Background The globe artichoke (Cynara cardunculus L. var. scolymus) genome is relatively poorly explored, especially compared to those of the other major Asteraceae crops sunflower and lettuce. No SNP markers are in the public domain. We have combined the recently developed restriction-site associated DNA (RAD) approach with the Illumina DNA sequencing platform to effect the rapid and mass discovery of SNP markers for C. cardunculus. Results RAD tags were sequenced from the genomic DNA of three C. cardunculus mapping population parents, generating 9.7 million reads, corresponding to ~1 Gbp of sequence. An assembly based on paired ends produced ~6.0 Mbp of genomic sequence, separated into ~19,000 contigs (mean length 312 bp), of which ~21% were fragments of putative coding sequence. The shared sequences allowed for the discovery of ~34,000 SNPs and nearly 800 indels, equivalent to a SNP frequency of 5.6 per 1,000 nt, and an indel frequency of 0.2 per 1,000 nt. A sample of heterozygous SNP loci was mapped by CAPS assays and this exercise provided validation of our mining criteria. The repetitive fraction of the genome had a high representation of retrotransposon sequence, followed by simple repeats, AT-low complexity regions and mobile DNA elements. The genomic k-mers distribution and CpG rate of C. cardunculus, compared with data derived from three whole genome-sequenced dicots species, provided a further evidence of the random representation of the C. cardunculus genome generated by RAD sampling. Conclusion The RAD tag sequencing approach is a cost-effective and rapid method to develop SNP markers in a highly heterozygous species. Our approach permitted to generate a large and robust SNP datasets by the adoption of optimized filtering criteria.