaurants, wine and beer shops, bakeries, butcher shops, fishmongers, and everything in between.
If that’s not enough, on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays on the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market is in full swing. The Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA) operates this Farmer’s Market and several others in the Bay Area. CUESA Farmer’s Markets seeks out local food artisans and purveyors, dedicated to sustainable practices.
My home town is a known foodie destination, and the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market is a great place to start your adventure.
2. Pike Place Market – Seattle (AKA Public Market Center)
A little older now is Pike Place Market. This market has been sitting on a hill in downtown Seattle overlooking Puget Sound for more than 100 years.
Some people call this the home of the flying fish because that is the first thing you see when you enter the market under the Big Red Sign at Pike Street and Post Alley. The fishmongers at the Pike Place Fish Market actually send fish flying through the air each time a customer orders. And that ladies and gentlemen is just the start of the show!
This market is a Farmers Market and Crafts Fair; all rolled up in one. Here some of Seattle’s best meats, fish, and seafood vendors lay out their goods for your shopping pleasure. Additionally, there are greengrocers with some outlandishly flavorful fruits and veggies. And then a vast array of flower vendors.
Surrounded by restaurants and coffee shops, as many great city food markets are, the Public Market covers five levels. I suggest you start at the main level on Pike Place and work your way down to the bottom. As you pass through each level, you will find an eclectic mix of shopping venues specializing in collectibles, jewelry, books, and art.
If you plan ahead, you can even attend a tasting, cooking demo, or culinary class in the Atrium Kitchen.
3. Borough Market – London
On a two-day layover in London, we booked into Roast for dinner. Leaving our hotel a bit early that evening allowed us to check out the Borough Market. This market has a history dating back over 1,000 years, perhaps making it the oldest continually operating food market.
Borough Market probably originated around the mid 990s after the construction of the first medieval bridge over the River Thames. This bridge connected the road to the walled City of London, making for an excellent location for all sorts of farmers and merchants to peddle their wares. Known then and now as the London Bridge, don’t confuse this with the Tower Bridge about a half-mile up the road.
The market has seen many changes in its life and nearly failed several times. But in the 1990s, a few innovative craft food businesses began moving into the area’s abandoned warehouses. Within a decade, this market was reborn.
Here you will find all the best that England has to offer. Not only a terrific Farmer’s Market but charcuterie, cheese, fishmongers, chocolatiers, and bakeries. There is a vast selection of international traders selling Middle Eastern, Spanish, Italian, Indonesian, and Asian foods both for cooking or just eating right on the spot.
You must check out Borough Market next time you’re in London. The ability of this market to change and evolve over a millennium certainly puts it near the top of great city food markets.
Stop by for morning coffee, or long lunch or dinner with your buddies. If you are lucky enough to have lodgings with a kitchen, buy some food, pick up a few recipes, and go home and cook.
4. La Boqueria – Barcelona
No trip to Barcelona is complete without a stop at La Boqueria. This great city food market got its start around 1200 AD. We first toured the market in 2011 and have been back twice since.
Our first visit to LaBoqueria was part of a full-day guided food tour with our lovely guide, Marta. We spent the previous day with Marta visiting Casa Mila, La Sagrada Familia, the Cathedral of Barcelona, and generally just enjoying the City.
The market, set on a grid pattern with 11 aisles and 10 rows, looks at first to be easy enough to manage, but pay attention as you wander, it is very easy to get lost. I took this picture of the Stand Map located at the front entrance to the market. I recommend you do so as well. Your photo may help you find your way.
Typical of great city food markets, La Boqueria, has hundreds of food purveyors showcasing the foods of the beautiful region of Catalonia. You can start your visit by stopping at one of the many stands that serve food ready to eat. If you are early enough or lucky enough, you may even get a seat at the table and enjoy a conversation with the vendor or a seatmate.
Located in the heart of Barcelona just off the famous La Rambla, La Boqueria is a daily stop for many of the city residents as they start or end their day. This food market is renowned and visited by so many tourists each year that locals continue to have conversations about limiting access.
5. Viktualienmarkt – Munich (Victuals Market for you English Speakers Out There)
We stumbled across Viktualeinmarkt while looking for a place to sit and have a beer after a tour of the historic Marien Platz in Munich. On the edge of the market is one of many beer gardens in the City. We lucked out and found a seat at a table. It was lunchtime and in the middle of Oktoberfest, so finding a place actually to sit was rare.
As we ate our snack and drank another large mug of beer, we looked around and realized we were at a market. I love markets, and this made me happy. By the way, there is no such thing as a small beer in Munich during Oktoberfest.
This farmers market has been serving the resident of Munich for over 200 years. Around 110 traders are selling fresh fruits, vegetables, meat game, poultry, cheese, fish, bread, spices, and flowers.
Viktualienmarkt focusses on Bavarian foods and customs. The produce and meats are locally sourced, in season, and from Bavaria. In general, you will not find a wide array of international cuisines like in the Borough Market in London.
6. Campo De Fiori – Rome
Ok, before you jump all over me, yes, I know Campo de Fiori is one of the biggest tourist-ridden areas in Rome. Every first-time visitor to Rome must go to this square. But this is a great city food market for a reason, and the history of the square is why.
This modest piazza, just south of its perhaps more famous cousin Piazza Navona has had a storied life. The square is surrounded by streets named for the trades that were practiced on them, such as Via dei Cappellari (hat makers) or Via dei Balestrari (crossbow makers).
Eventually, the square became part of the Via Papale (“Popes Road”), which links the Basilica of St. John Lateran and the Vatican.
Campo de’ Fiori was the site of many public executions. A statue of Giordano Bruno is in the center of the square supposedly in the location wherein 1600 he was burnt alive for heresy. It must have been pretty popular to burn great thinkers in the 1600s as Marco Antonio de Dominis was also burned here in 1624.
Well, all that death is in the far past, and today the market fills with flowers (fiori get it) each day. Along with the beauty of the flowers, you will find the freshest produce I’ve ever seen. There are also stalls housing butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers. If you are looking for crafts, you will find them here.
There are many restaurants, coffee shops, pasticcerie, and my husband’s favorite, gelaterias surrounding the square. In the evenings, the food market closes, and those vendors go home. As the daylight fades and night comes on, the square becomes a vibrant restaurant scene with fantastic food and music. Enjoy your time here, people watch, and live la dolce vita!
7. Great Market Hall – Budapest (Nagyvasarcsarnok)
We took a great trip to Central Europe a couple of years ago. While in Budapest, we had the opportunity to do a full day food tasting tour through Taste Hungary. The starting point for this fantastic day of tasting was the Great Market Hall.
The first mayor of Budapest pursued the development of the market throughout his career. The mayor retired in 1896 but participated in the opening ceremonies for the hall on February 15, 1897.
The building is a beautiful architectural design, and most impressive is the roof with the colorful Zsolnay tiling. The market is enormous 10,000 square meters (over 107,000 square feet). The high ceiling of the market and large windows provide natural light and an open feeling. You can tell immediately that this market is one of the great city food markets.
Three floors of the market provide space for eateries, produce, meats, and spices. The top-level is where you will find the eateries; the foods served here are authentic and inexpensive. This floor is also where the craftwork vendors sell embroidery, clothing, and linens.
The top floor is the best floor for people watching. You can grab a bite to eat and sit near the railing overlooking the main floor. From your perch, you can view most of what is happening on both levels.
On the main level, you find produce, spices, candies, cheese, and sausages. Sausages, collectively called Kolbasz, hang above many of the stalls and come in a large variety, Gyulai, Csabai, and Debreceni, just to name a few.
On the lower level is where you will find the smelly stuff. The Fishmongers and Butchers ply their trades here. By placing these vendors on the lowest level, the market keeps the unavoidable mess and smells contained, providing a cleaner and safer environment throughout the building.
8. The Egyptian Bazaar – Istanbul (One of the Older Great City Markets)
The first place nearly everyone visits when they land in Istanbul is the Grand Bazaar. This market is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world. Covering over 330,000 square feet (30,700 sq. meters), you can easily get lost, but you will have the best time doing so. Nearly 90,000,000 people visit here each year. I was one of those millions a couple of years ago.
But If you are looking for something a little quieter, you can head over to the Egyptian Bazaar (Spice Market) instead. This market is the younger, slightly smaller cousin to the Grand Bazaar and is more focused on; you guessed it spices.
The Spice Bazaar is a great place to pick up souvenirs to take home to all your friends. If you want to take home spices, most shops will vacuum seal the packages. You can rest assured that your clothes won’t smell like cardamom.
You will still find everything being sold here from beautiful handcrafted and painted ceramics to Turkish delight. But there is more of a focus on food products.
There are nearly 50 shops dedicated to spices, nuts ad herbs. The shopkeepers are most friendly and will generally offer up samples of their wares. Do be careful in your shopping, though; it is not unusual for counterfeit items sold in the markets.
When your senses are overloaded by all the ceramics, textiles, spices and candies, you can take a break in one of the many café’s that surround the Bazaar. Don’t forget to try the ever famous Turkish Apple Tea.
These Great City Food Markets Are Just a Start
Keep in mind when visiting these markets and others, while you are a tourist, the great food markets exists for the vendors to earn a living. Don’t just take your photos and run. Stop for a minute, have a coffee or a bite to eat at one of the stalls. Spend time with the local citizens and learn about the market, the City, and the country you are visiting. After all, isn’t that why we travel?
Take some time before your next trek out there to find the food spots. Markets are a fantastic way to take in the sights, eat some great food, and get to know a culture. Walking the aisles and listening to the buzz of the market is energizing.