Located within the high walls of the city’s historic medina, entering the souks of Fez is like stepping back in time to the medieval period. The narrow streets twist and turn like a maze, with stores and shops lining the tangle of alleyways. Covering one of the world’s largest car-free areas, the cacophony of sounds, blend of unknown aromas, rich colours, and thronging crowd of people certainly stimulate the senses. It’s normal for first-time visitors to feel rather overwhelmed!
It is very easy to get lost in the souks of Fez. The tiny labyrinth-like streets can all start to quickly look the same. While this can be part of the thrill for some, other visitors can quickly feel disorientated and unnerved in the frenzy.
Talaa Kebeera is the main street running through the medina. Starting close to the gate of Bab Boujeloud, sticking to the small streets that radiate from this main thoroughfare can help first-time visitors to feel more confident and in control.
A map of the souks is essential for independent visitors. It’s worth keeping in mind that Fez’s souk is rather like a bowl; walking downhill means that you are walking farther into the heart of the medina, while an uphill walk means that you are heading towards the outer walls. It’s relatively easy to head out to any gate and hop in a taxi to take you around the outer walls.
Asking for directions can be tricky; asking male locals can result in seemingly friendly offers to show you the way, followed by a demand for payment. It’s often better to ask females or families. Alternatively, ask a shop keeper, as they cannot generally leave their store unattended. Carry the telephone number of your accommodation in case you get in a real muddle.
Exploring the souks with a licensed guide is ideal for those who are worried about getting lost in the fray. Do, however, ensure that the guide is, in fact, licensed, and not a local looking to make a quick buck off commissions and high guiding fees.
Although the souks may at first seem like a chaotic jumble, they were, in times gone by, separated by products. Metalworkers, for example, had their workshops close to each other and sold their wares in the same area. People knew where to go for certain items. Some of these distinct areas remain today, where shoppers will find an abundance of similar products.
Leather goods are plentiful in the streets surrounding the city’s famous tanneries. At the edge of the medina, close to Trek K’beer, visitors can explore the henna souk. Ladies create beautiful temporary designs on the skin and visitors can purchase henna supplies.
The streets around Nejjarine Square are top places to find detailed woodwork and see skilled carpenters at work, and Place Seffarine is a must for anyone looking for bronze goods and other metal items. Interestingly, the name Seffarine means farrier, the word for a person who fits horse shoes and takes care of horses’ feet. The dazzling gold souk is situated in the old Jewish quarter, known as the mellah. Other souks include the carpet souk, the spice and perfume souk, and the silver souk. Ain Nokbi pottery village is another interesting market in Fez.
As with many souks around Morocco, traders cater to the needs of both locals and tourists. While seeing fresh produce, like colourful fruits and vegetables, olives in an array of shades, an assortment of pungent fish, and various cuts of meat, is interesting, many tourists are also interested in seeing local crafts and buying traditional goods.
Ornate lamps, dainty tea sets, candelabras, musical instruments, metal and wooden picture frames, shisha pipes, intricately woven baskets, carpets, plates, vases, gleaming gems, and eye-catching jewellery are just a few things to tempt visitors. Sweet-smelling soaps, products containing the sought-after argan oil, and traditional herbal remedies are a few of the health and beauty products in the souks.
Babouches in all colours of the rainbow are omnipresent, with the city known for being a centre of producing the traditional footwear. Other leather goods include footstools, bags, belts, and wallets.
Traditional clothing and headscarves are also widely available; kaftans, jabadors, and different types of djellaba are a few things to look for. Although the red hat with a black tassel, known locally as a tarbouche and often called a Fez, doesn’t come from the city, visitors can still find the well-known hat on numerous stalls. Just don’t fall into the trap of thinking that it’s a traditional local item.
Blue and white Fassi pottery can make for a great souvenir, and buying something made from zellige tiles lets you take a little piece of an age-old tradition back home. Spices and tagine pots may be perfect gifts for cooking enthusiasts.
Never pay the first price quoted for an item. Haggling is very much a way of life in Morocco, and sellers give an initial price with an expectation of receiving a lower sum. Although it may feel uncomfortable at first, keep in mind that bargaining is a cultural norm in Morocco. Remember that a vendor won’t agree on a price that is not beneficial for them; haggling does not deprive somebody of making an income. Appearing too keen to make a purchase often results in a higher price.
It helps to enter negotiations with a rough idea of what you would be willing to pay for the item. Also, don’t be tricked into opening the price dance; this leaves little room for maneuver if you realise you’ve opened way too high. Let the seller suggest the first price. Counter with a much lower offer of between 60% and 75% of the initial asking price. The idea is for both parties to then increase and decrease their respective amounts to reach a figure that is acceptable to both parties. If both parties cannot agree on a mutually beneficial price, it is fine to walk away. Do not, however, settle on a price and not complete the sale. Only start negotiations if you are truly interested in making a purchase. Keep discussions friendly and light-hearted and you may find that haggling is actually fun.
The streets can look very different in the dark, and navigating the area is made all the more difficult in the gloom. Try and limit your adventures to daylight hours.
As with most busy areas, opportunistic thieves roam the streets of Fez. Keep your wallet in a safe place and maintain a tight grip on your bags.
While some larger shops can process card payments, cash transactions are very much the norm in Moroccan markets. Try and carry smaller bills to avoid potential headaches with finding change. Coins can be useful for tips.
Although the souks are closed to cars, visitors still need to look out for traffic. Scooters and bicycles weave through the streets at speeds that may seem excessive. Honking horns and trilling bells will alert you if you need to leap out of the way. The clattering sounds of hooves and shouts to move are also a good indication of approaching traffic; donkeys laden with an array of goods tirelessly trot through the souks and men push overflowing carts, both presenting a potential hazard for the unaware.
If the souks start to grate, pop into a local café for a break. There are many places to eat and drink scattered through the medina so finding somewhere for a rest is easy. Rejuvenate with a glass of mint tea, ready to pound the pavements afresh.
Visiting the souks of Fez is a wonderful way to dig deeper into the city’s past and present, learn more about local life, buy great products, and develop a greater appreciation for the city’s culture and heritage.