Juicy heirloom tomatoes and just-picked strawberries. Super-sweet peaches shaped like mini UFOs. Artisanal cheeses, emerald-green olive oils, local wildflower honey—California’s farmers’ markets are culinary adventures, a chance to see, taste, and learn about the incredible variety of California’s farm-fresh produce and food products. They are also a chance to hang out with the farmers who grow the produce, and get their tips on how to use these ultra-fresh foods. And these weekly, often year-round events function as local gathering places, with little ones dancing to local musicians, moms cradling babies and fresh bouquets, and chefs leading walking tours to their favorite stalls. Also be on the lookout for specialty foods and handmade crafts too—great for gifts.
While outstanding markets pop up all over the state, here’s a handpicked selection to add to your travels.
Local shoppers, ferry commuters, savvy chefs, and tourists flock to San Francisco’s lively Ferry Plaza Farmers Market that pops up outside the historic Ferry Building every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. A variety of vendors set up shop in front of the landmark terminal along the Embarcadero, and the Saturday market, the largest iteration of the weekly markets, extends to the back plaza overlooking the bay as well. You can’t miss the tents of farmers, bakers, cheesemakers, picklers, jammers, and purveyors of other treats cast their shade across their many offerings. And if you drop by on a Thursday or a Saturday, you’ll also find an array of street food, like wood-fired pizza, kebabs, sandwiches, and tacos. If you can only make it on a Sunday, you’ll find a Garden Market in the farmers market’s place, selling plants and flowers.
While you’re there, step inside the handsome 1898 building (still a working ferry terminal) to peruse the offerings of a dazzling food hall, open every day. Stroll the length of the restored interior, where the Ferry Building Marketplace is now located, and you’ll find dozens of local comestible delights (wine, cheese, fish, meats, sweet treats) as well as goods and wares, high-end food kiosks, and grocery items (their site has a useful map).
On Saturdays, you can even leave your Farmers Market purchases with the “Veggie Valet” in front of the building to have them held free of charge while you continue shopping unencumbered. For a fine-dining experience, the location is home to The Slanted Door, Marketbar Restaurant, Boulettes Larder, and Hog Island Oysters. Before visiting, check to see if there are any upcoming events.
Useful info: The Farmers Markets hours are Tuesdays and Thursdays 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; for parking, there is a lot at Washington Street and Embarcadero, near the base of Pier 1, and several other lots along the Embarcadero, and metered street parking.
For a less urban setting, venture north across the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin County, where the Agricultural Institute of Marin, an organization dedicated to educating the public about the benefits of locally grown food, sponsors a number of markets across the county. One of the largest, the Marin Farmers Market, is held in San Rafael next to the Marin Civic Center, a striking pink and blue building (it looks better than it sounds) designed by master architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Farmers, ranchers, cheese makers, bakers, beekeepers, shellfish harvesters, crafters, and other various purveyors from Marin and Sonoma counties show up every Thursday and Sunday to present their goods to the hungry public. As a mid-week produce shopping destination, the Thursday market is known as the local chefs’ market, the source of many of the ingredients served up at the Bay Area’s top restaurants. About 100 vendors set up shop for the afternoon, while the larger Sunday market features about double that.
Three miles down Highway 101, there’s another Thursday event that shouldn’t be missed: Downtown San Rafael Farmers Market. From April through September, this evening event, open from 6–9 p.m., buzzes with street-scene entertainment and attractions such as live music and pop-up food booths that give it the feel of a festival as much as a farmers market.
Less than five miles away, in the town of Fairfax, the Fairfax Community Farmers Market takes place on Wednesdays from 4–8 p.m. in Bolinas Park. Produce, wine and beer, food trucks with plenty of vegetarian options, live music, and lots of green grass perfect for spreading out a picnic (or nap) blanket, all amidst a stand of towering redwoods. This is a particularly enjoyable market if you have kids in tow.
Insider tips: Parking is plentiful at the Marin Civic Center market. The site of the Downtown San Rafael Farmers Market has a helpful map of parking lots in the vicinity. In Fairfax, there’s ample street parking within a few blocks of Bolinas Park.
Venture further north, through rolling ranchland, to this friendly market in Sonoma County. This Sunday morning year-round affair, always jazzed up with live music and plenty of prepared foods for noshing, attracts some of the best growers and food producers presenting beautiful fruits, vegetables, flowers, and artisanal foods. There are fresh pies and loaves; Woodleaf Farm has peaches like you remember them; and Middleton Farm's strawberries are so sweet, you'll swear they were dipped first in jam.
Markets in the center of the state are about as close to the source as you can get. This is the heart of California’s rich agricultural heritage, and continues today not just with big farms, but an increasing number of boutique, family-owned and -run farms growing diverse crops in innovative, eco-conscious new ways. And farmers’ markets are a great way to sample the results.
A long-standing favorite is Davis Farmers’ Market, held Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings in this friendly university town. It seems like everyone in town pedals their bikes to be part of this lively community event in leafy Central Park. The scene gets even more festive on Wednesday evenings, mid-March through October, when Picnic in the Park unfurls, with wine- and beer-tastings, ethnic food booths, local bands, pony rides, and other kids’ activities.
The state capital has an appealing collection of farmers’ markets. Sunday morning’s Farmers Market—cleverly utilizing the cool shade provided by a freeway overpass, is filled with multicultural farmers offering familiar and unusual produce. Think of it as an international taste experience, with fresh lemongrass at Thao Fresh Produce, as well as plenty of fat tomatoes and juicy berries, and takeaway foods like fresh potpies and golden waffles.
Plan a visit to San Luis Obispo that includes a Thursday evening and you’ll see why what the local college students call “baby Friday” is the best day of the week. It’s when the Downtown SLO Farmers Market is held, and more than 120 farmers and food purveyors, plus artists, musicians, and singers, fill a five-block area downtown. The main artery of the goings-on—Higuera Street—is closed to cars during the event, so you can stroll, sample, relax, and take in the lively scene in this sunny Central Coast town known as “SLO.”
The fresh produce on offer here—berries of all kinds, peaches, greens, avocados, and other California staples—is clustered on the north end of the walk. The prepared food stalls, which sell everything from barbeque to Thai to Mexican, make up the rest of the event, and easily outnumber the produce sellers.
Probably the most celebrated culinary draw are treats of the charred variety: The event is anchored by a collection of massive circular barbecue setups, and the aroma of sizzling pork shoulder, ribs, chicken, lamb, and tri-tip—as well as batches of artichokes and corn on the cob—will wake up any carnivore’s appetite. A number of local restaurants such as Thai Palace, Mo’s Smokehouse, and Novo have tents up as well, selling their specialties.
Live music adds to the festive atmosphere; the event has long been a place where you can see local acoustic and electric bands as well as lone buskers perform for shoppers as they stroll along. For kids, there’s a Bouncy Castle, face-painting, and activity areas. Overall, the downtown SLO Farmers Market is a sensory treasure trove, with amazing sights, smells, sounds, and of course tastes.
Insider tips: If traveling by car, try to come as early as possible, as parking is tight and arriving later can result in far-flung parking spots (the market’s site has a useful parking map and a parking app for Downtown SLO). You can also park a distance away and then catch a trolley to the market.
Where homegrown fresh finds and unique flavors draw locals and Santa Monica chefs alike.
Bright sunshine, bags of fresh produce hanging from a tanned arm, street musicians strumming and singing—Santa Monica’s outstanding farmers’ markets are like perfect pop-up festivals in the heart of the city. Each of the city’s year-round market locations has its own unique charms: there’s picnicking on the lawn at Virginia Avenue Park (Saturdays), jazz at the Main Street market in Heritage Square (Sundays), and celebrity chefs looking for fresh produce at the Downtown Santa Monica market (Wednesdays and Saturdays).
Insider’s tip: Wednesday Farmers’ Markets are when many Santa Monica chefs do their produce shopping for the week (after they finish surfing that morning). Coast, Fig, LAGO, and Ocean & Vine, and other fine restaurants typically craft their menus on Wednesdays and Saturdays around what they pick up fresh that day at the market.
For a farmers’ market feel without the once-a-week schedule, this friendly destination in Rancho Santa Fe is the perfect find—it’s open every day but Monday. About a half-hour drive north of the city bustle, this is the place to discover new varieties of familiar produce, including multiple kinds of tomatoes, beans, melons, and squash, plus white corn so sweet and delicious you might just move here. Try unusual offerings—strawberry figs, salsify, Jerusalem artichokes, red carrots, and candy lime mint. Keep your eyes peeled too; the shop is a favorite haunt of leading chefs and is on the radar of Alice Waters, considered the leading force behind California’s focus on fresh, seasonal, local ingredients.
Abundant sunshine, a moderate climate, and a healthy amount of rain make Santa Barbara ripe for a year-round cornucopia of fresh produce, much of it grown organically. The locavore and slow-food movements are big on the “American Riviera,” and chefs source food mostly from within a 100-mile radius. It all makes for a truly booming farmers market scene, one that the Santa Barbara Certified Farmers Market Association serves by hosting not just a single weekly market but several, one for every day of the week except Mondays (check the site for a complete schedule).
While all the markets are worth a visit, the signature event is the one on Tuesday afternoons, when downtown’s State Street morphs into the ultimate place to be, with food—produce, certainly, but also artisanal baked goods and other prepared snacks—music, and folks taking it all in. White-jacketed chefs snap up thick bunches of fresh herbs to use that night on just-caught local sea bass or black cod. Farmers offer samples of treats like unfiltered honey, nuts, and juicy peaches, and guitar-strumming singers attract clusters of listeners amidst the Spanish architecture of Old Town. Really—does it get any more “California” than this?
Can’t make it on Tuesday? Try Solvang Market (Wednesdays), Carpinteria (Thursdays), Montecito (Fridays), Downtown (Saturdays), or Camino Real Marketplace in Goleta (Sundays). Consider this your chance to try something new, like funky looking cherimoya, nicknamed “custard apple” for its creamy white inner fruit. From avocados and eggplants to figs and fennel, melons and squashes, pears and persimmons, the food—and the people—make for an unforgettable day.
Outside Toby's Feed Barn in Point Reyes Station, it's all about homemade jam, local gossip, and live bluegrass every Saturday from June to October. This low-key, all-organic farmers’ market is smaller than many, but it's a prime example of how quality trumps quantity. Browse the booths featuring local oysters, grass-fed meats, artisan cheeses, home-grown sheep’s wool, olive oil, farm-fresh eggs, and picked-at-dawn vegetables. Look for a simple white banner in the back that says “GBD,” which stands for Golden, Brown, Delicious—three words that perfectly describe the incredible grilled cheese sandwiches made by Osteria Stellina. The secret recipe? Wood-fired Brickmaiden bread dipped in Straus Creamery butter and oozing Cowgirl Creamery cheese. Settle down on a hay bale and enjoy—this snack is perfect for fueling up before a hike in nearby Point Reyes National Seashore. But if you’re more into noshing than hiking, stroll downtown’s three-or-so blocks and you’ll find more culinary gold, like the crazy-good scones and muffins at Bovine Bakery and champagne-style honey mead at Heidrun Meadery.
If you’d like to have a knowledgeable guide unlock the secrets of Point Reyes’ foodie nirvana, ride along with the agricultural and culinary experts at West Marin Food & Farm Tours. Four- to five-hour tours offer insight into family farming and artisan food production and give you a backstage pass to see how cheese is made, oysters are farmed, and grass-fed animals are raised. Pick your flavor—the company offers an oyster lover’s tour, cheese lover’s tour, or the all-encompassing “Flavors of West Marin” tour.