World's Greatest Flea Markets
Where: Portobello Road
Hours: Saturdays only.
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.
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.