Morocco is a truly unique destination and one of the most popular to visit in the world today. There are so many places to explore in this North African nation but no trip to Morocco would be complete without spending a day or two in Marrakech’s famed medina. Filled with shops, restaurants and a dizzying array of narrow alleys, it’s a wonderfully unique place to explore. Once you arrive however it can be very overwhelming and chaotic to navigate. After experiencing Marrakech’s medina for a few days I’ve developed a list of tips that I’d like to pass along to help you navigate and shop the medina successfully.
1.Getting to and from the medina by taxi.
If you’re not staying within walking distance of the medina then you’ll likely need to hire a taxi to take you there. The best destination to give your taxi driver is either Koutoubia Mosque or main square called Djemma el-Fna.
Ask your hotel receptionist what a fair price would be for a taxi ride so you know if your driver is trying to ask too much (which they will). I’ve discovered that most taxi’s don’t have meters and even if they do, there’s no guarantee that the driver will even use it. Once you find a taxi driver, settle on a price before you get in and barter if they ask too much. There are so many taxi’s in Marrakech, you don’t have to take the first one that comes by.
Unless you’re fluent in Arabic or French, be sure to bring along your hotels business card or write down the address so you can take a taxi back.
2. Take a guided tour of the medina.
This was the very first thing I did in Marrakech. I found a wonderful guide, Saeed, who runs his own tours called Marrakech By Locals. The tour began at 9 am and lasted approx 3 hrs. He was a wealth of knowledge both in history of the country, culture and how best to navigate the medina. After my tour I felt much more oriented and armed with some knowledge on how to not get lost and how to best negotiate prices for items I want to buy.
3. Ask shop keepers for directions.
This was one of Saeed’s tips so I’ll give the credit to him. He said that if you get lost, don’t be taken for a walk by a “helpful” local (who will likely take you to his brothers shop or ask for payment for being your guide). Rather, ask a shop keeper. The shop keepers cannot leave their shop to guide you and will not ask for payment for directions. Which leads me to my next point…
4. Beware of “helpful” locals in the medina.
If someone wants to “help” lead you to where you’re going they will always ask for money, even if they say “no money” at the beginning. They will either take you to their brothers shop (with the expectation that you buy something) or ask for payment. Don’t let them push you around!
I had a local offer to guide me to a museum I was looking for. I politely declined saying “no guide” (I was sort of lost but not too worried about finding my destination). This guy kept walking in the direction I was going saying “no money, no money!”. Once I arrived (it was a good 5 min walk) he turned to me and asked for money. When I said no he got pushy so I got pushy right back and said a firm no, then entered the museum where I knew he wouldn’t follow.
5. Learn a few landmarks so you can stay oriented.
There really is no map for this crazy maze, though there are occasionally street signs. Use shop or restaurant signs (the ones that are permanently fixed) to help you find your way into and out of the medina.
Also, always look behind you to see what things look like from that perspective so the medina will look familiar when you’re walking back the way you came.
Shopping & Bartering
6. Tips for Bartering
There are no fixed prices in the medina (aside from restaurants) so everything is negotiable. Whatever the price the shop owner gives you, half it. If he asks for 100 Dirham, start your bid at 80 – 100 Dirham. Always go lower and work up to the price you’re willing to pay.
Bartering is a skill that gets better with practice and not something that westerners are generally used to. But once you get the hang of it, it was a be a fun way to interact with the locals. I’ve found that I always get the best price after I’ve started bartering but then decide I “don’t want it” and walk away (sometimes I actually don’t want it!). The shop keeper usually comes after me shouting my lowest bid or some other low price. This is when you discover the true value of the object you are buying.
7. Learn some local language
As I mentioned above, Morocco has 2 main languages: French and Arabic. It’s always wise to learn some phrases in the local language and I found it be particular helpful. Although I speak some French (not much), I found it was even more helpful to know a few words of Arabic.
If someone was trying to sell me something and I said “no thank you” or “no merci”, they would continue to haggle with me. But every time I said “la shukraan” (“no thank you” in Arabic), they would stop their sales pitch and leave me alone. There would be a mild hint of respect on their faces as well. Marrakech sees so many tourists, many of which don’t take an interest in Morocco’s culture, history or language. Simply offering a “shukraan” (or la shukraan) makes a statement about what type of tourist you are.
8. Go to the source when buying goods.
Another one of Saeed’s tips! The souks located at the northern end of the medina are where the craftsmen work and sell their wares. You will walk by work shops and can see everything in its raw form. Watch as lanterns are welded together, leather is sewn into bags and jackets, cloth is dyed for scarves and shoes are carefully crafted.
These guys sell to the shops closer to the square (closer to the tourists) who then raise the price in order to make a profit. Cut out the middle man and walk a bit further into the medina, you’ll get a better deal.
9. Always have small bills and change!
Especially if you barter for a lower price, you can’t very well ask for change! No one seems to have change in Morocco, especially in the medina where cash is king. Break your larger bills when eating at restaurants or any other chance you get and keep your change for the medina.
Go to the main square, Djemma el-Fna, for sunset. The restaurant Le Grand Balcon du Cafe Glacier has an upstairs, outdoor dinning area that is one of the best spots to watch the activities of the square and to catch the sunset behind the Marrakech skyline.
The menu and food isn’t particular amazing so I suggest just going for a sunset drink (you must buy a drink to enter – water, pop, tea) and then venturing elsewhere for a meal.
Exploring the medina in Marrakech is a fun and unique experience but can be overwhelming and frustrating at times. Figuring out how to successfully navigate the medina and negotiate with shop owners has a bit of a learning curve. Follow these tips and you’ll have a fun, memorable experience in one of Morocco’s most popular destinations!