When you picture a California harvest, you may think of wine grapes, oysters, or even milk from those famous "happy California cows." But our agricultural bounty goes way beyond that. In fact, California produces nearly half of all the fruits, vegetables, and nuts grown in the United States. And as the warm season settles in, local farmers make it easy for you to get it all in your shopping basket – and in your belly.
California leads the country in sheer number of farmers' markets, and shopping them is a fantastic way to get a real taste of the local scene – and save some money doing it. As spring rolls in and summer approaches, it's time to check out some of the best farmers' markets near our NorCal hostels. Come sample, shop, and learn from local farmers, then get ready to cook up a storm back in our hostel kitchens.
The market: San Francisco's one of the country's greenest big cities, so it's no surprise that there's a farmers' market taking place nearly every day here. One of the city's largest has been operating for over 30 years in San Francisco's UN Plaza, just a few minutes' walk from HI-SF City Center. The Heart of the City Farmers' Market is open on Wednesdays and Sundays year round, with a bonus day on Fridays from May through November. This is the place to scoop up locally harvested honey, California walnuts and almonds, Spring Hill cheeses, and all things green and leafy, sweet and succulent (check out the market's full map to see who's selling what).
On Wednesday afternoons, half a dozen local food trucks show up to sweeten the deal, slinging everything from Belgian waffles, to fired-on-site pizzas, to vegan gumbo, for hungry lunchtime crowds.
What's in season now: Kiwifruit, asparagus, artichokes, cauliflower, beets, chard, kale, apples, and even early strawberries and blackberries grown in the shelter of local greenhouses.
Make this: Don't miss the handful of stalls specializing in Asian vegetables and herbs at Heart of the City. This farmers' market borders Little Saigon, a neighborhood known for its Vietnamese food and shops. Keep an eye out for vendors on the Plaza selling stalks of lemongrass and sugarcane, bunches of Thai basil, bundles of baby bok choy, and bouquets of fresh cilantro, then augment your haul at nearby bodegas hawking Asian hot sauces, noodles, candies, and more. Back at the hostel, try making an easy phở soup or vegetable pad Thai.
If you go: Stay at HI-SF City Center, just blocks from UN Plaza.
Wednesdays 7:00 a.m.-5:30 p.m. and Sundays 7:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m., year round. Fridays, May – November (hours vary).
The market: You couldn't ask for a more scenic backdrop than San Francisco's century-old Ferry Building, where the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA) holds its hugely popular farmers' markets. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, this is the place to shop for organic fruit and veg, plus flowers, artisan cheeses, locally baked bread, and sustainably raised meats.
What's in season now: Asparagus, radicchio, avocados, dandelion greens, oranges, tangerines, and endless varieties of root vegetables. CUESA places a special emphasis on eating not just locally, but seasonally; check out their website for an exhaustive list of what's at its peak at any given time.
Make this: Sandwiches on Acme bread, filled with Cowgirl Creamery cheese, Dirty Girl Produce organic greens, and meats from Marin Sun Farms (or tofu from Hodo Soy Beanery). If you really want to flex your cooking muscles, recruit a few new friends to pitch in on a more elaborate seasonal recipe: CUESA has shopping lists and recipes for springy favorites like vegetable risotto and beer-steamed mussels posted on its website to get you inspired – and hungry! Don't feel like cooking at all? You can still indulge with lunch at a handful of food stalls serving up noodles, sandwiches, and more right alongside the market.
If you go: Stay at HI-SF Downtown. Catch the bus or BART train a few blocks from the hostel at Powell Street, and ride down Market Street to Embarcadero Station.
Tuesdays and Thursdays 10:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m., Saturdays 8:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m., year round.
Point Reyes Station
The market: The tiny town of Point Reyes Station is a little slice of civilization near the secluded Point Reyes National Seashore. The little village boasts one main street lined with charming shops, restaurants, and art galleries, but as the weather warms up, it's got one more huge draw: the only all-local, all-organic farmers' market in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Point Reyes Farmers' Market is held in front of country store Toby's Feed Barn every Saturday from 9:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m., starting in late June and running through the summer. Organizers round out the shopping experience each week with plenty of entertainment, like live music, cooking demonstrations, book signings by chef-authors. Even Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall got a kick out of the market when they visited back in 2005!
What's in season: Once this year's market season kicks off in June, expect fresh berries, summer squash, just-picked salad greens, and prepared foods including locally made jams and cheeses.
Make this: Market strawberries with Cowgirl Creamery crème fraiche from nearby Tomales Bay Foods; spinach salad with Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company blue cheese (buy it inside at Toby's). Make it a meal by picking up some locally farmed oysters and throwing them on the barbecue back at the hostel!
If you go: Stay at HI-Point Reyes, the only accommodation inside the Point Reyes National Seashore. Though the national park feels luxuriously secluded, it's just a short drive from the town of Point Reyes Station.
Saturdays starting late June and running through the end of summer, 9:00 a.m.-1:00 p.m.
The market: Sacramento has recently been dubbed "America's Farm-to-Fork Capital," and for good reason: the region surrounding California's capital city is home to well over a million acres of farm land, and offers visitors and locals no fewer than 50 farmers' markets to choose from. While you can find a farmers' market just about any day of the year somewhere in Sacramento, the high season for local eats starts in May and runs through the early autumn. On Wednesdays in spring and summertime, stock up on fresh local produce just two blocks from HI-Sacramento down at Cesar Chavez Plaza. Walk a bit further and you'll have your choice of several other farmers' markets on the Capitol Mall and State Capitol Park.
What's in season now: Asparagus, leeks, snow peas, garlic, carrots… and don't miss out on Sacramento's famous tomatoes once summer rolls around!
Make this: Check out the California Certified Farmers' Market website for all kinds of seasonal inspiration, including cream of asparagus soup and fava beans with fresh garlic.
If you go: Stay at HI-Sacramento, housed in a beautiful Victorian mansion in the heart of the city.
Thursdays -- 10:00-1:00 p.m. at Cesar Chavez Plaza (May – October), 10:00 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. at 6th Street and Capitol Mal. (May-September), 10:00 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. at 15th and L Streets (May – September).
Staying at another one of our Northern California hostels? Near HI-Point Montara, stop by one of the Coastside Farmers' Markets in Pacifica (Wednesdays 2:30 p.m. -6:30 p.m.) or Half Moon Bay (Saturdays 9:00 a.m. -1:00 p.m.), both open from May through December. In the little town of Pescadero, about 10 minutes from HI-Pigeon Point, the Pescadero Grown! farmers' market will set up shop at 251 Stage Road this year from June 5 - October 30 (Thursdays from 3:00 p.m. - 7:00 p.m.) And just a few miles by car or bike from HI-Marin Headlands, a year-round farmers' market draws shoppers to Sausalito's Dunphy Park (Sundays, 10:00 a.m. - 2:00 p.m.).
Wherever your tour of Northern California takes you, we hope you'll take the time to give it a true foodie twist with a visit to some of our local farmers' markets!
Hungry for more? We've got plenty of ideas to make your California experience more delicious. Check out HI-Sacramento General Manager Marc Johnson's favorite local restaurants, satisfy your sweet tooth with our introduction to San Francisco's best artisan candies, get spicy with some Vietnamese food in SF's Little Saigon, or splurge on a weekend of oysters and bubbly in Point Reyes.