Navigating the souks of Marrakech can be tricky. The maze-like passageways can easily confuse and disorientate first-time visitors, and you need to keep your wits about you. If you’re planning on visiting this enchanting Moroccan city and would like to shop in the souks, here are a few tips to read prior to your trip.
When travelling, you should always respect the local culture and read up on any wardrobe requirements before your trip. In Marrakech, you will stick out like a sore thumb and attract unwanted attention if you walk around in mini-skirts, shorts or low-cut tops. You don’t have to cover up every inch of skin, but you’ll feel much more comfortable if you wear long, loose layers. Men should wear trousers, but it’s fine to wear a T-shirt or short-sleeved shirt, and long dresses or jumpsuits in natural, breathable fabrics are best for women.
Avoid making eye contact
Unless you want to make a purchase or start bartering, don’t make eye contact with the shop owners as you walk by. As soon as you have locked eyes, they will start trying to sell you their products. You can easily get around this by wearing dark sunglasses, so you don’t have to worry about where you are looking.
Pay attention to your surroundings
The souks are confusing, but if you pay attention to the places that you pass, you’ll soon start to notice landmarks and get your bearings. You’re more likely to get lost if you walk around in a daze. There are signs for some of the more popular cafes and restaurants, like Le Jardin and Nomad, and the ‘big square’ is frequently signposted. If you do get lost, pop into a café that looks friendly, or ask a woman for help.
Download Maps.Me on your phone
Roaming charges can make navigating the souks a very expensive task, but if you download the app Maps.Me onto your phone with the Marrakech map, you can navigate the city without using your data. Drop pins for your riad and any cafes or sights you’d like to visit and get your phone out every time you think you’re getting lost. The map even includes some of the larger passages in the souks, and even if your particular alley isn’t shown, you can figure out which direction you need to be heading.
Don’t accept help with directions
If you can avoid it, don’t accept help with directions from men or children who approach you asking if you’re lost or are looking for the ‘big square’. Once they have helped you (or led you even deeper into the souks) they will demand that you pay them. If you walk with confidence and purpose, you are less likely to be approached.
Don’t be afraid to barter
When you’ve discovered an item that you’d like to potentially purchase, don’t be afraid to start bartering with the trader. Part of the fun of the souks is negotiating prices, and it’s all part of the experience. Don’t be afraid of offending anyone—just go in with a price well below what you are prepared to pay. The shopkeeper will then offer a much higher price, and you’ll barter up and down until you reach a price that is likely to be somewhere in the middle. Most of the traders are friendly and like to have a laugh and a joke, so keep things light-hearted.
Locate a café for rest stops
The souks can be overwhelming with how busy and hot they get. Before you head into their depths and start shopping, seek out a friendly café to use as your base for the day. Make sure you know where it is located (drop a pin on your map on your phone) and head back there at any point that you feel like you need a break. Café des Epices is a great choice for a centrally-located café that serves refreshing homemade lemonade and offers shade from the sun.
Most of the stalls accept cash only, so make sure you carry cash when you are shopping, or keep your eye out for the nearest cash machines (there are several ATMs located within the souks). Be sensible with how much money you are carrying at once and keep your eye on your bag, like you would in any city.
Be realistic with what you can take home
Perhaps you’ve brought an empty suitcase to fill with your purchases, or maybe you are restricted to what you can fit in your carry-on. Think ahead and plan what you want to buy and how you will be able to get it home. If you’re thinking of purchasing several large rugs, for example, look into shipping costs before your trip to determine if you can afford to have them shipped home. You don’t want to end up at the airport unable to take your purchases on the flight.
Emma Lavelle is a UK based writer and photographer and has her own blog Field and Nest.