A souk has stood on the site of the Abu Dhabi Central Market, close to the Corniche, ever since the city was first developed in the 1970s, making it one of the oldest locations in the young and vibrant Emirati capital. For over 30 years it was the main centre for trade and commerce, but it burnt down in 2003 and was gradually replaced by a number of soulless modern shopping malls elsewhere in the city.
The new market was intended to be an entirely different experience from the modern malls with their modern shops and international brands. The lavish new construction was built with no expense spared, using a mixture of classical and modern Arabic design, combining the atmosphere of a traditional Arabic souk with modern boutique-style shopping. The rebuilt Central Market opened in 2011, and will eventually be surrounded by new residential and office developments.
Architecture of the Abu Dhabi Central Market
Unlike more conventional single story souks, the Central Market is built on three floors. However, many traditional features of the souk have been retained, the design incorporating alleyways with small shops on either side. Classical Arabic design is in evidence everywhere, with geometric patterns of stars and rectangles, and intrictate wooden latticework. At the same time, the architects have given the market a contemporary feel, with wide open spaces and huge panels of stained glass that cast coloured light throughout the building.
The market was planned to take environmental factors into account, making extensive use of natural light and ventilation. This, together with the insulating glass and air conditioning, makes the building a pleasant respite from the heat of the city outside.
The souk is topped by a roof garden with trees and cafés. This is shaded by the tall buildings all around, and makes an ideal place for a cool and relaxing drink or snack. From here you can also get a birdseye view of the quirky sculptures in the nearby Culture Square.
Shopping in the Abu Dhabi Souk
As soon as you enter the market, you notice the faint smell of incense that you would associate with any Middle Eastern souk. Many visitors are content just to wander around, soaking up the atmosphere, admiring the architecture, and strolling around the roof garden. However, the market aims to bring together the best of regional and local products and artefacts, and it is a good place to explore if you are looking for souvenirs to take home.
The items on offer include luxury goods like jewellery, antiques or perfume, as well as everyday electronic and household items and bespoke tailoring. Even if you are not buying, make sure you look at the visual displays of shops selling gold, textiles and richly patterned carpets. Look out, too, for stalls selling spices and locally grown dates.
The market is home to a number of restaurants and cafés. You can mingle with local businessmen while enjoying Arabic, Western or Indian cuisine. Or you might choose to enjoy a shisha pipe in the traditional tent in the rooftop garden.