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 some of her favorite craft markets, from Bolivia to Uzbekistan, along with the incredible finds you can unearth in each.
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.”
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.”
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 tribes, including the Azilal, Beni Ourain, Tifelt, and Zimouri.”