A Guide to the Best Middle Eastern Bazaars

Angela Wood

Senior Contributor

Not to be confused with a market, the bazaar or souk is a heady mix of colour, carnival and artful negotiations. From gold souks to spice souks and stalls which sell you hand-woven rugs and slippers by the dozen, there’s no greater feeling than experiencing the sights and sounds of a lively bazaar. With this in mind, here is our guide to the best Middle East bazaars.

Best for Jewellery - Gold Souk Dubai

Located in Deira, Dubai, within a short walk of Al Ras Metro Station, Dubai’s Gold Souk glitters with store fronts draped in gold jewellery, diamonds and precious stones. The souk is home to hundreds of retailers showcasing a selection of trinkets in varying carats. Prices are listed in AED per gram, and the current market price of gold is displayed in most stores so you can check if you’re gaining a good investment. It’s customary to barter here too. Sellers automatically set higher prices for tourists, but significant discounts on bracelets, rings and necklaces can be achieved if you hold your ground and remain fair in your pricing strategy. Also, here, cash is king, and greater reductions are available if you’re handing over notes rather than a credit card. The great news is all merchandise sold in the Gold Souk is regulated by the Dubai government so you can be assured all your purchases are the genuine article. So, if you’re shopping for engagement, wedding rings or simply wish to spoil yourself with a gold cuff or diamond bracelet, this is the place to be!

Best for Berber Rugs - Jemaa el-Fna, Marrakech

Ok, it’s not strictly in the Middle East, but this lively bazaar has to be included in the list! The main square of Marrakech, Jemaa el-Fna assaults the senses, with sights, aromas and a cacophony of sounds which mingle together like an out of tune, yet strangely harmonic orchestra. Lilting calls to prayer resonate across the square from Koutoubia mosque, while the sound of a snake charmers flute hypnotises, encouraging you to stop and look again. During daylight hours, Jemaa el-Fna is a surreal adventure - a crazy carnival where medicine men promise to cure you of all ailments and storyteller hawkers try to sell you goods with inflated prices. In the evenings, the marketplace transforms - a plethora of food stands appear, and musicians entertain crowds with catchy Arabian tunes. Stall holders strike deals for handmade Berber rugs, djellabas, spices, jewellery and more, but if you simply wish to observe the madness, take a ringside seat in a rooftop bar and marvel at this colourful spectacle from a distance.

Best for Everything - Grand Bazaar, Istanbul

It’s hard to believe that Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, Turkey is one of the world’s most visited attractions with almost 100 million visitors per year. It’s one of the oldest and largest indoor markets, covering 61 streets and home to over 4,000 shops. The bazaar was founded in the mid-1400s and by the 17th century, it had developed into a major stop on the trading route between Asia and Europe. Spices, silks and precious stones arrived from faraway lands and the bazaar became the place to go for high quality goods in Europe. Today, the bazaar is divided into sections, making it easier to navigate depending on what you seek. As you wander beneath ornate archways you can observe marble drinking fountains and 17th century kiosks which were once quaint traveller cafes. Hanging lanterns light up stores with a kaleidoscope of colours and fragrant aromas of tea leaves and spices linger with your senses long after you depart. Bargains here include Turkish silver art, ceramics, handmade carpets and kilims, jewellery and leather goods. Be prepared to haggle for your items as tourists are easy prey for higher prices. The negotiations are light-hearted and entertaining for everyone as long as the vendor isn’t insulted by your offer!

Best for Egyptian Artefacts - Khan el-Khalili, Cairo

Set in the historic centre of Cairo, Egypt, you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve walked onto a film set as you step into Khan el-Khalili. Frequented by locals and tourists alike, the narrow, medieval alleyways aren’t just home to stalls marketing Egyptian artefacts, lanterns and silks, many artisan workshops producing the goods are also based here. It’s worth visiting simply to view the architecture. A highlight is Bab al-Ghuri – one of the original city gates which today, incorporates shops selling lamps. Arrive at dusk as they illuminate and imagine stepping back centuries as you wander through streets browsing alabaster pyramids and hieroglyphs etched onto ceramics. The merchants of Khan el-Khalili are animated, keen to sell to tourists, so if you’re unsure as to how to rebuff their persistent sales techniques, hire a guide for a few hours to do it for you.

Best for Pearls - Manama Souk, Bahrain

Bustling Manama Souk is nestled between the old city and central business district in Bahrain. Here you can purchase anything from fabrics and jewels to local handicrafts and dried fruits. However, its pearls which are the treasures of Bahrain – brilliant and lustrous thanks to the blend of fresh and saltwater surrounding the Emirate. The Arabian Gulf is one of our planets most important sources for natural pearls. Pearl fishing in this area is a tradition stemming back 3,000 years, so if you’ve been seeking a high-quality string of pearls, a delicate set of earrings or beautiful bracelet, you’ll find them all here. Seek out licensed stores in the bazaar and opt for white to dark cream pearls which are symmetrical in shape as they hold their value. These natural ocean gems aren’t just for women either, men can purchase genuine Bahrain pearls to make into a pair of cufflinks, or to substitute for buttons on a shirt.

Best for Fragrant Oils – Mutrah Souk, Muscat

Chaotic and vibrant, Mutrah Souk is a magical, Arabian undercover market in the heart of Oman’s capital. Selling a plethora of antiques and artefacts, it’s easy to pick up a bargain as you navigate the maze of shops. The bazaar sells everything from soft pashminas to World War II memorabilia, but it’s best-known for its aromatic fragrant oils. Colourful stalls specialise in Middle Eastern perfumes, with oud and frankincense soaps and oils on offer. Frankincense, essentially a tree sap, is native to the Dhofar region in the south of the country, so to leave Oman without some would be a travesty! There are several ways in which to utilise it. You can burn it in a ceramic burner with charcoal as the Omani’s do in their homes, pour it in a bathor you can eat it! Many Omani sweets are infused with frankincense, so if you just wish to try it once, purchase some and experience the unusual taste for yourself. Prices of frankincense can vary due to purity and quantity, so the best way to ensure you’re getting a good deal is to seek out a shop specialising in the fragrance.

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