Warning: artists at work

Market leaders ... browsing at the Green Market in Cape Town.
Market leaders ... browsing at the Green Market in Cape Town. Photo: Chris Payle/Lonely Planet

South Africa's markets are where you'll find one-off artworks, crafts, jewellery and street food, writes Kate Armstrong.

Whether you're heading to South Africa to see wildlife or for the World Cup, don't forget your wallet. Why? South African cities - especially Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg (Jo'burg) - lay claim to some of the best markets around. While they don't have the novelty of Bangkok's floating markets or the profile of London's Portobello Road, South African markets offer a fun cultural experience.

These vibrant spots are chock-a-block with curios, stylish antiques and quirky souvenirs and are a great place to meet the locals and watch talented artists and craftspeople at work.

Jo'burg markets

African Craft Market, Rosebank

Jo'burg's must-visit market is alongside Rosebank Mall. Head here for craftwork from all over Africa (including West African sculptures and masks).

The market's second level is more gift oriented: bags, key rings and beaded cutlery, plus items conjured up from recycled materials. Fertility dolls (also known as Ndebele dolls) are a highlight. But the standouts are the funky clothing stalls - young designers showcase their designs (many use traditional African fabrics). On Sundays, the nearby Rooftop Market provides a more local experience - it has more than 450 stalls, which sell everything from used books to gourmet cheeses and olives.

At the corner of Cradock Avenue and Baker Street, Rosebank; 9am-6pm daily. See craft.co.za.

Bryanston Organic Market

Jo'burg's least-touristy option, this pleasant place sells a huge variety of organic produce. You can also snap up CDs, excellent crafts, including handmade jewellery and ceramics, and quality homewares. Of all the markets, this is the best place for children's clothing and toys.

Culross Road, Bryanston; open from 9am-3pm on Thursdays and Saturdays. See bryanstonorganicmarket.co.za.

Durban markets

Victoria Street Market

Follow the tempting aromas of spices and incense to this mother of all markets.

As the hub of Durban's Indian community (Durban is home to the most people of Indian descent outside India), the massive bazaar is a fun subcontinental experience. Find silks and other Indian fabrics as well as brass ornaments (think hookah pipes), plus carvings, including soapstone works. This is also the place for CDs and ceramics. Head across the road to the fish and meat market (not for the faint-hearted) - if only to see the produce and the crowds.

At the corner of Queen and Victoria streets, 8am-5pm Monday-Friday, to 1pm Saturdays and 9am-noon on Sundays.

Muti Market

Connected by a walkway behind Victoria Market, the little-visited, bustling Muti Market is where traditional herbalists (inyangas) sell their lotions and potions.

Plant roots, seeds and all manner of unidentifiable ingredients are on display and concocted for clients. It's in one of Durban's grittier areas (although it has been cleaned up for the World Cup) and comes with a warning: go in a group or on a tour (see www.durbanexperience.co.za) and leave valuables behind; 8am-5pm Monday-Friday; to 1pm Saturdays.

Cape Town markets

Red Shed Craft Workshop

Handy for those staying on the popular Victoria & Albert Waterfront and housed in a large red shed, this neatly organised craft extravaganza is a more sanitised market experience.

It's a useful, quick one-stop shop for last-minute souvenirs, including anything with a craft bent, which can range from magnets to pressed-felt products.

V&A Waterfront, 9.30am-6pm.

Milnerton Flea Market

Collector mania and recycling are South African pastimes. This authentic flea market is the place for junk trawlers who are keen to unearth collectables and antiques (much of it from the '60s and '70s). If the location is a little off-putting - it's a half-hour drive from the centre and in a windswept parking area - the views of Table Mountain are worth the trip.

Racecourse Road, Milnerton; 7am-3pm at weekends.

Neighbourgoods Market

If the smart poodle-wielding shoppers are anything to go by, this is Cape Town's fashionable weekend haunt. It's a farmer's market minus the manure and it features gourmet everything - from fine-food purveyors and organic merchants to designer clothing.

In any case, it's a fun place to come and watch the moneyed Capetonians.

The Old Biscuit Mill, 373-375 Albert Road, Salt River; from 9am-2pm on Saturdays. See neighbourgoodsmarket.co.za.

Do's and don'ts

BARGAINING Unlike, say, Morocco or Turkey, South Africa doesn't have a strong bargaining culture. You can negotiate, within reason.

WHAT NOT TO BUY Avoid buying goods made of hair or animal products. Wood should be sealed with a varnish; look for borer holes. Check that purchases are not stuffed with grasses or plant matter. You will need to declare these at customs on your return to Australia.

WHERE TO BUY Consider supporting stallholders that promote the work of artists from local communities, such as rural women's groups or HIV/AIDS programs. Go for sustainable crafts made of recycled materials such as aluminium cans and wire.

Loving dolls, wire acts and basket cases

If you are a purist tourist, be aware that not all market items are made in South Africa; many things are from other parts of Africa (which isn't to say they're not beautiful). Distinctly South African objects include:

Telephone-wire merchandise — stunning plates and bowls made of brightly coloured telephone wire. (These are different to beaded wirework in animal shapes and keyrings. Although exquisite, these are mainly Zimbabwean.)

Zulu grass baskets — the traditional baskets of the Zulu people. These are great for the home but must be declared at customs.

Ndebele dolls — beautiful, traditional upright doll-like figures used in courtship rituals and ceremonies.

Mielie bags — fun, bright handbags woven from recycled cotton strips of miele (corn) storage bags.

Embroidery — there are stunning and colourful wall hangings and cushion covers that often depict amusing and poignant scenes.

Zulu beadwork — bright beaded necklaces are an important part of traditional dress.

Music — CDs of South African bands will keep you in the African rhythm and mood. As to what to buy? Simple: ask the locals.

Funky stuff — whether cutting-edge clothing made by young designers or modern household goods, when it comes to interior design South Africa is a world leader. Look out for lampshades, cushion covers and mats.

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