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Portobello Road Market, London

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If you’re wondering why my trip lasted just 96 hours, and not 120 or 144, there’s one big reason.  I had to get home for my Mother’s birthday — the day after I flew back.  And as I reached my last full day in London, I realized that I hadn’t found her a proper gift (something uniquely British).  Figuring the department stores would have the same imported junk I could find stateside, I decided to seek out something more authentic.  It was the perfect excuse to check out the famous Portobello Road Market.

Portobello Road is a narrow, one way street that’s overtaken by pedestrians every Saturday.  It’s located just north of the Notting Hill Gate tube station, just past the northwest corner of Hyde Park.

The shops along Portobello Road are open 6 days a week, but the deals spill out into the street on Saturdays.  Alice’s must be one of the most famous antiques dealers on the street — or at least it should be.  The narrow passageways inside were crammed with incredible stuff, much of it uniquely British, and looking as if it dated back to the days long before the Blitz.  I didn’t look too closely at price tags, since I knew there was almost nothing small enough to cram into my luggage for the trip back across the pond.

There are quite a few antiques arcades on this stretch of Portobello Road.  In America, we would call these “antique malls”, a large space subdivided into booths, operated by individuals.  The aisles were crowded with people, especially when the rain started pouring.  I had a tough time navigating around inside, while carrying my bulky camera bag and other items.

As you head north on Portobello Road, the market progresses from antiques…

… to flowers and other plants…

… and then eventually to fruit, vegetables, and other food items.  I purchased a few incredible chocolaty rolls (or maybe croissants?) here, for a reasonable price, just a couple of pounds.  Of course, there are a lot of appealing restaurants along the road as well, and you could easily spend half a day or more shopping and eating your way through the area.

While I saw a lot of things that would have made good birthday presents, I ended up buying a handful of Matchbox-car-style toys, including a double-decker bus and a British mail truck.  They were a big hit, and they tucked nicely into my luggage.

As you navigate down Portobello Road, you’ll want to take in the Victorian-era architecture. Many of the buildings date back to the late 1800’s.  One building of particular note is the Electric Cinema, one of the first buildings in Britain built specifically for showing motion pictures.  It opened in 1910 — and these days, its interior remains historically beautiful, yet modernly comfortable, thanks to the addition of leather seats with footstools and tables.  To experience a modern flick, check out the Electric’s website.

You’ll also want to poke your head into the Allsaints Spitalfields clothing store — not for the clothes, but rather to see the store’s amazing collection of literally hundreds of sewing machines.  The antique machines cover the walls and the windows.

Allsaints arrived on Portobello Road in 2010, but it didn’t get a warm welcome.  Many fear that the arrival of a chain retailer is the beginning of the end for Portobello Road’s unique collection of “little guy” businesses.  The Allsaints store used to be an arcade with 150 antiques dealers.  According to an article in the London Evening Standard, the store added the sewing machines to help it fit in with the neighborhood. 

The Portobello Road Market officially opens at 5:30 a.m. on Saturdays, but many booth owners (and the crowds) don’t arrive until around 8 a.m.  While the official Portobello Road guide says the shops are open 6 days a week, some will be open 7 days.

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