how to shop the world’s best markets like a pro

The world’s major craft markets, heady mixes of hawkers and shoppers and objects galore, can feel almost alive: energetic, pulsating, the heart of their city.

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There’s perhaps no better way to get to know a place than by logging time in its markets, swapping stories with the vendors, and running your hands over items filled with heritage and history.And few people know markets as intimately as India-born, San Francisco-based Rena Thiagarajan. Three years ago, the former corporate lawyer founded Project Bly, an immersive online shop that lets you explore and buy from the streets of cities around the world. Fun fact: The company was named for 19th-century American journalist and adventurer Nellie Bly who, in 72 days, completed the entire fictional journey Jules Verne laid out in Around the World in 80 Days.“The idea for Bly came from my passion for travel as well as my love for vintage and handcrafted products,” says Thiagarajan whose mother, coincidentally, is the director of a craft museum. “I usually bypass museums and monuments to explore cities on foot. I love everything from roadside food stalls to street artists, but I especially love city markets.”
Below she shares her six favorite craft markets, from Bolivia to Uzbekistan, along with the incredible finds you can unearth in each.

Marrakech, Morocco

Why here: “The souks of Marrakech are roughly divided by what they sell, so even though it’s one big labyrinth of streets, it’s organized by product. My first stop is always the Souk de Tapis for rugs. It opens onto a smaller covered square where early-morning carpet auctions take place. Take your time here as there’s a lot to choose from. My advice is to spend some time with the vendor—there are at least 30—have a cup of tea, develop a relationship, learn about the rugs and their origins and history, and then purchase.”

What to buy: “The best rugs from several Atlas Mountain tribesincluding the Azilal, Beni Ourain, Tifelt, and Zimouri.”

Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Why here: “I love cities that have long histories of trade. Bukhara was a stop on the legendary Silk Road, where traveling caravans would bring their tea, indigo, spices, and silk from China on their way to Europe and North Africa. Today, vendors still set up shop within the city’s ‘trading domes,’ which were built in the 16th century to cover the main cross roads and used to house money exchanges for the caravans passing through. Vendors are there selling everyday.”

What to buy: “Vintage textiles and carpetsjewelry, and miniature paintings like these by 24-year-old Ulmasa who started painting when he was 10.”

Kumasi, Ghana

Why here: “Dating back to the 1500s, sprawling Kejetia market is one of the oldest covered markets in West Africa. And while it can be intimidating for even the most seasoned traveler, it’s so worth exploring. There are sections for everything from dried fish to baskets, but my favorite holds narrow aisles of textiles. The market is open seven days a week, and so huge that to find the textiles, you’ll just have to wander, asking directions along the way.”

What to buy: “There’s an amazing variety of wax-printed batik and kente cloth. There’s also an entire aisle of tailors that will sew your pretty patterns into stylish outfits.”

La Paz, Bolivia

Why here: “Like most of La Paz’s streets, Calle Sagárnaga is a steep, scenic climb. You can start at the Iglesia de San Francisco and shop vendor after vendor along the street before heading north to the Mercado de las Brujas, the Witches Market, where they sell potions, dried frogs, even llama fetuses.” 
What to buy: “Vintage mantas and frazadas, which are colorful traditional textiles, along with vintage silver.”

Mumbai, India

Why here: “There’s no place like Chor Bazaar in South Mumbai. Dubbed the ‘Thieves Market’ it allegedly used to be the place to go for second-hand products of dubious origin. Now it’s a vintage market with hundreds of vendors. The main street of Chor Bazaar is Mutton Street, and while the market is open every day, it’s much quieter on Fridays since many vendors are Muslim and don’t work on Fridays.”

What to buy: “Favorite finds include vintage Bollywood posters and all kinds of vintage brass.”

Tlacolula, Mexico

Why here: “It’s hard to pick just one market in Oaxaca, a city and state known for its craft, but one of my favorites is the Tlacolula Sunday market. Tlacolula de Matamoros is a town located about 18 miles from the city of Oaxaca, and the once-a-week Sunday market draws vendors and craftspeople from surrounding villages including Teotitlán del Valle, famous for its handmade rugs. The market winds its way around the Capilla del Señor de Tlacolula, a 16th-century Dominican church.”

What to buy: “You’ll find a wonderful mix of handwoven rugs, blankets, place settings, and everyday items from foodstuffs like vegetables and chicharróns to baskets.”

Rena Thiagarajan, the wildly inspiring founder of Project Bly, answers our quick-fire questionnaire.

You travel for…The people—and one of the best places to meet people are the markets. I love hearing a weaver’s story or chatting with flea-market vendors. I’ve drunk countless cups of tea and had some of the best conversations in markets.

Your travel style in five words…Slow and off the beaten path.

Your favorite place on the planet…I love Mumbai, and it was the city that launched Project Bly. It’s been one of my favorite cities since I first visited when I was 16. It’s the New York of India, and while huge and utterly cosmopolitan, it has also retained its character, history, and grit. It has such unbelievable energy!

Dying to visit…I loved Bukhara, Uzbekistan and would love to return to visit more of the country as well as some of its Central Asian neighbors.

Location that best embodies the Project Bly aesthetic…That’s a hard one! Every place we’ve been has products that embody the Bly aesthetic: lived-in, well-traveled, and sophisticated, mixing contemporary with vintage and hand-crafted with antique. 
That thing you always pack…My sketchbook and camera, a Canon DSLR.

Travel advice you swear by…Always say yes to a cup of tea.

Your best market-shopping tip…Take your time and explore the market first before buying anything.

What you bring back from every trip…Textiles.

Dream travel partner in crime…Paul Salopek, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist of Croatian descent, brought up in Mexico. He’s currently walking from Ethiopia to the tip of South America, a journey he started in 2013.

Current favorites on Instagram…So many! I love @petmbou’s street photography from around the world. She takes the most haunting portraits of people. I also just discovered @walilizhouwho seems to be just as crazy about textiles as I am!

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