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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
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 ambiance 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. Quite apart from browsing the stalls for Christmas goodies, there are twice-daily visits from St Nick and occasional sorties of the pagan-looking Krampus, a shaggy figure that seeks out the naughty. Kids can bake cookies, dress as angels and make handicrafts in the town hall. 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 $10 (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
THE GRAND BAZAAR, ISTANBUL, TURKEY
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.
NEED TO KNOW You'd better have your exit strategy worked out before you enter this sprawling alternate universe, which has been crammed with exotic 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. Goods are loosely organised into specific streets. Spices are in one network of pathways, carpets in another, brassware another. Leather, gold jewellery and fashion also have their own precincts. Shopkeepers and touts are up for chit-chat as you pass by, often with a twinkle in their eye. Haggling is expected, enjoyed 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. Be gob smacked at the prices – pay $20 Aussie for a stylish top-quality towel that goes for upwards of $85 in Sydney boutiques. Gorgeous hand-painted ceramics, in a dazzling array of vibrant colours make great gifts.
STRATEGIES Never pay the first price you are offered, says Yesim Guris, Istanbul local and Trafalgar travel director. 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 Dürüm, is recommended by Yekat Gokyildirum, Sydney TransTurk travel agent, recommends as one of the best places to refuel inside the Grand Bazaar.
AKIHABARA, TOKYO, JAPAN
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, the likes of which you probably haven't seen since Ferris Bueller's Day Off topped the Box Office. It's worth visiting Akihabara for the people watching alone.
BEST BUYS Honestly, 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 irredescent 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 where each floor could probably house an A380.
PIT-STOP Hitachino Brewing Lab is a newly-opened bar is exclusively 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 via the "Akihabara Electric Town" sign. Stay at the Sheraton Miyako Hotel. See sheraton.com; akihabara.jp/en
THE SOUKS, MARRAKECH, MOROCCO
WHY HERE It's colour, madness, riot 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 – movement, noise, smells and bedazzlement – with fascination at every inch of the way. While the souks are all about commerce, it's best to visit once just to wander around and see what's on offer, serious shopping can wait for a second visit. Among the highlights are Souk des Teinturiers, where silk and wool are dyed and hung out to dry. If you can, get onto a rooftop here for a bird's-eye view of the huge pots where the dyers work, with fabrics in indigo, lime and crimson flapping as they dry on the rooftops. For a musical interlude, Souk Kimakhine is where traditional Moroccan and Gnaoua instruments are sold. Bring your camera - the photos are incredible.
BEST BUYS Curly-toed 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
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, pirate videos, 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. You'll find stalls piled with cheap clothing but 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 Bargaining is common, and beware of pickpockets who find El Rastro a happy hunting ground. 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
Between Plaza Mayor, La Latina and Puerta de Toledo. 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.com; esmadrid.com
COLUMBIA ROAD SHOPS & FLOWER MARKET, LONDON
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 Saved from demolition by passionate residents in the 1970s, the Victorian-era Columbia Road Flower 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; small children ride dads' shoulders above the throng; glammed up 20-somethings straight from the nightclub line up for legendary bagels; dapper gents in trench coats walk Italian greyhounds and spaniels; bare-chested, gold-chain-festooned stall holders rapid-wrap huge bunches of blooms; barrow boys yell discount prices as buskers ply their musical trade; the smell of breakfast fry-ups and sweet pastries and a heady blend of floral fragrance infuses the scene. Many of the more than 60 gorgeous shops, cafes and boutiques housed in the original Victorian rows are open on the other six non-market days of the week.
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 lovely paintings by Cornish artists and photographic and design collectibles at Two Columbia Road. Pick up vintage jewelry at Glitterati and great new 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 when the flower displays are most plentiful, then settle for breakfast before getting into your shopping. Keep your bag in front of you and closed.
PIT-STOP Columbia Cafe Bagels, at 138 Columbia Road, are makers of the finest, proper boiled bagels for three decades. For a more leisurely sit-down breakfast, try Jones Dairy on nearby Ezra Street.
ESSENTIALS The nearest Tube Station is Old Street, on the Northern Line. Stay at Hotel ibis London City on Whitechapel Road, is a 20 minute walk away. See ibis.com; columbiaroad.info; jonesdairy.co.uk
FRENCH CONCESSION AREA, SHANGHAI, CHINA
WHY HERE Tree-lined avenues, outdoor cafes, wine bars and great shops.
NEED TO KNOW Still frequently referred to as The Paris of the East, the French Concession area was established for the French government to preside over between 1849 and 1946. Consequently, there's still a distinctly European air to this eight kilometre-wide strip, with alfresco cafes, swish boutique stores and diminutive art galleries sandwiched between antique shops, cosy wine bars and microbreweries. Xintiandi and Tianzifang are among the more mainstream areas while Huaihai Lu is a favourite shopping hub. Often though, it's the lesser-known alleys and side streets that offer some of the best experiences. Among the best include Fuxing Lu, with its cool art stores and pop-up galleries and Ferguson Lane in Wukang Lu for trendy tapas bars and outdoor dining options. And if you can find it, definitely check out the Shanghai Propoganda Art Centre, off Huashan Lu, showcasing more than 5000 posters.
BEST BUYS Pick up an unspeakably cool pair of retro Chinese sneakers at Culture Matters, 15 Donping Lu Xuhui District. Open 1pm-9pm daily. See cmfeiyue.taobao.com
STRATEGIES Explore some of the less crowded areas between Julu Road and Maoming Road. Don't be in too much of a rush, with so many great little bars and cafes, it's easy to make a full day of it.
PIT-STOP Drop in at Senator Saloon, a nostalgic cocktail bar specialising in all things whisky. See senatorsaloon.com
GANESH HANDICRAFT EMPORIUM, UDAIPUR, INDIA
WHY HERE A restored 350-year-old haveli in the centre of India's most romantic city, housing 16 cavernous galleries crammed with Rajasthani treasures.
NEED TO KNOW The family-owned Ganesh Emporium experience begins with finding the place. You'll be browsing the small shops lining City Palace Road (Udaipur's main drag which leads to the magnificent granite and marble City Palace) when you'll stop at a particularly lovely hole-in-the-wall. You'll be fingering an embroidered cushion cover when the shopkeeper whispers in your ear, "want to see more?" You'll be wary. But you will shush your inner skeptic, just this once, and follow the man down a narrow alleyway. After crossing a courtyard lined with intricately carved Gujurati doors and marble and wooden statues, you'll enter a four storey Aladdin's cave filled with rare, one-of-a-kind pieces sourced from around the globe. You'll be offered a cup of sweet chai and you should accept. You'll be traipsing these cool marble floors for a good few hours.
BEST BUYS Fabulous woven camel dressings detailed with beads, tassels and mirrors which can be used as a wall-hanging back home, for about $100. Chunky silver anklets, dangly earrings and necklaces made from old rupees, priced from about $20. Beautiful handmade bedspreads and antique rugs from about $30 up into the thousands.
SHOPPING STRATEGY Arrive with a clear idea of what you're after or risk complete bamboozlement. Prices can be negotiated; the more you buy the bigger the discount you can swing. Open 8am to 8pm.
PIT-STOP Ambrai restauranta, serving a taste of real Rajasthani cuisine, is right on the edge of Lake Pichola with views of the City Palace. See amethaveliudaipur.com
ESSENTIALS Splurge on the Lake Palace, the floating hotel from the James Bond film Octopussy that was once a summer palace for kings. For incredible value for money, try Madri Haveli is a renovated 300-year-old haveli. See ganeshemporium.com; tajhotels.com; madrihaveli.com
DESIGN DISTRICT, HELSINKI
WHY HERE Small shops showcasing Nordic design at its best.
NEED TO KNOW Centred in Helsinki's compact downtown, the Design District is less an actual neighbourhood than a network of creative shopfronts. More than 200 outlets are involved, 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. Many of these small shops double as studios, and the designers are more than happy to chat with about their work with anyone who stops in.
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. Under $60: Luma leather coin purse, Lapuan Kankurit wool-covered hot water bottle.
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. If you are in the market for something custom-made, make a hit list of places to tackle on the first day, so you can choose the designer who best matches your style.
PIT-STOP As the name suggests, Sis.Deli is run by sisters Anu and Kaisa, who serve up 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 the heart of the Design District, Bulevardi 2, klausk.com. designdistrict.fi, visithelsinki.fi/en
FIVE MORE MARKETS WORTH A VISIT
GOLD SOUK, DUBAI
Sail away from the city skyscrapers across the creek on a traditional agra to the grittier Deira district where an Aladdin's cave of glittering adornments awaits. The city's most famous souk is known for cheap gold, but you won't get a good price without working hard for it. See dubaigoldsouk.com
ARPORA SATURDAY NIGHT MARKET, GOA, INDIA
Part-party, part-market, Goa's Saturday night market is lit by fairy lights, smattered with bars and food stalls, and accompanied by DJs and live music. Once you've combed row upon row of stalls selling everything from tie-dyed silk dresses and antique Buddhist mandalas, to embroidered bed spreads and tea and spices, you can party the night away on one of several dance floors. See nmgoa.com.
FEIRA DA LADRA, LISBON
In Lisbon's Old World quarter, this market supposedly had its origins when female thieves pedalled their ill-gotten goods here. The market is just as flavoursome today – a riot of wrought iron, second-hand clothes, furniture, fabrics, candelabras and some genuine antiques. Tuesday and Saturday only. See visitportugal.com/en/
L'ISLE-SUR-LA-SORGUE, PROVENCE, FRANCE
Every Sunday this gorgeous riverside town hosts the biggest flea market in France outside Paris. Just the place if you're looking to add that French country look to your kitchen, garden, dining room or bedroom.
STANLEY MARKETS, HONG KONG
Your bargains here won't come with the kind of enjoyable chit-chat found in other world markets since shopping at Stanley is a strict, perhaps even humourless, exchange between buyers and sellers. Bulges with knock-off watches designer handbags and dodgy electronics. See discoverhongkong.com
FIVE MORE SHOPPING STREETS WORTH A VISIT
JERMYN STREET, LONDON
Most famous for men's shirts, some retailers here have been making London's gentlemen look good for more than 100 years, selling to the likes of Prince Charles and Winston Churchill. You'll find shoes, suits and these days, some women's wear. See jermynstreet.net
CUBA STREET, WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND
Named after an early settler ship of the same name, Cuba Street in Wellington's CBD still retains a bohemian feel where vintage wares, freshly brewed coffee and unique restaurants make for a pleasant day out. See wellingtonnz.com
HAJI LANE, SINGAPORE
Even Singapore's got hipsters – and you'll likely find them on the city's coolest shopping street, Haji Lane. Located in Singapore's Arab Quarter, Haji Lane is Singapore's narrowest street, a once-forgotten place of pre-war shop-houses that's now home to Singapore's best and quirkiest independent fashion boutiques.
NGUYEN TRAI STREET, SAIGON, VIETNAM
Extending from downtown District 1 to District 5, Nguyen Trai is where the locals go; it's hectic but contains a decent selection of clothing, footwear and accessories stores.
KING'S ROAD, LONDON
While Chelsea's hippie days are long past, you'll still find the fabulous Chelsea Antiques Market on King's Road for browsing all things boho. Though featuring a critical mass of high street brands these days, other historic remnants remain, such as Vivien Westwood in the space from which punk was born. See visitbritain.com
The jumble of shops in Linienstrasse and its neighbouring streets exudes the effortless cool that typifies East Berlin. Shops dedicated to spectacles and knitting, a beauty emporium/barbershop and hip vintage stores are interspersed with galleries, cafes and restaurants.