When I travel, it’s clear to me a meal is so much more than food. It’s a full sensory experience of aromas, flavors, customs, people and a candid immersion into a local community. Night markets in particular, are a powerful cultural primer, packed not only with things to eat and drink, but also with the human stories you crave when you travel. Often located in the historic hub of a city, night markets can range from 10 to 200+ vendors and come alive with after-dark atmosphere, exposing you to a community’s cuisine, music, art and culture in a way that’s powerful and real. Consider enlightening yourself with these five unique night market choices.

The Roulottes
Papeete, Tahiti, French Polynesia

A decade before food trucks became trendy in the U.S., Tahitians already had The Roulottes, a nightly gathering of over 20 food trucks and stalls along the waterfront in Papeete’s Vai’ete Square. The Roulottes experience is an affordable, relaxed and honest glimpse of the real Tahiti, away from overwater bungalows and lavish resort environments. And that’s exactly why this night market experience is special; it’s an unpolished reflection of Tahiti’s local culture and people. As the sun sets into shades of hibiscus and persimmon over the Papeete Harbor, you’ll mesh with the Tahitian families sharing your picnic table and you’ll cradle a simple plastic fork that loads bites of poisson cru or crepes Tahitienne into your mouth. In fact, it’s not uncommon for travelers disembarking from cruise ships or the Moorea ferry to stumble across The Roulottes on their way to their taxis and choose, instead, to follow their noses, roll their suitcases up to a food stall and settle in with a bag of firi firi — Tahitian donuts flavored with coconut milk.

Richmond Market
Richmond, B.C., Canada

Far, far away from the warm and colorful food trucks of Tahiti, is the Richmond Market, just outside of Vancouver. International and local foodies congregate with indigenous artists and musicians to enjoy a massive 18 acres of night market food glory during weekend evenings in the spring and summer. But alongside its spectacular size and range, the Richmond Market is unique because it will likely challenge any stereotypes you have about Canadian cuisine. Sure, you can find traditional maple syrup, poutine and BeaverTails (sugary pastries, not actual tails) here, but the bountiful Asian street food is the shining culinary star of this vibrant night market along the picturesque Fraser River. Enveloped in the sparkling glow of LED-lit food stalls and the universal hum of laughter, you’ll feel inspired to sink into the scrumptious array of Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Thai and Vietnamese street foods. You can start slow, biting into the crusty baguette of a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich. Appetite stimulated, you can move on to Korean tteokbokki, a chewy rice and fish cake made with sweet chili paste. But wait, you’re still hungry and have detected the aroma of pickled ginger in the air, leading you to sample the takoyaki, a savory Japanese octopus ball. And for the grand finale … only a feast of match a green tea liquid nitrogen ice cream could honor the Asian influence and dynamic multiculturalism of this experience.

Mercado Sánchez Pascuas
Oaxaca City, Mexico

There’s something magical about visiting a country’s food markets during a time of cultural celebration. A trip to Oaxaca City’s Mercado Sánchez Pascuas downtown night market during Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festivities in early November is a life-affirming experience, providing brilliant insight into Mexican heritage and customs. Rows of traditional Oaxacan food stalls scent the air with the aroma of chocolatey mole, cinnamon-infused atole and steamy corn tamales. But during Dia de Los Muertos, an extra layer of tradition blankets the market, when ceremonial altars are erected. Flickering beeswax candles, photos of beloved family members and pungent marigolds decorate these altars, both honoring and celebrating the dead. For something really unique to this experience, alfeñiques or calaveritas de azúcar are a fusion of food and Day of the Dead tradition; these edible sugar goodies crafted into skulls, flowers and skeletons and covered in multi-colored icing invite you to sweetly celebrate the departed.

Marrakech Jemaa el-Fnaa Night Market
Marrakech, Morocco

Have you ever felt truly immersed in a place … like every cell, every breath, every sense in your body and mind were permeated? The Marrakech Jemaa el-Fnaa Night Market is an immersion of this magnitude. With each step, spicy scents, fascinating architecture, people dressed in traditional textiles and yes, even cobra charmers wrap you up in intrigue. And although a fraction of this is for the benefit of tourists, the core of this market, located in the historic medina of Marrakech, remains grounded and true to daily Moroccan tradition and heritage. In fact, Jemaa el-Fnaa is so historic and iconic, that it’s designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This place is a sensory feast, but you’ll want to focus on the food. Take your time taming the North African evening heat on your skin, and start with a refreshing Moroccan mint tea. Next, let your nose lead you to the smells of mechoui (spit-roasted goat), accompanied by traditional bread and chili paste. Leave room for a dessert of sfenj – golden, piping-hot sugared donuts. You may now wipe your brow.

La Boqueria
Barcelona, Spain

Less than five minutes into a stroll of the Ciutat Vella district of Barcelona, it becomes clear there is one food that’s a culinary celebrity here — jamón serrano. Jamón serrano is the cured and dry-aged hind leg of a pig, using an ancient technique, and is absolutely prolific in Spain. I can speak from experience that choosing which jamón options to eat in Barcelona can be overwhelming, so thank goodness a confused traveler can rely on La Boqueria for some guidance. La Boqueria is an iconic Spanish market, steps away from the pedestrian mall of La Rambla and featuring over 200 food stalls. It’s a haven of local vendors selling chilled seafood, all hues of ripe fruit, smooth Manchego cheeses, and, of course, glorious legs of jamón that are displayed like works of art. Exploring La Boqueria in the evenings is leisurely, and many jamón vendors offer tiny tastes, so you can experience different preparations of meat. Your mission should be to focus on the Jamón Iberico, made from black Iberian pigs. Pause and delight in the salty, rich range of flavors and textures and purchase some slices for a midnight snack. Meals are an important introduction to a culture and community, and a visit to the world’s night markets gives you easy and delicious entrance. It’s not just about the food; it’s the methods, the legacy of recipes, the local environment and the stories of the people. Bon appétit, travelers. Or as my Fijian friends would say, “Da kana.”.

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