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Food markets are the heart, soul and stomach of their cities, and often the first place I’ll head to in a new place. Here are five of my favorite European food markets that you should visit the next time you find yourself in these five fascinating locales.
1. Borough Market, Southwark, London
For a real treat, try Ethiopian Flavors’ generous beef tibs and injera pancakes — with just a bit of a spicy kick — at Borough Market in London’s Southwark neighborhood. Or enjoy a succulent Lincolnshire sausage patty with onion marmalade, Stilton cheese and arugula (also known as “rocket” in the UK) from Mountain’s Boston Sausage. For dessert, don’t pass up Comptoir Gourmand’s Frisbee-sized chocolate-chip cookies, salty with plenty of good English butter and milk chocolate. Southwark Cathedral looms over Borough Market, and you can sit and enjoy your meal in the churchyard — just don’t bug the Cathedral’s aging feline mascot, Doorkins Magnificat, who likes to sleep on the bishop’s chair. Borough Market is also within walking distance of the Shard, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, the Tate Modern and a relaxing, post-meal stroll across the pedestrian Millennium Bridge to St. Paul’s Cathedral.
2. St George’s Market, Belfast, Northern Ireland
Just a hop, skip and a $38 round-trip RyanAir jump away from London is the whole other world of Belfast, Northern Ireland. Located near the waterfront, the St George’s site has been a market since 1604 — its current, handsome, brick-and-sandstone building went up in 1896. Stock up on fruits and vegetables, and depending on the schedule, crafts and antiques. Grab a hearty Belfast bap — a crusty round roll, in our case, filled with bacon, sausage and egg — at the aptly named Belfast Bap Co., and sit at a table to enjoy live Irish music. With not-too-runny eggs and a bun-sized slice of bacon, the bap makes a perfect hand-sized breakfast, especially when paired with a cup of good market coffee to wash it down. Afterward, cross the River Lagan to lovely Ormeau Park or follow the west side of the Lagan to the Botanic Gardens and the Ulster Museum, a fascinating place to learn about the fraught history of Northern Ireland.
3. La Boqueria, Barcelona, Spain
La Boqueria sits on Barcelona’s famous strip, La Rambla, in a structure completed in 1853, though there’s been a market here as far back as 1217. Many claim it’s the greatest food market in the world, and it is certainly a spectacular place, with more than 200 crowded stalls selling fresh seafood, fruit of every variety, meats and fresh juices (which are delicious, by the way). I especially recommend the cones of melt-in-your-mouth cured Iberian ham.
A word of caution: keep an eye on your belongings as you wander, as pickpockets tend to frequent the area. I secured my wallet in a double-buttoned pocket upon entering, but after pausing to take a photo with the dense crowd brushing by me, I found that someone had already unfastened both buttons — another second and my wallet would have been gone.
4. Mercado de San Antón, Madrid, Spain
Most tourists head for the beautiful wrought-iron-and-glass Mercado de San Miguel, but San Miguel is always packed and can be quite expensive. San Antón, on the other hand, is located in the LGBT-friendly area of Chueca, near Cacao Sampaka, one of the world’s least-expensive-but-great chocolatiers. It’s about a mile to major attractions like El Retiro Park and the Botanical Garden, so for a real taste of Madrid off this well-beaten path, head here, not for its space — a fancy three-story food court — but for its excellent food at reasonable prices. Note that this market sells no fresh food — except in the basement supermarket. Our smoked duck was among the best we’ve ever had, woody and lean with a balsamic reduction. Smoked salmon was fresh and not too salty, and the salmon eggs popped in our mouths.
5. Mercato Centrale, Florence, Italy
Florence’s Mercato Centrale is impressively housed in a two-story, 19th-century building designed by Giuseppe Mengoni, creator of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan. The windows in the high-ceilinged hall shower light on the 500 ground-floor seats shared by wine bars, cheesemongers, gelato stands and, of course, pasta places and pizzerias. Many of the shopkeepers are second- or third-generation tenants in Mercato Centrale, but none can match the longevity of Da Nerbone (est. 1872), famous for its beef panini dipped in its own juices. You also shouldn’t miss the tasty Neapolitan-style pizza at Pizzeria Sud. But whatever you do, don’t touch the fresh fruit or the shopkeepers will bite your head off — I speak from bitter experience!
Just a few steps from the market, you can visit Michelangelo’s David and view his unfinished Slaves at the Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze. A little over half a mile in the other direction, you’ll find Il Duomo, picturesque Ponte Vecchio and the Uffizi Gallery, home of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. Can’t get to Florence anytime soon? Take a virtual stroll through Mercato Centrale’s stalls on Google Streetview — though it’s a bit disconcerting to see the restaurateurs staring facelessly back at you.
Which food markets do you enjoy visiting in Europe? Tell us about them, below.
Featured image of La Boqueria in Barcleona courtesy of Arthur Debat via Getty Images.