Courtesy of Hell’s Kitchen Flea Market

Antique treasures abound from Barcelona to Brimfield, MA.

October 16, 2009

See our slideshow of the World’s Greatest Flea Markets.

Some people travel so they can climb to the top of the Eiffel Tower, or ski the Rockies, or feast on rare delicacies in Bangkok. Not me. I think of the world as a series of fabulous flea markets, displaying each culture’s best bibelots—many of which can be had for a paltry few pounds or yen, euros, or dollars. Who needs an ordinary souvenir when you can remember your vacation every time you use your turn-of-the-century Parisian canisters or wear those Art Deco bracelets, bought for a song in Buenos Aires?

My roster of what I consider to be the 11 greatest flea markets in the world depends upon a highly personal interpretation of “great.” Though some of my picks are vast and encompass thousands of vendors (the thrice-yearly Brimfield, MA, extravaganza, for example, has fully 6,000 dealers on hand!); others are great because, though small, they are consistently good—not to mention picturesque.

The market that sets up on Thursdays in front of the Gothic cathedral in Barcelona—quirky in itself since almost every other market is held on a weekend—is small enough to enjoy in the space of a leisurely morning, but the quality (high) and average price (low) make this worth adjusting your calendar in the hope of finding a vintage Spanish lace shawl.

If you, like me, travel thousands of miles just to watch the sun rise over tables of treasures, here are some of my top tips culled from a lifetime of “fleaing”:

  • In lands where you don’t speak a word of the language, don’t leave the hotel without a pad and pen so you can bargain by writing down numbers and crossing them out (this came in very handy when I was attempting to get a good deal on an antique trinket box in Tokyo).
  • Be prepared with rain gear and sturdy shoes—just because it’s dripping doesn’t mean markets are canceled.
  • Pay attention to local opening hours—you don’t want to stroll over to Portobello Road at 3 p.m., just to find everyone is packing up.
  • Bring cash! Credits cards and fleas usually don’t mix, you can’t write a check in Moroccan dirham, and the ATM may be far away.

And yes, size matters. Supposedly, there’s some way to get that 300-ton temple bell home to Cleveland, but for myself—after riding for seven hours with a four-foot-tall Victorian pixie doll on my lap (you don’t want to know)—I now confine my treasures to items smaller than a bread box (happily, that includes lots of vintage jewelry—recently a Victorian bracelet and a 1940s copy of British Vogue).

Another hard-earned lesson? Don't exhaust yourself. This is supposed to be fun! Make sure you have lunch and/or take a coffee break. Many of the world’s markets contain excellent bistros—you can enjoy a hearty onion soup in one of the many cafés that dot the Porte de Clignancourt market; have a steak sandwich—it’s the national dish—in view of the outdoor vendors at the San Telmo market in Buenos Aires; or enjoy a pub lunch in London while you contemplate potential purchases.

And one last thing: if you’re at a really massive market and spot something interesting but aren’t ready to make a purchase, write down the booth number. You don’t want to spend the rest of your life pining for the one that got away, just because after hours of searching, you couldn’t find your lost love again.

Casabarata Flea Market

Goods spill out along the seemingly endless miles of rough sidewalk: everything from incredibly inexpensive tin lanterns ready to be repurposed as lamps and antique tubs that can be turned into tables to—legend has it—smaller accessories stamped dunhill or hermès.

Saturdays to Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Portobello Road Antiques Market

Wake up! The earlier you can drag yourself over to this 1,500-dealer market the better—many shoppers are here at the literal crack of dawn, and most of the serious trading is done by 9 a.m. (This is not to say you won’t have a good time even if you arrive later.) Inside the arcades, specialty dealers offer 300 years of ephemera—the Central Gallery is know for its fine antique jewelry—but don’t neglect the vendors who set up in the middle of the street. They might not have a roof over their heads, but real bargains frequently surface here.

Saturdays from 4 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Marché aux Puces Porte de Clignancourt

More like a city unto itself than a mere flea market, this vast expanse—really a series of many markets accommodating a whopping 2,500 dealers—could easily take up an entire day. The antique furniture is superb, the chandeliers are splendid, but there are also many, many seductive objects far easier to transport home—everything from enamel kitchen canisters to wonderful vintage postcards of an earlier Paris. In winter, the hot chocolate vendors offer cocoa that is like nothing you’ve ever tasted, plus the landscape is dotted with excellent bistros.

Hours: Saturdays and Sundays; some dealers open Mondays.

Marché aux Puces de la Porte de Vanves

Leave the hotel early on weekend mornings and take the metro to the far left bank outpost of Vanves, then walk a few blocks to Avenue Marc Sangnier and Avenue Georges Lafenestre for this small, excellent market, also an open secret among dealers. (Rumor has it that after dealers shop here, they bring their treasures to the far larger Porte de Clignancourt later in the day.) The tables brim with vintage boxes, glassware, old Parisian periodicals, posters, and other souvenir-ready material. Prices are congenial, but remember to bring cash—the ATM machine is a bit of a hike.

Saturdays and Sundays, before 1 p.m.

Plaza Dorrego

On Sundays it seems like the entire population of Buenos Aires flocks to San Telmo, a newly chic boho district. Start at Plaza Dorego then fan out to the various antiques centers, which seem to stretch for miles. Though the market is renowned for its Deco furniture and accessories, there’s also, as at all the best fleas, a multitude of “smalls” to choose from as well. Don’t miss the superb vintage clothes at Gil Antigüedades, 412 Humberto I, where ensembles designed by Eva Peron’s favorite dressmakers are sometimes in stock.

Hours: Sundays only.

Plaça de la Seu

Every Thursday, the Plaça de la Seu at the base of the massive 15th-century cathedral—the most famous edifice in Barcelona (not counting the Gaudís)—hosts an outdoor flea market. The offerings are surprisingly upscale and usually include seductive antique jewelry, lovely old dolls, and printed advertising items. Though the market itself is not enormous and can be covered in one leisurely morning, the quality of the goods makes up for the small number of dealers.

Hours: Thursdays only.

Togo Antique Market

A lack of Japanese language skills is no barrier to enjoying this terrific market on the grounds of the Togo Shrine—just bring pad and pen, and negotiate the price on paper. Here is the place to find beautiful early-20th-century kimonos and other textiles; winsome antique Japanese dolls; miniature multidrawer cabinets; scrolls emblazoned with stunning calligraphy; and other items you just will not see at the flea markets back home. Bonus: the market is not far from the Harajuku district, so after you shop you can watch the neighborhood’s trendy dolled-up girls strut in all their glory.

first Sunday of each month from 5 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Rose Bowl Flea Market

For nearly 40 years, Angelenos have been flocking to this massive flea to peruse the estimated five miles of booths with 2,200 vendors. Look up occasionally from the tables of Midcentury collectibles and racks of vintage clothes, and you just might see Ashley Olsen or Clint Eastwood shopping alongside you—both have been spotted treasure-hunting here.

2nd Sunday of each month from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen

More like a city unto itself than a flea market, this vast expanse—really a series of many markets accommodating a whopping 2,500 dealers—could easily take up an entire day. The antique furniture and the chandeliers are splendid, but there are also many, many bewitching objects far easier to transport home, such as early 20th-century French fashion magazines.

Saturdays to Mondays from 7 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.

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