Israel is part of the Middle East, and in the Middle East the open-air market, also known as the souk, is one of the most popular forms of commerce. Even today when supermarkets are preferred for everyday shopping, the souk retains its charm and attracts both shoppers and sightseers.
The open-air markets are first and foremost food markets. As such, they are intimately tied to local cuisine. Housewives, chefs and restaurant owners, locals and tourists all flock to the stands in search of fresh produce and other food products. As markets evolve into tourist attractions, many stands are adding ready-to-eat street food to their usual offerings, giving visitors a taste of the local fare.
Produce is fresh and accessible and you can touch and select fruits and vegetables at your leisure. Butchers offer freshly-slaughtered chickens, complete with feet, feathers and cockscombs. Fishmongers will net the carp you point to in a tank, and gut and clean it for you. Prices are negotiable and haggling is the norm. Vendors often employ funny songs and other theatrics to promote their goods. The atmosphere is dense, casually familiar, cheerful and noisy, with added urgency as the weekend draws near.
Most markets are permanent and offer a wide range of goods: from fresh produce to illegally-copied DVDs, from inexpensive textiles to fresh fish and poultry, from household goods to flowers, from wallets to freshly baked breads.
The two most picturesque general markets are the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv (founded in 1927) and Mahane-Yehuda in Jerusalem (founded in 1928). Both are primarily food markets with the emphasis on fresh produce, and yet each reflects the unique character of its city. The clientele of the Carmel Market is a heady mix of sophisticated urban types, foreign workers (mainly from Southeast Asia), new immigrants (mostly from the former Soviet Union), and inhabitants of the neighboring Yemenite Quarter. The offerings range, accordingly, from budget clothes to organic herbs, from boutique cheeses to exotic products from the Far East.
Mahane-Yehuda is Jerusalem to the core. Shoppers and vendors have known each other for years. There are fewer stalls with trendy fancy vegetables and a larger range of authentic balladi produce. Most of the shoppers are housewives, mainly Sephardic, and the vast majority of the goods are strictly kosher.
Other prominent food markets are the Hatikva Market in south Tel Aviv, the Bukharian Market in Jerusalem, the markets in Netanya, Hadera, Rosh-Ha’ayin and Haifa, and the Bedouin Market in Be’er-Sheva. When visiting northern Israel you shouldn’t miss souks in Nazareth and Old Acre, both brimming with exotic goods and flavors of the Middle East. And of course there is the Old City of Jerusalem with its huge rambling bazaar that covers a sizable portion of the ancient quarters. One can easily get lost in its winding alleys − the scenery, the atmosphere and the goods change as you move from the butchers market to the perfumes, the goldsmiths, the leather workers, the food.
Another souk worth visiting is the Lewinski Market in south Tel Aviv. No longer confined to its original building, it has spilled over into nearby streets with exotic spices, dried fruits, legumes, nuts, rice and pasta, smoked, pickled and dried fish, olives, pickles, oils, and ethnic pastries. Foodies and chefs come here to buy Greek olives, real lakerda (Turkish pickled fish), dried Persian lemons and rare condiments.
Finally, there are the roving markets that operate at a different venue each day of the week. A prominent example is the Ramla-Lod market. Once a popular local market in Ramla, it can now be found at a different announced location each weekday. A lovely market operates on weekends in Ma’alot Tarshicha in the Western Galilee, amicably shared by Arab and Jewish vendors and farmers.