Who doesn’t love a public market? Bustling with purveyors selling local food and goods, they are often enriching and fascinating peeks into the soul of a city.
These markets are especially great for groups, too, since leaders can schedule a tour of the market, let group members go off to enjoy it on their own or do both. Open year-round, filled with owner-operated stalls and shops, the following markets offer an experience that group visitors won’t want to miss.
The largest Mexican mercado in the countrY, San Antonio’s Market Square is a vibrant mix of festive colors, sounds and smells groups will love, said Dee Dee Poteete, Visit San Antonio’s director of regional communications.
“You can imagine experiencing the papel picado, the punched tissue paper, strung and fluttering over you; the music of a marimba band; the scents from an open food stall,” she said. “Groups should plan at least half a day for shopping and include one major meal. This is definitely a place to go for a stroll and maybe sit outside on a patio sipping a big margarita and watching the world go by.”
On a downtown plaza spanning three blocks and lined with shops, Market Square features more than 100 local vendors selling authentic Talavera pottery, handmade jewelry, leather goods, paintings and more. It’s just a few short blocks from the city’s main plaza, another attraction groups will want to visit. On weekends, Market Square comes alive with what Poteete calls “pop-up entertainment, festivals, celebrations and bands.”
And then there is the market’s Mi Tierra, the legendary, sprawling Mexican eatery that’s been owned by the same family since it opened in 1941. Festooned with elaborate decorations, it features strolling mariachi bands and a lovely panaderia filled with baked goods perfect for group members to take back to their hotel rooms.
If Philadelphia is America’s birthplace, it’s also where the country’s public markets were born. William Penn established outdoor markets in the late 17th century, when he founded the city; they would eventually morph into Reading Terminal Market, one of the oldest and largest public markets in the country. Open since 1893, it offers more than 80 merchants tucked into a National Historic Landmark building in Center City and is a great stop for groups, according to Kimberly Barrett, communications manager for the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“When I’ve done group visits to the market, we usually start at Philbert, the gold pig in the middle of the market that’s essentially its mascot,” Barrett said. “It’s very easy to do a tour of the perimeter of the market, and there’s a ton of open seating right there in the middle. So, if I want to go get doughnuts from Beiler’s and then someone else wants to get a DiNic’s roast pork sandwich, we can each bring our different goods back and sit together.”
Groups that would like a guided tour of Reading Terminal Market can book one with Taste of Philly Food Tour, but Barrett also recommends a stop at the city’s legendary Italian Market. An open-air market that runs for 10 blocks in South Philly, it’s home to Pat’s and Geno’s, two cheesesteak stands known around the world.
They say location is everything and Milwaukee Public Market, which opened in 2005, definitely benefits from its neighborhood, said Claire Koenig, communications manager for Visit Milwaukee.
“It’s right in between downtown proper and the Third Ward, which is known for its bars, restaurants and shopping,” she said. “It’s also adjacent to our permanent festival grounds, which is on the lake, so for groups going to a festival, the art museum or just doing lakefront activities, you’re within walking distance of the market, too.”
The market boasts some 20 vendors serving everything from Middle Eastern cuisine to tacos, seafood, ice cream, wine and, of course, cheese. Group members anxious to try heralded Wisconsin cheese curds should head to West Allis Cheese and Sausage Shoppe. Koenig also recommends the lobster roll from the St. Paul Fish Company and noted that for groups looking to get hands-on, Milwaukee Public Market offers cooking classes with vendors and city chefs in its demonstration kitchen.
Milwaukee, now in the midst of a bazaar boom, also offers Crossroads Collective, a food hall located across from the historic Oriental Theater, and Sherman Phoenix, an innovative market that champions businesses of color. Both opened in 2018. Third Street Market Hall is slated to debut next year across from the future home of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.
With a heritage dating back nearly a century and a half, Columbus, Ohio’s North Market hosts some 1 million customers a year. They can choose from more than 30 vendors, who, according to Lexi Sweet, Experience Columbus’ public relations manager, “really show off the diversity of Columbus in one small footprint.”
“What I love is that you can eat your way around the world,” she said. “We have Somali cooking, Vietnamese cooking; we have Japanese, Mediterranean. North Market is a good cross section of what you can get in Columbus.”
That includes Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, an artisanal brand founded at the market and now sold nationwide in stores like Whole Foods. Groups are sure to get a sample of it should they sign up for a food tour of North Market, which Sweet recommends.
“We work with a great company called Columbus Food Adventures,” she said, “to do mini food tours in the market, with sampling from the vendors and learning the history of some of them.”
Housed in a two-story brick warehouse from the 19th century conveniently located downtown, North Market bustles with beer festivals, wine tastings and other festivities and also features event space should groups wish to enjoy a private, catered meal. North Market Bridge Park, opening in spring 2021 in Dublin, a Columbus suburb, will also offer event space.
Charleston, South Carolina
Groups interested in exploring the historic Charleston City Market would do well to leave an afternoon or even the whole day open for it. Four blocks long, the market features a jaw-dropping 300 vendors, with the surrounding streets home to businesses like Peninsula Grill, regarded as one of the best restaurants in the city. Within the market building itself, groups will find iconic Charleston goods including sweetgrass baskets, originally made for rice cultivation by the Gullah people, descendants of enslaved West Africans.
“The City Market has been the cultural center for Charleston since 1804, when the land was donated by the Pinckney family,” said Doug Warner, Explore Charleston’s vice president of media and innovation development. “It was a city market for produce and meats and other things, and about eight years ago, it went through a pretty extensive renovation, so now you’ve got local craft vendors, too.”
In addition to sweetgrass baskets, groups can find other made-in-Charleston items from Brackish Bow Ties, feather accessories favored by celebrities, to stoneground grits. It also makes a great jumping-off point for other adventures in the area.
“A majority of the walking tours and carriage tours actually start in the market,” Warner said. “That really goes back to it being the heart of our city.”