When visiting Morocco, it is essential to stop by the souks to do a little shopping. Morocco’s markets are globally known for their unique artisan products, from argan oil to carpets to leather and more. Most cities have at least some level of market, but the some of the most notorious are in the imperial city, Marrakech. In fact, Marrakech is home to Jemaa el-Fnaa, an incredibly popular market square that has been featured by National Geographic and other big name travel magazines for its unique nature.
Navigating the souks can be incredibly difficult. They are tightly packed, ever-changing, and full of people who are all going separate directions. Many people will recommend getting a professional guide, but in my opinion it is not completely necessary if you have a bit of prior knowledge.
That being said, I would start with downloading a map of the area to your phone. If you don’t have an international SIM card, losing access to internet and a back up map may result in disaster. Make sure to recognize some key landmarks to recognize your location from any direction as well. For example, in Jemaa el-Fnaa, Koutoubia Mosque is the tallest building in Marrakech and is visible in most locations in the square, giving you a general idea of where you are. After a bit of time, the markets will become more familiar and less daunting.
If you do become completely lost, try to avoid asking directions from young men and instead ask women and families. Rather than a safety issue (Morocco is a very safe country), asking for directions can be risky because many men earn commissions from taking you by one or two vendors or restaurants or may flat out ask to be paid for their guidance. Asking from other people can save you a pretty penny that could be used to buy more goods!
Another thing to keep in mind is to always bargain and never accept anything for starting price. Not only does it save you money, but it also considered customary to do so and insulting if you don’t. To get a sense of prices, make sure to look for the same product with numerous vendors. For a reference, the only thing I ever paid over 100 USD for was a camel hair carpet in Casablanca and I scored a sheep wool carpet, several camel leather poufs (for way cheaper than the knockoffs you can find on Amazon!), jasmine and gazelle fat perfume, and many other items.
For bargaining here are some key phrases in Arabic and French, the two most spoken languages in Morocco:
|How much is this?||Bikam haadha?||Combien ça coûte?|
Of course learning the numbers is also important and it is easy to use those to negotiate a medium price. Keep in mind that if you decide against an item, you can say no. Some vendors are very talented at making you feel like you must purchase an item, but it not obligatory by any means.
When shopping in the market, it also important to be wary of certain scams aside from asking for directions. Especially in Jemaa el-Fnaa, there are lots of performers that will demand money if you take photos, recordings, or even watch for too long. Around dusk, there are many snake charmers, monkey handlers, acrobats, and storytellers that will use this method. Another classic trick is the women who do elaborate henna artwork. Often times they will grab your hand to demonstrate and the next thing you know, they have completed your entire arm and are asking a high price. While they are incredibly talented and fun to watch, if you aren’t looking for a henna tattoo, try to steer clear.
According to most people I have consulted, pick pocketing and catcalling has also been a problem within the souks. I personally never had any issue with this, nor did anyone in my group so I am not sure if the issue is exaggerated or not. That being said, we still made an effort to dress within social norms and paid attention to keeping knees and shoulders covered.
So with all this information, what can you buy?
Carpets are a very popular buy in Marrakech and for good reason. However, most of the genuine carpets aren’t found in the markets themselves but in the cooperatives. Here, you will be offered mint tea or water and then shown many different types and shapes of carpets. There are Berber, Touareg, and other peoples’ style of carpet made of many materials, from camel hair to sheep wool to agave. Through a process of elimination, you will likely end up finding a carpet you love. Before buying, double check to make sure the co-op has good reviews, otherwise the shipping might take a long time or not happen at all.
Leather products are also incredibly popular. Camel, goat, and sheep leather are all used to create purses, poufs, bags, shoes, and much more. Markets are a great place to find some of these items. In the leather making process, the hide is softened using traditional methods (part of this involves pigeon poop) and then stained with oil. This being said, leather may have some leftover smell from the tanning process so try to keep it separated from other fabrics until you can let it air out at home. Once I did get home though, I just left my leather products out in the sun for a few days and the smell went away pretty quickly.
Morocco is also famous for a large number of herbs, spices, and other natural items. Argan oil is infamous for improving hair and is found in plenty of expensive shampoos, but can be found in Morocco in its pure form. Aside from hair care, it is thought to have a number of medicinal properties, such as improving heart health, lowering risk for diabetes, and improving skin as well. In addition to Argan oil, spices from paprika to turmeric to saffron (which is the most expensive spice in the world) are in numerous stalls, often piled in colorful cones. Saffron grows naturally in Morocco, therefore it’s a lot cheaper and a very popular purchase item.
The markets also hold plenty of other natural items. For art lovers, there are lots of natural dyes, including indigo, madder, chamomile, and henna. Some are even ground up and ready to mix into paint, while other come in whole pieces, such as indigo. Many of these dyes are used in the bright Moroccan buildings, such as Jardin Majorelle. There are other great gifts as well, such as perfumes and lotions. Many of the perfumes are made from gazelle musk, which curiously doesn’t smell bad. It’s added to jasmine to create a create deodorant as well. In some places, you can purchase the musk itself, which can serve as a perfume on its own. Honestly, there are so many natural items that are great gifts or items to take home.
Overall, the markets in Marrakech are magical. There are so many opportunities to find great buys and see such unique things, from the carpets to spices to leather. Especially with prior knowledge, the markets are the best place to experience Moroccan culture and lifestyle!
Have you been to the markets in Marrakech? What did you or would you buy?