Why It's Important to Visit Farmer's Markets While Traveling
There aren't many things that will get me up early on a Saturday morning, I admit it. I'm a little better while traveling, since I'm excited to cram in a bunch of exploring, but still - it's a struggle. Especially in Switzerland, where a good strong cup of American joe is not an option.
However, while in Lucerne, Switzerland (Luzern in German), I managed to drag my butt out of bed around 7am on a Saturday and get out the door by 8. Why?
Because I'm a sucker for farmer's markets, and flea markets, and I had heard that in summertime there's BOTH a flea and farmer's market on the gorgeous river banks of Lucerne.
I've never been so grateful to lose some sleep. I spent forever wandering back and forth between the stalls of the Flohmarkt (flea market) set up at Untere Burgerstrasse, just past the Franziskanerkirche, the gorgeous Jesuit church on the banks of the Reuss. A decent half of the stalls were just selling, well, crap - flipflops, phone chargers, bras, knock-offs, etc. But the other half had very cool antiques and knick-knacks, and I splurged on a handful of vintage postcards from all the Swiss cities I was visiting.
Once I'd satisfied my flea market itch (ha..ha..), I took the Chapel Bridge across to the other side of the Ruess, where stall after stall of gorgeous-looking food stood awaiting visitors. Fresh produce bursting in bright reds, oranges, and yellows made an almost overwhelming contrast against the bright blue mountain water of the Ruess. There were homemade wines, syrups, and juices; stalls of fish; buckets upon buckets of bright sunflowers. Perhaps my favorite stalls, however, featured locally-made meats and cheeses. Yes, you could literally smell your way towards these stalls.
Knowing very little German, I managed to grunt and point eloquently enough to pick out a small apple cake, some currants, and a hunk of gooey cheese and a baguette. I sat by the river to eat my humble lunch, letting my feet enjoy the rest while I people-watched and enjoyed the still-heating sun.
My point to all this rambling? Farmer's markets, in my opinion, are some of the most valuable sites you can visit while traveling. If you still need convincing, consider this:
1) Farmer's markets provide hours of entertainment - walking, people-watching, exploring new items - and it only costs however much you're willing to pay. Additionally, most markets are held in town and city centers - meaning you'll already be wandering amongst some of the most highlighted and historic tourist attractions in that locale, and by the time you're ready to explore them you'll be more comfortable with the general feel and attitude of the city. It's basically foreplay to the rest of your tourist day.
2) It's a crash-course to local (or international) cuisine. What's that strange-looking fruit? Where did it come from? Why is that loaf of bread so gigantic? What's this chocolatey thing that appears to be the food of gods? A market is a good way to learn more about what's commonly enjoyed in your new locale. Or even what's not commonly enjoyed - exploring a market before a local holiday will likely introduce you to traditional holiday foods and gifts, and you may learn some interesting tidbits about cultural influences in the area. Seeing the numerous Middle Eastern food stalls at the weekly market in the Geneva, for example, piqued my interest in learning more about immigration to Switzerland.
3) If you're in a non-English speaking locale, this gives you an opportunity to try out your new skills. Depending on the town, of course, local markets are less likely to cater to tourists and less likely to speak English. So if you're a timid foreign-language speaker like I am, you're going to be forced out of your shell a bit - at least, if you really want that glorious chocolatey thing. Before going, make sure you know some basic phrases - politeness and a grasp of numbers 1-10, paired with an eager smile, will get you a long way.
That being said, there are a couple things you should keep in mind prior to market-ing to keep it an enjoyable experience:
1) You'll want to carry small cash bills for your transactions. Be sure you're familiar with the local currency before going - if you're fumbling around trying to identify your coins, you'll scream "tourist," - and possibly pay higher prices for it.
2) On a related note, crowded markets are a prime place for pick-pocketing. I'm not telling you this to scare you - it's just common sense. Be aware of who's around you and where your belongings are. I typically keep my money stash buried deep in my purse, which I wear cross-body, but keep a couple small bills within easy reach so I can pay quickly without digging around in my bag. In some cases, marketers may be more aggressive in their selling tactics with tourists or females. Though this can be intimidating, keep in mind that street and market-selling is a livelihood for many - they want to do whatever they can to make a sell. That doesn't mean you need to be obligated to buy everything, though - before going to market, learn how to firmly turn down an offer in the local language, and practice out loud if you need to.
3) The food might be...surprising. In a variety of different ways. But embrace this, don't shy away from it. The chocolately thing I keep mentioning? Might turn out to be date filling. True story. Your host country might cook meat products that you don't typically see at home - chicken feet, anyone? You might be used to a specific diet (gluten-free, vegan, etc.) that will be more difficult to follow. Identify your boundaries but be willing to push them for the full experience. Market foods are also less likely to use preservatives or GMOs. I discovered this in Switzerland, when literally every single piece of produce was smaller, uglier, and so much more flavorful than I was used to in the United States. The point was driven home when the glorious basket of strawberries I bought turned to moldy goop the very next day - no artificial preservation there!
In conclusion, explore the markets, my fellow nerds! I promise it will be worth it - for both your brain and your tummy.