Surviving the souks in Marrakech

The souks of Marrakech, Morocco

The souks of Marrakech are the heart of the medina and a must-see when you’re visiting the city. Even if you’re not into shopping, they’re still a spectacle well worth experiencing. But they’re also all kinds of crazy. Prepare for all of your senses to be overwhelmed at once – there’s the smell of spices and motorbikes fumes, the feel of the heat, the shouts of the stallholders and the bright colours of stalls piled high with pottery and leather bags. After a few days in the comparatively serene atmosphere of Essaouira, being plunged into the heart of the action was a bit of a shock to the system. So I developed a few strategies to help make experiencing the souks more of a pleasure than an endurance test. Here are my top tips…

The souks of Marrakech, Morocco

Stalls in the souks of the Marrakech medina

Get a map…

The souks are the ultimate navigational challenge – a labyrinth of narrow alleyways that twist and turn their way north of the main square, the Djemma el-Fna. However good your sense of direction, a few minutes in these dimly lit passageways will have you totally disorientated. Most guidebooks come with some sort of map, but it’s hard to find one with a small enough scale to show all the tiny alleyways of the souks. Better is an electronic map which shows you which way you’re pointing. If you don’t want to pay for data roaming on your phone, you can cache Google Maps, meaning you can use them when you’re not online. You need wifi to set it up though and the Google Maps app. Then just go to the area you want, type ‘OK maps’ and it’ll save all the detail in that area. Fellow blogger Heather also tried out a new app – the Marrakech-Riad app is free and has a GPS map of the medina as well as tips on restaurants and shops.

The souks of Marrakech, Morocco

Tagines for sale in the souks

… but still expect to get lost

However good your map – paper or electronic – you’re still guaranteed to get lost at some point. And the best thing to do is just go with it. Take whichever direction looks the most interesting and if you keep going you’ll often find yourself back at a landmark like the Djemma el-Fna or the Marrakech Museum to the north of the souks. If you need to get somewhere a bit quicker, there are signposts around the souks pointing to the Djemma el-Fna and no shortage of young men wanting to give you directions… though whether either of these are accurate is another thing. You’ll easily find someone to take you to where you need to go, but there’ll usually be a fee so make sure to have some small notes. Otherwise a good tip for female travellers is to ask a local woman as they’ll often give you better information. And if you only have a short time to explore the souks it might be a good idea to get a guide – most riads and hotels can arrange one for you.

The souks of Marrakech, Morocco

Medina doorway and colourful sacks of spices

Stay alert

There’s so much going in the souks that it’s easy to get a bit overwhelmed. But make sure you keep an eye on what’s happening around you. Those narrow alleyways aren’t just used by people, so expect to be dodging motorbikes, carts, donkeys and who knows what else as you walk. And keep an eye on your belongings – you’ll have people pushing past you and stallholders grabbing onto your arms, so leave any expensive jewellery back in your room, keep hold of your camera and make sure you have a bag that fastens securely. To avoid the worst of the hassle from stallholders, it’s a good idea to wear sunglasses, give them a firm but polite “no” and look like you know where you’re going. If you stop at a stall it’ll be assumed that you want to buy something, so keep moving unless you’re seriously considering making a purchase.

The souks of Marrakech, Morocco

One of the gateways into the souks

Bargain hard… but politely

Bargaining is a big part of the souk experience (though if the idea fills you with dread, you can head to one of the fixed price stores). The stallholders have had a lot of practice at it, so be prepared to work at it if you don’t want to pay over the odds. Once you’ve found something you want to buy, it’s a good idea to do a bit of research first – ask the price at a few different stalls to get an idea of what the going rate is. Decide in advance how much you’d be happy to pay and come in with a first offer at about half the quoted price. Expect that the stallholder will laugh at you and come out with lines about it being “wholesale price”, but stand your ground. Be firm but polite and don’t take it all too seriously – if you can’t get a bargain you’re happy with at one stall, there’ll no doubt be another selling the same things.

The souks of Marrakech, Morocco

Bags for sale in the leather section of the souks

Take a break

The souks are best experienced in small doses, before the noise, the smells and the constant attention get a bit too much. Staying in a riad in the medina is a good idea as you can head back to drop off any shopping and get a bit of peace before heading out again. Otherwise there are plenty of rooftop cafés and restaurants, where you can regroup over a mint tea and soak up some of the atmosphere from a distance. The Djemma el-Fna is surrounded by cafés where you can watch the street theatre going on below – Café Glacier or the Café du Grand Balcon are both in good spots, particularly at dusk. Further north the Terrasse des Épices serves pastilla and tagines right in the middle of the souks, or if you’re in need of something stronger than tea, check out a rooftop bar like Café Arabe for a fantastic sunset view.

So those are my tips for surviving the souks? Have you ever visited Marrakech and do you have any more to add?

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Surviving the souks in Marrakech, Morocco

Comments

  1. says

    Fantastic photography, you’ve really captured the busy, colourful aspects of Marrakech! The souks were definitely an experience, walking down those alleyways feels like getting lost in another era altogether.

  2. says

    Yes, we got very lost too….but it was fun. A map sounds like a good suggestion! I would have so loved to browse more, but as you say, once you stop the assumption is that you are going to buy something. We also liked the belly-dancers in the square who were not quite what they appeared to be 😉

  3. says

    Great post, getting lost is probably half the fun though 🙂 And I love your photos, especially the tagines, bags and herbs – all great composition. Did you have any problems when taking the photos?

  4. says

    HI Lucy,
    Ah the souks. They are amazing. Not quite the same experience that you see in our “globalized shopping malls”. So much creative individual artistry and ingenuity.
    Leslie

    • says

      Hi Leslie, yes it’s such a different shopping experience, especially the metalwork and woodworking souks where you can watch the craftsmen at work and buy straight from them.

  5. says

    Low tech me will just have to get lost, Lucy, though I love the sound of your gadgetry. 🙂
    Will you come and find me if I don’t come out again in time for supper?

  6. says

    Even though you are in Morocco it brings back great memories of the souks in Turkey and other places in the middle east. I agree with your tip that you should just accept the fact that at some point you will become disoriented. Finding your way out is part of the experience. Thanks, Luce.

    • says

      Yes it was very similar to souks I’d been to in Istanbul and even some of the markets in Asia, that same atmosphere and heat, and the same likelihood of getting totally lost!

  7. says

    Nice post! You mention that you shouldn’t stop at a stall unless you are wanting to buy something. I am curious about the photography. Did anyone give you a hard time or expect you to buy something because you were taking photos? I always struggle with that…

    • says

      The photography can be a tough one – I didn’t take any portraits as many people don’t like to be photographed and tended to take shots on the move or from a distance. Would’ve loved to take a lot more but unless you are buying it can be a bit difficult.

  8. says

    So much to take in amongst the stalls of the souks – I have a love hate relationship with them. I love it for the first 10 minutes then I need to get away! Madder than a bucket of spiders…

  9. says

    I haven’t visited Morocco yet but it certainly sounds exciting and seems to be the place to be right now as Egypt is off-limits to many. 🙁
    I really like your souk photos and I’m not going to lie, the hangbags. Oh, the hangbags! I’m a shoe girl, but you can’t say “no” to a bag made in an exotic land!

    • says

      It definitely has that real exotic feel but is not too far to go and comparatively safe to visit. And if you like bags you’ll be in heaven – though take a big empty suitcase! Some of the fabrics and household decor stuff was fantastic too.

  10. says

    Great post and some really good advice!

    I visited Marrakech in 2012 and loved the sights and sounds of the souks, but unfortunately the touts really spoilt the experience for me. We had people following us around asking us if we needed a guide, and when we declined (politely I might add!) they turned nasty and started swearing at us and calling us names in both English and Japanese (which they thought we were… we aren’t.) One ‘guide’ even followed us a good 1km trying to introduce us to various restaurants we passed so he could claim a fee when we had already made plans to visit a particular restaurant and needed no directions there.

    I’m wondering if you had any similar experiences there? It certainly made me have some doubts about how safe it was for solo female travellers!

    • says

      Thanks, yes the touts really can sour the experience of the souks. Both times I have visited Marrakech it’s been with a guy so I’ve not experienced it as a solo female traveller, but even as a couple you do get a lot of hassle – every time we stopped we had a crowd of men trying to guide us or get us into their shops and they can be really persistent. I’ve read that the tourist police in Marrakech have supposedly tried to crack down on it as it puts people off visiting, but it didn’t seem any better than my last trip. Such a shame as it can really ruin your experience, although I liked Marrakech I much preferred Essaouira as it had a much more friendly feel and few touts.

    • says

      I found that the situation was much the same in Tangier, but haven’t yet been to Essaouira. Thanks for the tip will most definitely head there if I venture back to Morocco again! (:

  11. madeleinedeaton says

    Great tips Lucy, I remember first visiting souks as a naive and inexperienced traveller at 23 and being completely overwhelmed and terrified of haggling. Would love to give it another go now 🙂

    • says

      I did wonder the same as it’d been years since I’d been but I still found it a bit overwhelming – I don’t think I’ll ever be a natural at haggling (just too British!).

  12. says

    Great tips! I agree, you need breadcrumbs to find your way and letting yourself get lost is the best part. Your post made me miss Morocco, and reminded me I need to write about my 6 weeks there in October. Mmmmmm…tagine!

  13. says

    I have been to Marrakech twice in the last two years. I was on my guard all the time on my first visit, but when I returned last December I felt completely at ease. You mention some very good points (I’ve experienced most of them actually), but I would also add the following:

    1) Try not to get too close to the attractions in Djema el Fna, especially if you’re taking pictures, unless you’re willing to leave tips. When taking pictures of stalls, try to be discreet – most vendors won’t be happy about it.

    2) If you’re interested in exploring the the less-touristy parts of the medina, hire a guide. Ours took us through the back streets of the medina where you can find old caravanserais and watch artisans in their workshops. It is also quiet and peaceful, with hardly any tourists in sight.

    I’ve written some firsthand accounts on my blog (www.grumpycamel.com) about navigating the souks and dining at the food market.

    I can imagine how difficult it must have been to adapt to Marrakech after leaving Essaouira. Thankfully we visited Essaouira on our last day in Morocco!

    • says

      Thanks for the extra tips – I’ve not hired a guide before but think that would be a really good idea next time as I’ve seen the main areas of the souks so it’d be good to get into the back streets. Will check out some of your posts about the souks too.

  14. says

    Our bargaining was hilarious! I did get a guy down to a 1/3 of his initial price for a beautiful embroidered cotton table runner – but did you ever feel bad? He made me feel like I was taking food from the mouths of his kids! I still paid $10-12 USD for it though. It was quite an experience.

    • says

      I’m not the world’s best bargainer so the stallholders probably all love me! Having said that I guess if you really were offering too little they’d say no so I think it’s all part of the showmanship!

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