The T-shirt experience taught us an important market rule: When possible, haggle. What started out at $10 per Gap, ended up at less than $7. And consider this: A market official told us that fancy dealers have been known to visit the north end's flea market stalls, buy something for 2 or 3 pounds, take it back to antiques row and sell it for 80.
If you have more than T-shirts in mind, go early. Real early. The die-hard antiques dealers start trading among themselves at 5:30 a.m. Most of the others start up between 6:30 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. Some go home by lunch, some stay until 4 p.m. or 5 p.m.
By the time we leave, many are packing up. It's 4:30 p.m. The sky is once again optimistic, and so are we.
AN IDEAL DAY
8 a.m.: Many London hotels provide a substantial breakfast. You've got a lot of walking to do today -- eat up.
9 a.m.: Take the tube to Notting Hill Gate station; walk a couple of blocks to the southern end of the market on Portobello Road. Depending on how much you like shopping, the market is worth a walk-through or an all-day expedition. (Even the most shopping-proof will be charmed by the vibrant scene and selection.) We recommend three to five hours.
9:30 a.m.-noon: Stroll north on Portobello Road. Be sure to look into the permanent shops behind the street stalls. At the south end are seveeral antiques mini-malls with many one-room consignment shops. There are numerous interesting shops on the cross streets, too. At Blenheim Crescent, for example, you'll find the Spice Shop at No. 1 and the Travel Bookshop, model for Hugh Grant's Travel Bookstore in the film "Notting Hill," at No. 13.
Noon: Lunch. The choices are endless, from street vendors to pubs to ethnic restaurants to coffee bars.
1 p.m.-3 p.m.: The north end features household goods and flea-market stuff. The market ends around Goldborne Road, a couple blocks from the Ladbroke Grove tube station. We recommend retracing your steps to Notting Hill station, revisiting shops that have caught your eye and getting into some serious bargaining.
3 p.m.-6 p.m.: Tube back to your hotel. Time for a nap, a shower, some tea.
6 p.m.-7:30 p.m.: Pre-theater dinner at Belgo Central. It features Belgian cuisine (though it was founded by Canadians) such as mussels, wild boar sausage and beer. Waiters wearing monk outfits serve a cellar whose style is part beer-hall, part industrial chic.
8 p.m.-10 p.m.: You're in London, go to the theater. Belgo Central is in the West End theater district, so you can walk to your show.
10 p.m.-11 p.m.: After the show, stroll through nearby Leicester Square. It's very lively in the evening, crowded with street musicians and performers, painters and tourists. Occasional pickpocket, too, so be alert.
11 p.m.: You're exhausted. Tube back to your hotel.
WHEN YOU GO
Getting there: Tube to the Notting Hill area. Take the Circle or District lines to Notting Hill Gate or the Hammersmith & City line to Ladbroke Grove. Both will get you to within a couple of blocks of Portobello Road.
Where to stay:
* Aster House Hotel, 3 Sumner Place; 0171-581-5888; tube: South Kensington. $212-$246 double, includes tax, full breakfast. Last house in a block of Victorian row houses. Quiet street. Breakfast served in a glassed-in conservatory.
* 5 Sumner Place; 0171-584-7586; tube: South Kensington. One house down from the Aster House. $240 double, includes tax, full breakfast.
Where to eat:
* Belgo Central, 50 Earlham St. (at Neal St.); 0171-813-2233; tube: Covent Garden. Friendly place, good food, fair price. Monday through Friday there's a "beat the clock" special. For one of three special meals you pay the price at the time shown on your food order. Order at 6:07 p.m.? You pay 6 pounds 7 pence. Belgian cuisine: wild game, fish, lots of chicken dishes. Mussels a specialty. Main courses: $13-$25.
* Simpson's-in-the-Strand, 100 Strand (between Savoy Street and Savoy Court); 0171-836-9112; tube: Charing Cross. As much an experience as a meal. Veddy, veddy British since 1828. Dark paneling and roast beef from a rolling silver cart. Coat and tie for men. Reservations advisable. Traditional English food. Surprisingly unstuffy and not as expensive as you might think. Main courses: $17-$37. Three-course meal for around $50.
* Comfy, supportive shoes are essential for long hours on pavement. Take a day bag worn easily on your back. Pack in a small fold-up umbrella and a sweater for the changeable weather; pack out your purchases.
* The Portobello Road shops bustle all week. But the main market, with its street stalls, opens on Saturday. No set hours (some dealers arrive pre-dawn to barter and swap); peak time around 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. On summer days it can stay open till 8 p.m., creating a festive night-life atmosphere.
* Bargain. Don't let posted prices intimidate you. Almost everything is negotiable, especially in the street stalls.
* London tourism office: 011-44-171-932-2000
* British Information Service: 212-752-5747 and www.britain-info.org
* Market office (part of the Kensington and Chelsea town council): 011-44-171-373-6099
Pub Date: 06/20/99