Jet-Set Bohemian: Souk-Inspired Shopping

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As a Jet-Set Bohemian, and on the day before Black Friday, it probably won’t come as a surprise that I have a slight shopping obsession—and I’m not referring to the mega-mall type. My way of capturing and holding on to a trip is through trinkets, each with a story to tell once I’m back home. Despite that I’m more nomad than nester, I can’t help but fall in love with hand-woven rugs and camel leather-skinned slippers that I’ll use more as decoration than footwear. Even now, fresh off a trip to Mexico City, I got carried away when I saw my dream hammock sold by a man walking around the San Ángel Saturday market, which I have no space for (either in my suitcase or new studio apartment) but was determined to bring back home to France.

There’s no better way to return with a memory from your recent escapades, while getting a cultural immersion, than taking a trip to the local market. Whether you’re looking to buy slippers, spices or a new wardrobe, these or souk-inspired spots from Turkey to Cape Town will have just the memento you’re been searching for.

You’ll come across souks, or street markets, in cities throughout North Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia. My little shopping habit started in Dubai, but while a lot of tourists head straight for the Dubai Mall, the largest in the world with 1,200 shops, I hopped a cab out of downtown toward the more authentic side of the city, Deira, to see the Gold Souk, started as a series of stalls by Indian and Iranian traders back in the 1940s. From the Dubai Creek, the souk looks more like a strip mall, but once you head inward a few streets, you’ll quickly see why Dubai is called the City of Gold. Heavy strands of 18 and 24K gold hang from shop windows lining the labyrinth of streets that blend seamlessly into the spice market. Here you’ll find bags of spices and nuts sitting in storefronts, with merchants beckoning passersby to come inside and admire other treasures from silk pashminas to the aforementioned camel leather slippers, embroidered with golden thread and tassels. If you came unprepared for the desert weather, it’s not hard to restock your entire travel wardrobe here to fit right in with the Emirati style. Just an abra ride across the creek in a traditional wooden water taxi, the Aladdin-style Textile Souk is bursting with fabrics of all shades and styles that could easily outfit your entire home. While you may not be in the market for new fabric, you can always snag a small souvenir like a hand-embroidered pillowcase that’s easy to transport back home.

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Photo courtesy of Dubai’s Department of Tourism and Commerce

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The largest and oldest covered market on the globe, Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar feels more like a village than a marketplace. Made up of 61 streets and 3,000 shops, the mazelike market is easy to get lost in, and not just because of its size. Merchants call out offering to take any currency you have, welcoming you inside with a cup of çay, or Turkish tea, while putting their best handwoven wool carpets and mosaic glass lanterns on display as a gallery would a painting. The trick to navigating the bazaar is a similar experience to dating; you have to shop around a bit before you find your right match. Streets are lined with hundreds of shops that just sell gold or rugs, so get a sense of the price range for your item of choice and find a vendor who is willing to bargain over a friendly cup of coffee or tea. After you’ve made a deal, your new friend will point you in the direction of a stand that belongs to one of their “cousins,” who will also give you any item of your picking at a “friend” rate. Guides say to start the bargaining process at around 30 percent less than the starting price and settle on a middle ground from there. If you run out of Turkish Lira, many vendors accept dollars, euros and other currency (and will quickly do the conversion rate for you), while some even take credit cards.

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Mexico City’s Mercado de Artesanías La Ciudadela, resembles the Middle Eastern-style souks with artisans coming from across the country to sell their handmade crafts at stalls inside the covered market. Now in its 50th year, Ciudadela was Mexico’s first craft market, set up just before the 1968 Summer Olympics, with 350 vendors from 22 Mexican states. While Dubai is known for its gold, the town of Taxco is the world’s silver capital and you’ll come across the metal used in everything from bracelets to belt buckles engraved with Mayan designs. In between silver stands, merchants are selling a mix of traditional Mexican blankets, colorful hand-woven shawls, leather belts, hammock swings, and Talavera pottery from Puebla. While most of the handicrafts are similar to what you may find at the more popular markets in town (but at rates a lot lower), a few of the artisans are actually on site crafting pieces like glass boxes lined with gold trim in shapes like octagons and pyramids for prices starting at just $5.

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Photo courtesy of Cape Town Tourism

Cape Town’s Watershed on the V&A Waterfront is more of an urban-inspired market set up in a warehouse space with 150 stands donning African-made designs. The city’s Greenmarket Square was once the spot where artisans peddled their more bohemian-style crafts, but more up-and-coming designers have moved their wares to Watershed appealing to Cape Town’s stylish younger generation with South African mohair scarves, antique Ethiopian silver jewelry and hand-weaved baskets that are more design savvy than traditional market types.

Lane Nieset is Paste’s Jet-Set Bohemian columnist and a freelance writer covering all things travel from her home base in Nice, France.

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