Welcome to the souks of Marrakech. Here the air is rife with cries of gypsies, snake-charmers, wandering minstrels, magicians, and folk-singers. There are tanneries on pavements, street artists in every corner, and vegetable vendors popping out of alleys. If you’re not paying attention, you could end up with a monkey on your shoulder or snake wrapped around your arm.
Oh, what do we tell you about Marrakech’s souks – Overwhelming? Yes! But they are the perfect amalgam of colour, energy, and vibrance. There is nothing that isn’t sold here- perfumes, spices, bags, clothes, baskets, shawls, carpets, shoes, even safety pins.
However if the thought of plunging headlong into this world of colour and chaos intimidates you, fear not. Bruised Passports’ genies are at hand 🙂 Our ultimate guide to Moroccan souks is here to ensure you have fun exploring the labyrinthine souks of Marrakech. It takes just 5 easy steps:
#1 Absorb the chaos
You know that old English dictum ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’? We’re pretty sure someone must’ve conjured it within the confines of a Moroccan souk, because it sure is a challenge to ‘Keep Calm’ here.
When you get to the Djemaa- El-Fnaa (The Central Square), don’t walk right into the souks. Instead, spend the morning familiarising yourself with the unique rhythm of life here – we suggest having Moroccan mint-tea at a street-side cafe facing the Djema El Fnaa as you watch people go about their lives. From your vantage point you will see henna artists, palm readers, and ventriloquists. Try spotting ‘witch’ dentists pulling out molars in the middle of the square.
Surely at this point you are thinking you’ve seen EVERYTHING – nothing can faze you, you are unflappable. This is a good time to enter the hallowed confines of Marrakech’s souks. Take a deep breath and go…
A glimpse of the chaotic Djemaa-El-Fnaa
#2 Learn to say No
Moroccan vendors can be annoyingly persuasive. You will be pestered by shopkeepers on entering the souk, but it is nothing a firm no can’t tackle. Devise the perfect no – we suggest a baritone treading the fine line between firm and polite.
If you’re anything like Savi, then find someone else to say your Nos – giggles and smiles just won’t do, unless you want to end up squashed between a duo sporting the world’s most elaborate headgear.
#3 Get Lost
The hard part is over- the chaos has sunk in and you are feeling confident strutting through Marrakech’s bamboo-covered souks. It’s time to have some fun- savour the smell of spices drifting up your nostrils, follow colour, go where your eye takes you, turn into little alleys, and duck into the tiniest of shops.
Make sure you take your camera. If you’re a photographer, this is the place for you. Walk from the olive souk, jam-packed with different kinds of olives, to the potters’ souk, crammed full of brightly-coloured pots, pans, and tagines. There is a surprise at every corner – brightly-coloured glassware, sheesha pipes, fragrant spices, embellished kaftans, handcrafted bags – you name it, they have it.
It is easy to spend hours ambling in Marrakech’s serpentine souks- you are bound to get lost, but that is the fun of it. Irrespective of how far you go, it is always easy to make your way back to the Djemaa-El-Fnaa – just ask locals for help or start walking towards the dome of the The Koutoubia Mosque.
Marrakech’s splendid Olive Souk
Spoilt for choice in Marrakech’s Olive Souk
Colourful Ceramics at Marrakech’s Potters’ Souk
#4 Visit a Tannery
It is easy to spot freshly-dyed leather drying on pavements in Marrakech’s souks. But you will be able to smell the tanneries long before you can see them. The stink comes from vats of diluted bird excrement that are used to soften animal hides. You will be approached by a number of locals, posing as ‘guides’, as you walk towards the tannery. It is quite helpful to have someone to talk you through the process of tanning, but it’s best to set a price for this service BEFORE you enter the tannery. We cannot stress on this enough – be prepared to cough up a lot of money or be harassed for not deciding on a price beforehand.
Once you’re at the tannery, you will be handed a sprig of mint, in case the stench gets too much to take. Here’s what we learnt. Animal hide is processed in 3 stages. First it is dipped in a solution of milk of lime for 7 days to get rid of the hair. Next it is put in a vat full of bird excrement for 25 days. Then it is whitened with a cornstarch solution. Finally the rough edges are cut off, the skins are left to dry, and dyed.
As you can imagine, visiting a tannery can be a tad surreal. You might come out convinced you’re an accomplice to murder. This is definitely not for the faint-hearted, but it is a unique experience nevertheless.
Inside a tannery
Freshly-dyed leather drying on pavements
Once you’ve had your fill of the souks, it’s time to make your way back to the Djemaa El Fnaa. On your way back, pick up any wares that might have caught your eye. Make sure you bargain- it is the norm. The friendly banter that ensues is also a perfect way of getting to know the locals- who knows when you might land yourself an invite to dinner or a Moroccan wedding.
Ethnic jewellery and trinkets
Gorgeous Moroccan glassware
Lamps straight out of Aladdin
The labyrinthine souks of Marrakech were unlike anything we had ever seen before – an assault to the senses. This can make them overwhelming, but we loved them. They are full of energy- all consuming, rich, and fruitful. Go armed with Bruised Passports’ tips and we promise, you too, will leave mesmerised.
Read about the top things to do in Marrakech (Morocco) to start planning your trip. There are plenty of options to stay in Marrakech, from budget hostels to luxurious Riads. We stayed in Riad Al Idrisi, which was in a quiet neighbourhood and very comfortable. You can also look for options here.
Both Easy Jet and Ryan Air offer direct flights from UK to Marrakech. Prices start at £70/one way. The best time to visit is between September and April as the city can get very hot during summer months (May-August).
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