El Rastro is the largest flea market in Spain. It reminds me of some of the best flea markets in Paris, especially the one at Clignancourt, although not in terms of the range or quality (more on that in a moment), but in the way it spills from one street to another and yet another dominating an entire neighborhood. It’s so large that it can only be known by observing one section at a time. Afterward it becomes clear that one has been in the presence of a mighty creature.
The flea market is located in a central neighborhood of Madrid called El Rastro. (See below for details.) It’s open Sundays from 9 am-3 pm year round, including public holidays. It draws throngs of tourists as well as locals from Madrid and surrounding towns. It’s as much a local tradition to stroll the streets hunting for treasures on Sunday mornings as it is to enjoy cerveza and tapas afterward.
In contrast to Clignancourt (also known as Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen) and other flea and antique markets in Paris which have lots of high-end items, El Rastro is an honest-to-goodness flea market. Most merchandise at El Rastro is low quality offered at bargain prices. It’s unusual to find treasures along the main thoroughfares. Basic necessities such as jeans, tee-shirts, shoes and electrical gadgets come aplenty. At some tables shoppers rifle through heaps of pants and shirts in search of an appealing style or appropriate size. Vendors shout “dos euros! dos euros!” and occasionally turn over their piles as if they’re aerating compost. Slightly pricier and more interesting clothing can be found at other stalls. Posters, scarves, and even gas masks cater to a range of interests. A few sellers offer handmade leather goods and jewelry. You will need to hunt around to bag the better quality. If you’re looking for inexpensive souvenirs such as hand fans decorated with tulips or toreadors, you’ll find plenty of choices.
The best bet for more unique discoveries is along the side streets. That’s where you’ll find shops selling antiques and retro goods, plus individuals who spread out a motley assortment of wares on cloths or makeshift tables. You might spot a treasure there.
Aside from treasure-hunting, the main pleasure of this market is soaking up the atmosphere. You’ll be carried along by the crowds. Give yourself over to it and ride the wave. There are surprises along the way. Street performers dress up in elaborate outfits and heavy make-up. Some of them deserve a few coins simply for sustaining their frozen poses as the day grows hot. Musicians fill the air with light tunes that land pleasantly on the ears even if one has stayed up late the night before. Elsewhere, stands selling mostly bootleg CDs blare punk rock or flamenco guitar. The staccato clicks of castanets can be heard a block away. Hare Krishna disciples in saffron colored robes part the waters of the crowd as they parade the streets chanting their mantra. Laundry dangles from railings and well-tended plants reach for the sun from narrow balconies–reminders that this market plays out in a highly residential neighborhood. Good luck to anyone trying to sleep in late.
Here are tips for making the most out of your visit to El Rastro market:
- Beware of pickpockets. Thievery is common despite some police presence. Guard your valuables. I don’t recommend bringing a knapsack, but if you do then wear it in front.
- Arrive early (by 9:30 or 10) if you want to experience the market when you can maneuver on your own accord. The crowds swell by 11 am.
- Try bargaining. Vendors might shave 10-15% off the price. They’ll be more motivated to strike a deal as closing time approaches.
- Get off the main thoroughfares. Amble the side streets to discover antique shops, more flea market items, and cool vintage stores.
- Bring cash. But be sure it’s well hidden.
- Don’t miss Mercado de San Miguel. This renovated covered market is a food hall where you can eat and drink like a Spaniard. It feels like one big party. You’ll find everything from sangria to fried calamari sandwiches. Expect to find a crowd too. Mercado de San Miguel is wedged near Plaza Mayor on Plaza de San Miguel.
- Check out the hordes trading cards. Collectors of all ages huddle around plastic-protected notebooks in Plaza de General Vara del Rey and Plaza de Campillo del Mundo Nuevo. If you’re looking to augment a collection of Pokemon or Magic cards, you’re likely to find opportunities.
- Throw a few coins in the hat of street performers, especially if you take photos or pause to enjoy their act. Your generosity will be mucho appreciated.
- Combine an outing to El Rastro with sightseeing Plaza Major. It’s only a short walk between the two. You might start with a café on the plaza and then head on to the market. The outdoor tables around Plaza Mayor offer a pleasant perspective on the grand setting, but expect to pay a premium for food and drink.
- Or combine the market outing with a visit to Madrid’s excellent museums. Some offer free admission in the late afternoon. (The Prado, for example, is free on Sunday from 5 pm-closing at 7 pm. The Reina Sofía is free from 3-7 pm.)
El Rastro market runs along Plaza de Cascorro and Calle Ribera de Curtidores (28005 Madrid). Sellers fan out from Calle Embajadores to Calle Toledo and along the side streets. The market’s geographical boundary is roughly triangular.
Open Sundays from 9 am to 3 pm.