Whenever I travel, I always make a point to stop locals—whether it’s at the supermarket, on a trail, or in a café—and ask them what they like to do for fun, and what they think I should do while I’m in town. I understand that everyone is going to have different preferences, but I’ve always found this a good way to discover new things. Ask a couple people and, before you know it, you’ve got a sense of the place and can connect common denominators.
One of the baffling responses I continually got from locals in cities around the United States was that they liked to check out the local farmers’ market and that I should, too. When I got that response, I always rolled my eyes. Come on, I thought. I’ve traveled all the way here, and you’re telling me I should go shop for produce? Visit a market in Morocco, Kathmandu, or Papua New Guinea, where there’s an element of exotic culture? Sure, that makes sense. But, no thanks, I don’t need any expensive apples or overpriced kombucha at the moment, so I’m good.
I was in San Luis Obispo when I finally reached my limit. I stopped a man and when he suggested I go to the farmers’ market that night, I grunted. Really? You’re sending me to the farmers’ market? Turns out, he owned a local food truck, and challenged me on my stance. “You’re not getting it,” he said. “It’s not about what you buy. It’s about what’s for sale.”
Something clicked, and I took the bait.
At first, I regretted it. Apples. Potatoes. Lettuce. Local honey. A guy selling meat. A guy selling fish. Very clean, very organized. Mostly generic stuff I could get anywhere, and all stuff I didn’t need on the road—nothing that gave me a better idea of anything.
Then I turned the corner. There was this whole line of barbecue trucks, and each of them had a grill with a big hand crank on it that lowered the meat closer to the flame. They were all roaring and crackling, and there were loads of people hovering about. I’ll never forget the smell of the burning oak in the air. I found the man I met earlier and he filled me in on this local subculture. It was Santa Maria style barbecue, invented in a town by the same name just south of San Luis Obispo. They served the cut of beef called tri-tip—which is really only popular in California—on a buttered, toasted roll and a side of pinquito beans.
The great thing about experiential travel is that, over time, it persuades you to try new things, things your old perspective would never let you do. I would never have guessed that California has such a large, unique barbecue scene, but there it was, at the farmer’s market, all the trucks lined up and the locals all clamoring for it.
Now, whenever I hit a new city, I do my best to swing by a farmers’ market. I learned to look past the produce and to notice what’s really going on. Most cities have a thing or two that make them unique—things that don’t come up in Google search results. And you’re likely going to find it where the locals come together. It’s worth a shot.
Also, if for nothing else, I realized it’s a great place to stop and ask locals what I should do while I’m in town. I know for sure they won’t send me to the farmers’ market.