Most people do not travel to Italy with the exact plan of heading to some of the country’s iconic markets, but if you somehow end up in one, it’ll be one of the best happy accidents to ever happen to you. Each market truly has its own story to tell, which is why I love them so, so much. Of course there are many of them, but to be reasonable, I chose my absolute five favourites to share with you today. So, grab a glass of vino and let your mind wander as you read, because these places are pure magic.
I should also quickly add that I have my own naming system for each of these markets. It’s how I remember them. So of course I’ll be sharing the markets’ actual names, but I’ll also refer to them as what I see them to be. Now, without further ado ...
The Icon: Mercati di Rialto in Venice
While you’re out and about getting lost amongst the many canals of Venice, don’t forget to stumble upon The Iconic (at least to me), Mercati di Rialto located on the San Polo side of Rialto Bridge. Many tourists overlook this market as a photo opportunity, but it is, in fact, a working fish market that supplies great produce to the local restaurants. You’ll also find some fab fruit and vegetables here, too, but the real showstopper is the view. I’m not sure there is a market with a better view anywhere in the world!
Top Tip: When you’re done shopping at the market, wander over to Naranzaria for an aperol spritz or light lunch overlooking the Grand Canal.
The Rustic One: Ostuni Market
Come hungry to this one because the Saturday open air food market in Ostuni is wonderful—and huge. It’s open from 8am-1pm, so I recommend visiting before you eat your breakfast. One of the reasons I’m so drawn to Ostuni is because it’s not just a tourist attraction, it’s a bustling market designed for the locals. What could be more authentic? Highlights include enormous oranges and lemons and Taralli (traditional bread biscuits).
Top Tip: Smile and talk to the vendors. It’s amazing how many delicious samples are offered when you take the time to engage with people.
The City Market: Mercato Centrale in Florence
You might be able to guess why of all these markets, this is the one I refer to as The City Market. It’s located right smack in the centre of Florence and is inside an incredibly elegant cast-iron structure dating back to 1874. If you’re thinking this sounds like a tourist trap, don’t! It doesn’t feel like you are on the tourist trail once you step inside. It clearly caters to locals and is authentic and chic. The vendors were so friendly and I enjoyed tasting large plates of cheese and wine too. I highly recommend popping upstairs for lunch and/or dinner as well.
Top Tip: If you are a street food fan, then head to Pescheria Ultima Spiaggia for the best fried fish in Florence.
The Street Food Hero: Mercato Ballarò in Palermo
There are many markets in Palermo, but this is the market of choice for the locals (you’ll notice this is the kind of market I prefer)! Experience the intoxicating chaos of Palermo and the assault to the senses as you wander the lanes of Ballarò. I just can’t say enough about it. The buildings are crumbling and beautiful and unlike anything else.
Go hungry! This is the best advice I can give you. You must try the famous Panelle (fritters made from chickpea flour, which recall the Arabic history of Palermo). My 9 year old son still says that it is his favourite food! My family spent three hours wandering through the markets of Palermo in May, and Ballarò was definitely our favourite. You’ll find it on the south side of the city.
Top Tip: For the freshest Cannolis ever, head to Pasticceria Porta Sant’Agata.
The Small & Charming One: Mercato Di Siracusa in Ortigia
Sometimes you just want somewhere pretty to walk around for 15 minutes followed by a fabulous, local lunch. No need to schedule a full morning to see the Mercato Di Siracusa. We strolled through the market on a sunny day in March and were the only tourists (!!). The market offers meat, fish, fruit and vegetables and there are a couple of great lunch options as well.
You’ll also want to be sure to check out Caseificio Borders, which is a very famous sandwich place that has appeared on many TV shows. You can order your sandwich at the bar and then enjoy it at one of the little tables in the small square. The making of the sandwiches themselves is theatre and a great way to pass 10 minutes!
Top Tip: My Dad and I took a table at Fratelli Burgio and enjoyed a wonderful glass of local white wine for 3 euro and one of the antipasto lunch platters. It was huge and beautifully presented. Definitely some of the best antipasto plates we have ever tasted. Oh, and they have a sense of humour—the bill comes in a box with a magnifying glass!
Images: Marlene Lee