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 – prepare for all of your senses to be overwhelmed at once as you enter the souks of Marrakech. The souks are the heart of the medina and have been the centre for trade in the city a thousand years. Today it’s as much a tourist attraction as anything but still has that exotic, chaotic feel.
Over 3000 stalls sell everything from tagines and glassware to scarves and spices. Even if you’re not into shopping, the souks are still a spectacle that’s well worth experiencing. But they’re also all kinds of crazy, and being plunged into the heart of the action can be a bit of a shock to the system. So on my last trip to Morocco I developed a few strategies to help make experiencing the Marrakech souks more of a pleasure than an endurance test. Here are my top tips…
Tips for visiting the Marrakech souks
Get a map…
The Marrakech souks are the ultimate navigational challenge. A labyrinth of narrow alleyways twist and turn their way north of the main square, the Djemma el-Fna. However good your sense of direction is, a few minutes in these dimly lit passageways will have you totally disorientated. Most Marrakech 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 which run through the souks.
An electronic map is more useful as it shows where you are and which way you’re pointing. If you don’t want to pay for data roaming, you can cache Google Maps so 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. You can also download the free Marrakech Riad Travel Guide app for a GPS map of the souks that works offline.
… but still expect to get lost
However good your map – whether it’s paper or electronic – you’re still guaranteed to get lost in the souks of Marrakech at some point. And when you do, the best thing to do is just go with it. Choose whichever direction looks the most interesting, just keep on going and you’ll eventually reach the wall of the medina. Look out for landmarks like the Djemma el-Fna, the Marrakech Museum or the tower of the Koutoubia Mosque to help reorientate you.
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.
There’s so much going in Marrakech’s souks that it’s easy to get overwhelmed. But make sure to 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. So watch where you walk and keep and 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 a tight 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 Merci’ 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. If possible it’s best to explore with someone else as two pairs of eyes are better than one, and solo travellers often get more persistent hassle from touts.
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 instead). The stallholders have had a lot of practice, 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. And don’t divulge what you’re willing to pay up front.
Decide in advance what the maximum you’d be happy to pay is, and come in with a first offer at about a quarter of the quoted price and work your way upwards. 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 will no doubt be another stall selling something very similar.
Take a break
The souks in Marrakech are best experienced in small doses, before the noise, the smells and the constant attention all start get a bit too much. Staying in a riad inside the medina is a good idea as it means 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 around the souks 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 terrace cafés where you can watch the street theatre down below – from snake charmers to juice sellers. The Café Glacier and Café du Grand Balcon both have good spots, particularly at dusk when the square lights up. Further north, the Terrasse des Épices serves pastilla and tagines 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 sunset views.
Or make it easy with a guide or tour
If you want to get an insiders’ view of the Marrakech souks, explore off the main paths and meet some of the craft-makers, then it’s a good idea to take a souk tour, especially if you’re short on time and don’t want to spend half of it working out where you. You’ll come across plenty of young men in the souks offering to show you around, but a lot of them are unlicensed ‘fake’ guides who overcharge or take you to their friends’ shops rather than the best places.
Instead stick to one of the licensed guides or book one through your hotel or riad who often have their own recommended guides. Or you can sign up for a tour of the souks. There are lots of different tours available, which often include visits to local craft cooperatives or artists workshops as well as a walk around the main areas of the souks and Djemma el-Fna.
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