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Known for their bustling atmosphere, eccentric variety and for giving an authentic flavor of Arabic culture, the souks of the United Arab Emirates are a must-visit. We list the 10 best markets from Dubai to Abu Dhabi, in which to purchase gold, carpets and aromatic spices.
The Camel Souk in Al Ain is the last of its kind in the UAE, offering an unique look at local customs. In the emirate of Abu Dhabi, Al Ain is also known as the garden city by locals, due to its comparative greenery; for tourists, it is the perfect spot to discover more about traditional Arabic culture. The souk can be difficult to access, around a half an hour taxi ride from the city center. Within the souk itself, camels are brought in via lorries and lined up for auction. The bidding can get quite heated and is a great experience for anyone looking to be immersed in Emirati tradition. Note that while some locals try and sell tours for the souk, the market is still best explored by wandering around the pens. For the best experience, arrive early in the morning to avoid the midday heat.
Abu Dhabi’s Carpet Souk is an ideal place to source carpets from across the Middle East. With over 100 stores selling carpets, from Persian and Afghani origin to more local patterns and materials, this is one of the greatest spots for original, authentic goods. Traditionally handmade Persian rugs can be bought at a premium rate, but there are also beautiful machine-made imitations available at more affordable prices. The array of vibrant colours, patterns and materials is sure to dazzle prospective buyers. As well as carpets, the souk offers a number of prayer rugs and a selection of additional textile and upholstery shops. As well as carpets, the souk is also renowned for its traditional, handmade Arabic Majlis cushions.
Opened in 1979, Sharjah’s Central Souk, or Blue Souk, is a popular shopping location for the locals in the city. There are more than 600 shops in the complex, offering an eclectic mix of goods including jewelry, rugs, collectables, perfumes, cosmetics, antiques and even cameras. The Central Souk is often considered to be one of the best places to buy oriental carpets in the whole of the Emirates. If you tire of shopping, your next stop should be the souk’s cafés and the nearby Khalid Lagoon, in itself a popular attraction.
The crowning jewel in Dubai’s collection of souks is its internationally renowned Gold Souk, located near Dubai’s famous creek, which can be crossed in a water taxi, locally referred to as an abra. Once across the river, the souk’s myriad stalls emanate a glow from the golden shop windows full to the brim with bracelets, necklaces, earrings, rings and brooches. The souk is monitored by the government which helps to maintain standards and ensure the gold is consistently genuine. The souk is renowned as the best place to source great-value gold, but the price of the jewellery can be almost halved through haggling, something of a Middle Eastern art form. The best time to visit this beautiful souk is in the evening; stalls stay open until 10pm.
Standing opposite each other on the banks of Dubai’s creek are the spice and fabric souks; the former on the Deira creek, while the latter in the city’s old trading centre of Bur Dubai. The textile stalls are filled with a range of colourful and patterned fabrics, with hand-spun pashminas being among the best-selling items. As well as an area to buy traditional Arabic clothing, the souk also houses some of the most skilled tailors in Dubai, who make affordable, beautiful and high-quality attire. The drapers in the souk sell silks and cottons off the roll by the yard. The souk occupies a traditionally restored bazaar and with a wooden roof, makes shopping a coo and pleasant experience even on the hottest days of the year.
Masafi Market is located on the edge of the Hajar mountains, on the road between Fujairah and Dubai. The area is something of an oasis, renowned for its fresh water springs and wadis and the expansive Friday market offers a wide range of goods. Originally a souk for the people of the area, it now serves travelers passing through the Emirates. Produce ranges from vegetables, fruits and garden plants (something of a rarity in the inhospitable desert) to toys, candy floss, woollen carpets and pottery, made using ancient techniques and designs. A visit to the market would be incomplete without the purchase of corn on the cob. Roasted above a roaring fire and served with lemon and salt, they are cheap yet satisfying.
The Dubai Spice Souk is located in Al Ras. The strategic position of the souk, close to the Persian gulf, has filled it with exotic spices from across the Middle East for centuries. The spice stalls are easily identifiable not only by smell but by the jute sacks full to the brim with colored powders and leaves. The sheer number of spices on offer is somewhat daunting, from Persian oregano and bay, to Indochinese Kaffir lime and curry leaves. As well as ingredients essential for Emirati cooking, the street vendors also sell a variety of other items from coffee and shisha to incense and frankincense, or the traditional Arabic perfume Oudh made from the bark of the Agarwood tree. The souk still serves the dhow sailors and workers of the ‘old Dubai’ and isn’t a tourist attraction so prices are negotiable and good deals can be easily found.
Located in one of Dubai’s coastal regions, the Souk Madinat is home to 75 boutique shops and outlets and part of the larger Madinat Jumeirah, a modern reinterpretation of a traditional Arabian town. The complex houses two hotels and nearly 50 bars and restaurants. Interlinking the restaurants and the souk are manmade waterways in which visitors can travel in traditional boats, or abra, similar to those seen on Dubai’s creek. The authentic appearance of the buildings with the traditional wind towers and Moorish architecture immerses visitors in Arabian culture. The site is particularly spectacular when lit up at night, allowing visitors to enjoy the views from local al fresco restaurants in the cooler evenings.