Roll up, roll up: the allure of street markets

Offering a seductive mix of buzzing activity and striking individuality, markets are top on tourist to-do lists in destinations across the globe

Dubai is famous for its spectacular retail malls but, like other sophisticated shopping destinations across the globe, it is its street markets that provide some of the most satisfying experiences of local culture.

The Deira Gold Souk is a perfect presentation of the Emirati love of fine and beautiful things. Dating from the 1940s, when traders and entrepreneurs from India and Iran pitched their stalls in the area, the shimmering maze of shops and alleys is where locals come to haggle for the best prices on bracelets, necklaces, rings and other adornments.

There is nothing like a jaunt to a specialist food market to whet the appetite. Spain’s cuisine is some of the world’s most mouth-watering, and one of the best places to experience it is in Barcelona’s authentic covered street markets. Dating from the 13th century, La Boqueria, located on the central Rambla street, combines excellent quality farm produce with artisan-made goods. At breakfast and lunch, people pass the time at food counters enjoying the atmosphere as well as tasty Catalan fare such as broad beans and squid.

For much of the world shopping is a daytime activity but in Asia, where it gets so hot during daylight hours it is preferable to stay indoors, people choose to indulge in retail therapy when the sun goes down. Bare bulbs light up the wares at Temple Street Night Market in Hong Kong, where hawkers offer a heady mix of live lobsters, glitzy fashion and fortune telling, while buskers entertain the crowds.

The variety of the market is much of the allure. Selling everything from espressos to evening dresses, street markets have co-existed with shops in England for centuries. Full of hustle, bustle and earthy charm, functioning street markets such as Leather Lane in central London were first established hundreds of years ago. In the 1800s, Italian immigrants to the area brought then rare ice cream to the market and, the following century, Indians brought curry. The goods on sale might have changed a bit over time but one constant is the street as a living, breathing example of the cultural exchange that has made London one of the most dynamic and cosmopolitan cities in the world.

Where London offers a colourful mezze of cultural influences, the South American country of Bolivia is striking for its powerfully preserved indigenous customs. In La Paz, the ‘Witches Market’ sheds light on the country’s Ayamran heritage. The exotic items for sale include local herbs aphrodisiac potions and – most famously – dried llama foetuses, which are popularly buried under houses as an offering to the goddess Pachamama.

The world’s street markets are the places where commerce becomes culture. They may be a crowded and loud sensual overload, full of as many animals as people and as much mystery as certainty, but that’s half the fun!