Dubai shopping guide

2012-07-11 16:17

It's a simple truth, if not a bit of a mantra: in Dubai you do buy.

And coming from someone whose favourite Saturday mornings are spent as far away from packed shopping mall passageways as possible, this is saying a lot.

It's not so much that it's dirt cheap, like say, Thailand or glamorous like Paris or New York. I guess more than anything, it's just that shopping in Dubai is so dang convenient, and dare I say it, a little exciting too.

Exciting? Yes, I have to admit there is a certain thrill that comes with leaving a souk (one of the local markets) laden with pashmina-, table cloth-, shoe- and spice-stuffed-bags, knowing that you bargained like a legend to get the price you want... or something close to it. The same can be said for sashaying out of a shopping mall sale feeling like Carrie Bradshaw with four gorgeous new winter garments that cost you all of R180. Oh, and a pair of sunglasses and some dates (the edible kind) on the side.

As for the convenience bit: with a wide array of souks, selling everything from spices to gold to fabric to fish and manifold malls, Dubai is a bastion of retail diversity. While I was on a wild goose chase for things authentically Middle Eastern/Arabian (quite a challenge, I must say), other members of my group were swooning over the wide array of ‘genuine fake' designer goods, and somehow we all managed to return with plenty of what it was we wanted.

Furthermore, the fact that the Dirham (AED), their currency, is exactly double the value of our Rand also makes it incredibly easy to work out whether you're paying a decent price for something or being ripped off.

Basically, the secret to any successful shopping spree is knowing exactly what you want, and the thing with shopping in Dubai is that you have to know where to go to get just that.

So, if you're heading there and thinking of working a bit of retail therapy into the trip, here's a useful guide of where to go and what to expect.

Bargain hunting babe

If it's bargains you're after, you're going to have to be prepared to do a lot of walking, fend off hoards of over eager hawkers and display some mean haggling skills. But, then again, that's probably exactly what you get your shopping kicks from.

For the best bargains around, I suggest the following markets and malls:

Photo: Shutterstock

Al Karama: While it's really nothing for the eye, the bustling backstreet shopping center of Karama is the best place to pick up a killer bargain. That is if you're looking for convincing knock-off designer watches, handbags, clothes, luggage and sunglasses.

And if you manage to dodge the ever-harassing hawkers to investigate the more pokey little shops, you will find a wealth of quaint souvenirs, exotic garments like harem pants, pashminas and kaftans, as well as gorgeous home accessories such as table cloths, pillow cases, vases and stained glass lights.

My best buys: A floaty blue kaftan for AED25 (R50) and a pair of quality harem pants for AED35 (R70). I also bought a box of tissues at the nearby café-esque supermarket for AED3.50 (R7) just because I loved the Arabian design so much.

Photo: Shutterstock

Gold souk: Located in Bur Dubai aka the City of Merchants aka the old part of town, the gold souk is a wonder world of jewelery, fabrics and Ali Baba shoes. It's similar to Karama in the expected element of ever present vendors pushing their products, but also quite different in the visible old school beauty and charm. And seeing we're on the topic of vendors, I have a confession to make... I secretly enjoyed the entertaining interaction with them.

Most were super excited to find out I was from South Africa and immediately responded with phrases like "O, baie mooi!" or "Ah, the Proteas! They're the best." (I assume the cricket team, not the fynbos flower). In fact, one even sang an excerpt of our national anthem! Yup, South Africans seem to be a pretty familiar sight over there!

Furthermore, if you happen to be their first customer for the day, you're pretty much guaranteed to get your price slashed quite significantly!

My best buys: Four substantial hand-made fabrics from India (now used as table cloths and couch throws) for AED75 (R150), two pairs of beautiful shoes for AED40 (R80) each and

Spices souk: Want to get that real Aladdin city vibe? Head to the spice market, a few blocks away from the gold souk. Here you will find the classic scene of multi-coloured spices put on display in large hessian bags, and tiny little shops filled from floor to ceiling with coffees, teas, camel-milk chocolate and all kinds of interesting powders and herbs.

My best buys: I didn't really go all out here, but got a jar of colourful camel-milk chocolates for AED10 and a pot of cardamom coffee for about the same. This was also one of our first stops, so in retrospect I could probably have bargained down a little bit more.

Mall madam

Dingy markets aren't really your thing, are they now? Well, that's okay too, because proper shopping malls are a dime a dozen in Dubai... and once again if you go to the right one, you'll be blown away by how affordable things actually are.

Deira Mall: Like any other regular mall, Deira has the usual selection of stores: clothes, shoes, electronics, books, stationary, curios and supermarket. According to Shirley, our guide, this is a great place to pick up good deals on electronic equipment, cameras, phones and the likes. Although I wasn't really interested in buying anything of the sort, I popped into a shop or two to price a few items and found them pretty much on par, if not markedly cheaper than our local prices.

Because we were in Dubai on the brink of their summer season, the clothes stores had huge discounts on winter gear, while summer items such as swimwear and sundresses were once again priced quite similarly to our own stores.

Best buys: A gift pack of almond-stuffed dates for AED18 (R36), sunglasses for AED15 (R30) and a handbag for AED35 (R70). P.S. If you're looking for quality souvenirs, head to a shop named Al Jaber gallery.

Dubai Festival City Mall: Located conveniently close to the airport this is a good spot to stop if you have some time to kill before your flight and want to stock up on a gift or two. While it's somewhat smaller than Deira, it has a very similar selection of shops, if somewhat more fashion slanted. And here may be the deal breaker for some... they are also home to a warehouse sized Ikea store!!!

Best buys: Thanks to a Forever21 winter sale I brought home three pretty jerseys and a long-sleeved top for AED90 (R180), setting me just slightly ahead of the rest of the southern hemisphere fashion crowd. Sadly, time caught up with me and I couldn't head to Ikea... in retrospect, probably a good thing!

Blow the budget diva

Right, so you have cash to burn or maybe you're just burning to max your credit card out on a glamorous shopping trip... this is where you should go.

Souk Madinat: Nestled into the magnificent waterways and five-star hotels of the Jumeira Madinat resort, this lush indoor market is aims to recreate the old-fashioned charm found at the gold and spices souks, yet at quite a steep price. Among the usual mix of pashminas, throws and jewelry, you will also find a few more exclusive items such as heavy wooden furniture, neatly carved figurines and plenty of silk and Kashmir fabrics.

Best buys: I didn't buy anything here, but deeply coveted an Arabian coffee set - complete with pot and 6 little cups - priced at AED300. We visited this on our first day in Dubai, so I'm pretty grateful I didn't give in to the urge, else the rest of my trip may have been a little financially dismal.

Dubai Mall: First thing you should know - the mall. Is. Massive. It is, in fact, the world's largest shopping mall based on its total area of 12.1 million sq ft and houses 1200 stores. In other words, it is very possible to get lost in there. My suggestion: get a map of the mall at the information centre and for no reason lose sight of your group!


Despite the fact that it's home to a whole lot of exclusive fashion stores, you can also expect to cough up slightly more than you would at Deira or Festival City, as the mall is located slap-bang in the middle of Downtown Dubai, the richest 2 square km in the world. It's close neighbours are the Burj Khalifa and the famous dancing fountain.

Apart from exclusive stores, the mall also boasts an aquarium, an ice rink, the largest cinema in the Middle East and the ultimate kiddies experience, Kidzania.

Mall of the Emirates: Standing back only slightly in size to Dubai Mall, this shopping centre is also on the more glamorous end of the scale. It has a very similar vibe and mix of stores to Dubai Mall, and is also home to the incredible Ski Dubai, a real life ski resort with slopes, tobogganing, penguins and ski lifts.


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