An Essential Guide to Marrakech’s Souks

| Photo by Esteban Palacios Blanco on Unsplash
Sarah Williams

The souks of Marrakech are often a highlight for any traveller. Indeed, the bustling atmosphere, the bargains, the thrill of haggling and the assault on the senses is often a big part of the reason why people take a trip to Morocco’s Red City.

An early history of souks in Marrakech

Traditionally an open-air market that locals relied on for their essential items, a souk would have travelling merchants passing through them once a week, once a month or at other infrequent periods. Marrakech’s strategic location at the heart of Morocco, however, meant that many traders came through the city every day.

Travellers roam the multicoloured souks in Marrakech, Morocco

Sitting on important trading routes, people passed through here from the north, south, east and west. Located at the centre of ancient commerce networks, goods found their way to Marrakech from all over Morocco, surrounding African countries and farther afield. Merchants often travelled by camel or donkey – usually with a heavily laden caravan.

An elderly person draws a horse and carriage in Marrakech, Morocco

The vast number of traders visiting Marrakech is a major reason why the medina has so many gates – access to the main part of the city was made easier for merchants. The Bab Doukkala gate, for example, was used by merchants from El Jadida to the northwest of Marrakech – and nearby areas.

The medina’s large gates opened early in the morning and closed every evening. Merchants who arrived late had to spend the night outside of the protective walls. Those who arrived in time typically slept in mosques or fondouqs – accommodation for merchants and their animals. The trading action took place at Jemaa el-Fnaa – the city’s large square – with numerous sellers offering an array of goods.

Local onlookers observe the camera among their daily tasks in Marrakech, Morocco

The growth of Marrakech’s souks

As the local population grew, vendors started to hold smaller souks close to main communities. Using donkeys, camels and carts to navigate the labyrinth-like streets of the medina, trading areas close to home made shopping much easier for locals. Thus, the convenience also increased the number of items getting bought – neighbourhood souks typically sold everyday essentials before they grew in popularity.

A smaller neighbourhood souk is situated in the old town of Marrakech, Morocco

The smaller neighbourhood souks gradually grew, as more traders saw the opportunity to increase sales. Many souks expanded so much that they merged with nearby souks.

A colourful display of Moroccan slippers known as Babouche in Marrakech, Morocco
An array of fragrant spices in Marrakech, Morocco

Local artisans and craftsmen often lived and worked close to others in the same trade. Communities of artisans grew – hence why there were traditionally some souks dedicated to particular goods. People sold their wares from or near their workshops. This is why today’s visitors will still find separate areas in some souks – like the Carpet Souk close to Rahba Lakdima.

A local carpet seller holds one of their carpets in Marrakech, Morocco

How to navigate the souks

Unless you stay fairly close to the web of streets branching off Jemaa el-Fnaa, it’s very easy to get lost in Marrakech’s souks. The narrow alleyways – with overflowing items that snake off to more thin passageways with even more goods – can all start to look very similar. Many are covered too, making it even more difficult to get a good idea of where you are.

One of the many souks in Marrakech, Morocco

Wandering the souks with a local guide is the best way to explore if you’re concerned about getting lost, especially if time is short – be sure to check if your guide is licensed.

If exploring independently, a map is essential. Grab a paper map from your accommodation or print one from an online source. Alternatively, use GPS on your mobile device as most major streets have signs for their names. If road signs and landmarks – such as mosques and monuments – can’t easily be spotted, walk through busier areas until you find a sign or landmark. Or, walk until you are outside and can see the towering minaret of Koutoubia Mosque as a reference point.

The Koutoubia Mosque, also known as the oldest and largest mosque in Marrakech, Morocco

Asking for directions to the souks

Getting lost is generally part of the fun of exploring the energetic souks. If you start to panic and really need to ask somebody for directions, try to approach families or women as opposed to younger men. While not dangerous, it’s a lot more common for younger males to make a friendly offer to take you to where you want to go. Although this might seem like a blessing, it often ends with you paying a substantial ‘tip’ – after possibly having been carted to several stalls, from where the ‘helpful’ stranger is trying to score commission on a sale along the way.

A local person walks past a wall hung with carpets in the old town of Marrakech, Morocco

Another option is to go into a small shop and ask for help. Shop owners generally can’t leave their premises and are less likely to try and lead you in exchange for payment. Of course, you could also ask somebody to call your accommodation to come and collect you if you’re in a real muddle.

Two people play draught on a homemade board in Marrakech, Morocco

Shopping in Marrakech’s souks

The huge variety of items on sale in the souks of Marrakech makes some people travel with an empty suitcase, ready to load up with goodies to take home.

Pottery stalls can be found in abundance – tagine pots in all sizes, serving plates, soup bowls and small tagine-like dip holders are especially common. Jewelled glassware and ornate teapots can make a pretty addition to your dining room back home, too.

A variety of terracotta tagines are for sale in the souk in Marrakech, Morocco

Vibrantly coloured aromatic spices are often among the first things people think of when imagining the souks of Marrakech.

A bird sits precariously on top of bags of rice in Marrakech, Morocco

Traditional woven Moroccan carpets and handmade Berber boucherouite (rugs) are proudly displayed at numerous stalls – along with colourful lamps and lanterns hanging from the rafters and surrounding doorways.

A cat has an afternoon nap on a decorative rug in Marrakech, Morocco

Leather goods are often popular with visitors – especially wallets, belts, bags and shoes that are handmade in the city. Looking for a few new pieces to add to your wardrobe? Marrakech’s souks have clothes in all shapes, sizes and colours – from t-shirts, shorts and jeans through to the more traditional kaftans and djellabas – a kind of robe.
Islamic items of clothing are found in abundance, such as abayas (a robe-like dress) and head coverings – pick up a pashmina to complement any outfit. Balgha (Moroccan slippers) are also widely available, as are pieces of beautiful silver jewellery, artwork, shisha pipes, accessories, traditional musical instruments, toys, souvenirs and much, much more.

A local person plays their instrument in Marrakech, Morocco

Tips for being safe in Marrakech

As with most places where a lot of people congregate, pickpocketing and bag snatching can be a problem. Fasten bags, keep a tight grip and make sure your wallet is in a secure place – not your back pocket.

A local cart is parked near a souk in Marrakech, Morocco

Haggling is an essential part of shopping in the souks. Keep things light-hearted and friendly while negotiating and if you can’t settle on a price, it’s okay to walk away. However, don’t agree on a price and then not go through with the sale – this is considered bad etiquette.

As the constant calls and attempts to entice buyers can become a little tiresome after a while, why not take a break and head to a café for a breather?

A spice sellers waits patiently among his spices in Marrakech, Morocco

Other related activities to enjoy in Marrakech

Head to Marrakech’s tanneries to see how leather is worked before being crafted into the items you see for sale in the souks. Watch various artisans and craftsmen in their workshops, sewing, hammering, chiselling, sculpting, cutting and applying their skills in such exceptional precision.

A local person carves wooden pieces in Marrakech, Morocco

Experience the lively atmosphere of Jemaa el-Fnaa in the evenings, admire the various monuments and ornate doorways that can be found around the souks and try local delights from food vendors. Marrakech’s sweet, tasty orange juice is not to be missed.

A nighttime aerial view of the restaurants at Djemaa el Fna Square in Marrakech, Morocco

The Most Charming Markets in Marrakech

1. Djemaa el-Fna

Architectural Landmark

Photo by Tom Tiepermann on Unsplash
Djemaa el-Fna is the largest square in the medina. It is also one of the most-visited tourist attractions in the city. It was once the main marketplace in the old town, and today sells an array of goods, including argan oil products produced in other parts of the province. There are many street food stalls too, with kebabs, snails, pastries and other small snacks on offer, as well as establishments where you can sit and enjoy a larger meal, such as a tajine or tangia. The orange juice vendors around the lively Djemaa el-Fna are especially acclaimed.

2. Mellah

Architectural Landmark

Mellah is the old Jewish quarter of the medina, though there are few Jewish people still residing in the area. A walk through the markets and past the time-worn stores reveals years of history. An assortment of goods is available, but the area is especially known for its wide selection of colourful fabrics and ornate accessories for making clothes. The Guided Walking Tour in Marrakech is the best way to experience Mellah.

3. Souk Cherifia

Architectural Landmark

Souk Cherifia offers a more sanitised and easier-to-navigate version of the souks, with a selection of shops within a shopping centre. The products are similar to those found lining the streets, but presented in a more orderly fashion. Quality is usually high, but that’s reflected in higher prices. It’s also a terrific place to pick up modern takes on classic designs and imported items from other parts of the continent. The Art of Shopping in the Souks of Marrakech tour is the best way to experience Souk Cherifia.

4. Ensemble Artisanal

Architectural Landmark

If you want to see how traditional items are made without the hassle of visiting different parts of the large souks, the government-backed Ensemble Artisanal is the place to visit. Top artisans are hand-picked to work in the complex, teaching various trades to young apprentices. Goods are then sold at fair, fixed rates to visitors. See how musical instruments, lanterns, carpets, silver jewellery, leather items, pottery, brass goods, wooden carvings and more are produced with skill and care.

5. Souk el Attarine

Architectural Landmark

Although Souk el Attarine was traditionally a place to buy spices and scents, metal goods are also found in abundance here today. It’s a terrific souk to experience the hustle and bustle of a Moroccan market, while browsing a wide selection of items in one condensed area. Mirrors in all shapes and sizes reflect nearby lamps and teapots, and the delicate aroma of perfumes and heady smell of spices linger in the air.

6. Souk des Bijoutiers

Architectural Landmark

Souk des Bijoutiers was historically a place for wealthier locals to purchase dazzling jewellery. The gems, jewels and gleaming precious metals still attract those who want to add some beautiful pieces to their collection.

7. Souk Semmarine

Architectural Landmark

Colourful and bright, Souk Semmarine is the number one place to purchase traditional leather footwear. Row upon row of hand-made babouches (slippers) are available in an assortment of sizes. While the shoes can be worn inside or out, Moroccans generally have separate pairs for both.

8. Souk des Teinturiers

Architectural Landmark

Souk des Teinturiers is where fabrics and skins are dyed in an eye-catching spectrum of colours. Watch how dyes are applied to items and peruse finished pieces of silk and sheep skins, ready to be bought or turned into rugs, clothes and other items.

9. Souk Haddadine

Architectural Landmark

A relatively under-visited souk by tourists, Souk Haddadine lets you peek into the world of a Moroccan blacksmith. The clanging of hammers rings through the air and you can feel intense waves of heat as you pass by the furnaces. While you are unlikely to find many souvenirs in this area, you can watch first-hand as wrought-iron gates, pots, plates, trays, teapots, horse shoes and other metal items are bashed into shape with precision. The Shopping Marrakech Souks by Local Guide stops by Souk Haddadine.

10. Bab El Khemis

Architectural Landmark

A large flea market is held every Thursday evening in front of the Bab El Khemis gateway. It’s a popular spot for locals, yet seems to lack any coherent organisation. Stroll through the diverse array of items and try to spot a few treasures. Anything goes here – old carved doors are propped against walls, brass door knockers spread on sheets on the floor, and second-hand clothing draped over anything that will serve as a makeshift garment display. Old furniture in various states of repair are strewn across the pavement; expect to find anything from brass bedsteads to plastic garden chairs. You may even see the odd kitchen sink. Bicycles, jewellery, tools, cookware, cushions and rugs are a few of the other items you might find.

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