Carpets, Leather, and Spices, oh my! Exploring the Markets of Marrakech

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.

In the old Medina

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!

The narrow streets of the Medina

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:

English ArabicFrench
HelloMarhabanBonjour
How much is this?Bikam haadha?Combien ça coûte?
YesNamOui
NoLaNon
Thank youShukranMerci
GoodbyeMasaalemaAu revoir

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.

Jemaa el-Fnaa by day

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.

Watching the streets outside the markets

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.

Learning how to weave carpets

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.

Some of our leather goods

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.

Gazelle musk

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!

Juices in Morocco

Have you been to the markets in Marrakech? What did you or would you buy?

Hassan II Mosque: Casablanca’s Most Gorgeous Sight

On the Atlantic coast, one of Moroccan’s most stunning buildings is nestled in amongst the resorts and office buildings. Finished in 1993, this mosque was the combined work of 10,000 men and boasts both incredible architecture and carefully detailed artwork. It holds over 100,000 people, of which 25,000 fit in the main building and another 80,000 can participate on the gorgeous grounds.

Hassan II Mosque

After the death of Mohammed V, King Hassan ordered the construction of the mosque in order to give the people a beautiful center of worship, as well as help Casablanca prosper as a city of beauty. The King funded the mosque himself, as well as through public donations. It was designed by Michel Pinseau, a French architect and built by highly skilled artists over the course of seven years. Most of the materials were sourced from Morocco itself, except for the chandeliers, which are made of Venetian glass.

Moroccan stone arches

The Hassan II Mosque also happens to be the third largest mosque in the world and the largest in Africa. It also has the tallest minaret at a whopping 210 meters. The total grounds include the mosque itself, as well as a library, madrasa (school), and the visitor center/museum. The mosque is partially built over the ocean, whereas the other buildings remain slightly more inland. When visiting, make sure to stop by all of the buildings, as each are intricately built. The exteriors alone have so much to take in with all the detailed carvings and tile work.

The detail in some of the arches

If you want a more in-depth experience, the mosque offers tours in between prayers that are available in an array of languages. Times vary depending on the time of year and day of the week (make sure to check the website for more information). We took out tour early in the morning, which was a great option as the lighting was phenomenal and it wasn’t overly busy. Keep in mind, if you visit the interior, one’s knees and shoulders should be covered, although a headscarf is not necessary. Upon entry, everyone is asked to remove their shoes (bags are provided for safekeeping) and then everyone is divided into their language for the tour.

Details of the interior

The first stop in is the prayer hall which is a large space with the front facing towards Mecca. Here is where people will gather to worship, led by the imam. The area is incredibly spacious with heavily detailed pillars and ceilings. The stone is all handout and featuring Moorish design. The same goes for the cedar, which was chosen due to its natural insect repellent and resistance to the salty ocean air.

Ceiling artwork

In the center of the room are glass floors that provide a glimpse of the absolution rooms. Towards northwestern side, there are picturesque views of the Atlantic. However, one of the most fascinating parts of the mosque is the retractable roof, which opens to allow in fresh ocean air. It is especially helpful during Ramadan when the mosque reaches its highest capacity. This feature is incredibly unique and with any luck, visitors may be able to see it opened.

The rooftop

Underneath the main hall are the absolution rooms, where people wash before prayer. The area is filled with gorgeous tiles and engravings, including some Arabic calligraphy. The marble fountains are especially gorgeous and beautifully designed.

The tour was ended after the visit to the lower level. Overall, I found visiting this mosque an exceptional experience and a great opportunity to understand the religion of Islam and Moroccan design. Our guide was phenomenal and the sights were stunning, creating a definite must-see in the area of Casablanca to the point where I have to add some more pictures:

Have you ever visited the Hassan II Mosque? Is it on your bucket list? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

A Day in Casablanca

Casablanca was the introduction into my time in Morocco and Northern Africa! Many people fly in and out of the white city on their way to explore the other pieces of the country, such as Fez, Marrakech, Ourrzazate, or Meknes as the flights are usually cheaper. This being said, Casablanca is easily worth the one day trip if you can squeeze it in and here’s how I would spend it:

Casablanca from my hotel view

I would start by first visiting the Hassan II Mosque early in the morning. This Mosque ended construction in 1993 and is the third largest in the world and the largest in Africa. It is also one of the few mosques that non-Muslims may visit during times between prayer. Almost all of its materials have been sourced from Morocco itself, which gives valuable insight to the beauty of the country, as well as its natural diversity. Its construction was completed by modern day specialists in each craft, from the tiling to the carving to the painting and collects aspects from Moorish and Islamic design, along with more local Moroccan aspects.

Hasan II Mosque

The mosque leads insightful tours conducted in a number of languages, including English. Our guide was incredibly kind and offered plenty of information on the construction of the building and the religion itself. For instance, she told us that much of the woodwork is cedar, due to its natural insect repellent and its resistance to the salt and harsh conditions from the Atlantic. She also told us that the roof opens (not unlike a car sunroof) to let in natural air and help with crowding during busier prayer days, especially during Ramadan. This was something I had never seen or heard about in any sort of mosque, church, synagogue, or other place of worship and frankly I thought it was pretty incredible.

Details in the ceiling

The prayer room is at ground level and is a large space that may hold up to 25,000 people. The walls and ceiling around the area is heavily detailed with impressive mosaics, carvings, and paintings. There is some view of the Atlantic Ocean as well, which also brings in soft natural light.

Gorgeous mosaics on the outside of the building

Underneath the prayer hall are the absolution rooms where people may wash before going to prayer. The rooms are separated by gender, but both look identical. Like most of the building, much of the room is made with local marble and Arabic calligraphy is be found on the walls.

Calligraphy in the absolution rooms

After visiting the absolution rooms, the tour is over. However, being there early in the morning gives one the ability to take more pictures outside and explore some of the nearby areas, including the fountains and the shore. The place where one buys entrance tickets is worth a second stop to revisit the samples of the designs and overall history of the building.

Beautiful artwork

After visiting the mosque, I would then take the time to stop for lunch somewhere along the coast. Casablanca, while still having common moroccan food just as tagine and cous cous, also has a large amount of seafood. We stopped at a small, quiet restaurant called Restaurant Essaâd (مطعم السعد ير حب بكم) where we enjoyed much of the local twists on tajine and sandwiches. Typically, olives and bread are served as appetizers and mint tea is incredibly common as well.

Restaurant Essaâd

After grabbing a bite to eat, one could stop at the Casablanca Cathedral. Unfortunately some event or construction was occurring when we visited, so we were unable to enter. However, it is labeled a must for visiting Casablanca, even though it stopped being a center of worship around 1956. Be sure to check times and entry prices because they apparently change.

Instead of the cathedral, we went to pigeon park, or Mohammed V Square. There are by far, many more pigeons that I have ever seen in my entire life. They crowd around the fountain and bathe in the waters. Nearby, there are lots of families hanging around and small rides for the children.

Mohammed V Square

Right across the street from the square is a store called Exposition Nationale d’Artisanat (العرض الوطني الصناعة التقليلدية). It has a few different floors full of souvenirs, from poufs to camels to shoes. Not all of it is artisan, nor would I recommend this place for more expensive purchases, such as leather goods or carpets, but it gives an idea of what can be purchased in the markets and what a reason price would be for that product. Also, there are a lot of smaller trinkets that you can find cheaper here than in the markets, such as mini tajines, post cards, and magnets. Either way, exploring here is a wonderful experience.

After that, we went to some more specialized shops. Our first stop was a carpet shop. When we walked in, we were warmly greeted and asked to sit in a large area. There were carpets stacked everywhere I could see. After getting the customary mint tea, the owners started rolling out carpets made of camel hair, agave, and sheep wool of all sorts of shapes and patterns. The man explained how each type is made and different features of them. Once each carpet was explained, we were asked to give a “no” or “maybe,” to each. Both parties in my group narrowed down to a carpet we wanted and then the bargaining began. As is typical, we were given a collective starting price. Unfortunately, I was the only one that ended up reaching a deal and I left with a multicolored camel hair carpet.

Make sure that you aren’t in a rush when visiting carpet shops, as it can take a few hours, especially if you find some you like. Also, from my experience, Marrakech had cheaper options, but Casablanca had more agave carpets if that is what is of interest. My last piece of advice is to certainly not take a starting price. It’s typically considered rude not to bargain and prices are set high to begin with. Even if don’t make a purchase, the experience is very unique to Morocco and worth having.

Carpets galore!

After that I would take the remaining hours to explore the older part of town. This part is the best glimpse of what Casablanca looked like before French colonization. Our hotel, Hôtel Central, was in the middle of the medina, the old, walled part of the city and provided easy access to the port and markets nearby. This area is easily reached by foot and offers excellent views of the ocean and is a great place to visit!

The stairwell at our hotel

Some of the markets have great options for gifts and food. We got so many wonderful items, from a camel leather pouf to a “magic” box that there was a trick to unlocking. There were plenty of clothes, leather products, and souvenirs available. Most of the vendors were friendly and willing to help us find the products were looking for. There are a number of places offering Moroccan street food, including several types of meat and vegetables in the forms of wraps, sandwiches, kebabs, and more. The best part is the fresh squeezed orange juice. There are so many people selling fresh squeezed fruit juices from watermelon to avocado to oranges and more, definitely a must buy.

Overall, Casablanca is a great place to spend a day exploring and taking in the sights. Between Mohammed V Square and the Hassan II Mosque, it is worth the day trip or more if you can make it!

Have you ever been to Casablanca? Or tried tagine? Or explored Moroccan markets?