Some cities are well suited to being modern cities, packed with big-box stores and chain restaurants. Some cities, though, hold on to their small-town pasts, their unique sensibilities, or just their quirky identities, with surprising energy. These cities tend to spawn all kinds of shops and markets for the purpose to connecting residents and travellers to a different style of consumption, one that prioritizes the perfect object over the perfect product. These cities are where you’ll find some of the most unique and irreplaceable treasures of all.
Portland’s unofficial motto is spray-painted in iconic red letters across a wall at a major intersection: “Keep Portland Weird!” That philosophy shows up in the city’s markets, most notably the Hawthorne drag. Hawthorne Boulevard is one of the major cultural centers of the city, and it’s where you’ll find the best places for object hunting. There are five antique shops along this drag, along with over a dozen shops featuring unique baubles, homemade furniture and clothes, and specialty retail. From a Wiccan and transcendental supply shop to a shop entirely for military memorabilia, it’s hard to beat Hawthorne for sheer variety. In the downtown core, Portland also has a number of wonderful used and antique book stores, along with the famous Powell’s Books. Between Powell’s and the rash of book enthusiast stores that have sprung up around it, Portland simply must be one of the literary traveller’s main stops. Portland is also well known for its street merchants, often mobile, and while the majority of them sell the city's fantastic fusion cuisine, many increasingly sell hand-made wares
Tokyo is a deep city and you could ascribe virtually any attribute to it, but its worth as a treasure-hunting destination comes almost entirely from a single area of the city: the Akihabara district. Also known as the Akihabara Electric Town, this area is the closest you’ll find to a rat’s warren in the developed world. The layout is as confused and schizophrenic as you might imagine from this description, but what it lacks in organization it makes up for with selection. Packed several stories high and refusing to waste a single square foot of inventory space, you simply won’t find more product in a smaller space, anywhere. Akihabara mostly features electronics and such, but treasure hunters from around the world come here to find all manner of gems, from lost, rare records to antique game systems to anime memorabilia.
Any city with a history like London’s will naturally gravitate toward the antique market, but as with the best in treasure-hunting destinations, this one requires a little diligence. As with most other high-profile markets, London’s famous Bermondsey Market requires an early start to the day, as most of the best deals will be gone by the time the sun rises! Get out and make sure you’ve done at least one quick circuit of the place before 8 a.m. On the other side of town is the Silver Vaults, an underground complex that is exactly as it sounds: it’s a vault of silver. Fine antique silver has no greater home than London’s Silver Vaults, with several dealers maintaining famous and important collections. Specialists authenticate every piece before it goes on display. The Camden Lock Street Market offers yet another outlet for shopping (no pun intended) with a special emphasis on gorgeous hand-made clothing.
Chandni Chowk is the largest market in Delhi, which also makes it one of the largest in the world, and it is the quintessential Indian retail market. Whether you’re looking for a wedding dress or a new guitar, some plates or a used record player, you can likely find it in Chandni Chowk – though you’ll have to look around a bit. The food section is legendary for both price and selection, but the alleys holding small stalls with hand-made wares are the real draw. Munch on a frozen fruit treat while you wander past stalls of dyed fabrics and custom-made shoes. When you walk out of a shop or market in Delhi, likely loaded down with wonderful new discoveries, you know you’ll be coming home with truly unique pieces of real local character.
Los Angeles, USA
Los Angeles is the city of the stars, the city of lights and glamour, not everything about it is so engineered. The Rose Bowl Flea Market is one of the biggest of its kind, with more than 2,500 vendors, and it is the spot in North America to find pop culture artefacts. Not only does it feature all kinds of cast-off props and costumes from independent and Hollywood movies alike, it puts on display the possessions of one of the country’s most eccentric populations. Combined with a hefty Mexican influence that gives the area’s shops and flea markets a decidedly exotic bent to their wares, Los Angeles is for serious treasure hunters. For example, the Rose Bowl market opens at 5 a.m. That’s the sort of buyer’s mentality we’re talking about.
Marrakech is often said to have a central market, or Souk, but in reality the city has a network of specialized, interconnected markets that span almost the entire city. This is one of the most elaborate retail destinations ever to exist, a whole city defined by the total integration of the marketplace. There is almost no way to explain or map out the contents of the souks, partially because they receive very little oversight. As a result, this is home to some of the oddest little stores you’re likely to find anywhere. Turn into an alley and be abruptly surrounded by shops specializing n Moroccan hand-crafts, then head down another alley lined with food stalls, then another filled with second-hand electronics. If you’re willing to put time into looking around, there are treasures here that simply do not exist anywhere else in the world. Go find them.
Hong Kong, China
Hong Kong is a nation that is almost built on the retail and service industries. As an important historical nexus in the struggles between growing British and Chinese empires, Hong Kong adapted to enticing travellers from around the world, making itself a business hub and the de-facto meeting place for the cultures of the East and the West. As a result, the markets of Hong Kong are literally too numerous to list – let alone visit! Still, while each every day spent in Hong Kong can easily be a retail adventure, there are a few must-hit places for any retail traveller. Ladies Market is probably the most famous, though despite the name it sells clothing for both genders – just be wary of fakes and well-concealed knockoffs! Stanley Market has mostly souvenirs and is geared toward tourists; you’ll end up paying a bit more, but the atmosphere is less intimidating to many, and haggling is less of a necessity as prices are more fixed, in the Western style. Hong Kong has hundreds of tiny markets and retail lanes that have sprung up organically over the years; head down to the Business Card market for a single street dedicated to business cards. If you’ve got the time and the energy, Hong Kong is the ultimate destination for the retail treasure-hunter.