A Day at the Markets (in London!)

It’s the last weekend of my study-abroad program and my cosmopolitan friends are off on their final European journey of the term. For me, though, all that is grand and worldly is right here in London, and what better way is there to spend this finale than at some of its culture-filled markets. So, I hopped on the Central Line and set off for a solo day of eating, shopping, and watching. First stop: Portobello Road.

A brief history: Portobello Road Market emerged as a fresh-food market in the nineteenth century to accommodate the urbanization of Notting Hill—a wealthy district in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Now famous for its expansive antique trade (or, for the romantic comedy enthusiasts of my generation, from this 1999 Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts film), the market includes a diverse range of food, street performers of all kinds, and, of course, a plethora of vintage artifacts. A prime location, I thought (and later was affirmed), for a Saturday morning.

As I turned onto the long and curvy street—my first time doing so, mind you—I was immediately charmed by the tight Victorian architecture fencing the road. Many London markets take shape in disorderly clusters, so this narrow, enclosed layout was actually quite refreshing. My focus on geography soon subsided, though, as the sound of music rose and the scent of food grew.

I was drawn particularly to a stand labeled Portobello Crêpes (one of many, I later discovered). After seeing nutella & banana on the menu, my breakfast decision was finalized; I dished out £4 (worth it) and proceeded to watch the crêpe form before me.

Crêpe in hand, I continued down the market, stopping intermittently at stands that caught my eye—a collection of ancient dark-leather footballs (the soccer-kind) here, an assortment of old British army figurines there. Towards the end of the stretch I stopped at a crowd surrounding two gentlemen belting and strumming folk music. I lingered until the song’s finish and, satisfied, decided it was time to throw some action into my market-day. The obvious move: Camden Town.

Notable (or notorious, depending on your age and demographic) for its punk scene, Camden Market is one of the liveliest options for weekend shopping in London. Actually comprised of multiple markets (recall, above, the disorderly clusters), there are endless things to see, eat, browse, and purchase. I went on this day with no particular objective other than to experience the absurdity that is Camden, but I in turn covered a lot of ground.

At this point my crêpe had settled and, after walking incessantly up and down Portobello, I had regained appetite… so much that I bought the first cuisine I saw: a slice of pizza. My favorite meal back home, pizza in London has continued to disappoint me since arriving, so my hopes weren’t high for this poor slice. It wasn’t bad, though, and for only £1.80 I couldn’t complain. Not full, I continued to peruse the food vendors until stumbling upon a falafel stand. This, on the contrary, was satisfying:

I continued to meander until I eventually wandered into Cyberdog: the weirdest store in London. Though I’d been inside before, I was nonetheless thrown by this bizarre cross of rave and department store. Sitting on the edge of these markets, though, it is not unfitting in the least. After a taste of amplified house music and clothing of every neon color imaginable, I left Cyberdog to resume the outside browse.

The rest of my time in Camden was spent surveying handmade knickknacks and touristy trinkets. If the hollowed-out-camera-lens coffee mugs weren’t a staggering £16.99 I would have bought one. But who knows—maybe I’ll go back and negotiate. Despite leaving empty-handed (though full-stomached), I felt fulfilled; my day at the markets provided more London life than I could’ve asked for. That said, if you’re in the neighborhood, check out London’s markets—there’s much, much more than “bric-a-brac” in these cores of spontaneity and culture.


Written in 2012, published on Markets of New York.

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