Even if shopping isn’t among your favorite activities, browsing in Morocco’s lively souks is a worthwhile cultural experience. And if you happen to enjoy shopping, then you’re really in for a treat—imagine colorful, regional handicrafts from floor to ceiling and artful displays of culinary delights. Either way, it is helpful to know what to expect before joining the clamor.
A souk is an open-air market. Many travelers tend to associate “souk” with the winding alleyways of the expansive and historic medinas in Fes and Marrakesh. While these two UNESCO World Heritage Sites are among Morocco’s iconic attractions, the neighborhood souks in large cities often offer similar goods and better prices. Many big city souks are open seven days a week, though most have limited hours on Fridays and weekends.
A countryside village might have only a shop or two open daily to sell basic necessities; however, the scene changes dramatically on the weekly “market day,” when the souk opens and residents in and around the community gather to buy and sell anything anyone might need. Expect to maneuver around bikes with baskets, load-bearing donkeys and dusty pick-up trucks.
Souks emanate an energy that can feel both invigorating and overwhelming. The packed walkways abound with opportunities to observe locals interacting with family, friends and merchants. Shopkeepers gregariously invite passersby into their stalls, eager to present their wares in hopes of securing a sale. Each seller has a specialty—leather, scarves, jewelry, spices, oils, etc.—and the goods cover every inch of the tightly packed stalls.
As soon as you start browsing, a shopkeeper will likely engage you in conversation and might even offer you some mint tea. If you’re looking at a bar of argan soap (argan oil is among Morocco’s specialties), the seller may present five additional soaps to consider and uncap bottles of oil for you to sniff. Although visitors may perceive more pressure to buy than they’re accustomed to, avoid the temptation to buy something prematurely. Take your time and peruse a variety of shops; after all, you can always return later to make your purchase.
When you’re ready to buy, haggling over the price is the next adventure. It can take a while. After the merchant states a price, make a counteroffer that is no more than half of that amount (some even suggest a counteroffer of 30% or 10% of the initial price!). On a trip to Morocco with Journey Beyond Travel, the guides are used to (and enjoy) helping travelers get good bargains if shopping is on their ‘to-do’ list. Many merchants initially respond with indignant replies about how your offer is way too low and prices like that wouldn’t allow them to support their families. While those unaccustomed to haggling might find it uncomfortable, bear in mind that this is a cultural norm in Morocco, where going back and forth several times before agreeing on a price is typical. If you know what you want to buy before visiting the souk, you might find it helpful to ask locals—such as hotel or restaurant staff—for advice about a fair price and haggling for a particular item.
Some travelers opt to hire a licensed guide when visiting a large souk, such as those in the medinas of Fes and Marrakesh. A guide not only informs you about historic sites and popular attractions within the medina, but can also help you find any specific items you want and lead you to merchants that are particularly renown for that product. If you opt to wander without a guide, be wary of guides who approach you. Unlicensed guides are often affiliated with a specific shop and will ultimately lead you there. For instance, in Fes you might encounter a young guide who offers to show you around the medina and take you to a tannery. After snapping a few photos of artisans treating leather under the sun, a shopkeeper will soon inquire about which leather goods you intend to buy. It’s not necessarily a bad thing (after all, you’ll likely see interesting sights and learn something new along the way); just remember that you have no obligation to buy anything.
Written by Shelley A. Gable, instructional designer and freelance writer.
Photo by _Pixelmaniac_.