Northern Africa’s Bargaining Mecca
Treasure hunting in the walled city of Marrakech stimulates all the senses. A daily soundtrack of five calls to prayer blasts from microphones in skyward-reaching minarets. Bright carpets hang off rooftops. Groups of veiled women in colorful robes stroll along the city’s dusty alleyways, while men in jellebas (traditional robes) sit in cafes sipping steaming glasses of sweet mint tea. Fragrant spices waft through the breeze. Chicken tagines infused with lemons and olives, accompanied by heaping plates of couscous, provide a hearty lunch. Shopkeepers extend a pair of babouches (slippers), urging you to caress the smooth soft brown leather.
Marrakech has been a trading center for decades, and it continues to be one of the world’s hottest shopping destinations. The city has managed to retain its centuries-old delights—Islamic palaces, comedic storytellers, and snake charmers—while also embracing tourism and giving itself a significant makeover. Behind its plain brown walls on narrow maze-like streets, you’ll find a range of surprises—from the Souk des Teinturiers, where pieces of colored wool hang to dry, to a posh new riad to leatherworkers fashioning shoes with the same tools their great-grandfathers used, to unconventional modern clothing and jewelry designers.
Although Marrakech is navigable on your own, consider arranging a short tour with an official guide on your first morning. (Ask your hotel to set you up with someone reputable and knowledgeable; don’t just go with one of the many unofficial guides on the street aggressively offering to show you around.)
After you’ve gotten your bearings, set off toward the souks. But be forewarned: Browsing and talking with local shopkeepers in Marrakech is addictive. This adventure can easily hold your attention for more than one afternoon. If you want to have a slight advantage at the bargaining table, it pays to do your research first at Ensemble Artisans, on Muhammed V Avenue. Here, all prices are officially set at fixed rates by the government, which means there’s no bargaining. The costs are good benchmarks to keep in mind when you start trading offers in the souks.
When you enter a souk, it’s customary for the shopkeeper to start a casual conversation of small talk and offer you tea. If you’re not interested in purchasing anything, decline the tea politely and try not to loiter. But once you express genuine interest in something, let the bargaining begin. It’s fair to counter the shopkeeper’s original offer by about one-third, and go back and forth two or three times. You can always walk out if you don’t like the final price, but the idea here is to enjoy the challenge as you try to negotiate a deal. As you barter, you don’t know whether or not you’ll get a price you’re happy with. If you do, you’ll come away from the souks with more than an item; you’ll have the memory of a thrilling and unique experience.
Babouches (slippers), silk scarves, handmade leather bags and poufs, and jellebas are handsomely crafted and relatively inexpensive souvenirs for friends and family back home. Babouches shouldn’t cost more than $10 per pair; scarves shouldn’t cost more than $20; and poufs shouldn’t cost much more than $30 or $40. But traditional carpets are significantly more expensive keepsakes. If you’re interested in purchasing these beauties, make sure to study up on them before arriving in Marrakech. You’ll want to be educated about the wide variety of rugs unrolled before you.
As fantastic as the souks are, the city’s streets offer other thrilling attractions; just wandering around and getting lost exposes you to the sights, smells, colors, and essence of Moroccan daily life. Stop shopping long enough to spend time at the Djemaa el Fna (a daily stage for entertainment, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site), the Bahia Palace, the Musee Marrakech, the Ben Youssef Medersa, the Villa Nouvelle, and at least one of the city’s stunning gardens.
Moroccan Tourist Office ( 212/537-67-4013 or 212/537-3918; www.visitmorocco.com).
When to Go: Apr–Oct.
$$–$$$ Dar Les Cignones, 108 Rue de Barima, Medina ( 212/524-382740; www.lescigognes.com/en).