What traveler doesn’t love a great European market? There are few better windows into local life than rubbing shoulders with shoppers, browsing stands piled high with colorful produce, nibbling on street munchies, and being fully immersed in the sights, sounds, and smells of the local community.
Over half a lifetime of traveling around Europe, I’ve been collecting my favorite market experiences for travelers — where you can glean some insights into local culture and cuisine, and browse for a good, local, quality meal. This is a mix of old-school covered markets, trendier food halls, and sprawling, open-air markets that take over an entire neighborhood or town. I’ve heavily skewed my suggestions to foodie options, where you’ll find dishes that are creative and interesting (rather than just fill-the-tank), while still being affordable. Happy browsing!
10. Mercado de San Miguel, Madrid, Spain
Just steps from the grand Plaza Mayor, in the heart of Spain’s capital, sits this 1915 erector-set market hall. Fully remodeled in 2009, today it’s a bustling showcase of edible Spain. Squeezing between the crowds, you’ll find only the best jamón ibérico (air-cured ham), Manchego and other artisanal Spanish cheeses, powerfully piquant skewered pickles and olives (banderillas), delectable pastries, little skillets of paella, tinned fish and seafood, brochetas (meat or seafood skewers) grilled to order, smoked salmon, sweet vermouths from around Spain, croquetas with various fillings, Mexican dishes from a Michelin-star chef, and robust Rioja wines. It’s a culinary tour of Spain, under one roof.
9. Östermalms Saluhall, Stockholm, Sweden
A classic. Anchoring Stockholm’s posh Östermalm neighborhood, this market hall is simply elegant. Handsome, hand-carved wooden stalls display just-so piles of produce, stacked as if posing for a still-life. The wares here feel…curated. Composed. With Scandinavian precision. There aren’t many bargains in this pricey city, but the Östermalms Saluhall is fun to browse for a high-end picnic, or to settle into a market eatery for a quality deli plate, a delicately composed salad, a sticky Scandinavian sweet roll, a splurgy seafood dish, a gourmet smørrebrød (open-face sandwich), a delectable handmade praline, or a selection of Lebanese small plates. Note: The food hall is undergoing a makeover through 2020; in the meantime, the vendors have set up temporary digs nearby.
8. Markthalle Neun, Berlin, Germany
Berlin’s Kreuzberg district is home to its most cutting-edge, engaging culinary scene — and Markhalle Neun is its flagship. Tucked in a workaday neighborhood away from the tourist sights, it fills a beautifully restored 19th-century hall with greengrocers, cheesemongers, butchers, fishmongers, florists, and bakers, all with an appropriately Berlin-hipster vibe. Meanwhile, food stands sell Berlin classics like Buletten (meatballs), Stolle (open-faced sandwiches), Brezel (big doughy pretzels), and Currywurst — but also Italian pastas, French crêpes, Turkish deli meats, Spanish tapas, and even BBQ from the USA. Markhalle Neun scores bonus points for its many special events (listed at www.markthalleneun.de), including its Saturday farmers market and its “Street Food Thursday” — a beloved institution for Berliners seeking a trendy yet affordable dinner.
7. Mercato Centrale, Florence, Italy
For years, I’d peek tentatively inside this cavernous market hall in the center of Florence, which felt dark and foreboding. With tattered stalls and piles of garbage out front, it felt like it hadn’t changed since the days of Vittorio Emanuele II. Then, in 2014, they converted the top floor into a high-end food circus. Just walk past the still-grubby produce stalls on the main floor, and hike up the stairs to a world of Italian taste treats: hand-rolled pastas, prizewinning prosciutto, massive steaks cooked so rare they still moo, melt-in-your-mouth panini, gourmet burgers made from Tuscany’s prized Chianina beef, rotisserie chicken, big juicy wads of mozzarella di bufala, handheld flatbread sandwiches called trapizzini, big slabs of rustic pizza, tender stewed beef cheeks, truffle-infused oils and pâtés, the rustic Tuscan bread soup called ribollita, deep-fried tasties, cannoli and other Sicilian sugar bombs, and high-end tripe sandwiches (a Florentine classic!). Travelers smart enough to escape the tourist-gouging restaurants on the main drag retreat to this upper level — like pigeons in the rafters — to take a break from intense Renaissance sightseeing with pretty much any Italian taste treat they can imagine. Tuscany is home to many foodie finds — but this is one of the best.
6. Belvarosi Piac, Budapest, Hungary
In Budapest, tourists flock to the Great Market Hall, an elegant palace of produce built around the turn of the 20th century. And you really do have to see the Great Market Hall. But don’t eat there — the “local”-seeming food counters upstairs specialize in ripping off naive tourists. Instead, head to a different, smaller, and far more authentic neighborhood market hall, also right in the city center (a couple of minutes’ walk from the Parliament): the Belvarosi Piac on Hold Street. In an atmospheric Industrial Age space that feels like the Great Market Hall’s little sibling, producers occupy the ground floor, while the upstairs is ringed by tempting high end-yet-affordable food stands: massive schnitzels at Buja Diszno(k), gourmet sausage at Lakatos Műhely, Russian grub at Moszkvatér (named for the since-rechristened “Moscow Square”), gourmet burgers at Kandalló, Thai-style khao man gai (poached chicken in garlicky sauce), and updated Hungarian classics at A Séf Utcaja. Anchoring the space, down on the main floor, is Stand 25 Bisztró. Here, celebrity chefs Szabina Szulló and Tamás Széll artfully fuse Hungarian classics with international influences (or is it the other way around?). While not cheap by market hall standards, Stand 25 a bargain for a Michelin-caliber lunch in a memorable setting (lunch only, plus dinner Friday and Saturday, book ahead).
5. Ballarò Market, Palermo
The Sicilian capital has some of the best, most vivid street markets in all of Europe. And the granddaddy of them all is Ballarò — seedy, chaotic, bewildering, and invigorating. Come here to jostle with Sicilians who verbally arm-wrestle for the best deals on the best ingredients. The vendors — continuing a tradition that supposedly dates back to Arab rule — warble their sales pitches with an otherworldly cadence, demanding the attention of passersby. Giant slabs of pink tuna perch on marble counters, like cadavers ready to be dissected. Produce stands overflow with vivid-purple eggplants, long, skinny Sicilian zucchini, and tomatoes that actually taste like tomatoes. Best of all, scattered throughout this multi-block span of barely controlled chaos are a wide variety of tempting street food stands, selling greasy napkins topped with dirt-cheap taste treats for every level of adventurous eaters — from arancine (deep-fried rice balls) and sfincioni (“Sicilian pizza”) to pani ca’ meusa (spleen sandwich) and polpo bollito (tiny boiled octopus, eaten whole). (For a complete rundown, check out my post on Palermo’s street food.) Go ahead, dive in — this is what real travelers live for.
4. Mathallen, Oslo, Norway
I love Oslo. But I’ve rarely found a memorable meal tucked among the dreary, blocky downtown core along Karl Johans Gate. However, just north of downtown runs the Akers River Valley, where the city has redeveloped a former wasteland of red-brick factories and warehouses into a lively people zone. Its centerpiece is Mathallen (“Food Hall”), filling the scavenged brick skeleton of a 19th-century factory. Norwegians recognize the limitations of their cuisine. And so, in addition to stands selling fresh, whole-grain bread (at Smelt Ostesmørbrød) sweet and savory pies (at Mildrids Kjøkken), and farm-fresh geitost cheese (at Ost & Sånt), you can nibble tapas, pastas, sushi, tacos and tequila, pizza, Asian street food, gourmet ice cream, and much more. Ringing the outside of the market are a variety of industrial-mod, higher-end eateries. I skipped the fried chicken and “global tapas,” and went a bit more traditional at Vulkanfisk, serving up affordable-for-Oslo, elegantly presented, fresh seafood (the garlic-sautéed scampi were a flavor bomb). Anytime I’m in Oslo at mealtime, I come up with an excuse to head up the Akers River to Mathallen.
3. Maltby Street Market Rope Walk, London
One summer, my wife and I rented an apartment in London for a week and checked out a different market each day. And at the end of the trip, the Maltby Street Rope Walk emerged as our favorite (every Saturday and Sunday). Tucked along a vintage brick railroad trestle, far from any tourist attractions (roughly across the Thames from the Tower of London), it’s an explosion of foodie energy. Beyond the hole-in-the-wall eateries, wine bars, taprooms, and Mozambique-style burger bars squeezed into the arches under the train tracks, the weekend market adds a world of pop-up food stands: grilled sandwiches oozing with tangy English cheese; little slices of rye bread mounted with melt-in-your-mouth Scottish salmon; slabs of grass-fed, dry-aged, rare-grilled hanger steaks; wild variations on Scotch eggs; Middle Eastern flatbreads with savory toppings; German-style sausages; gyoza steamed in wicker baskets; and a mouthwatering array of gooey brownies. For a more traditional “market hall,” it’s hard to beat London’s famous Borough Market. The funky Camden Market sprawls through a yellow-brick wonderland of old industrial buildings. The Portobello Road Market charms Notting Hill fans. And the Broadway Market feels like ground zero for East London’s hipster baby boom. But if I had to pick just one market that incapsulates cutting-edge London…it’s Rope Walk.
2. Mercado da Ribeira/Time Out Market, Lisbon, Portugal
My favorite European market hall has a split personality. One-half of the market is as classic as they come: traditional, rough-and-tumble vendors selling fragrant herbs, plump produce, and an aquarium’s worth of fish. It’s ragtag, ramshackle, and trapped in the 1950s, with rickety wooden stalls, puddles pooling on cracked tile floors, petticoat-clad grannies selling rough bunches of herbs, and Old World scales with dials that spin imprecisely as if digital were never invented. On its own, this market hall is endearing enough to earn an “honorable mention” on this list. But from there, you can step through a door into La Ribera’s other half: a sleek, futuristic, top-of-the-line, Time Out-themed culinary wonderland (opened in 2014). The two dozen eateries here include stands operated by five marquee, Michelin-rated Portuguese celebrity chefs selling affordably price tastes of their favorite dishes. You’ll also find smaller stands bursting with a variety of local and international meals: the beloved Portuguese steak sandwich called prego, croquetes with fillings both traditional and creative, bacalhau (rehydrated salt-dried cod), fresh-baked pasteis de nata and other pastries, Japanese-fusion dishes highlighting the long-forgotten influence of early Portuguese traders, traditional cheeses and charcuterie, catch-of-the-day, quality steaks, gourmet burgers, artful sushi, and crispy pizzas. Rounding out the scene are a well-stocked wine shop, a place to stock up on conserves (tinned fish with colorful wrappers), and a branch of A Vida Portugesa (a classy vendor of Portuguese-themed products, gifts, and keepsakes that tempt even non-shoppers). Whether for a meal or a one-stop-shop to stock up on all things Portuguese, Mercado da Ribeira is a winner.
1. Market Day, Sarlat, France
Sarlat’s street market is hard to top. It’s the refined yin to Palermo’s gritty yang. Twice weekly — on Wednesday mornings, and all day Saturdays — the pristine, lemony-sandstone streets of one of France’s finest towns become a big outdoor shopping mall. Locals pour in from the countryside to browse the stalls, reconnect with their favorite vendors, and bump into old friends. You’ll find baked goods, fresh meat, duck-in-a-can (confit de canard), giant wheels of rustic mountain cheese, tiny pyramids of fine gourmet cheese, nuts and dried fruits, explosively flavorful olives, mammoth chunks of nougat, snail shells prefilled for escargot, fruitcake sold by weight, a rainbow of preserves, salamis and sausages of every shape and size, and whatever produce is in season. When the noon bell tolls, the vendors begin packing up, and the shoppers scramble for café tables that catch just the right mélange of sun and shade. This is where the second phase of the Market Day ritual kicks in: taking some time to nurse a cup of coffee with someone you haven’t seen in a while. It’s all so simple…so sophisticated…so smart. If you won’t be in Sarlat, you can enjoy similar market days all over France; every community has its own, but popular ones include Uzès (in Provence), Beaune (in Burgundy), and several in Parisian neighborhoods. But Sarlat is the one that has left me with the warmest memories of an ideal market experience.
What’s your favorite market in Europe?