Markets and souks in the UAE

Ditch the mall and step into a more interesting shopping experience


Amazing architecture at Sharjah’s Central Souq

Also known as the Blue Souk, this Sharjah stalwart is approaching 40 years old (it opened in 1979) and makes quite a claim of being the finest Arabian souk experience in the UAE. There are hundreds of stores selling gold, furniture, crafts, carpets, art and collectibles from around the Arab world and Asia. Look out for jewels from Yemen, rugs handwoven in Afghanistan and Rajhastani treasure chests. The haggling is hard and you’ll need to keep your wits about you to get a good deal. More impressive than the deals and stalls is the building itself. The ornate blue mosaic tiles on both sides of the split building are picture-postcard examples of traditional art and architecture, and well worth travelling to see.
Open Sun-Thu 9am-10.30pm; Fri 4pm-10.30pm. Central Souq, King Faisal Road, on Khalid Lake, Sharjah.

Fish and quips in Ajman’s markets

Okay, so the seafood counter at your local supermarket might have come a long way in recent years, but for the best experiences, go straight to the source. At Ajman’s tourist-friendly Fish Market, you can buy all manner of fish so fresh it still has seawater dripping from the gills. The canny folk at the Ajman Tourism Development Department realised a couple of years ago that around 85 percent of tourists to the emirate made a trip to see the market and have since invested time and money in making it an even more visitable attraction. Not, perhaps, the same as a theme park or water slide, but packed with atmosphere, sights, sounds and smells to remember, we reckon it’s an authentic experience everybody should have in the UAE. A vibrant auction happens most nights at 6pm and after haggling with spirited fishermen, you can get your catch filleted, seasoned and even grilled on the spot, or to take away. If you have a long drive back home, you might want to take an airtight box to stop the smell permeating your car. Be sure to stop in at Souq Saleh while you’re near the Corniche area, too. Modernised, but with a traditional feel, it specialises in clothing and textiles, but there are curios available as well. Don’t expect anything dramatically different to the souks elsewhere in the UAE, but it’s good for haggling and some traditional goods.
Ajman Fish Market: Open daily 7am-1.30pm, 5pm-10pm, auction at 6pm. Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum Street, near the Adnoc Service Station; Souq Saleh: Open daily 9am-11pm. Behind Sheikh Rashid Bin Humeed Street, Ajman.

Go camel shopping in Al Ain

Chances are you don’t actually want a camel. Visit Al Ain’s famous camel market and you might have a job on your hands convincing the persuasive salesman and farmers of this. Behind Bawadi Mall is one of the UAE’s largest and best-known camel souks and, even if you’re not in the market for a dromedary, it’s fascinating to walk around and see the action. Merely being on foot and wandering between the many pens will mark you out as a novice, with tradesmen conducting their bartering through 4x4 windows in the drive-through market. You’ll probably be asked for cash for a guided tour of the market or for the opportunity to pet or feed certain animals. Just know this: if you do want to buy, then you can do so for milk, meat or racing – the latter comes with a much heftier price tag.
Open daily 6am-7pm (shops open until 11pm). Street 137 (Zayed Bin Sultan Street), behind Bawadi Mall.

Refreshing roadside quirkiness in Masafi

First of all, you need to know the Friday Market on the Dhaid to Masafi Road (E88) is open seven days a week. The trading post has been selling a bewildering variety of goods for more than 30 years and it’s an essential stop-off point on the drive to Fujairah or Dibba on the UAE’s East Coast. Don’t expect a lot of fanfare or fanciness, although following a fire a few years back it has been mildly modernised. Quite literally a roadside market, you’ll pull over directly into the stall fronts and can buy fresh fruits, vegetables, carpets, garden furniture, beach accessories and more. There’s a decent selection of pottery available and a mixture of handicrafts and practical accessories for tourists. You can see bunches of bananas hanging in front of stalls alongside cheap footballs and inflatable swimming toys. Pricing is inconsistent and depends on your haggling skills. You’re as likely to end up paying more for your goods as you are grabbing major discounts, but much of that is down to you. The market has become known for the availability of excellent grilled corn on the cob and you should always make a point of pulling over and trying this snack if you’re en route to Fujairah or going to take a look at Masafi.
Open daily 8am-10pm. Friday Market, Al Dhaid to Masafi Road, E88, Fujairah.

Stay Ripe at Umm Al Emarat Park
From humble origins, Ripe has grown into a giant UAE institution. The al fresco markets quickly reached must-see status when they first launched, and we’re still loving them just as much today. Frequented by diverse crowds of families, hipsters, fitness fanatics, tourists and residents, there is a distinctly wholesome feel to the cool afternoon-to-evening pop-ups. Head to one outside of Dubai for a change. The stalls at Ripe’s Umm Al Emarat Park market in Abu Dhabi tend to sell arty handicrafts, boutique fashion, bespoke jewellery, art and non-supermarket-branded foods, and numerous boutique UAE brands sell directly here. A walk underneath the palm trees, picking up nik-naks, home furnishings and stylish accessories or art as you go, is a different world from super-sleek malls. Also make sure you pick up some tasty bites from the food vendors parked there.
Open Sat 3pm-10pm. Umm Al Emarat Park, Mushrif, Abu Dhabi, (04 315 7000).

Welcome to outdoor shopping at Marhaba Market
Farmers’ markets and craft shows are about so much more than the produce sold. A community spirit and a sense of togetherness often hangs in the air and that’s how it goes at Abu Dhabi’s Deerfields Mall’s twice-monthly Marhaba Market. On top of an organic fruit and vegetable market, a nursery stall selling pot plants and herbs and local vendors with handicrafts, toys, accessories, homewares and artwork for sale, there is a distinctly family vibe. Entertainment includes bouncy castles, food stalls, activities such as football, Zumba classes and hip-hop dance routines in the sunshine. Sounds fun to us.
First and last Friday of every month, 4pm-10pm. Until April 28. Abu Dhabi-Dubai Road, (02 501 0826).

More uae Souq Tours

Abu Dhabi
A good Arabian rug is more than ornamental for your home. It’s an investment and a must-have souvenir. Dozens of stores in the Al Mina Souk sell premium Persian and Afghan rugs with beautiful traditional designs. Negotiate hard and you can get a good deal, but be certain to check the quality, as it can vary. The old souk adage of if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is, is the rule to follow here. While you’re in the area cross the road and walk among the fish and vegetable markets to get good deals on essentials and a few rarer spices and selections. And being in the Al Mina port area, you can rest assured that the fish here is fresh and the imported goods varied to the extreme.
Open daily 5am-11pm. Mina Souk, Al Mina, Abu Dhabi.

Al Ain
Our appreciation of Al Ain grows stronger with each passing month. The Garden City has star attractions in Wadi Adventure and the famous safari park. If you’re over here for a visit to these and are not in the market for a camel, look to a tour of other Al Ain souks. The Old Souq, sometimes known as Central, is the most traditional in style, meaning you’ll find materials, spices and handicrafts. Further down Zayed Bin Sultan Street, right next to the Camel Souq, in fact, are two more outdoor markets in Al Ain. Souq Al Bawadi and Souq Al Qaws sell traditional items and souvenirs, as well as items of a more practical nature. They sit alongside the massive Bawadi Mall, so you can sneak inside for a regular shopping experience, but we reckon stay out for the heritage feel. The traditional architecture itself is great for photos and you could grab yourself a decent amount of new clutter for your home. Before departing Al Ain, cross town to look at Souk Al Zafarana. It has traditional garments, incense, spices and fruits and vegetables, as well as oud.
Souk Al Zafarana: Open daily 10am-1pm, 8pm-midnight. Zayed Al Awwal Street, Al Ain.

Ras Al Khaimah
Ras Al Khaimah is perhaps best known for its outdoors activities and heritage landmarks, but while you’re there, make the most of the opportunity to visit the old market area. Vegetable and fish markets sell, well, you can probably guess – and the emphasis is on experience and authenticity as much as it is on securing a great deal. The two main markets, Kuwait Souq and Old Souq, have the same bewildering mixture of tourist-friendly goods (pashminas, arty nik-naks), spices and practical items such as mops and alarm clocks. Be sure to also snap pictures of dhows on the water and pay a visit to the museum just a short stroll away through the old town.
Opening times vary. Al Qasimi Corniche Road Area, Ras Al Khaimah.

The Central Souq takes the prize and attention but shop about and there are other gratifying market shopping experiences in Sharjah. Thankfully, they’re within walking distance of the main attraction, so a souk crawl can be tagged on the end of a visit to Central Souq. With that major tourist attraction more than covering the bases of textiles, jewels and collectibles, go elsewhere in search of more day-to-day items. Head to Souq Al Jubail. This enormous marketplace is sub-divided into three further areas with stalls specialising in meat, fish and fruit and veg. It has the vague feel of a mall due to its well-ordered, well-maintained stalls. The vibe, however, is all souk, with fresh fish packed on ice, mounds of locally grown fruit and vegetables, plus butchery sections. Produce is sold with such character and in such enormous quantities that the market should be enjoyed as a tourist attraction as well as a practical place to shop for good-value groceries. The waterfront setting, incidentally, is rather stunning and well worth a few photos, too.
Open Sat-Thu 6.30am-10.30pm; Fri 6am-11.30am, 2pm-10.30pm. Souq Al Jubail, Corniche Street, Sharjah.

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