Shopping in Marrakesh: Tips and Advice for Retail Therapy
All photos by Michelle Rae Uy
In Marrakesh, souks practically run the city… at least where tourists are concerned. After all, a shopping excursion within Old Medina’s tangle of light-dappled, souk-lined alleyways is essential when visiting the visually eloquent city. Give in to the relentless beckoning of persistent vendors, brave your way through the narrow yet bustling lanes of the central souks, and get your haggling on. Treasures begging to be taken home await.
Tall piles of usually handmade rugs, woven by local Moroccan tribes, fill up all four corners of carpet souks in Marrakesh so that they look more like tiny, makeshift warehouses than actual shops. And these rugs come in beautifully vibrant or lovely neutral colors, different textures, several types and many sizes so you can pick and choose depending on your style and taste. There are 45 tribes in all, and every single one brings its own unique style and design to the rugs they weave. Each Morrocan rug, therefore, is usually, wonderfully one of a kind, which makes them worth a proper haggling and a cozy addition to your home.
Walking into the central souks, some of the first things you’ll notice—aside from the assertive peddling of vendors and the quite aggressive vrooms of small motorcycles weaving through the alleys—are the exotic scents of spices in the air. Lines of souks carrying artisanal goods are dotted with stalls selling piles of spices in rich, earthy colors.
Morocco produces some of the best and most flavorful spices in the world: turmeric, cumin, curry, saffron, and even special blends.
These, along with argan and jasmine oils, dates and olives, and crystallized menthol, are definitely must buys when visiting the city. Plus, they’re super easy to transport and they make for excellent gifts for friends and family back home.
There’s nothing like walking into a souk softly lit by Moroccan lanterns from top to bottom. It’s a familiar and wistful image for those who have visited and fallen in love with Marrakesh. Like Moroccan rugs, Moroccan lanterns are some of the trendiest home accents at the moment, which makes their purchase hard to pass up.
They also come in many shapes and sizes, and are made from different materials, some tougher than others. You can still get that Moorish feel in your home with the aluminum-made ones if you’re on the budget; but those made of sturdier metals like brass or copper are far superior if you can shell out the cash.
READ MORE: Morocco is Cooking
Poufs are favored home accessories these days not only because they give a touch of bohemian flair to the overall look of your home, they’re also very utilitarian. You can use these as seating or as substitute tabletops. Like with many products that come out of Morocco, poufs come in either light, neutral colors or in bright ones (shades of reds, blues, yellows). What’s so great about purchasing these in Morocco is that you can usually haggle them down to about 10 percent of how much they would normally cost if you bought them in the US. And since souks sell them unstuffed, you can easily pack them up in your luggage without hassle.
Clothing and Accessories
From the traditional dresses, djellabas, and more modern, fashionable pieces of clothing to gorgeous accessories such as bright, woven hats, fezes, babouches or leather slippers, leather bags, and sandals, Morocco is a fashion paradise. Moroccan clothing and accessories are typically very comfortable, modest and perfect for warm weather, and Marrakesh’s alleyways are simply teeming with souks that sell them. They make for great souvenirs to remember your trip by or as fantastic gifts for friends and family back home. They are, however, especially useful if you’re planning on staying in the country for a longer period of time.
Tips Before You Go
Fake it ‘til you make it. If it’s your first time visiting Marrakesh, you might feel a tad overwhelmed. That’s ok, normal even. From locals trying to make a quick buck off you to the zigzagging lanes of Old Medina, it takes some people—even experienced travelers—at least a day to get used to the city and get over the culture shock.
Just know that if you look hesitant or even lost, some people will most likely try to take advantage of you. Your best bet is to act like you know what you’re doing, pretend like you’ve done it all before and fake confidence. Before you know it, you’ll be navigating those streets like a pro.
Be guarded. Since Marrakesh is a popular tourist spot, its streets are safe enough for a single woman to explore by herself. But remember that Morocco is still a developing country so you might encounter locals trying to sell you goods that are way overpriced or take you to a “recommended” souk or cooperative for a commission. You may even encounter the occasional pickpocket. Keep your cash secure when you’re walking around, know how much things would generally cost (cab rides, for example), and use your best judgment when purchasing products from souks.
Haggle. Haggle. Haggle. Haggling is a way of retail life in Morocco. No one is expected to pay the initial price of an item, even if it seems like a good price especially when converted into dollars. Vendors can usually afford to sell their products for a fraction of their given or listed price; so do not hesitate to haggle. Start at a third of the original price and slowly work you way up. And when you get the price you’re willing to pay for, remember to shake on it.
Don’t be afraid to walk away. If you cannot agree on a price you’re satisfied with, feel free to walk away. Chances are you’ll either find someone who can give you an offer you’ll be happy with or that vendor will concede. Similarly, don’t let a persistent vendor pressure you into buying something or feel guilty about saying no and walking away—just because they’re good at their job, it doesn’t mean you should purchase something you don’t want or need. Smiling while saying “no, thank you” usually makes your refusal look and feel more gracious.
Learn to wander. The meandering alleyways of Old Medina are tricky enough to navigate on your first visit. The fact that smartphone map apps can’t seem to work properly there makes it even trickier. Don’t worry; it’s a pretty small area so even if you get lost, you will find your way back eventually as long as you remember the roads that run from north to south. Besides, getting lost in Old Medina is a fantastic way to discover offbeat spots, meet colorful characters and even score great bargains.
Come early. A few hours before noon is usually the best time to shop, especially if you hate crowds and love a bargain. It’s not only cooler in the mornings and there’s considerably less foot and motorcycle traffic, vendors seem more pleasant and more likely to part with their wares at cheaper prices. Some of them might even be willing to sell you products at lower than the price you originally agreed on just because they don’t have enough change on hand.
Bring plenty of cash. Most souks are cash only so if you plan on doing some retail therapy, make sure to bring plenty of cash. There are a number of ATM or cash machines in and around Old Medina, and many tourists use them for cash withdrawals. However, one can’t be entirely sure as to how secure those are. It might be best to actually have enough cash, preferably in Moroccan Dirham in different denominations, already on hand before you go. This also gives you the advantage of not going over your budget.
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