The world’s best places to shop

The souks of Marrakech in Morocco offer one of the most astonishing retail experiences in the world.
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The souks of Marrakech in Morocco offer one of the most astonishing retail experiences in the world.

When imagination meets a bottomless budget you get a mega-mall. With petting zoos, ski slopes, indoor rollercoasters and homogenous high street stores, you could be anywhere once inside the windowless world of the international super centre.

Hitting the malls of the Middle East, Asia and Europe nowadays is less about making unique purchases and cultural immersion and more about a place to escape the heat, grab a fast bite or see a blockbuster.

Real shopping is to be found elsewhere.

Wandering the shady avenues, interesting alleyways and cobbled markets of foreign shopping precincts is so much more than a retail indulgence.

It can be a crash course in a new language, a history lesson and a chance to absorb the daily life of locals. Between boutique stops, there'll be cafes with personality, locals to talk to and people to watch.

Street food, buskers and quirky characters come with a day's shopping in the Paris Marais, London's Notting Hill, Hong Kong's Wan Chai or Singapore's Little India.

Wicked hot chocolate comes with a walk around the cobbled shops of Budapest Castle, a neon buzz and a symphony of beeping bikes with a trip to the tailors of Kowloon, and you'll get the magic of shopping under fairy lights in the winter markets of Strasbourg, Berlin and Vienna.

Give the glitz a miss and discover where else in the world you can buy an experience along with your souvenirs in this guide to shopping beyond the malls.

CHRISTMAS MARKET, MUNICH, GERMANY

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WHY HERE The medieval atmosphere, delightful seasonal spirit and festive fun couldn't be more different from Christmas shopping in a mall.

NEED TO KNOW Munich comes alive with some 20 Christmas markets in December, but the one in Marienplatz is the best for ambience and historical setting. The square fills with wooden huts beneath the impressive Gothic town hall and a giant Christmas tree aglitter with 2500 lights. The Christkindlmarkt was first recorded in 1642. Kids can bake cookies, dress as angels and make handicrafts. Carols and Bavarian oompah bands play festive music from the town hall's balcony at 5.30pm daily.

BEST BUYS Bavarian glassware and wooden carvings from the alpine town of Oberammergau range from $12 (and might be made in China) to authentic works of art at hundreds of dollars. Other good buys are beeswax candles, nutcrackers and traditional tree and nativity ornaments.

SHOPPING STRATEGIES The market runs from 10am to 9pm (or 8pm Sundays) from late November to Christmas Eve, but is at its most atmospheric after dark.

PIT-STOP Palais Keller offers traditional Bavarian fare such as creamy veal and fish dishes, accompanied by huge tankards of beer. See bayerischerhof.de

ESSENTIALS Hop on the U-Bahn (subway) and alight at Marienplatz. Stay at Munich Marriott Hotel. See marriott.com

Brian Johnston

THE GRAND BAZAAR, ISTANBUL, TURKEY

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WHY HERE Alive with chaos and colour, trinkets and treasure, this intoxicating 550 year-old maze is a cultural experience you will literally get lost in.

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NEED TO KNOW You'd better have your exit strategy worked out before you enter this sprawling alternate universe, which has been crammed with traders since the 5th century. With 69 entrances, 61 streets and an unknown number of shops (locals argue it's between 3000 and 4000),  this exciting labyrinth is best tackled as a team sport. Spices are in one network of pathways, carpets in another, brassware another. Leather, gold jewellery and fashion also have their own precincts. Haggling is expected and will generally be more successful if you open negotiations in the morning when staff are keen to reach daily sales quotas.

BEST BUYS Hand-woven cottons and linens. Gorgeous hand-painted ceramics, in a dazzling array of vibrant colours make great gifts.

STRATEGIES Shoppers should barter 50 per cent off the initial price quoted, but depending on the quality, you may only get away with 35 per cent off in the end.

PIT-STOP The tiny but famous kebab nook, Aynen Durum.

ESSENTIALS Take the tram to Beyazit, Universite or Sirkeci. Stay at the Ramada Istanbul Grand Bazaar. See ramadaistanbulgrandbazaar.comgrandbazaaristanbul.org

Angie Kelly

AKIHABARA, TOKYO, JAPAN

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WHY HERE A haven for all your electronic needs as well as a geek Nirvana.

NEED TO KNOW In the wake of World War II, Akihabara Station became the epicentre of a black market trade in radio parts and electronic gadgets until competition from China, South Korea and a number of discount stores scattered throughout Tokyo itself eventually put an end to the halcyon days. But "Electric Town" has successfully re-invented itself as the nucleus of Japan's Otaku (geek) culture thanks mainly to the emergence of the ubiquitous anime and manga stores. Among the cosplay outfits, figurines and bizarre collectibles you'll also find perhaps the world's largest selection of retro video games.

BEST BUYS Akihabara is not the bargain central it once was; it's more about the sheer volume of choice and the experience. But if you're after a specific item, do your research as knowledge equals bargaining power.

SHOPPING STRATEGY Wander the main strip first, especially at dusk when the blaze of neon kicks in, then veer off to the backstreets later. If you're looking for a specific electronic item, the nine-storey Yodobashi Akihabara department store is a good option.

PIT-STOP Hitachino Brewing Lab is a newly-opened bar dedicated to one of Japan's most celebrated craft beer lines with 10 on tap. See hitachino.cc/brewing-lab/en/

ESSENTIALS The main action is centred around Akihabara Station, reached via the JR Yamanote, Chuo and Keihin-Tohoku lines. Exit at the "Akihabara Electric Town" sign. Stay at the Sheraton Miyako Hotel. See sheraton.comakihabara.jp/en

Guy Wilkinson

THE SOUKS, MARRAKECH, MOROCCO

WHY HERE It's colour, madness and mayhem, a labyrinthine journey through the time tunnel and one of the most astonishing retail experiences the world has to offer.

NEED TO KNOW Marrakech has several souks, each devoted to a separate trade, and they interlock like jigsaw pieces so that you wander from carpets to olives to pottery to kaftans and into the spice souk. It's a full frontal assault on the senses wiith fascination every inch of the way. It's best to visit once just to wander around and see what's on offer - serious shopping can wait for a second visit. 

BEST BUYS Leather slippers, metalwork lamps, ceramics, ornamental glassware, traditional Berber cloaks, leather bags and cushion covers. Carpets are popular but be prepared to devote several hours just to establish a benchmark for quality and price.

STRATEGIES The souks are at their best late in the afternoon. Take only a small amount of cash, if you need more the merchant will hold the goods until you return with more. Don't ask the price for anything unless you're planning to buy, and your starting price should be less than half what the seller is asking.

PIT-STOP Nomad, at 1 Derb Aajrane, Rahba Kedima (Place des Epices), is a chic little cafe within the spice souk with a pleasant rooftop terrace perfect for sunset-viewing.

ESSENTIALS The souks run to the north off Jemaa el Fna, the grand centrepiece of Marrakech. Every taxi driver can take you there. Stay at Riyad Al Moussika. See riyad-al-moussika.com;visitmorocco.com

Michael Gebicki

EL RASTRO, MADRID, SPAIN

WHY HERE Europe's biggest flea market, El Rastro is one enormous garage sale that takes over the streets of Madrid's oldest residential area every Sunday.

NEED TO KNOW It's all here – ironwork, old clothes, designer knock-offs, pets, porcelain, paintings and people. So huge are the crowds during the warmer months that you'll be reduced to a shuffling pace. Start at La Latina Metro station and follow the masses heading down along Calle Ribera de Curtidores. The most interesting shopping happens in the side streets. Plaza del General Vara de Rey has the best antiques, while nearby, Calles Mira el Río Alta and Mira el Río Baja are the places to look for bric-a-brac. The action winds down just after midday, when everybody heads off for tapas and wine at one of the many bars in the neighbourhood, followed by a therapeutic siesta.

BEST BUYS Puppets are a great souvenir, part of Spanish culture since the 13th century, and ornate hand fans used by flamenco dancers are useful in the hot Spanish summer. Leather bags, wallets and purses are another popular buy.

STRATEGIES Beware of pickpockets. Carry limited cash, you can always visit an ATM if necessary.

PIT-STOP La Taberna de Antonio Sanchez is a classic tapas bar that pays homage to the traditions of the bullfighting ring. See abernaantoniosanchez.com

ESSENTIALS Nearest metro stations are La Latina and Plaza Mayor. Every Sunday and public holiday, 7am to 2.30pm. Stay at The Urban Hotel, Madrid, close to Plaza Mayor. See hotelurban.comesmadrid.com

Michael Gebicki

COLUMBIA ROAD SHOPS & FLOWER MARKET, LONDON

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WHY HERE With more than 60 unique boutiques in Victorian rows lining a street full of thousands of fresh flowers and plants, Columbia Road is the place where old London still thrives.

NEED TO KNOW The market remains a favourite Sunday morning tradition with Londoners. The market is a symphony of sights, smells and experience: local ladies stroll arm-in-arm; glammed up 20-somethings straight from the nightclub line up for legendary bagels; gents in trench coats walk Italian greyhounds and spaniels; bare-chested, gold-chain-festooned stall holders rapid-wrap huge bunches of blooms; the smell of breakfast fry-ups and sweet pastries and a heady blend of floral fragrance infuses the scene. 

BEST BUYS You can't take flowers home, but there are plenty of things you can. Don't miss Angela Flanders Perfumer, Columbia Road Gallery for paintings by Cornish artists and design collectibles at Two Columbia Road. Pick up vintage jewellery at Glitterati and great designer garments at FutureVintage.

SHOPPING STRATEGIES Though the flower market bustles from 8am, many shops aren't open till 10. Come for the early atmosphere and then have breakfast before shopping. Keep your bag in front of you and closed.

PIT-STOP Columbia Cafe Bagels, at 138 Columbia Rd, are makers of the finest, proper boiled bagels for three decades. For a more leisurely sit-down breakfast, try Jones Dairy on nearby Ezra St.

ESSENTIALS The nearest Tube station is Old St, on the Northern Line. Stay at Hotel ibis London City on Whitechapel Road, a 20 minute walk away. See ibis.comcolumbiaroad.info

Julietta Jameson

DESIGN DISTRICT, HELSINKI

WHY HERE Small shops showcasing Nordic design at its best.

NEED TO KNOW In Helsinki's compact downtown, the Design District is less an actual neighbourhood than a network of creative shopfronts, from jewellery studios to vintage shops, homewares stores to fashion boutiques. Finland's biggest design brands, such as Marimekko and Iittala, have their flagships on Bulevardi, but it is on smaller streets around Uudenmaankatu, Frederikinkatu and Erottjankatu that the real gems can be found. 

From the bright leatherwork of Luma to printed woolen blankets in Kauniste, Isabel B's elegant homewares and the clothes and accessories at Globe Hope, all made from recycled and discarded material, there is plenty to discover. Top choices for fashionistas include Katri/N and Ivana Helsinki; jewellery fans will love designers such as Union Design and JuJu Jewellery. The area's vintage shops give you the opportunity to pick up design classics from Finnish greats such as Tapio Wirrkala at bargain prices. The Visit Helsinki website has a number of themed itineraries to help those with a mission, but we believe in serendipity: pick up a Design District map, choose a key street and see what you discover.

BEST BUYS Under $30: Marimekko paper napkins, Iittala candle holders, Globe Hope earrings. 

SHOPPING STRATEGY This is shopping at its most stress-free. Many jewellery designers – and even some clothes designers - are happy to design a piece for clients. 

PIT-STOP As the name suggests, Sis.Deli serves fresh, tasty light meals. Kalevankatu 4, sisdeli.fi

ESSENTIALS The Design District is centrally located and best explored on foot. Helsinki's first design hotel, Klaus K, is located in its heart, Bulevardi 2, klausk.comdesigndistrict.fivisithelsinki.fi/en

Ute Junker

- Traveller

 

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