There's no shortage of arts and culture in Madrid. While much of visitor traffic tends to flock to better-known attractions from the Plaza De Cibeles to the Royal Palace, a trip to Madrid isn't complete without scoping out El Rastro, the city's biggest flea market.
Running every Sunday from 9 a.m.-3 p.m., El Rastro (Spanish for "The Trail") is a smorgasbord of wares, including plenty of art from paintings to sculptures. More than 3,000 vendors man the tables in this downtown area trying to sell other merchandise like clothing, musical instruments, souvenirs, furniture, and sometimes even the kitchen sink.
It's an interesting collision of culture and commerce, complete with performance artists and street musicians keeping visitors amused as they gawk over all that stuff that's begging to be sold. But like any destination, some preparation is required to make the most of this experience.
Go Ahead And Haggle If You're Good At It
So you might be used to getting your way trying to snare a deal out of merchants back home, including any of the top flea markets in the U.S., but go ahead and try your luck with these Madrid vendors. They're old hands when it comes to dealing with hagglers and if you're from abroad, they'll likely welcome the challenge.
Or you could play it smart and show up early before the crowds and take a boo at what's being offered. If you find something worth taking home, head back to the vendor just before closing, and see if that prized item is still there.
If so, you've got the upper hand. The merchants are well aware of their profit margins and desired markups, but one thing they don't want to do is cart all those unsold goods back home and set them back up at the market the following week. With that knowledge and a bit of persuasion, you might get up to 20 percent off the list price.
The Really Cool Stuff's Off The Main Drag
Just like the hidden gems in the rest of Spain, you're likely to find some genuine treasures off the beaten path. Wise locals will gladly tell you something most merchants won't dare reveal: hit the sidestreets.
Some of those streets are where more established shops are located. If you have antiques on the brain, check out the shops at Plaza del Campillo Nuevo or Plaza del General Vara del Rey, where you can find an array of antiquated housewares items and even some vintage books and magazines.
For more novel items, stores on Calle de Mira el Río Baja and Calle Mira el Río Alta focus on unique things like old cameras and even typewriters. Anyone looking for modern and original art can check out Calle de San Cayetano, where the focus is on paintings sold by the artists themselves.
Sample The Goodies In Nearby La Latina
One food that's synonymous with Spain is tapas and you'll find a humongous set of options that serve the dish all over the country, including El Rastro. Right by the flea market is a small neighborhood called La Latina, the hub of all that's delicious about Spanish cuisine.
One part of the district is the row of restaurants that specialize in Tapas on a stretch called Cava Baja, perfect for cooling your heels after all that browsing. One of the more popular eateries there is La Perejila, which offers a flexible menu of other Mediterranean offerings.
Elsewhere, expect a wide range of unique cuisine, including some done the old-fashioned way, like the roasted lamb at Posada de la Villa and the home-cooked chickpea stew at Casa Lucio. If you have a hankering for more modern and creative fare, try an ostrich dish at Juana la Loca or the cold gazpacho soup at La Camarilla.
There's nothing wrong with just grabbing a drink, though, and you'll find your share of bars in La Latina from cold beers at Casa Gerardo to vintage wines at Matritum.
Whatever You Do, Play It Safe
It's next to impossible to run out of things to do in Spain and chances are, because of what's available at El Rastro, you'll likely wish it would run more than six hours a week. However, be forewarned that you should still take a few precautions before heading out to the venerable flea market.
First, make sure you dress for the elements and stay in the shade as much as you can since Spanish summers are notorious for that blazing sun overhead. Make sure you carry cash since most vendors aren't equipped to deal with debit or credit cards.
And while we're on that topic, carry that cash in a safe place on you, since El Rastro is a haven for pickpockets. And it helps if you have some knowledge about the stuff you're looking for since there's a chance you might not get your money's worth on a purchase.
Finally, enjoy yourself as El Rastro is not only a unique series of stops to find almost everything under that scorching sun, it also gives you a chance to get to know the friendly and obliging locals in the area.