The areas south of Plaza Mayor have traditionally been tough, working-class districts, with tenement buildings thrown up to accommodate the expansion of the population in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In many places, these old houses survive, huddled together in narrow streets, but the character of La Latina and Lavapiés has changed as their inhabitants, and the districts themselves, have become younger, more fashionable and more cosmopolitan. The streets of Cava Baja and Cava Alta in La Latina, for example, include some of the city’s most popular bars and restaurants. These are attractive barrios to explore, particularly for bar-hopping or during the Sunday-morning flea market, El Rastro, which takes place along and around the Ribera de Curtidores (La Latina/Tirso de Molina).
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Madrid’s flea market, El Rastro, is as much a part of the city’s weekend ritual as a Mass or a paseo. This gargantuan, thriving shambles of a street market sprawls south from Metro La Latina to the Ronda de Toledo, especially along Ribera de Curtidores. Through it, crowds flood between 10am and 3pm every Sunday – and increasingly on Fridays, Saturdays and public holidays, too. On offer is just about anything you might – or more likely might not – need, from secondhand clothes and military-surplus items to caged birds and antiques.
Some of the goods – broken telephone dials, plastic shampoo bottles half-full of something that may or may not be the original contents – are so far gone that you can’t imagine any of them ever selling. Other items may be quite valuable, but on the whole it’s the stuff of markets around the world you’ll find here: pseudo-designer clothes, bags and T-shirts. Don’t expect to find fabulous bargains, or the hidden Old Masters of popular myth: the serious antique trade has mostly moved off the streets and into the surrounding shops, while the real junk is now found only on the fringes. Nonetheless, the atmosphere of El Rastro is always enjoyable, and the bars around these streets are as good as any in the city. One warning: keep a close eye on your bags, pockets, cameras (best left at the hotel) and jewellery. The Rastro rings up a fair percentage of Madrid’s tourist thefts.