CULTURE & HERITAGE

Best places to shop for arts and crafts in Saudi

Discover ancient crafts and traditions that have shaped the lives of Saudi people, and how you can take a piece of their culture back home.

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Arts and crafts in Saudi is a tale as old as time, grown from ancient cultures and practical needs. Today it’s a melting pot of useful and decorative items, that today proudly illustrate Saudi life as it is, and was.

To find the most authentic handicrafts, why not join local specialists and designers at some of the popular markets or souqs across the country? We’ve rounded up some of the best places to find souvenirs and hand-crafted bargains. Whether you are looking for striking Bedouin-inspired jewellery, a traditional Abaya, or some famous local honey Saudi markets can deliver. Find where the locals shop and gather together, soak up the atmosphere, sample some Arabic sweet treats or coffee, and enjoy a traditional shopping experience. This is time spent away from the western shopping malls, its grassroots Saudi shopping, among the people that represent inspiring cultural traditions that they are ready to share.  And while alcohol is illegal throughout the country, that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of spiced, aromatic and sweet non-alcoholic drinks to be enjoyed, many crafted from the fresh produce found in Saudi itself. Here are the seven best drinks to sample during a trip to Saudi...  

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Taiba Market, Riyadh

If you’re looking for an alternative to the mega malls in the Saudi capital Riyadh, then Taiba market is well worth a visit. Nicknamed the ‘ladies souq’ by locals, it’s the ideal place to shop for intricate jewellery, make-up including henna, and traditional abayas in all kinds of designs and colours. Be prepared to haggle for handcrafted necklaces featuring beading, geometric shapes, and Bedouin-inspired designs.

You may find affordable toys and souvenirs for children, perfumes and spices, and some sweet treats to enjoy back at your hotel. The vast corridors of shops sit in and around traditional Arab architecture, and offer international as well as local brands, with a good choice of authentic Saudi goods. Taiba Market caters for all shopping needs. Located in the King Fahd District and close to numerous hotels, this market is in an ideal location for a pitstop during your trip to the Saudi capital.

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Souq al Bawadi, Jeddah

A long-time destination for pilgrims and now more widely visited by non-religious tourists, Jeddah is a popular place for those who love to shop in traditional Arab markets. Among the home supplies and family-orientated stores, you will find sellers with displays of handcrafted items and jewellery. Engraved woodcarvings are often bought as gifts for pilgrims, while the jewellery is a mix of gold and silver beadwork and pendants. Like many souqs, you’ll find a good choice of stockists of Arab clothing, including thobes. These kaftan-style robes are worn over clothing by men and women, and range from classic and plain to more embellished striking designs.

To shop for these beautiful souvenirs in comfort visits are best taken between October and April, when the weather will be cooler but in truth, with it being a modern, indoor market, it can be visited at any time of year. When you have wandered among the stalls and shops, why not soak up the atmosphere in the characterful old town?  For traditional arts and crafts then head to the old town of Al Balad where there are a growing number of artisans opening workshops and selling their art.

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Al-Balad Market, Taif

A favourite summer destination for Saudis and tourists alike thanks to its milder climate, Taif is known as the ‘City of Roses’. If you can tear yourself away from the beautiful views, for an authentic shopping experience then Al-Balad Market could be your first port of call. Traditional Arabian architecture across many winding streets hints at the cultural heritage within the region, and the traders add to the authentic atmosphere. Open across the week, you’ll have plenty of time to hunt out some local souvenirs and handcrafted goods. You’ll find sections dedicated to pottery, woven baskets, traditional clothing, and sparkling gold and silver jewellery.

During rose season don’t miss the chance to take home the scent of Taif roses, preserved in perfumes and rose oils. Rose products are available in numerous shops all year round. There is even a whole area dedicated to honey as some of the best in the kingdom is produced in the area. When you’re ready for refreshments stop off at a café for dates and Saudi coffee or buy a sweet treat such as kunafa or basbousa. 

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Souq Al Thulatha, Asir

Take a trip to the Asiri capital Abha for a cultural shopping experience at the city’s ‘Tuesday Market’ (although its name is a bit of a misnomer, as the market is actually open every day) Named after the day when it first started years ago, this is an ideal spot to pick up an Al-Qatt Al-Asiri painting, or perhaps have a souvenir engraved with this historic art form. Recognised by UNESCO for its cultural significance, this ancient art form has provided geometric colour to many a home, and could now decorate yours. This market is also where you’ll find a variety of herbs and spices, along with jewellery, local clothing, woven straw baskets and bags, and famous Asir honey. Originally used for its medicinal properties, this sweet treat is said to be in demand throughout the region.

It may take a while to wander through the ‘western’ style vendors in search of authentic souvenirs, Arab clothing, or beaded and pendant-style jewellery, but the rewards will be well worth the time. The market is in the shape of an oval and is easy to get around.

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Love Market, Dammam

Founded in the 1940s, the ‘Love Market’ is an established favourite with locals and visitors alike. It’s expanded over the years from a local merchant trading ground to a vast array of shops and sellers, including a dedicated women’s market area. Open daily from 9am to 11pm, you’ll find many displays of gold jewellery, Arab clothing, and handmade souvenirs. Pick up some locally painted artwork or ceramics, and look out for regional patterns and paintings. 

The holy month of Ramadan is an extra special time to visit. The streets come alive with music as communities gather to sell their wares, sample local food and be together to celebrate their culture. Whenever you visit there are plenty of shops to browse, bargains to secure, and local delicacies to try. We hear luqaimat (Arabic sweet dumplings) are great washed down with Karak Chai tea. 

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Wednesday Market, Al Ahsa

Established in 1900 in the city of Mubarraz, this one-day-a-week ancient market is a hive of activity with sellers offering crafts and textiles for sale. As a palm oasis and UNESCO creative city, you can expect stalls full of palm weaving, woodwork, and pottery, so look out for traditional pots and vases, baskets, and home décor items in the newly renovated market. If you’re building up an appetite along with your steps wandering this market, there are food trucks, fresh fruit and vegetable stalls, and other food stalls to fulfil your needs. Saudi coffee served with dates is a popular option, with the regional Khalasah date variety a favourite among locals. The market is also the site of many events and seasonal festivals throughout the year. This is a market that brings the community and visitors together, through its authentic market stalls, food and drink options, and thanks to its lush and fertile location, green spaces to rest and play. 

Practical Information

Visas

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It’s surprisingly simple and easy to get an e-Visa for Saudi and the process is very similar to applying for an ESTA for the USA. Over 50 nationalities are eligible to apply for an e-Visa, including people from the UK and USA, with it costing (at the time of writing) 535 Saudi riyals (about £115 or US$143). Applications are swift and nearly all applicants will receive a response within three working days – most within 24 hours. To apply for your Saudi e-Visa, visit the official Saudi Tourism Authority website. If you're from the USA, UK or the Schengen Area, you can also apply for a visa on arrival into Saudi. It's slightly cheaper than an e-Visa, too, at SAR480 (about £102 or US$128).

Getting there & around

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With plenty of direct flight links from the UK to Saudi, it’s really easy to get to the country. Saudi’s national airline SAUDIA flies to Riyadh three times daily from London Heathrow, while British Airways also offers a regular service from Heathrow with daily flights to the capital. SAUDIA also operates twice daily flights to Jeddah from London Heathrow and daily flights from London Gatwick. If you're travelling from the US, SAUDIA offers direct flights to Riyadh from both New York City and Washington, D.C., as well as direct flights to Jeddah from New York City, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles.

Local customs

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To really embrace Saudi life and pay respect towards its traditions, there are a few local customs you should abide when travelling around the country. Both men and women should wear clothing that covers their elbows and below their knees when out in public. If you’re heading to the coast, it’s still expected you dress modestly. For more information on what to wear when in Saudi, see our full guide here. When meeting and greeting locals, whether it’s a market stallholder or a private guide, say hello with ‘salam alaykum’, which means ‘peace be upon you’, as well as offering a handshake.

Weather

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You might think it’s hot all year round in Saudi but it’s a little more nuanced than that. The best time to visit Riyadh is between October and March, when temperatures can dip as low as 20°C during the daytime and rarely exceed 30°C. Summer months in Riyadh can get extremely hot, with temperatures often above 40°C between June and September. For our full When to go guide for Saudi Arabia, click here.

FAQ

Is English spoken in Saudi?

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Arabic is the official national language but English is widely spoken.

What’s the currency of Saudi?

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The currency of Saudi is the riyal, with the current rate (at the time of writing), around SAR4.76 to the UK£. You’ll need to pre-order money before you travel, as in the UK it’s not usually stocked in currency exchange booths.

What’s it like travelling in Saudi as a female?

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We think you’d be surprised! To find out more, read our first-hand account on what it’s like to travel in Saudi.

What’s the time difference in Saudi?

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Saudi follows Arabia Standard Time (GMT +3) all year round.

Want to see more of Saudi?

We've given you a taster of what Saudi is really like, now it's time for you discover the country in greater detail and plan your own Arabian adventure there...