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Ahhh! The sights, smells and tastes of a bustling market -- there is nothing quite like it, and the St. Lawrence Market, with its rich history and 120-plus merchants, is one of the best. Locals, tourists and even top chefs nibble, sample and bargain their way through aisles of butchers, fishmongers, bakeries, cheese makers and specialty food stalls.

The market was a focal point of Toronto's earliest history, dating to 1803, when it was pronounced an official public market. As such it became the place where residents congregated not only to barter for their vegetables and freshly slaughtered meat, but also to listen to the town crier's news, gossip and watch as petty thieves stood confined by stock and pillories, and indentured servants were publicly flogged.

As the town grew, so did the market. By 1844, the site housed the mayor's office, council chambers, a police office and an infamous jail in the basement.

If you want to find out all the historical gossip and lurid stories of the past, take a tour with Bruce Bell, a historian and entertainer who knows every nook and cranny of the market, both past and present. He leads us through the crowds, bringing us to the best stalls, where samples await. He also points out details we surely would have missed, like the hooks on the wall in the basement.

"That's where the prisoners would be shackled," Bell says. He explains that during storms, floodwaters would rush in and prisoners would be forced to stand in the sewage-filled Lake Ontario overflow; many drowned. "If these walls could talk, they'd scream," he says.

In contrast to the dungeonlike conditions downstairs, the upstairs gallery on the second floor has the stately, dignified air you would expect in a place where City Council once debated and governed an emerging town in the mid-19th century.

Today, this second-floor space houses the Market Gallery, where changing exhibitions and art works illustrate different aspects of the city's cultural and social development. Showing until Sept. 8 is "Finding the Fallen: The Battle of York Remembered," with artifacts and paintings depicting the seizure of Toronto by American forces April 27, 1813.

The gallery is free and worth visiting, not only for the exhibitions but also for the view of the buzzing market below. After seeing just how much selection there is, you'll be faced with the pleasant dilemma of deciding what to buy and how to satisfy your appetite. Here are some good bets:

>Eating at the market

Philadelphia has its cheese steak, Baltimore its crab cakes and Toronto has its peameal bacon sandwich. Rolled in cornmeal, the salt- and sugar-cured ham, served on a bun, is a signature dish. The best-known version of this classic can be found at Carousel Bakery (Upper Level 42). Other market favorites include the lobster bisque and chowder at Buster's Sea Cove (Upper Level 33), barbecue pork at the Chinese Deli (Lower Level B13), chicken sandwich at Churrasco's (Upper Level 49), and the potato pancake at Dnister Ukrainian Store (Lower Level B16). For dessert try Crepe it Up (Lower Level B7A) and watch as they pour the batter on the grill before slathering on the topping.

>Take away

Devoted fans travel long distances for St. Urbain's (Upper Level 11) dense, chewy Montreal-style bagels fresh from the brick oven. For cheese to go with them, there are literally hundreds of types available. Chris' Cheesemongers (Upper Level 40) or Olympic Cheese Mart (Upper Level 5) are good options. And, of course, the best part of a market is that you can sample before you buy.

Rice is a staple at the grocery store, but Rube's Rice (Lower Level B1 2/1 5) turns it into an exotic luxury, with varieties like Madagascar Pink Rice, Kalijira Bangladesh or Pecan Cajun Rice. Who knew?

A Bisket-A-Basket (Lower Level B29) has a well-deserved reputation as one of the best places to buy condiments and jams, even earning accolades from high above. Pope John Paul II had boxes of the Lavender Merlot Jam shipped to the Vatican. You can sample "The Pope's Jam," as it since has been nicknamed, along with hundreds of others.

>The North Market

On Saturdays, the market expands into the North Building, located on the other side of Front Street. Featuring local produce and other agricultural goods, it's the market's busiest day, and as early as 7 a.m. the place is humming with shoppers browsing locally sourced ingredients to cook for dinner. On Sundays, the North Market becomes an antique bazaar selling rare books, furniture, jewelry, vintage clothing and other collectibles.

>The neighborhood

A few blocks east of Union Station, the market is within walking distance of many of Toronto's downtown attractions, including the Hockey Hall of Fame and the Eaton Centre.

Whether you pop in for a quick lunch or spend the better part of the day exploring its many treasures, a trip to St. Lawrence Market is a highlight of any Toronto visit.

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If you go

St. Lawrence Market, 92-95 Front St. East (www.stlawrencemarket.com); open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Fridays; 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays; closed Sunday and Monday.

Farmer's Market, 5 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays.

Antique Market, 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays.

Bruce Bell Tours, 10 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday; $25 per person (647-393-8687; www.brucebelltours.ca).

For more information on Toronto: www.seetorontonow.com.