Eastern Market

Shoppers scour the aisles of fresh fruits, vegetables and flowers at the local farmer's market stands at Eastern Market. (Washington, D.C. Convention and Tourism Corp. / March 18, 2004)

WASHINGTON - It's best to have a few hours to spend when visiting Eastern Market. That's because this historic nugget, located just blocks from the Capitol, is the sort of place where time flies.

The market is not geared toward rushing, mall-style. It's for strolling, meandering, a perfect spot to lose oneself on a leisurely Saturday.

Built in 1873, Eastern Market is touted as the city's last 19th-century market to remain in continuous operation. Today, some 130 years after architect Adolf Cluss designed the sprawling structure, the market's old-fashioned look and feel remain intact.

Unlike some newer venues nationwide, this indoor/outdoor marketplace is decidedly un-gentrified. No fast food, no upscale chains with pricey coffee. The seating is utilitarian, the restrooms minimalist.

Instead, the character of Eastern Market unfolds through a feast of visual and sensory delights.

The aroma of blueberry pancakes wafts from Market Lunch (and lines from the stand snake out the door); handcrafted jewelry glistens in the sun; crisp, fresh produce tended by local farmers beckons.

"The market is extremely vibrant," says Stuart Smith, who co-manages the establishment. "Every weekend is like a party."

Situated in the historic Capitol Hill district - a tree-lined enclave of town homes with some 32,000 residents - the market has become an established neighborhood anchor. From nearby Congressional staffers grabbing lunch to families buying flowers and veggies on the weekend, the market draws a diverse mix.

"It's a great year-round venue that attracts local people and tourists," notes Smith. "People bring their children, their dogs."

One reason for the market's popularity is the array of offerings from merchants, farmers, artisans and vendors. Inside towering South Hall, about a dozen gleaming cases display poultry, baked goods, cheeses and more.

A few paces away, the North Hall hosts Market 5 Gallery, a well-regarded visual and performing arts center.

The weekend farmer's market is a bustling open-air bazaar (about 100 stalls), complete with arts and crafts vendors, and a flea market.

There are fragrant flowers, hand-painted scarves and glassware and assorted items too numerous to mention.

Many of the market's vendors are small, family-run businesses with lineage that dates back decades - even a century. They hail from the District and from Virginia, Delaware and Maryland.

"My family has been coming to the market for six generations," says Pearl Hawkins, whose family owns farmland in Camp Springs.

During a recent visit, their stand was crammed with gorgeous veggies, including tiny "sugar" eggplant and glossy purple bell peppers. "We do a good business," she says.

Barbara Watson, a Mount Rainier artist who handcrafts enamel jewelry, has been coming to the market for about a year.

"I love being here, it's a good opportunity for me to supplement my income," says Watson, whose specialty is decorative, themed brooches. "There are about 50 or so of us artists, and they're a very nice group of people."

Indeed, the market has been a second home for Chuck Brome, owner of Eastern Market Pottery.