We’re big advocates for living like a local through travel, and there’s no better (or more delicious!) way to do that than by visiting a neighborhood market.
Spanish food markets provide one of the most authentic glimpses of life in any given city or town. It’s here where locals buy their groceries and restaurant owners stock up on fresh ingredients—all purchased from proud vendors who, in many cases, are carrying on a family tradition of selling their products. Even the markets that seemingly lean towards the touristy side (we’re looking at you, Mercado de San Miguel) carry a long legacy and are still popular among locals to this day. This guide to navigating Spanish food markets will show you everything you need to know to brave the crowds and eat like a local.
Handy Spanish vocabulary
While there’s always a chance that market vendors will speak English, it’s always best to err on the side of caution and brush up on your Spanish before you go. These useful words and phrases will help you make your way through even the most off-the-beaten-path Spanish food markets.
¿Cuánto cuesta? How much does it cost?
Ponme… Give me…
Un kilo: One kilo
Medio kilo: Half a kilo
Cuarto kilo: Quarter of a kilo.
Una docena: One dozen
El pesacado: The fish
La carne: The meat
El queso: The cheese
El pan: The bread
La fruta: The fruit
Las verduras: The vegetables
Una bolsa: A bag
When in doubt, don’t be afraid to resort to hand gestures. Most market vendors are friendly, personable folks who pride themselves on great customer service, and will be happy to help you even if you can’t find the words.
When to go
As a general rule, many Spanish food markets (especially those located in more central areas of large cities) tend to get more crowded as the day goes on. If you want to beat the crowds, stop in first thing in the morning as the vendors are setting up their stalls for the day. You’ll be able to enjoy the peace and quiet as you shop amongst a handful of locals getting their errands out of the way and chefs purchasing the day’s fresh ingredients.
If you’re in Madrid, the best day of the week to visit a market is easily Saturday. Yes, it will be more crowded, which seems counterintuitive to our previous point. However, it’s when markets truly come alive with fun events and many vendors give out free samples like they’re going out of style. Ultimately, it all depends on what you’re looking for. Would you like to explore the market calmly without pushing your way through crowds, or do you want a bustling, active environment that’s a true feast for all five senses?
One important rule of thumb in regards to timing: don’t head to the market on Mondays if you need to buy fish. Fresh fish doesn’t usually come into the markets on Sunday, so by the time Monday rolls around, any fish that is available will often be days old. Wait until Tuesday to get your seafood fix!
As far as what time of day to go—well, that also depends on what you’re looking to do! If you want to shop, get there in the morning, because stalls tend to close at lunchtime. However, just as those are closing up, the market bars and restaurants are just getting started. Stop by and grab a bite for lunch, or later in the evening for dinner.
Finding the perfect products (and deals!)
Getting to the market: check. Now it’s time to shop! But how can you spot the best stalls with the highest quality products, especially if you’re new in town? Your best bet is to take a lap around the market and keep your eyes peeled. Is there a line? That’s usually your first giveaway that a stall is particularly good. Before you hop in line and take a ticket (more on that in a bit), be sure that the stall has whatever it is you’re looking for. Here in Madrid, for example, meat and chicken are usually sold in separate stalls (this is not often the case in other places, like Seville).
Once you’ve narrowed it down, observe what the locals are buying. Does everyone seem to be getting the same or similar products? That might be the vendor’s specialty. If it’s not immediately clear, take a number and when it’s your turn, ask the vendor for their recommendations. And don’t be afraid to ask for a small taste so you can sample it before you buy.
If you’re at a produce stand, remember that fruits and vegetables tend to be pretty seasonal here. Don’t expect to see strawberries in chilly November, or bright orange squash past fall. Not sure which produce is in season? Check out this handy month-by-month visual guide from the Spanish Environmental Ministry.
Finally, don’t skip the charcuterie stalls, thinking that you can get the same thing at any tapas bar. You can, but delicacies such as jamón and cheese tend to be much cheaper at market stalls than at an outside bar, considering that you’re buying them straight from the source. Stock up while you’re at the market!
The unwritten rules of ordering
So you’ve found a promising-looking stall where locals are lining up. But how do you know when it’s your turn, and how do you even go about ordering, anyway? No worries. In many cases, you’ll need to take a numbered ticket (hint: it looks like our logo!) and wait to be called. When it’s your turn, make your way up to the counter. Keep in mind that most products are ordered by weight in kilos. (If you’re from the US or another country that measures weight in pounds, it may help to remember that one kilo is about 2.2 pounds.)
Respecting the products as well as the vendors themselves is an important part of being a responsible traveler. Perhaps most importantly, don’t touch the products—even if you’re trying to be helpful by grabbing whatever you need yourself. Also, while colorful markets are prime Instagram material, don’t whip out your phone or DSLR just yet. Politely ask the vendor before taking pictures of them or their products. Finally, remember that the market is not a museum. Vendors are locals earning an honest living for their families. Browsing for a little bit while you think of what you might want to buy is fine, but please do purchase something!
A cultural phenomenon
For over a century, Spanish food markets have been about more than just gastronomy. They’re gathering places for friends and family to get together, shop, and grab a bite to eat or some drinks. After exploring the market and buying whatever it is you need, stick around and enjoy a beer at one of the market bars. It’s a great way to relax and people-watch once you’re finished shopping. Sit back and enjoy a time-honored foodie tradition!Want our insider’s guide to eating in Madrid? Just add your email address in the form below!
Life is too short to speak one language and stay in one place. In 2015, this philosophy took her from familiar Ohio to sunny southern Spain. Usually drinking tinto de verano, reading Lorca, or attempting to dance flamenco (not all at once). Follow her blog, Viatic Couture, for more.