Think outside the box
It might be the mega malls that make all the headlines, but the UAE is also home to an alternative shopping scene for those in search of a different retail experience.
Think of the things that the UAE is famous for, and chances are that shopping will appear pretty high up on that list. The region is world-renowned for its retail scene. The Dubai Mall, which this year celebrates its 10th anniversary, boasts around 1,200 stores (not to mention an ice rink and a record-breaking aquarium), while Yas Mall is a 40 million square foot development that’s home to the region’s biggest entertainment zone with a direct route to Ferrari World Abu Dhabi.
However, shoppers who don’t venture beyond these super malls are missing out. Recent years have seen the launch of trendy alternative shopping areas throughout the cities, where cool, independent brands live alongside high-end labels, and a host of dining and entertainment options make for a fully fledged lifestyle destination that’s more than just a place to browse. Elsewhere, the UAE’s traditional markets in Dubai and Abu Dhabi remain worthy shopping destinations in their own right, and a wander through these bustling souks can unearth unexpected treasure in the form of memorable keepsakes. Many shoppers are also looking beyond traditional stores when it comes to their everyday grocery shopping, leading to a thriving farmer’s market scene, where happy shoppers can spend their weekends picking up their favourite produce straight from the source. Here are a few of our favourite alternative shopping spots around the UAE.
Strolling the souks
The traditional markets or souks of the UAE have always formed an integral part of the region’s history, and they continue to be a popular shopping destination. Back in the day, they were a place to haggle for spices, fabrics and even carpets, whereas nowadays these traditional market stalls exist alongside more modern outlets offering contemporary wares and kitsch keepsakes. Abu Dhabi’s Central Souk Market makes for an enjoyable browse, with plenty of modern amenities on offer although it is inspired by the souks of a bygone era, while the capital’s Iranian Souk is known as the go-to venue for carpet shopping. Meanwhile in Dubai, the Textiles Souk, Perfume Souk and Spice Souk offer a cultural experience – one that couldn’t be further from the typical mall trawl.
It’s been almost three years since BoxPark changed the landscape of the UAE’s shopping scene forever. While Dubai was accustomed to mega malls that operated on a ‘bigger is always better’ ethos, the hip Al Wasl Road shopping complex offered something different. Boasting distinctive stores housed in colourful shipping containers, it has an edgy, urban energy. Chic fashion boutiques share ground space with luxury watch stores and quirky boutiques. Australian stationery and homeware shop Typo is a popular haunt, as is The Urbanist, a fashionista’s dream that stocks high-end labels such as Missoni, Marni and Anya Hindmarch all under one roof. There are multiple cafes to choose from to fuel your shopping trip, mostly casual spots for grabbing a quick bite: Toronto-born Big Smoke Burger provides tasty, high quality fast food. After a stroll around BoxPark, grab a table outside Grom, home of delicious Italian gelato, and feast on scoops of the sweet treat while enjoying the sights and sounds of Al Wasl Road.
It’s difficult to summarise City Walk as the shopping destination is so much more than simply a place for a spot of retail therapy. Since the second phase of the development opened in 2016, it’s become one of Dubai’s most popular weekend spots, with a host of family-friendly entertainment alongside the shops, including the groundbreaking indoor rainforest Green Planet; ultimate gaming destination Hub Zero; and even a Roxy Cinema, to name a few. The store selection is a mix of instantly recognisable international brands. For beauty lovers, City Walk boasts a huge Sephora as well as the largest Lush store in the Middle East. On weekends, the green outdoor spaces often play host to live cultural entertainment, and while the weather is cool, many of the restaurants and cafés offer outdoor seating so you can enjoy a relaxing al fresco meal while you watch the world go by.
The Beach JBR
A veritable tourist hotspot, the Beach JBR provides the labels shoppers love with stunning ocean views that Dubai is known for. Visitors can stroll along the promenade, which is peppered with a mix of high-street shops and boutiques, interspersed with chic cafés and restaurants. Offering an alternative to the colossal retail outlets of Dubai’s malls, The Beach is chilled-out, beachfront shopping at its best. Much like Dubai’s more traditional shopping centres, entertainment is also offered, with a cinema, play areas, green spaces and outdoor cinema all set against a canvas of sea, sand and palm trees. It’s also the perfect spot to claim a patch of sand for sunbathing and looking out across the water at Ain Dubai, the world’s biggest observation wheel, which is taking shape on Bluewaters Island, one of the latest lifestyle destinations to develop in Dubai.
The market scene
Given its desert location, Dubai’s abundance of produce markets is nothing less than impressive. During the cooler months, outdoor areas such as Al Barsha Park and Zabeel Park in Dubai, and Umm Al Emarat Park in Abu Dhabi, come alive with activity on the weekend, as shoppers browse an array of fruits and vegetables, alongside trendy foodtrucks and market stalls from local artisans selling their wares. Business Bay’s Farmers Market on the Terrace is also hugely popular, thanks to its locally grown, organic produce that allow buyers to eat seasonally.