I was fortunate to visit Morocco with Rumours.World for the Morocco Realness Retreat. This retreat was centered around supporting female owned and operated business throughout Morocco, and I am so glad I got to experience this amazing place with these amazing women.
What is a souk, Sondra?
Around the Middle East, a ‘souk’ is the name originally given by the Arabs for a market or a ‘bazaar’. Traditionally open-air, a souk was an area where merchants passing through the city, stopped to trade goods and get refreshed to continue their travels. As this was infrequent, the area was then used for other functions throughout the year.
As trade and population increased over the years, so did the frequency and quantity of visitors, and the souk became a staple for locals and visitors to replenish essentials required in the household, not just within the Medina, but also outside it. Later on, locals started creating these open-air markets in their own neighborhoods, and they’ve grown bigger ever since!
What makes the souks or markets in Marrakech (or you know, in general) amazing is the presence of exotic items like babouches, lanterns, tagines, handmade carpets, leather goods…and even local fruit, vegetables and spices.
The various souks in Marrakech and what to buy
While souks were a simple means of buying commodities and trading goods, they are no longer being trapped inside that tiny box. They are still traditionally organized by types of items or professions, but they’re no longer “slow” at all. What once was just a place where people stopped by to shop and refresh while traveling is now the commerce epicenter of the country, wherever you go!
The most valuable products are still located at the heart of the souk with the less expensive items spread around.
If you’re familiar with French or Arabic, you will realize the name sometimes translates to pretty much exactly what is sold in each. A few I noted while walking around:
SOUK SMATA/SOUK OF THE BABOUCHES – The souk of Babouches. Babouches are oriental style slippers without heels.
SOUK SEMMARINE – The souk for the typical souvenirs…think shoes, leather, jewelry. Souk Semmarine is the one most tourists frequent and is the one that is covered by an iron trellis, which gives the street a mystifying feel.
SOUK CHOUARI – The carpentry souk
SOUK HADDADINE – The souk of the blacksmiths
SOUK OF THE TEINTURIERS – The dyers souk where wool and fabric is dyed
SOUK ET ATTARIN – The perfume souk. Attar for many Asians is perfume, hence the name.
SOUK ZRABI – The carpet souk
SOUK OF THE BIJOUTIERS – The souk of the jewelers
SOUK ABLEUH – The herbs and spice souk
These are just some of the souks you will encounter. Almost all of them are connected to each other and there are definitely more as based on the goods sold, there are different sections for each.
In addition to the items listed above, you’ll also be able to find rugs, pottery, cutlery, glassware, items made from copper, kaftans, shawls, clothing, furniture. You know, just a little bit of everything!
Even if you try to memorize names, or remember where a place is, chances are, you’ll end up wandering your way back to it. Addresses aren’t something that prove to be helpful when you’re on a souk safari, but just in case…
Location: Djemaa El Fnaa, Rue El Ksour, 38, Marrakech 40000, Morocco
Hours of Operation: The souks are generally open from 8:30 AM to 9:00 PM. Many are closed on Fridays.
I noticed they are a little crazier in the evenings, but we went mid-morning and got in and out pretty quickly!
The souks in Marrakech are a complex network of alleys and streets. It feels like a maze, so just prepare to be lost. Don’t be scared by this, it is just kinda the way it is! I found that just keeping track of little landmarks helped me a lot. “Right at the white carpets, straight past the fresh pomegranate juice man…”
SIDE NOTE: Highly recommend stopping for fresh juice from the Pomegranate (Grenade) or Orange Juice men. SO. FREAKIN. GOOD.
A ‘souk map’ might seem like an essential to avoid getting lost and many guidebooks provide a map for the souks, but in order to get the most updated info, I’d recommend creating a list on Google Maps and downloading the offline map to use to get around without data or wifi. This is my go-to for pretty much any destination (except you, crazy Cuba)!
Type in the name of any of the souk ( I put in ‘Souk Semmarine’) and click the option to “Save to Places.” I created a Marrakech list and downloaded that offline map, and all the places I wanted to check out or get back to were there. This way, you can easily access offline walking directions for most places, too.
A friend recommended we enter the souk from Djemaa El Fna, and make your way asking for directions based on what you need to purchase. If you’re just exploring, it doesn’t matter. I was with a retreat group, and we had an amazing local guide take us on a “souk safari,” and it was so cool to just see what popped up!
Once you’re done, to get out of the souk, keep walking in a straight direction till you reach the wall of the Medina as the souks are located within the Medina of Marrakech. Once out, you can then walk from the outside to get to your destination.
Another option is to keep an eye out for the Koutoubia Mosque and head in that direction. The mosque is an eight minute walk from Djemaa El Fnaa. There are many other landmarks that you can use as reference too while navigating the souks.
It’s always best to ask shopkeeper’s, a family or local officials for direction. They’re more than happy to show you in the right direction especially if you’ve purchased something from them. If you’re a solo female traveler, it’s best practice to ask another woman for directions.
When a local offers to show you the way, they are most likely going to ask for a tip when you get to your destination. If you’d rather not ask for directions, there are signs pointing to Djemaa El Fnaa throughout the souks, it’s always easier to get there and figure it out moving forward.
**Pickpockets and purse snatchers operate in any busy area as is the case with the souks in Marrakech. As usual when traveling somewhere new, keep an eye on your belongings! Opt to keep wallets and valuables in your front pockets and if you’re carrying shoulder bag, opt for a cross-body bag if possible. If you have a backpack, wear it in the front.**
Avoid taking out wads of cash in public areas and keep passports and some credit/debit cards, cash in the safe at your hotel.
Memorize emergency numbers if needed and learn a few important local words too.
Some good ones the amazing Zoë from Rumours World Retreats shared with us:
The lanes in the Medina are narrow yet you’ll find bicycles, motorbikes, carts and animals making their way through it at top speed. Look over your shoulder every now and then, and be ready to jump out of the way (literally) if you see something coming your way! They do not play!
Some Common Scams
Quality- One of the scams in the souks of Marrakech is claiming to have ‘genuine antiques’ when they are nothing but copies. Have a guide or someone local assist you when you plan on purchasing something expensive or an antique…don’t go getting swindled!
“Guides” – As mentioned above, when asking for directions, you may find a helpful ‘guide’ offering to take you to your destination. When you reach it, they might hassle you for tips. There were also several young boys (and some bold ass men) that would insist “this street is closed!” to try and take us a long way around and get some cash from us. Three little boys literally followed us to the doorstep of our Riad, insisting it was the wrong way. CRAZY. Opt for licensed guides if needed or ask directions from (older) shopkeepers
Animal Abuse – As I mentioned at the very start of the post, I was being chased by a snake charmer. You might find a snake (I wish a you-know-what would) or a monkey on your shoulder without warning. Most of them are located in Djemaa El Fnaa. The best possible way to avoid such an encounter is to walk as far away as possible from them and avoid eye contact. I also saw a lot of this with camels and horses on the beach in Taghazout. Animal abuse is heartbreaking. Please, please, please do your part by NOT taking pictures with or riding the animals!
Getting Change – Research the current exchange rates as some vendors will suggest you pay in Euros/Dollars if you don’t have cash. The dirham during my February 2020 visit was about 10 dirham to 1 USD. That being said, in the Agadir area, they converted my money as 8 dirham to 1 USD when they allowed me to use some cash from home I had on hand, and even when I showed her the current conversion on Google, they didn’t budge.
Henna Artists – Henna artists in the Djemaa El Fnaa square claim to draw a pattern for you for free, continue drawing all over your hands and then ask for payment. If you’d still like to get one, negotiate a price in advance.
“Concept Stores”- They are hardly the worst offenders, but you’ll see “Concept Store” on a sign, and all of a sudden things cost 3 times as much, but there’s no option to haggle. There are certainly some treasures to be found, but these stores are definitely selling more of the “luxury” items at a higher price point due to prettier packaging and fancier storefronts.
If you’ve got some time to spend in the souks, make rounds before committing and spending your money. It seemed as though the deeper you go into the souks, the cheaper it gets. A friend told me to avoid asking for prices because it makes you seem eager to buy, but alternately shopkeepers seemed irritated if you didn’t ask, so do whatever feels right!
If you already know what you need, ask the locals at your Riad or hotel what to expect to pay. They will be glad to help!
Let’s Make a Deal!
If you find something you need to buy, it’s time to haggle/bargain!
Haggling is almost a tradition in Morocco. Some people really think this is super fun, but it’s not my fave! However! Prices are grossly inflated and are usually set at more than twice the price. So, you’re gonna have to haggle a bit to get the best deals when shopping in Marrakech souks for souvenirs.
On our first full day in Marrakech, we went to this cool slipper place where you can watch the men making slippers as you shop! I found two adorable pairs of loafers I was obsessed with, and the man told me they were 700 and 600 dirhams (approx $60 and $70 USD), and then proceeded to quote me 1400 ($140 USD).
Bro…your math is terrible, and your charm (aka calling me “Sister”) won’t make up for it. We went back and forth with a calculator, and his final offer was 1100 dirham. I politely declined, and stated my final offer was 900 dirham once asked. He wasn’t feeling it. Our guide offered to help me negotiate, and came over and he went BACK to 1300 dirham. And then my friend Zoe, who coordinated the trip and lives in Morocco came over and confirmed I was being gassed…so I walked away. It wasn’t a power move…I just wasn’t interested in playing a game that was clearly designed for me to be the loser. Plus, it was the first shoe place I’d been to, and I figured there would be others! At that point, the slimy charm disappeared and he got really mad at her! Not helping!
Alternately, we walked into a spice shop and I was too tired to tell the guy to can the show of all his wares and I just let him talk to us. He showed us his best products, and we let him go uninterrupted. Once he was finished, we politely asked for the three items (out of like 10) that he showed us, and he ended up giving us a discount AND a free gift without me even having to haggle. The best part is, he didn’t tell me it was a discount, I just saw him change the price to reflect lower than the weight of the item, which was small but generous gesture!
**Zoe had another great point-obviously haggling is kinda par for the course here in Morocco, but even if it seems a little high for the area, pay what you think its worth…this is the sole means of income for most of these shopkeepers, so even if you’re maybe paying a little more than you’d like, you’re probably still saving a ton (and feeding a family), relatively speaking.**
ASK THE VENDOR FOR THE PRICE OF THE ITEM – Never state how much you’d pay for the item as you’ll most likely end up pricing it higher than what the shopkeeper expects for it. Casually ask first, if they haven’t already told you.
KEEP THINGS LIGHTHEARTED AND POLITE – No matter how annoying it can get, keep it friendly…it’ll usually pay off!
START WITH A THIRD OF THE PRICE AND GO FROM THERE – Whenever my dad asks “How much money do you have?” I always reply “I’m broke.” He never gets an exact answer, and if he asks me to specify, I always give him a number that’s about 50% of the truth. Haggling is pretty much the same!
Once the shopkeeper has stated their price and asks how much your budget is, throw out 1/3rd of the asked price. The negotiation then begins, with the vendor decreasing their price and expecting you to increase your stated price. You should be able to get the item at about 50% of the price stated by the vendor. Do not quote a price you’re not willing to pay. That’s just annoying!
IT’S OK TO WALK AWAY – If you can’t agree on a mutual price, it’s all right to politely decline and walk away. But, if you walk away and then return later, you may have to pay more. #petty
SET A REASONABLE PRICE – Keep in mind that you will most likely get a bargain but do state prices that are fair to the vendor too. After all, they need to make a living off this! If you wish to buy more than one item, suggest a price for both. This helps you get a better deal.
Whew! Was that a lot, or what!?!
I know it’s a ton of info, but I always try to be super comprehensive and give you a really accurate picture of what to expect, and with this type of experiences, the more you know, the better off you’ll be!
Marrakech was such a lovely place to see…the liveliness of the souks was incredible to experience, and I genuinely enjoyed making my way through the maze to get some fun things to bring back! Exercising caution is important no matter where you go, but don’t let that deter you from taking in the beauty and craftsmanship that you’re sure to find there!
Have you been to the souks in any part of the Middle East? Tell me all about your experience in the comments!
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