Shopping at an outdoor or specialty food market, opposed to a cold, fluorescently lit space selling mostly packaged and frozen goods, can be uplifting.
They are quite a sight: The beautiful palette of seasonal fruits and vegetables, next to fresh flowers and jars of handmade jams, create a living painting. More importantly, most food markets support local farmers, ranchers and fishmongers.
As people grow more conscious of what they eat and how they affect the environment, they demand to know the provenance of food and how it is produced.
Most of all, you can't beat the flavors of farm-fresh tomatoes, peaches, arugula or that just-caught halibut. Whether you're a foodie in search of rare delicacies, someone who likes to buy local produce or just a curious traveler, next time you're in a new town, see what's cooking at the market. Here are five that will make your journey worthwhile.
Mercat de la Boqueria, Barcelona
There's much to see in Barcelona, a city of surreal modernist buildings and haunting Gothic streets. One place you cannot miss is Boqueria, perhaps the most famous food market in the world. It is also one of the oldest, established unofficially in the 13th century along the central avenue known as Las Ramblas.
Today the market sells a dizzying variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, conserves and meats displayed kaleidoscopically. To a seafood lover, this is paradise: crawfish, shrimp, crabs, clams, mussels and more, all impossibly fresh (some still alive). If you can't take these treats home with you, stop at one of the lunch counters like Kiosko Universal and order your favorite shellfish or the day's catch. They'll grill it right in front of you, adding just a dash of olive oil and salt -- something so good doesn't need condiments. Open Mondays to Saturdays; Plaça de la Boqueria; +3493/318-2017.
Borough Market, London
Inside this fine-food emporium near London Bridge, you'll find high-quality produce, specialty meats from rare breeds, superb wines, handmade chocolates and much more. One highlight is the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie, a Leicestershire delicacy that earned protected designation of origin from the European Union. Oysters from the Helford River, inside the Duchy of Cornwall, also draw crowds, as does ostrich meat from a farm in North Nottinghamshire. Although Borough is not strictly a farmer's market (a place where small farmers sell their crops directly to the public) many fruits and vegetables are grown locally and organically.
In any case, vendors will tell you exactly where their products came from and how they were made or grown. Borough Market takes nutrition seriously -- it recently instituted a food school to promote healthful eating, and teach children and adults how to choose, buy and prepare food. Open Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 8 Southwark Street, London, SE1 1TL; +44-207/407-1002
Campo de' Fiori, Rome
Every morning, Campo de' Fiori square turns into a colorful street market that can transport you back to 1869, when farmers and fishermen began peddling their fruits, vegetables and catches there. This storied piazza hasn't changed much since then -- it's still where Romans find fresh ingredients for the day's meal -- except for the presence of photo-snapping tourists.
When vendors leave in the late afternoon, the bronze statue of Giordano Bruno comes into focus. Accused of heresy, this 16th century philosopher was burned alive in the center of the square, as were many other dissidents and undesirables. Good thing the Italians eventually found a better use for the space, now bustling with ripe tomatoes, zucchinis, mixed spices, handmade breads and freshly cut fiori. Open daily; Piazza Campo de' Fiori, near Piazza Navona.
Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market, San Francisco
This young market, established in 1992, quickly became one of America's best. It is also a top San Francisco attraction, housed in an 1898 ferry building that was the Bay Area's transportation hub until the 1930s. The steel-framed landmark was renovated to include a 65,000-square-foot marketplace in the central nave.
Ferry Plaza is a testament to California's commitment to sustainability: All fruits, vegetables, meats and flowers hail from regional farms and ranches, many of them certified organic. The goodies don't stop there. Look for regional artisan breads and cheeses, coffee and tea houses, wine merchants, pastry shops and ice cream parlors. For burgeoning foodies and so-called localvores, there are free cooking demonstrations and Q&As with farmers every week. Open Tuesdays and Saturdays; One Ferry Building; 415/291-3276.
Mercado Municipal Paulistano, São Paulo
Housed in a 135,000-square-foot palatial building, this food gallery is aptly known by locals as the mercadão (big market). The Mercado Municipal reopened in 2004 after extensive renovations to the original 1933 edifice, with grand columns and arches, skylights and stained-glass windows. The Mercado Municipal receives an average of 14,000 visitors a day, both tourists and locals, who come for Brazilian specialty meats such as jacaré (alligator) or capybara (a pig-sized South American rodent), and more than 300 exotic fruits, including pytaias (grown in the Amazon and known elsewhere as dragon fruit) and mameys (large, sweet, orange-fleshed fruits).
A mezzanine food court offers Brazil's most traditional dishes including pastel de bacalhau (cod dumplings) and feijoada (a slow-cooked stew of black beans, pork and beef, served with white rice, collard greens and roasted cassava flour). Open daily, Rua da Cantareira 306, Parque Dom Pedro II. +55-11/3326-6664.
Paola Singer is a freelance writer based in New York City. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, Newsday and Hemispheres magazine.