EEuropean flea markets can be goldmines for unique items. Among my most treasured finds are a set of Nordic pewter bowls that I discovered in Copenhagen and a beautiful antique velvet handbag from Paris. But jaunts to the flea market can turn into shopping marathons that test the will of even the most hardened shoppers.
In my experience, the key to success is having a solid strategy. First, be sure to wear comfortable shoes and fill your pockets with cash (as well as snacks and energy drinks). Arrive when the doors open, skip the entrance and head straight for the middle, where it will be quieter. If you are looking for something specific, be prepared with dimensions, a tape measure and an open mind – things can always be cleaned, repaired or repainted.
And finally, it’s important to remember that flea markets aren’t about finding an heirloom that goes for a song, it’s about buying something you really like. By all means take a Miller’s Handbook and Price Guide to Antiques with you, but the chances of finding something priceless hidden among dusty trinkets are rare. When something catches your eye, buy it. I lost count of how many times I missed because I hesitated. The golden rule of flea shopping? If you doze off, you lose.
A vintage sign for sale in Arezzo, Tuscany
1. For interior lovers
Flea markets are very often relegated to windy parking lots on the outskirts of town, but with Arezzo in eastern Tuscany, you’re in for a treat. On the first Sunday of every month, the Honey Walled City comes alive with a market that spills out of the historic square into the surrounding cobbled streets. With over 500 stalls, Arezzo is one of Italy’s biggest antiques markets, selling everything from sun-washed prints and prints to over-the-top figurines and antique porcelain, and you could easily spend a day to stroll. You’ll no doubt whet your appetite, so stop by for a well-deserved panino or ice cream – what other fuel do you need while treasure hunting? Arezzo is also home to one of Italy’s most famous Renaissance artists, Piero della Francesca, whose frescoes adorn the nearby 13th-century Basilica di San Francesco. Then all you have to do is climb aboard the four-star Hotel Continentale, with its ornate Venetian-style interiors.
Details Double room only from £62 (hotel continentale.com). Fly to Florence
On April 27, the Dutch government allows street vending without permits
2. For Serious Bargain Hunters
Such is the commitment to good business that April 27 is a public holiday in the Netherlands, a day when the Dutch government allows street vending without a permit. This means that the people of Amsterdam are moving in their thousands to clean up their clutter and the city becomes one giant garage sale or vrijmarkt (Free market). Amsterdammers love to haggle, which means there are plenty of opportunities for bargains and random bargains. It’s not the only flea market, of course. Albert Cuyp, open Monday to Saturday (9.30am-5pm), is also a must visit for market lovers – sift through the stacks of boxes to unearth the real finds. Located in the 19th century Museum Quarter (the Van Gogh Museum houses the world’s largest collection of his art; the Rijksmuseum houses Rembrandt’s most famous painting, The night watch), it’s also the perfect place to sip a Heineken, sample local specialties of pickled herring and sweet and syrupy poffertje pancakes, and watch the world go by. Amsterdam Canal Hotel, a boutique bolthole with a daily happy hour offering free drinks and appetizers, is a ten-minute walk away.
Details Double rooms only from £106 (amsterdamcanal hotels.com). Take the Eurostar or fly to Amsterdam
● The best hotels in Amsterdam
● Where to stay in Paris
Pinxtos at La Ribera market in Bilbao, Spain
3. For collectors
On Sunday, it’s the Plaza Nueva, the amateur market, which comes into action (from 9 am to 2 pm). Music fans will love rummaging through old vinyl records, while stalls selling books, rare plays and stamps also jostle for attention. After that it’s a pretty walk along the Nervion River to Hotel Miró, a stylish boutique hotel with great views of the Guggenheim Museum – 25 years old this year and also famous for its curvy, silvery architecture only for its modern art inside. Don’t leave the city without heading to La Ribera indoor market, one of the largest in Europe and packed with local produce, and try a pintxos crawl – going from a small bar to a small bar for snacks tapas style and cañas (small beers). Tip: take an umbrella – northern Spain is famous for its rain.
Details Double room only from £73 (mirohotel bilbao.com). Fly to Bilbao
A flea market in Paris
4. For jewelry fans
Europe’s most famous flea market, Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen, at the northern gates of Paris, has been selling its wares for almost 150 years. A sprawling maze of markets, some covered, some open, it’s a place where you can find anything if you’re willing to trawl – from flea market (French for junk, but sounds so much better) to vintage art, trinkets, furniture and clothing. You may even come across the odd vintage Chanel bag – but be aware that there will most likely be a price tag to match; bargains here are as rare as hen’s teeth. If fighting through the crowds seems like too much, the smaller markets in the center attract far less attention and are rich hunting grounds: Vanves is a treasure trove of smaller, more ‘suitcase-friendly’ bric-a-brac. , while the Marché d’Aligre – part food market and part bazaar – is popular for its quirky jewelry and collectables. Some enthusiasts even go so far as to call it the “best market in Paris”. At the end of the day, take your shopping bags back to the hip and trendy Oberkampf neighborhood in the 11th arrondissement. Here you’ll find Hotel Fabric, a former textile factory transformed into a loft-style hotel, with high ceilings, exposed brick interiors and a relaxing hammam spa.
Details Double rooms only from £213 (hotelfabric.com). Take the Eurostar or fly to Paris
Shopping for vintage clothes in Berlin
5. For fashion finds
If you love vintage clothes, you won’t go wrong with the German capital. Known as the ‘thrift hub of Europe’, it’s famous for its vintage designer shops, second-hand flea markets and sales by the kilo – where you pay for your purchases by weight, not by the article. Sunday is flea market day. Stay at the Hotel Oderberger, occupying a beautiful, listed bathhouse in the gentrified neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg, so you can start the day early. Start your visit at nearby Mauerpark Market (9am-6pm), the biggest (and arguably most touristy) flea market in the city, before taking a quick detour to the Berlin Wall Memorial. Stop at a sausage stand for a fortifying lunch of currywurst, then head to Boxhagener Platz, which turns into a market mecca for the day. According to those in the know, the real fashion heists are a few blocks from the Raw flea market (8am-5pm), tucked between a pile of ramshackle warehouses covered in colorful street art. This is Berlin at its best.
Details Double room only from £175 (hotel-oderberger.berlin). Fly to Berlin