European open-air flea markets hold a special allure. They offer the tantalizing promise of discovery among objects once held dear and abandoned as families dissolved, tastes changed, or new technologies emerged. They illuminate the old ways and values of a culture; which, being from a young and often rootless country, we Americans often romanticize. I happened upon my first open-air flea market, El Rastro, years ago during my first trip to Madrid. The largest flea market in Spain and perhaps in all of Europe is held every Sunday and on public holidays. It radiates through the streets of La Latina, south of Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, and contains everything imaginable, but I especially enjoy the antiques. The area used to hold tanneries and the name may be a reference to trails of blood that ran down the streets, as el rastro means trail.
My favorite way to spend a Sunday in Madrid begins with making my way to the Plaza Mayor after breakfast. I love to wander through the colonnades of the Plaza Mayor and explore the coin and stamp market, an experience I’ve previously written about. When I’ve gotten my fill of stamps, I make my way to the south side of the plaza and pass through the large arch which leads down the gently sloping hill of calle Toledo. The first time I made this journey, I only had notes on the general area of where to go, as this was before Google maps. Many locals streamed down the hill toward the market, and I fell in line, trusting that they’d lead the way. There is something exciting about not knowing everything, about joining a crowd and organically finding my way in a foreign land that I find appealing. This is how I found the market in Arles, as well.
When you come to forks in the road, follow the crowd. After a time, the street opens up. Lined with giant plane trees, market booths set up in their shade, it seems to stretch for miles down the slight hill. The streets teem with thousands of people making it difficult to walk and see things. The first section holds new items, such as scarves, shoes, clothing, jewelry, and leather bags. I’ve found some beautiful earrings, necklaces, and scarves for myself, friends and family. Each time I put on my delicate, dangling, sterling silver earrings I recall my first visit to El Rastro on Palm Sunday in 2002.
Down the side streets, each pocket specializes in a different type of item. To the east are new paintings. In the streets to the west I found used clothing, tables heaped with new, cheap underwear, another with shoes you’d be hard-pressed to find the mates for, electrical appliances, anything imaginable. It reminds me a lot of American swap meets.
My favorite section has antique furniture, art, and collectibles. As much as I love museums, I really enjoy seeing art and antiques in outdoor markets. The juxtapositions of objects inspire my imagination. I also like to see people casually wander, allowing their curiosity to lead them, rather than checking off a list of must-see paintings in a museum.
These relics provide a personal and accessible view of the past. It’s fun to wander among the tables, some neatly lined up with wares, others unkempt and piled high. I love to imagine what table a china cup may have graced, or the woman who brushed her hair and secured it with a tortoiseshell comb, the watch faces sitting in a workshop drawer that never made it to a watch, the door an old skeleton key opened, piles of sheet music resting on a stand in a parlor, the celebrations of a family gathered around a table draped with a linen table cloth. I have a particular affinity for old photographs of forgotten loved ones, important moments, and places.
When I’ve had my fill, or when the crowd gets to me, I enjoy strolling through the somewhat empty Sunday streets of the La Latina neighborhood toward the area just west of the Plaza Mayor. I love photographing its winding lanes, cobblestones, architecture, and stonework. What would it be like to live here?
Many Madrileños and tourists enjoy stopping in tapas bars in the neighborhood. However, since I’ve always traveled alone in Madrid, I often make my way back to Plaza Mayor through the southwestern portal, and perhaps find a table in the shade to enjoy a cool drink and watch life in the plaza as it’s played out for over 400 years.
Afterward, it’s fun to head through the northwestern portal and visit the Mercado de San Miguel. The beautiful iron and glass market was built in 1915 and houses food stalls of tapas, cheese, fruit, and desserts. You can eat on-site, get take-away, or simply admire the beauty of the food and ambiance before continuing on.
Visiting El Rastro
- The Market is held every Sunday and on public holidays, roughly from 9:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m. or 3:00 p.m., depending upon which website you consult.
- This is a popular past time in Madrid and it gets crowded quickly. I recommend going in the morning before it gets too crowded and before the heat of the day if you visit in the warmer months.
- If you fall in love with a unique item purchase it on the spot. I’ve long since realized that it’s best to purchase items I really admire immediately, either for myself or loved ones. Later it will be difficult to recall where it was, or I may lose steam and not want to make my way back to it.
Useful resources for planning your visit
- El Rastro’s official website has plans, history and old photos.
- Civitatis Madrid’s entry for El Rastro has a wonderful guide to several streets’ specialties, as well as a map.