Shopping Dos and Don’ts in Marrakech
Let me start out by saying – I wasn’t readddddy. I knew the sprawling Medina in Marrakech, Morocco was full of shops and markets, but nothing could prepare me for how overwhelming the dusty clay streets would be. There wasn’t one alleyway that didn’t have a stall or stand, with slightly aggressive locals (mostly men) insisting that you check out their wares. I really hope these tips help as when you get there as a lot of your strategy may just fly out the window and be a full on free-for-all.
First, a few warnings before you even start dropping dirhams (the local currency)
1. Practice saying no, and firmly.
You may be like me and be excited to just be interacting with locals, all smiley and kind, but this may make you appear more vulnerable. Stopping to smile and say no thank you all polite-like will give them a chance to press you to buy or spend more time there than you want to. If you’re not interested, keep walking and say nothing, or give a headshake and a clear no (or no, no no) as you stroll right on by.
2. Don’t give in to “guides” who offer help.
The medina is full of warm men with big grins and cute kids asking you if you need help. Unfortunately most of the time it comes with a price. From our experience it goes a little something like this. “Hello my friend. Where are you from? Welcome to my country! Are you lost? Where do you want to go? This way, come with me” are all red flags. RED. FLAGS. Do not pass go, do not collect $200 -- because that’s what they are trying to get from you. We knew this going in but some would still walk alongside us and chat, and once we got to where we were going they would hold out their hands and ask for payment (SIR. We got here on our own, you just followed us sooo….. ). If that happens just walk away and say “I don’t need help”. They may get a little indignant but hey, they knew what they were doing and are just upset they couldn’t fool you. Of course if you really are lost, which is totally possible, you may have to give in and allow them to guide you. We had to do this when trying to find our hotel, and paid them like $20. I wouldn’t don’t know if I’d do this as a solo traveler, but in a mixed group or with my husband, I’d only be a TAD worried. Still, use your best judgement. Definitely don't follow strangers around at night or in dark empty alleyways.
3. Kindness isn’t always genuine. But sometimes it is.
For example, a man at one shop kept us there for almost an hour AFTER we had already purchased a few bits from him. He asked us about life back home, we chatted about politics, he served us tea. I mean it was pretty cool to sit there for so long and learn about him. But then he started pulling out trays of jewelry and pushing us to buy more, even after we said we had no more money. We were pretty bummed because we thought we were making a friend. Still, a few days later we saw him again and he helped us find a legit rug seller, (Perhaps he was friend who splits a bit of profit with him) which was nice. Our best experience was at a lamp shop where we met the kindest man ever. His wife was African American and she works on the set of Scandal, so that was cool. He called her let me speak to her, and this was all after our purchases. He invited us to come back for tea, so we did the next day, and brought him fish sandwiches. We sat in there forever and we wished we had met him on our first day, it would’ve changed our entire outlook on Marrakech a lot earlier on in the trip. I say all this to say: it’s a gamble on who is showing true kindness and hospitality. Best to just go with your instincts on this one.
4. Don’t let anyone grab your arm Or FORCE YOU SOMEWHERE
Some cultures are just more touchy than others. For example, someone laid his hand my husband’s shoulder for longer than he liked, although I didn’t see what the big deal was. But this one woman was trying to give me a henna tattoo. It was my first day in the medina and it must’ve looked like I was. I’m sure I was appeared wild eyed and lost. She came up to me and started her pitch, her kohl rimmed eyes fixed on me, and the rest of her face hidden by her headdress. When I told I might be interested, but I wasn’t sure if I was allergic, she ate some of the henna to show it was safe, grabbed my arm and dragged me to her little tent. I didn’t want to be rude so I naively went along with it, asking her how much as she started drawing on my arm without giving a price. She said “whatever is in your heart to give me” and proceeded to draw a design I didn’t even get to pick out. It all happened so fast, and when she was done she showed me her price book. I think it came out to over $70 USD which I was not trying to spend on my first day. So I told her that was too much and we never agreed on a price, and she started to insist. I had to stand up and start to walk away before she accepted about $30. So to avoid those situations, pull away and say no FIRMLY. And don’t agree to anything, cab rides, tattoos, any services, without shaking hands on a price.
5. Don’t dress like you have money to spend.
I know, I know -- it’s Morocco, and hello you need insta-worthy outfits, BUT. On a designated shopping day, try to dress simpler and not like a rich foreigner with money burning in your pockets. People won’t give you as fair a price and you’re more susceptible to pickpockets. You can be cute but save the extra glam for another day.
Have I scared you off yet? I hope not because once you have these things down, the rest can be pretty fun. Now for the good stuff:
1. Bring a ton of cash — in dirhams.
Some of the more established shops will accept credit cards -- especially for more expensive items like large rugs and lamps, but cash is always necessary in the medina.
Don’t buy at the first lamp or rug shop you see. There are hundreds of thousands throughout the city! Walk in, take a look around and ask for prices. They will start high and you will work your way down. I started lower than I’d pay, and the goal would be to land somewhere in the middle. Then, still don’t buy. Start to walk away, and say you may be back later, that you want to see more shops. Most of the time they will concede to get you back in their shop to make a purchase. If not, you can walk around and do these steps all over again at several shops, to get a general idea of what similar items cost.
3. Plan Your Budget - Prices.
There is a huge range but to give you an idea of what they should be offering, here are the things we bought and their costs. These are all after bartering.
3’ x 5’ White Berber Wool Rug with Sequins: $110.00 USD
Tea Set (kettle and platter): $60 USD
Spices and Dried Herbs/Flowers: Cheap, under $5 for a pouch
Wool Berber Coat: $60 USD
Henna Tattoo: $30 USD
Woven Straw Clutch with Embroidery: $25 USD
Small handcut bronze lamp: $40 USD
Leather satchel: $50 USD
4. Research authentic versus fake, especially with rugs.
Some are acrylic and not even real wool. We got lucky that a local took us to a legit spot, but there are some stalls that sell fake goods. There are lots of ways to spot an authentic rug. Click here for more info, but one way I learned is the underside of the rug shouldn’t be plain. It should have design there as well. Have a budget in mind before entering a store, because you may be asked so they don’t select rugs way out of your range. Even better, have a color in mind. I knew I wanted white. The shop owner will lay out rugs for you on the floor and he should be patient while you figure it out. Don’t have him take down a ton of rugs with no intention to buy. It’s a waste of time, rugs are heavy and dusty, and sometimes they climb huge stacks to get them. Check rugs with metallic details for rust or tarnishing. I bought one with a little redness on some of the sequins and he told me I could get it cleaned, but who knows – I haven’t tried it yet. Also, rugs with those shiny bits are not soft on bare feet, just FYI. A good shop will fold it tightly and wrap it in plastic so it’s ready to travel home with you.
5. Pace yourself.
Like I said, the medina is HUGE. You may not get to everything. Take breaks to grab some street food and a fresh orange juice. Make a list and a budget and try to stick to it, but it will be hard! I haven’t even mentioned the scarves, hats, shoes, paintings, carvings, clothes, copper BATHTUBS, jewelry, vintage doors, pillows, glasses, bowls and plates, intricate tiles; the list goes on and on. If you like stuff, like me, you may need a few days devoted to exploring the wares. That’s really one if not the main attractions for most people in Marrakech anyway.
By our last few days there, we were pros. We were no longer overwhelmed or intimidated by the loud shouting and nagging. We’d ignore the inaccurate celebrity shout outs, (“Hey, Serena Williams! J. Lo! Jackie Chan!”) trying to grab our attention. We’d walk right by and keep chatting (not making eye contact works too haha).
Remember you’re in a country where a lot of people have to work really hard to get what they need for their families. One man told me he lives in the Atlas Mountains and is only in the city to make money. He only sees his family three times a year and never takes days off because every little sale counts. That is the case for many. They harass you for money for a reason, not just for fun. You can be sensitive to that while being firm. It’s worth it when you make a great purchase and also make a connection with a shop owner.
It’s also just beautiful -- the colors, the decked out shops, the scent of the spices – there’s no way to not come home inspired, and broke.
I wish I had specific store recommendations but I got so turned around in that souk that I couldn’t begin to tell you where to go. But I can tell you to start at the lamp shop I mentioned since we exchanged info. Not only is it instagram gold, but the owner is so incredibly nice, makes is wares in house, and is fair with his prices. He can also recommend other places you should go and he even helped us one day when we got lost. Plus there are a lot of good spots on the same street as his shop. If you go, show him my insta and tell him I sent you!
La Caverne Artisanal
N’2 trik ben Youssef
Souk Chaâria souk talla
I hope these tips helped and leave a comment if you have other questions!