The Santa Fe Farmers Market sits parallel to the tracks of the historic railroad depot. As you approach, the sweet smell of chilies wafts through the air. A man is turning the crank of a metal drum of bright green Hatch peppers roasting over an open flame. The harvest season for these native-to-New Mexico peppers extends from August through November.
The year-round market includes a 9,800-square-foot indoor pavilion as well as outdoor stalls under white canopies. Tables display mounds of artfully arranged fruits and vegetables from local farms; some growers sell off the back of their trucks.
Like the city, the market's complexion reflects a mix of European, Anglo and Native American cultures. The vibrant tablecloths have Southwestern motifs and colors. Ristras (strings of red chili) hang from atop the stalls. Men with cowboy hats and gray ponytails pass by as we sample blue-corn doughnuts. Gluten-free signs are ubiquitous. We marvel at tomatoes the size of grapefruits and the varied colors of peppers. We stop to talk to The Lavender Lady. Clothed in lavender silk with a matching hat, she eagerly shows us hand-sewn sachets filled with dried lavender from her farm.
Santa Fe's is a quintessential farmers market, ranking with the best from around the globe.
In her seminal book "Public Markets" (Library of Congress, 2008), Helen Tangires notes that markets are a worldwide phenomenon with "traditions as old as cities themselves." For thousands of years, traders met there to exchange goods. But for travelers, she says, they always have offered unparalleled opportunities to visit cities in microcosm.
With the growing interest in culinary travel, as witnessed by popular TV shows like Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations" and "The Layover," foodies are as likely to visit markets as they are to get on hop-on, hop-off buses or visit iconic landmarks. Many markets are sited in architecturally or historically significant buildings; others aren't contained in a single building but are spread over a contiguous area of a city. While markets ostensibly celebrate fresh, local foods, they are equally important as gathering places whose appeals cuts across social and economic classes. So visitors gain a glimpse into the lives of people from different cultures.
Most operate year-round, selling local foods, including seasonal produce; baked goods; beans and grains; fresh and processed meats, fish and other seafood; candies and nuts; coffees and teas; dairy products; prepared foods; herbs and spices; flowers and plants; and seasonal decorations and other handicrafts.
Many have counters and communal tables for informal snacks and conversation. The aromas of cooked foods and the sounds of strolling musicians add to the celebratory ambience. Increasingly, markets are offering cooking demos and tours; operators of city walking tours often include markets on their itineraries too.
Remarkably, no two are alike; each has its own personality.
When my husband and I travel, we visit at least one public market. Unlike many tourist attractions, there's no cost for admission. Here are several favorites:
La Boqueria (Barcelona, Spain): Along with Antonio Gaudi's architecture, the Boqueria is one of Barcelona's most celebrated attractions. It began as a traveling market in the 1200s, moved to its present location as an open-air market some 600 years later and finally gained a covered metal roof in 1914. Some vendors have worked here for four generations. You'll be dazzled by the Iberico hams and chorizo sausages hanging above the stalls, displays of salted and tinned fish, and candied fruits arranged like still lifes. For tapas, be sure to stop at Pinotxo Bar, where you're likely to be served by the legendary and omnipresent Juanito Bayan.
The Cours Saleya (Nice, France): With its colorful striped awnings, this outdoor market in Old Town is filled with produce and fragrant flowers. Tourists are drawn to the many artisanal products, including dried lavender, olive oil soaps, Herbes de Provence, candles, flavored sugars and place mats. Taste the socca (chickpea flour flatbread) at Chez Theresa, made in a pan atop a charcoal-filled drum. Her stall has been there for more than a quarter of a century.
Mercado Ignacio Ramirez (San Miguel de Allende, Mexico): This crowded covered market holds a huge selection of food, flowers, clothes, shoes, housewares, crafts and anything you might find in a big-box store in the United States. Centrally located near El Jardin (the main town plaza), it features Mexican specialties such as nopales (pads from prickly pear cacti), corn husks (used to make tamales), chili peppers, tamarind (a fruit used in desserts), pottery, silver jewelry and flor de piedra (a plant known for its medicinal properties). Don't be surprised if strolling musicians come up behind you.
Ostermalms Saluhall (Stockholm): In operation since 1888, this covered red-brick market is smaller and more upscale than many others in Europe. It showcases cooked foods, salads and seafood (including Swedish specialties such as smoked salmon, gravlax, herring and crayfish) displayed in sparkling glass cases. With sit-down restaurants and cafes, it's a great place to people-watch. Like much of the food in Stockholm, it's high quality but pricey.
Mercado Municipal de San Isidro (Lima, Peru): Located in an upscale suburban area of Lima (close to Miraflores, a seaside community), this market is a bit off the tourist track. You'll find (and will probably be offered samples of) a diversity of vegetables and exotic fruits native to Peru, including purple corn, white corn with supersized kernels (choclo), cherimoya (custard apple), pitahaya (dragon fruit) and aguaymanto (gooseberry). You'll also see many of the thousands of varieties of colorful potatoes grown in Peru. In the stalls at the back outfitted with residential kitchen appliances, locals sit down for a hot meal and a can of Inca Kola.
Tips for visiting public markets
Before you go, check opening hours, which may vary daily and seasonally.
Check online to determine whether written guides or guided tours are available.
Bring local currency. Many vendors do not accept credit cards or foreign currency.