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London Street Shops and Flea Markets

Some of the city’s best shopping finds can be had in its famous, and not-so-famous, markets.

 

Small antiques, historic mementos, fab jewelry and cool clothing—all at a fraction of the price you’d pay in a proper shop. I discovered London’s wonderful open-air markets and flea markets on my first visit to the mother country 20 years ago, and have since made a habit of shopping at them on each of my seven return visits. Here are a few of my favorites:

Camden Market

I thought I had died and gone to heaven when I first came upon the neighborhood of Camden Town in the 1980s—punks, new wavers, artists and old English characters seemed to rule the streets back in the day. The district, on the north side of London and easy to reach via the Northern Line on the Tube, London’s subway system, was and still is famous for its many indoor and outdoor markets, often referred to collectively as Camden Market.

There were terrific vintage clothing stalls next to modern punk or goth wares; and vendors offering antique photographs, English linens and more. I still have (and use) a traditional linen-and-lace nightgown from 1908 I picked up for £10, a mohair sweater jacket designed and knitted by the vendor (£40) and an antique lace-embroidered linen tablecloth (£20). After a long day of shopping during repeat visits over the years, stop in to the popular World’s End pub, located at the heart of the district near the train station, for a drink or two and a chance to chat with locals.

Today Camden has become an even larger and more popular tourist stop, with additional stalls, shops, bars and restaurants to choose from, but great deals can still be found. There are some places open all week, but the best time to visit of the weekend, especially Sundays. A fire in February 2008 destroyed the Camden Canal area, but many of the other markets and shop areas remain open, according to CamdenLock.net, an excellent resource for all things Camden.

Covent Garden Market

Yes, Covent Garden is pretty much a crowded tourist spectacle, with its fair share of kitschy souvenir shops and stalls; over-priced arts and crafts, and jewelry; and in-your-face entertainers in the Covent Garden Piazza. However, it also can be a fun place for people-watchers and for kids (with some easily accessible retail therapy available for parents) for those very same reasons.

The area teems with myriad shops and all varieties of street entertainment—actors, musicians, artists, puppeteers, even mimes—although the market’s owners recently proposed a severe reduction in the number of street performances allowed. There’s also the London Transport Museum, newly refurbished and reopened in November 2007, which is a cool site for transportation or history enthusiasts.

After an airline lost my luggage a few years ago and gave me a £75 allowance to buy “necessities” until they could deliver my bag the next day, I made an impromptu stop at Covent Garden on my way to my friend’s apartment to pick up a little something to cheer me up from a local designer with a street stall—namely a gray-knit sweater and skirt ensemble, with a faux fur collar, that I still get compliments on today.

Old Spitalfields Market

Spitalfields is a bit of a shabby neighborhood and artists’ haven that is gaining in popularity, but is still a far cry from the heavily touristed areas of Camden and Covent Garden. To feel like a real Londoner, hop on the Tube to Liverpool Street Station or Shoreditch Station in East London and visit this market, especially on a bustling Sunday ... before it becomes overdeveloped.

The Old Spitalfields Market is a covered commerce center that used to house a wholesale fruit and vegetable market. Today you’ll find all the usual market suspects—vintage stalls, arts and crafts purveyors, jewelers (my favorite bracelet comes from here), record sellers, young artists and designers, clothing stalls, games, purses and housewares, even auto parts lining the sidewalks outdoors. You can grab an affordable lunch for under £10 from a variety of ethnic food stalls (the Indian vendor serves a mean rice and chicken plate), or venture down nearby Brick Lane for a proper Indian or Bangladeshi meal.


Destinations: London

Themes: Shopping, Urban Endeavors

Activities: Shopping


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