Souk it up in Marrakech

by Clare.Jones

If shopping's your thing, then head to Marrakech, where bartering for a bargain is an ancient art form. You can shop till you drop and then recharge in one of the city’s boutique riads

The mingling aroma of a thousand spices and the sounds of story-tellers, fire-eaters and snake-charmers make Marrakech and its bustling souks one of the world’s most exotic open-air shopping malls. For centuries this city has been busy shopping. The art of striking a deal and bartering for a bargain is ingrained deep within the red medina walls of this renowned trading port. 

Berbers and Arabs, nomads and tribespeople from the surrounding Atlas Mountains have converged in the chaotic central square, Jemaa el Fna, while merchants from Timbuktu, Egypt and Europe came to deal in cotton, gold, silver, slaves and spices. Today it feels as though very little has changed and shopping remains in itself a reason to visit Marrakech’s sprawling medina, or old city.

It’s in the souks, a tightly-packed maze of alleyways and labyrinthine lanes, laiden high with wares and wonders, that the best shopping can be done. Closet-size stalls stretch northwards out of Jemaa el Fna, leading you deeper and deeper into the heart of this shopping district, where keen salesmen vie for your attention.

It’s almost guaranteed that at some point you will get lost amongst the twist of shadowy narrow streets, where the sky is crowded out by overhanging carpets, metalwork or leather displays. It’s easy for browsing to take over with so many tightly-packed stalls selling an array of products. From traditional slippers, or babouches, to ornamental ironwork lanterns, there’s plenty to take in. When you do lose your bearings, and you will, amidst such a booty of colourful collectables, you usually find the next turn brings you back to a familiar spot.

An area not to be missed is Rahba Kedima or the ‘old place’, off Rue Semaine in the northeast part of the souks, where herbalists tout potions, lotions and spices to cure all manner of ailments or diseases. Here, you can pick up black scorpions, bottled leeches and even dried chameleons for medicinal purposes. You may prefer to settle for a simple but effective neck and shoulder massage.

A bit of relaxation may be what you need after a shopping foray. The souks definitely still pack their punch. For the stallholders, there are deals to be done and business to be conducted. They streets teem with life, conversations and characters as well as the constant offer of a good deal. So when the hustle and heat of the city starts to take its toll on your will to barter, retreat to Jemaa el Fna. Its many shady pavement cafes offer refreshing mint tea.

It's at sunset that the action really gets under way in the main square, as musicians, brightly-costumed water-sellers, performing dancers, dentists pulling teeth and henna tattooists gather en masse. Shortly after the sun goes down, a series of open-air restaurant stalls take centre stage. Neat orderly rows of benches, strings of twinkling lights, tables covered with white cloths, and plates piled high with salads, cous cous and lamb skewers are promptly assembled, and the hazy smoke and smells quickly rise.

Although Jemaa El Fna translates as 'assembly of the dead', the square transforms every evening to brim with life. The sound of whining instruments and the thud of drums enticing snakes from wicker baskets, street-sellers shouting their wares, the hiss of flames and the clatter of snail shells being cooked on the food stalls is an intoxicating concoction. For a more chilled-out view of proceedings, you can watch the scene unfold from the vantage point of Café Glacier, with its panoramic view of both the square and the Koutoubia mosque.

But when you have shopped and you are ready to drop you can find solace in one of the city’s riad’s. These are traditional merchant homes centred around a courtyard, which in recent years have seen a wave of conversions into stylish boutique hotels. Typically hidden away behind sturdy thick wooden doors, what lies behind is a peaceful haven removed from the chaos of the city - somewhere to unwind before your next spree...


Clare Jones is a travel writer and photographer who loves a good adventure and has been lucky enough to make this her work travelling across the globe for a variety of magazines and newspapers. She is co-author and photographer of the international best-selling BBC books Unforgettable Things to do before you die, Unforgettable Journeys to take before you die and the recently published Unforgettable Walks to take before you die. She has also co-authored the AA titles, Extreme Places and the flagship Key Guide to Spain. She has been on assignment in over 50 countries and five continents exploring them on foot, by kayak, under sail, by mountain bike as well as skiing and climbing. One of her most testing adventures was a three-month sea-kayaking expedition from Vancouver to Alaska, as part of the first British all-female team to undertake this 1000-mile epic journey. She is a Winston Churchill Fellow and was honoured with the Mike Jones Award for accomplishing this journey. She is also sponsored by Salomon. Her work has been featured by a variety of publications, including the Sunday Telegraph, The Times, Mail on Sunday, The Scotsman, and The Herald, USA Today, Geographical, Health & Fitness and Traveller. Clare is also an assistant television producer and has worked on several BBC documentaries.