How to Safely and Assuredly Navigate a Moroccan souk

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How to Safely and Assuredly Navigate a Moroccan souk

Morocco’s markets are one of the most exotic, frenetic and sensory experiences you could possibly encounter. Knowing how to safely and assuredly navigate a Moroccan souk allows us to enrich our lives with a vibrant encounter. Since 2020, we have enjoyed nearly 8 months exploring Morocco, and in that time, I have delved into the heart of many a souk, especially loving those in Marrakech. And so I feel equipped to share my strategies of navigating these intense markets in the hope that you have a positive and memorable visit.

Souk of Asilah

From the gentle souks of Asilah, Chefchaouen and Essaouria to the crazy chaos of Fez and Marrakech, souks are an almost expected addition to your Moroccan road-trip. How could you possibly know this African beauty without the sights, sounds and smells that tantalise your senses. It is part of Morocco’s education of their culture, which runs as a deep as a bubbling volcano. I hope that these strategies give you confidence to override your fear and an approach that will guide you safely through this incredible Moroccan landscape.

  • Start with a gentle souk like that of Asilah, Essaouria or Chefchaouen in the northern half of the country. They have a grace about them that builds up confidence and allows you to find your feet. They are significantly smaller and less intense than those inland in the Imperial cities of Fez and Marrakech. Yet they still give you the sensory adventure that I know you secretly crave.
Essaouria souk

  • Avoid wandering, as it is then that you get lost. Have a point to head for, whether it’s a museum, café or city gate. Wandering is also seen as ‘fair game’ by any eagle-eyed stall owner. Either enticing us towards their wares or offering to guide you on their own personal tour. This will undoubtedly result in the request for a ‘tip’ or tea with their brother’s uncle who owns a carpet shop. Having directions on your phone is one sure fired way of looking confident and less like a wandering tourist.

Souk carpets, Morocco

  • Walk mindfully and with confidence. Walk too fast and you miss the soul of a souk. Walk too slowly and you will have to navigate every store holder inviting you to see his unique artefacts. A souk needs to be soaked up and surrendered to. Yet it also requires a mindful pace that allows you to look around and sense the very heart of this magical place. When we adopt a confident air, with heads held high, then we are more likely to be respected and targeted less.
El Jadida souk

  • Dress appropriately to avoid any unwanted stares or ‘tut’s. I often see young women walking through souks baring flesh, shoulders and knees. This is a Muslim country and adopting a conservative attire is appropriate. People who tell you that ‘It is time that these countries caught up with western standards,’ are not respectful travellers. Whilst we’re in a different culture, we must respect their way of life. It is not for us to push our values on them as visitors. So make sure you have something that covers knees and shoulders (a pashmina or scarf is ideal.) For men it is less of an issue, although for women dressing appropriately will create a much more positive experience.
  • Whilst on the subject of appropriate dress, if you want to navigate a souk in Morocco, then the right footwear is essential for the miles you are likely to walk. Plus, I would strongly recommend a pair of sunglasses. It might sound an odd strategy, although with glasses on, you don’t make direct eye contact if you want to have a wee look at something on one of the stalls. That means that you can be a bit more incognito whilst still grabbing a peek.
Appropriate dress for a souk

  • Keep handbags and money safe. To be honest I would suggest this in any city of the world so it’s not about it being a Moroccan strategy. Although when we’re in often crowded and narrow streets of the souk, it’s worth making sure that we have our money and valuables safe and close to us. So for example I tend to leave our passports behind in a safe or the motorhome. I also only take the cash that I think I’ll need and only take one of my credit cards just in case we have lunch somewhere that takes it. It’s sensible to adopt savvy traveller techniques wherever we go.
  • Whenever you visit a Moroccan souk, even in the winter, the chances are that it will get quite warm during the course of the day. And of course being on our feet most of the day with perhaps a short stop for coffee or lunch, there won’t be much hydrating going on. So take a bottle of water in whatever baggage you decide is best.
Chefchaouen souk

  • Have a map on the phone like Google Maps as a guide. Don’t use a map as you could end up looking like a tourist. Of course we clearly are tourists, although the more confident we look the better. If you get lost, then find a cafe to sit down at and gather your thoughts, or just pull to the side to take a few minutes to reorientate yourself. Don’t panic, just reset yourself and carry on.
  • In case of a loss of signal, and it does happen when we go into the web of passages from time to time, download This is a great off-line app that can be a great tool if your signal goes. It has got me out of trouble many a time.
  • Whilst we’re on phones, I would strongly suggest that you make sure you either have a battery charger or minimise the video and photos you take. You need your phone to be your directional guide and you really don’t want to loose power in the middle of the souk.

  • If you’re visiting a souk to soak up the atmosphere and to say that you’ve been, then avoid mooching at stalls. If you don’t have a serious intent to buy, avoid the tease. Remember that this is the stallholders’ and artisans’ living and a meagre one at that. So only look seriously if you have an intent to buy. And when you decide to buy something, be prepared to negotiate on the price. Don’t take the first price they give you, unless you think it is fair. At the same time don’t be mean with your haggling. They still need to feed their family. If it really isn’t worth the money they are asking, then be prepared to walk away and they will probably lower the price.

  • A souk will be full of plenty of artisans doing their work. By all means watch, ask questions and take photos (with their permission) although be prepared that in return they may ask you to buy something. You can of course say no, although at the very least offer some money for the photo.
  • A souk is vast, so limit your first experience to just an hour or so to find your feet. Once you have a feel for how things work, then you can return and have more time exploring. Knowledge creates confidence and a short visit will tell you how the souk works and how to stay safe and assured. As an example, Marrakech has 18 different types of souk, specialising in particular items. Such as the Spice souk near Tinsmith Square. You will never see it all, so just be happy with getting a feel for a souk or walk directly to the speciality you specifically want to see, such as the Leather artisans.
  • If you are asked to come look and you genuinely don’t want to, then a simple smile with a hand on your heart accompanied by either ‘Non merci’ or La shukran’ (Arabic for no thank you), will elicit from them a hearty ‘bonjournee’. Remember that they are human beings trying to earn a living and not thieves trying to rob you, so courtesy and kindness never does any harm.

  • Marrakech in particular has crazy and frenetic written in the cobble stones. So watch out for scooters, donkey carts, bicycles and lots and lots of people. There are no rules of the road in souks and it tends of be an each to their own type of affair. No one has right of way, least of all the tourist, so keep your ears open and your eyes peeled; ideally from the back of your head and always keep to the sides.
  • If you have a dog, whilst we have been into Fez with friends who had a dog, I would exercise caution. Firstly there’s getting into the city via a taxi, which can be tricky. Then there’s the navigating the narrow streets, which can be stressful for animals at ground floor level. Sometimes the stray cats can be aggressive and so it all gathers up to be a difficult scenario for pet owners. Whilst most Moroccans are intrigued by our beloved pets, sometimes they can be either wary or offensive in their company. And of course restaurants and cafés often won’t allow pets into their establishments. So if you can arrange for a pet sitter whilst you venture into the souk, it might be a good idea.

  • And finally a word on Marrakech souks following the devastating earthquake of September 2023. Our last visit to the city was in February 2024 and whilst it is certainly back to business, there is still some evidence of destruction in and around the Medina. Whilst your passage isn’t hampered at all, just be mindful that for some of the sellers that their homes were destroyed or damaged. If you can help by putting money into the economy, then please do.

So, there we have it. How to safely and assuredly navigate a Moroccan souk. Inspired by our six personalised tours of Marrakech for our friends and family, we hope that sharing our experiences will help you remove fear and replace it with preparation, knowledge and excitement. If Morocco, or indeed Marrakech are on your radar, then you might enjoy more of our posts, which you can find by clicking here.

Published: February 19, 2024
Category: Morocco | Travel Tips


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