World's Best Food Markets
Palermo, Sicily: Mercato di Ballarò
This bona fide neighborhood market is known for the fresh fish, but I’ve got a thing for the meat, specifically, the fritole—fried cow offal (mostly tripe) cut into bite-size pieces. Though an acquired taste, when heaped on a roll and sprinkled with lemon juice and salt, the chewy morsels are magnificent. Although you’ll see plenty of tourists among the sea of umbrella-covered stalls, locals flock to the market for tripe and intestine soup, panelle (pancakes made of fried chickpeas) with eggplant and spleen-stuffed panini. This is market-strolling fare of the highest order.
Marrakech, Morocco: Djemaa el Fna
Located next to Marrakech’s historic Medina, this bustling main square is always at the top of the list for travelers, and for good reason. It’s a lively thousand-year-old cultural spectacle, with snake charmers, costumed acrobats, Berber musicians, herbalists and beggars. There are lots of surrounding restaurants that offer upper-level ringside seating, but I’d prefer to take my meal in the midst of all the action. Follow your nose to the vendors hawking méchoui. This pit-roasted whole lamb is pulled by hand, topped with cumin and salt, and piled high on a napkin. Teamed with a glass of mint tea, this might be my all-time favorite market meal. Getting lost in the Djemaa is half the fun. Go in deep and try to head back out where you came in. Good luck.
Montreal: Marché Atwater
In the 1930s, this Art Deco-style market was built as a government economic stimulus project, and is now home to dozens of produce vendors, delicatessens, fromageries, boulangeries, florists and top-quality chocolatiers. With stands inside the two-story building and outside, there’s plenty to fill up an afternoon. Be sure to check out La Fromagerie Atwater, these guys know their stuff and sell more than 750 different types of cheese. There are quite a few on-the-go lunch options, including Satay Brothers’ steamed pork buns, and sweet or savory buckwheat crêpes from Crêperie du Marché.
Palawan, Philippines: Puerto Princesa Market
With sky-blue water, fresh produce and incredibly diverse seafood, this picturesque island state in the southern part of the Philippine archipelago certainly seemed like heaven on earth during my visit. Puerto Princesa is usually just a starting off point for tourists seeking the remote get-away-from-it-all destinations, but I’d suggest taking a day to explore the city’s eclectic scene. First stop, the public market. Mounds of tropical fruit and fresh seafood are its calling card, but for me, the banana-cue steals the show. Midget bananas are rolled in coarse palm sugar, skewered, then caramelized in hot oil. It’s like a tropical banana version of a candy apple.
Chengdu, China: Wet markets in the Qingyang District
Chengdu is one of the most underrated food cities on the planet. In 2010, the Sichuan capital was named a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, one of only a handful of such cities in the world, based on the relationship between food and culture. And it’s really the abundance of wet markets that sets it above the rest. Head to the Qingyang district, where you’ll find tables of fish, pig brains and innards, buckets of frogs, and plenty of chile bean paste, pickled veggies and tofu—all mainstays in the city’s signature hot pot. Hawkers also dish out heaping portions of spicy noodles, crispy pancakes and barbecued rabbit. This food is so hot and spicy, it may blow your head off—it’s the type of heat the sets your mouth, then throat and eventually your lungs on fire.
Seoul: Noryangjin Fish Market
Tokyo’s famed Tsukiji wholesale market may take center stage as Asia’s greatest seafood market, but Seoul’s giant Noryangjin Fish Market definitely gives it a run for its money in terms of sheer size and variety (think stingrays, clams, ribbonfish, sea squirts, tuna and the list goes on and on). It’s the largest and oldest market in Seoul, with more than 700 individual seafood stalls, you’ll walk miles around the Quonset hut-shaped building without seeing the same stall twice. While perusing the aisles, I like to grab a snack of mentaiko: salted, spicy pollack roe. You’ll find dozens of varieties of this addictive snack throughout the market. And as impenetrable as Tsukiji is, Noryangjin is not. Buy a fish, the fishmonger will fillet it for you, and then you walk to any of the nearby restaurants where they will happily cook it up. It’s a dream come true.
St. Petersburg: Kuznechny Market
Located next to the metro in the heart of the city, Kuznechny Market houses a true cornucopia of Russian foods and memorabilia. Inside the grand, arched building, aisles are dedicated to Russian mainstays: think caviar, smoked fish, old-school butchers, an array of cheese and pyramids of fresh produce. There’s plenty of bizarre offerings as well, after all a trip to St. Petersburg wouldn’t be complete with out pickled bull’s heart or dried herring with the egg sac still intact. Honey purveyors will compete for your attention, offering fresh honey on the comb, and trust me, once you taste it you’ll never go back. You’ll find some of the more colorful vendors spilling out of the building onto the surrounding sidewalks, selling everything from wool socks to fresh flowers.
Oaxaca, Mexico: Mercado de Abastos
You could spend an entire day in Oaxaca’s four-acre central market—you may even need to buy an extra piece of luggage for the market’s dizzying array of tempting handmade crafts, but for me the real draw is the food. The market’s smell alone is intoxicating, a mix of fresh cilantro, sugarcane, chiles and my favorite, tamales. After a day spent watching mole grinders and cactus paddle picklers, you’ll be ready to cough up a few pesos for a batch of exquisite handmade tamales and tlayudas served up by the elderly Zapotec women who cook and sell them in the narrow alleys of the market.
Paris: Marché Bastille
It’s the biggest and best open-air market in Paris. A stroll through these aisles truly ranks among life’s greatest pleasures. Wheels of triple-créme Brie, a mind-blowing array of goat cheese, links of cured sausage, mounds of fresh produce, buckets upon buckets of briny olives, bouquets of brilliant blooms and any cut of meat you can imagine beckon the epicurean in all of us. Work up an appetite meandering the blocks of gourmet offerings before ending at a stall offering roasted Bresse-Gauloise or Faverolle chickens, which are turned on a spit while the fatty drippings cascade onto a tray filled with carrots and potatoes. And don’t miss the Middle Eastern bread merchants, the oyster shuckers, the wine gurus, the confiture stalls… This is my favorite market in a city filled with great ones.
Ecuador: Otavalo Market
Nestled high in the Andes between two dormant volcanoes in the Valle del Amanecer, Otavalo has been at the crossroads of a trade route since pre-Incan times. Today, it is likely the most famous textile market in the country. This means you may fight hoards of tourists seeking out world-renowned tapestries and crafts, but if you scratch beneath the surface, you’ll find a colorful town rich with history and great culinary traditions. Wake up at sunrise on a Saturday morning and head to Plaza de Ponchos, home to a true farmers’ market, where animals of all kinds are sold and traded by a huge network of farms, slaughterhouses and wholesalers. And before you go into souvenir coma, find one of the many cooks serving motes, hefty bowls of steamed corn kernels topped with roast pork, crispy pork skin and a fresh-tasting tomato-onion-cilantro salsa.
Barcelona: La Boqueria Market
One of Europe’s great food markets (and one of the oldest), La Boqueria is a feast for your senses. Designed as a neoclassical square in the mid-1800s, the market’s iconic columns and Moderniste gate with stained glass trim were uncovered and revamped in the 2001 renovation. At the crack of dawn, you’ll see chefs seeking out the day’s freshest ingredients, followed by locals and tourists. In addition to seafood, an abundance of cheese, mushrooms, dried peppers, spices and whole legs of Iberico ham, there are pint-size tapas bars serving great Spanish-style bites. My favorite: Bar Pinotxo’s razor clams served spiked with chile, parsley, garlic and olive oil.
Bangkok: Khlong Toei Market
Some of the best food in the world is served in Bangkok, especially Chinese food, and at the city's Khlong Toei market there are dozens of stalls hawking Cantonese-style egg noodle soup: bowls brimming with wontons, greens, roast pork and chicken broth. This is the late night trucker’s meal of choice. KT is a working market for wholesalers and it has a gritty reputation. Come prepared for an adventure. The noodle bowls are a must at 4 a.m., then wander the expansive footprint for exotic fruits, vegetables and finish with an 8 a.m. piece of grilled frog or roasted fish before leaving.
Portland, OR: Portland Saturday Farmers' Market
What started in the early-’90s with only a dozen vendors has grown into locavore heaven with hundreds of farmers, vintners, foragers and prepared food stands. Walking up and down the rows, you’ll find everything from organic and heirloom produce of the Hood River and Willamette valleys to killer grab-and-go bites. On a Saturday morning, I’m headed to Pine State Biscuits for one of Portland’s iconic sandwiches—the Reggie Deluxe... fried chicken, bacon, cheese, gravy and a fried egg all piled onto a fresh biscuit.
Madison, WI: Dane County Farmers' Market
The Dane County Farmers’ Market is the largest producer-only farmers’ market in the county, meaning all items are produced in Wisconsin by the vendor behind the table. Located on the steps of the state’s capitol, this Midwest market has been around since the ’70s, when then-mayor Bill Dyke saw it as a way to unite the rural and urban cultures of Dane County. Today, there are more than 150 vendors each Wednesday and Saturday, selling everything from sustainable protein to organic produce and fresh flowers. But I’m in Wisconsin, so naturally I head straight for Bleu Mont Dairy, where the cheese is made in small batches and aged in caves. You won’t taste cheddar like this anywhere else. Next stop, L’Etoile across the street, where chef Tory Miller changes the menu based on what’s fresh at the market.
Apia, Upolu, Samoa: Maketi Fou Market
This market is definitely in my top five for markets worldwide. The easy-to-navigate 24-hour bazaar is always lively, filled with locals shopping for groceries and household goods. I’m partial to the tuna oke-oke, diced raw fish drenched in lime, coconut milk and fresh chiles. Simple, refreshing and costs the equivalent of a couple quarters. Lamb breasts are barbecued in the back, tobacco is rolled and cut: This is the market you dream about, almost untouched for centuries. Last time I was there I found 18 fruits I had never seen before, let alone tasted.
Honolulu: Oahu Market in Chinatown
Nearly 40 percent of Hawaii’s population is of Asian descent, more than any other state. It’s a true melting pot of Chinese, Southeast Asian, Indonesian, Filipino and Japanese cultures and cuisines. Honolulu’s historic Chinatown is reportedly the oldest in the United States, dating back 120 years, and it should be on the top of your list for an authentic (although often gritty) food experience in this island state’s capital. Wake up early on a Saturday morning and peruse the market’s stands hawking roasted pig’s heads and offal, fresh octopus, salted jellyfish, roast ducks and povi masima, a Polynesian-style salted beef brisket. All that being said, I always load up at the old fish stalls selling poke and other fish salads, fresh and pickled fish, or my favorite, the dried aku. Similar to a small jack tuna, ask for it at any fish vendor and they will sell you a few sticks, it’s the best fish “jerky” on the planet. A few blocks away you will find the Maunakea Market Place and Kekaulike Market, lively gathering spots for locals with great food courts, but it’s the fresh fruits and vegetable from all over the island that are the star here.