The World's Most Famous Markets
Local markets are not just where you can find goods, but the very essence of a place, its people, and what they hold near and dear.
In Thailand, the largest flower emporium in Bangkok is open 24/7 so locals can purchase flowers for daily worship in the land of 40,000 temples. At the centuries old bazaars of Turkey and Spain, spectacular architecture beckons as you browse through unique handicrafts, memorabilia, and delightful cuisine.
Traditional jewelry, costumes, and spices take center stage in Dubai, Egypt, and India. Oral history comes to life in performances in North Africa during festive night fairs. There is also no shortage of the unusual from goods solds on rivers and next to an active railway, to mysterious fairs toting talismans for good luck, herbal remedies, tarot readings, and even those dedicated to gypsy brides and recycled goods.
Here are 15 eccentric and famous markets, where you can dive deep into various cultures (and crowds) by land and sea to sate your hunger for exotic cuisine, all things material, and even the supernatural. Just be sure to leave space in your luggage, bring an open mind and your best haggling game.
Maeklong Railway Market, Maeklong, Thailand
Often referred to as the most dangerous market in the world, Maeklong Railway Market lives up to its reputation, located on an active railway line an hour from Bangkok. Here, you will find fresh produce, seafood, sweets, and Thai garments, sold on both sides of the railroad track.
Vendors in permanent and temporary stalls attract visitors for the sheer joy of seeing them prepare for the passing train four times a day. As soon as the forlorn call reaches and the tracks rumble, sellers begin their retreat, moving their awnings and tables blocking the track; baskets of fruits and vegetables are shifted just enough not be sliced by the wheels, while some are left under the train as it passes. The train chugs along, leaving everything dusty in its wake, but the buyers don’t mind and activities promptly resume.
Maeklong market is open seven days a week from 6:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Chandni Chowk, Delhi, India
Situated in Old Delhi near one of the largest mosques in the country, Chandni Chowk offers everything under the sun, from Indian spices, elegant lehengas, and saris to everyday items like silverware. Of course, no Indian shopping experience is complete without bling, and you will find elegant Kundan and Meenakari jewelry tucked away in the trinket lane.
This sprawling market that translates to “Moonlight Square” was built in the 17th century by Shah Jahan, the Mughal Emperor who also built the incredible Taj Mahal. Crowds congest the narrow alleys leading to sub-markets, but, if you are brave enough to make your way through, you will be rewarded with exceptional deals.
The best way to get around is on a rickshaw (human powered two-wheeler) that zips past people and animals sharing the road. Chandni Chowk is open everyday except Sunday.
Gold Souk, Dubai, United Arab Emirates
It’s no secret that Dubai is the place to get the best price for gold and, at the popular Gold Souk located in Deira near Al Ras Metro Station, you can find genuine gold jewelry for decent prices.
Walking into the labyrinth of covered stores, your eyes will take a moment to adjust to the glittering showpieces hanging from the walls and mannequins. You will also find quality platinum, diamonds, and other precious metals. The value for gold is displayed on signs, so there’s no guessing how much you are paying per gram but, it’s always still best to barter, as sellers amp up the prices for the workmanship.
You are more likely to get a better deal by paying in cash. The souk is open 9:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Saturday to Thursday (with a break from 1-4), and from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Friday.
Khan Al-Khalili, Cairo, Egypt
The spicy aroma fills your nostrils the moment you approach this medieval open-air fair, known simply as Khan, located in the historic center of Cairo amidst stunning Islamic architecture.
With 900 shops selling glassware, traditional jewelry, souvenirs, and spices, time flies as you browse through diverse districts. If you’ve got room in your luggage, make sure to purchase a gorgeous traditional or modern handmade rug. On the Street of the Tentmakers, take the time to admire bright colored fabrics. Some artists even create beautiful pieces right in front of you. Take a break to enjoy a warm cup of Arabic coffee in one of old cafes.
Shops and stalls are open from 9 a.m. until sundown (except Friday morning and Sunday).
Izmailovsky Market, Moscow, Russia
The Izmailovsky Market in Moscow is straight out of a fairytale. Originally designed as a wedding complex, Izmailovsky is located inside the colorful Izmailovo Kremlin, a Disneyesque wooden structure.
This is the place to get authentic Russian souvenirs like matryoshka (nesting dolls), amber, costumes, and painted lacquered canisters. You’ll even find Russian cosmonaut and Soviet memorabilia. Given the cold temperatures that persist in the region, expect to find plush shawls and hats. Whether you want to bring home memories of your trip or just browse, sellers are more than eager to share the stories behind their wares.
The market is open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and there is a 50 rubles entrance fee per person (about 75 cents).
The Witches' Market, La Paz, Bolivia
It doesn’t get more bizarre than the Witches’ Market in La Paz, which folk doctors known as yatiri, astrologers, and fortune tellers call home.
Located in the world’s highest capital (at 11,942 ft), La Paz has a rich Wiccan culture where many believe in natural remedies and superstitions. Walking through the streets, brace yourself as you encounter dried llama fetuses, owl feathers, and toad talismans. Most prominent among the items sold are naked ceramic couples, believed to improve romance, rectify impotency, and increase fertility. To add to the mystery, witch doctors in distinctive dark hats and dresses roam around offering pagan ceremonies, spell boxes, and fortune-telling services.
The market is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m..
Gypsy Brides Market, Mogila, Bulgaria
In the town of Mogila, Bulgaria, there’s a long held tradition where young, marriage-age women of the semi-nomadic Roma of Kalaidzhi tribe gather annually, hoping to find prosperous husbands among the Gypsies roaming the festive gathering.
Donning heavy makeup and flashy gold jewelry, and dressed in bright clothing, thousands of girls parade with their families at the open air brides market on St. Todor’s Day, the first Saturday after the start of Orthodox Easter Lent.
This isn’t a sale, but a hefty sum is often paid to obtain the bride. While in other cultures, a dowry is paid by the woman’s family, the women of Bulgaria can fetch a large sum (several thousand levs/Euros) in this truly one-of-a-kind market.
Pak Klong Talad Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand
Located south of Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha), is Bangkok’s largest wholesale and retail flower market.
At this indoor market, vibrant marigolds, beautiful orchids, young lotuses, and fragrant roses can be found in large baskets welcoming visitors during all hours of the day. Pak Klong Talad comes alive after sundown as locals leaving work collect blooms for daily ceremonies and offerings to monks.
Decorative floral garlands and arrangements are sold by the hundreds to temple goers, and there seems to be a never ending supply of the flowers brought in by men and women carrying baskets. Prices are reasonable, except during holidays and special occasions. Just be wary of passing motorbikes that whiz by in between the stalls.
Jemaa el-Fnaa, Marrakech, Morocco
Although the daytime brings out the flute playing snake charmers and monkey performers, the triangular shaped Jemaa el-Fnaa in the center of Marrakech transforms into a magical marketplace akin to Agrabah after sunset.
Henna tattoo artists beckon passersby as Sufi and Gnawa performances entertain patrons, as Andalous music filling the air. In 2001, UNESCO declared Jemaa el-Fnaa a “Masterpiece of World Heritage” for bringing oral history to life through artistic expressions.
First timers might feel a bit overwhelmed in the expansive, crowded bazaar, offering mouthwatering Moroccan delicacies sold at hundreds of stalls and Arabic souvenirs promoted in glittery, bright stores. If you’ve got a hankering for unconventional cuisine, you can try a giant African Land snail stew. The square remains open until 1 a.m.
Muara Kuin Floating Market, Banjarmasin, Indonesia
In Banjarmasin, a city known for a thousand rivers, it’s no surprise to find a massive floating market. This farmers’ and fish trading consists of small shop-boats at the junction of Barito and Kuin Rivers. The traders use “jukung,” wooden Indonesian outrigger canoes, to showcase fresh produce, fruits, and seafood.
If you want to get up close to the jukungs jostling each other for buyers, go before sunrise as most of the sellers begin their trading right after morning prayers. Even if you don’t purchase anything, you are likely to get some great photos of the traditional boats over the sunrise.
The floating fair comes together between 5 a.m. and 9 a.m. daily and can be reached by boat from downtown Banjarmasin.
Chichicastenango Market, Chichicastenango, Guatemala
Beautifully woven garments, rugs, and hammocks hang from a multitude of stores at Chichicastenango, one of the largest markets in Central America.
Getting to the indigenous, isolated Mayan town of “Chichi” high in the jungle-covered highlands of Guatemala might be challenging with steep switchbacks, but that doesn’t stop sellers in neighboring villages from making the special journey twice a week to set up shop around the town’s main square.
Here, you will find a kaleidoscope of colors from traditional textiles, striking masks, wooden carvings, and pottery to fresh produce and fruits.
The market is held every Thursday and Sunday, and the best way to reach it is by shuttles from popular destinations; it’s roughly 2.5 hours from Guatemala City.
Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, Turkey
The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul’s Old City is a feast for the senses, and quite arguably the best way to experience the splendor of Turkish culture and architecture.
This magnificent 15th Century covered market is said to have inspired modern shopping malls. Record has it that the landmark attracts nearly 100 million visitors yearly and, if you happen to go on holidays, you may be one of a half a million customers. It’s definitely not the place for claustrophobics. Take in the sights of mosques and fountains as you browse the 4,000 stores located in 58 vaulted passageways, selling anything you can imagine.
The bazaar also hosts two hamams (Turkish baths), restaurants, and cafes, and is open Monday to Saturday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Mercado de Sonora, Mexico City, Mexico
If you are into mysticism, there’s no better place than Mercado de Sonora, located in the historic center of Mexico City. From mysterious herbs and potions to crystals, voodoo dolls and demon statues, this market has items that aren’t just popular during The Day of the Dead, attracting magicians and shamans from around the world.
You don’t have to be into the supernatural to appreciate the eccentricity of brujería (witchcraft), just bring a sense of adventure and curiosity. If you are so inclined, choose from one of the 400 shamans for a Santa Muerte tarot reading, or a cleansing performed with herbs, tobacco, and mezcal to ward off evil.
The mercado also sells products ranging from fruits and vegetables to statues of Mexico's patron saint (the Virgin of Guadalupe) and cartonería (massive paper-mache skeletons). It is open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.
Central Market, Valencia, Spain
As one of the oldest food markets in Europe, the Mercado Central in Valencia has been declared a Heritage of Cultural Interest by the Spanish Ministry of Culture.
Built in the 1920s, this covered establishment in the heart of Ciutat Vella famous for its dazzling stained glass and mosaics that adorn the domes. The immense structure is home to more than 1,000 stalls showered by natural light streaming through the large windows.
Come on an empty stomach as the market is a gastronomic heaven, offering traditional Spanish cuisine and seafood, seasonal fruits, vegetables, olives, cheeses, and baked goods. Go early to avoid the crowds and there’s no judgment if you decide to go for some wine before noon.
Mercado Central is open Monday to Saturday from early morning to mid-afternoon.