Long before daybreak, trucks rumble down streets and back into loading docks across America. Vendors pull crates of produce and carry them to stalls where they're laid out in colorful mosaics. Rows of iridescent fish lie on beds of crushed ice; bouquets of fresh flowers paint a vibrant tableau. Then the public arrives. Savvy shoppers scurry with a purpose―they know where to go for the best tomatoes, the freshest trout, and the flakiest breads. Newcomers browse the aisles, taking in the sights, sounds, and aromas.
These are America's farmers' markets. Experiencing a revival, more than 3,700 public markets are thriving throughout the country, according to the usda national directory of farmers' markets. That's a 111 percent increase in the past 10 years, making them top attractions in cities like Seattle and Philadelphia.
The following three are renowned for offering visitors unique food choices in festive, historic environments. They also happen to be in cities where activities, culture, and restaurants abound, providing plenty to do once vendors pack up their stalls at day's end.To find a farmers' market near you, go to the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Services Web site at www.ams.usda.gov/farmersmarkets.
Katharine Dyson writes a weekly travel and food column for Acorn newspapers and is the author of The 100 Most Romantic Resorts of the World. She lives in Ridgefield, Connecticut.
San Francisco: Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market
Vibe: The high temple of regionally produced, organic foods unique flavors: Peaches so good, New York City chefs have them flown in from the Frog Hollow Farm stand.
Insider tip: Make Boulettes Larder your final stop. Like a well-stocked pantry, it sells delicious broths, hand-milled spices and grains, fresh pie dough, and more.
Founded: 2003 (building dates from 1898) www.ferrybuildingmarketplace.com
Since its opening in 2003, the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market, with its focus on organic produce and artisan foods from family-operated farms, has lured thousands of visitors.
It's also a gathering place for farmers like Al Courchesne, known for the 25 varieties of peaches he grows on his Frog Hollow Farm (some of which sell for $4 per pound). His wife and partner, pastry chef Rebecca Courchesne, sells her homemade chutneys and marmalades alongside him. Nearby is Nan McEvoy and the extravirgin olive oil she produces on her Marin County ranch. Organically grown and harvested by hand, the olives are crushed within 24 hours of picking.
While at Ferry Plaza, stop by the Center for Urban Education About Sustainable Agriculture, and sign up to shop with a chef or take lessons in farmhouse cooking using locally grown produce. Just outside, catch the trolley to Boudin's at Fishermen's Wharf for the city's signature sourdough bread bowl filled with clam chowder. Watch the sea lions hang out at Pier 39, and browse the work of the sidewalk artists.
Where to stay: For sweeping views of San Francisco bay, stay at the new Hotel Vitale, which offers a day spa for a post-market massage and rooftop soaking tubs (rates from $269; 888-890-8688, www.hotelvitale.com).
Cleveland: West Side Market
Vibe: A celebration of ethnic foods
Unique flavors: Exotic herbs and spices like saffron, curry, and cilantro
Insider tip: If you're buying perishable foods, bring along a cooler where you can store goods in your car (ice is not available at the market). Some vendors close on Mondays.
Inside the West Side Market there are more than 125 booths displaying everything from delicious falafel at Maha's to deftly cut meats at Vince's Meats and smoked varieties at Walker Meats. At Ohio City Pasta, you can buy homemade varieties in quarter-pound bundles―each day brings tantalizing new flavors like saffron, spicy lime, and roasted red pepper. And at the Westside Market Cafe, everything on the menu is made from market ingredients.
Also worth exploring are the many ethnic restaurants along West 25th Street a couple of blocks away: Nate's Deli, offering Middle Eastern food; Lozada's, featuring Puerto Rican specialties; and Massimo da Milano's Italian fare.
For a narrated tour of the city, hop on Lolly the Trolley (from $10; 800-848-0173, www.lollytrolley.com), which departs from the Powerhouse at Nautica, a complex of restaurants and a comedy club that's a short walk from the market. Also stroll along Lorain Station Historic District, a haven for shops selling ethnic foods and New Age boutiques. The special exhibits at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, as well as a baseball game at Jacobs Field near the market, are also must-sees.
Where to stay: Try the Bourbon House, a Gothic mansion, where you'll eat a regal breakfast complete with elegant linens, candles, and fine china (rates from $95; 877-444-7279, www.bbhost.com/bourbon_house).
Boston: Haymarket Square
Vibe: A cacophonous carnival with lots of talk in several accents
Unique flavors: From California tomatoes to New Jersey tomatoes, there's a mélange of foods from around the country.
Insider tip: For optimal quality, shop on Fridays before 10 a.m.; for quantity, stop by on Saturdays after 2:30 p.m., when vendors want to clear out what they have left and head home.
Founded: mid-19th century
Standing behind their plywood stalls, just as their fathers and grandfathers had done before them, audacious purveyors, mostly of Irish or Italian descent, have honed catching the eye of a browsing shopper into a fine art at Boston's largest open-air market. "Hey, Bobby, the bananas are flying off the table . . . move."
"Lady, you want fresh tuna? Check this out. Just off the boat an hour ago . . ."
Truth be told, the banter revs up the energy level at Haymarket―not that it needs it. Hugging the fringes of the city's primarily Italian North End, the Haymarket draws the faithful who make weekly pilgrimages here to purchase produce, fish, meats, even sugarcane. Bargain-hunters love it; the specials change on a whim here. One minute they're scribbled on cardboard, and the next they're simply shouted.
Stroll through the Blackstone Block and Creek Square, just behind Haymarket, the only place left in Boston where the original streets (17th and 18th) are still intact, as are the former haunts of Winslow Homer and Benjamin Franklin. Take a walking tour with Michele Topor (617-523-6032, www.micheletopor.com), a former chef. She'll take you to an authentic salumeria, or deli, in search of great olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and salami, and to a 70-year-old coffee and spice shop, Polcari Coffee Shop.
Around the corner, try some hearty Yankee seafood at Union Oyster House, America's oldest restaurant (since 1826), or head to North Square's Mamma Maria, set in a 19th-century brick row house. Cool off with a ferry ride from Long Wharf to the Harbor Islands ( www.islandalliance.com), mostly uninhabited little gems where you can hike, kayak, picnic, and swim. You can also bike or inline skate along the Charles River Esplanade, a parklike strip along the river.
Where to stay: Check into the Onyx Hotel near Haymarket. Done in Art Deco style, this pet-friendly boutique hotel is just steps from the Freedom Trail (rates from $199; 800-546-7866, www.onyxhotel.com).