Guide to the Marrakesh Souks
Marrakesh is a thrill for the eyes and soul. There are few places in this world just as enchanting as the souks and the adjacent Djemaa el-Fna square, the Red City’s lively heart.
A maze of alleyways and stalls full of colour and spark, they will entice and charm you, calling for your attention; from the fragant spices to the amalgam of voices and the absolute spectacle unravelling before your eyes. With something happening left, right, and center, it’s hard to keep your focus in what can only be described as a dazzling experience.
Thus, Marrakesh can seem overwhelming for a first-time visitor, but the tips below will make your experience so much more enjoyable.
When to visit
The best time of the day to venture into the souks is either in the morning or late afternoon. Mornings are cooler, which means you will avoid the hotter midday air. However, it’s the late afternoon that is our favourite. The sun rays trickle through the wooden roofs, adding a little more to the magic.
After wandering around for a couple of hours, head over to one of the rooftop terraces overlooking the nearby Djemaa el-Fnaa square. Here, enjoy a cup of mint tea while the square becomes alive. You will not want to miss it in the evening. It’s all a great stage where snake charmers, fire breathers, dancers, and acrobats perform every single night – a live, chaotic, yet mesmerizing form of entertainment. In the midst of it all, dozens of food stalls lit up, all the flavourful street food begging to be tasted.
Navigating the Souks
Marrakesh has always had a strategic location, being right in the center of Morocco. This meant that the trading routes passed through here, and many merchants would sell their goods in the Marrakesh souks. Because of this, the various markets around the city grew in an intricate web until they merged together.
Today, similar trades are kept together. The souks are divided into areas for spices, hand-woven carpets, leather, and anything else under the sun. In theory, this should make it easy to navigate. In practice…
After wandering around for a bit, all the passageways start looking the same, and it’s so easy to take a wrong turn. So arm yourself with a map, a spirit of adventure, and head on! If you do get lost (which is pretty much a given), follow the flow of people along the main paths. You are guaranteed to exit somewhere, from where it will be easier to get your bearings.
If you’re feeling particularly nervous, opt for a half-day guided tour to get your bearings. This way, you can still take part in the magic of the souks, while easily finding the way out.
Alternatively, ditch the map and get lost in the mayhem.
Beware of faux guides
When wandering around, always act confident and that you know where you’re going, even if you don’t. Otherwise, you will attract the so-called faux guides – seemingly friendly locals looking to help you. In reality, they will try to convince you that the shop, cafe, or hotel you are looking for has closed, so that you will use their recommendation where they will receive commission. In other cases, they will help you, but charge you a hefty fee for their guiding services.
If you need to ask for directions, it’s best to ask the shop owners as they are more reliable. And always ask twice!
Haggle, Haggle, Haggle
Visiting the souks, bazaars or markets in any Arab country comes with haggling. There’s no way around that. So dust off your inner salesman and get to bartering. Always ask for the local prices, and don’t be shy to quote a low counter-offer. It’s all about finding a middle-ground.
A little goes a long way, so charm your way in with some French, or Berber greetings: ssalamu’lekum (hello), shukran (thanks) and insh’allah (God willing).
Only haggle or ask for a price if you intend to buy the object, otherwise it will be seen as disrespectful. However, it’s perfectly okay to walk away from a sale if you don’t agree with the price.
Lastly, remember to have fun. It’s all a game, so smile, have a laugh, and enjoy yourself. In the end, that is more likely to get you a good deal.
Avoid sellers in the main square
There is little you can do not to look as a tourist in Marrakesh. This, unfortunately, means that you will attract a fair share of sellers, hasslers or snake charmers. As with the faux guides, they will be looking into tricking you to use their services and demand payment. Look confident, don’t get carried away, walk away, and learn how to say a firm no.
Be wary of taking photographs in the main square. Not all the locals like having their pictures taken, so always ask for their consent first. When it comes to snake charmers and street entertainers, do so from a distance as to not attract their attention.
Whatever you do, always remember this is an experience you can’t really get anywhere else. Join the chaos, make light of the situation and blend in. It’ll be a shopping spree to remember!
If you want to take part in the magic of Marrakesh, check out our Morocco experiences.
Written by Oana Moldovan, Untravelled Paths