Marrakech. A heaving, bustling, vibrant city where the honeycomb alleys of the old walled medina have changed little since the 11th century. We didn’t always love the pink city. In fact we almost hated our first foray into the Marrakech souks, possibly because it was so different to anything we’d experienced on our travels previously. It was completely overwhelming. Reliable navigating was almost impossible; men were physically blocking our path to try and entice us into their shops; we had to continually jump out of the way of oncoming scooters and donkey carts; and it seemed like most people were out to scam us at every opportunity. The Marrakech souks soon became affectionately known as “Beastie”, something to be conquered rather than enjoyed.
Yet today, after more visits than we can count, Marrakech has melted our hearts. We love the explosion of noise, smell and colour that is strangely comforting, enveloping us in it’s welcoming arms, a bit like hunkering down under a favourite blanket in front of a roaring fire on a cold winter’s night. Odd really, considering we purposely live in a tiny rural village far away from the crowds and bustle of towns and cities.
Knowing what to expect after our first visit, especially when it came to the Marrakech souks, made the experience a whole lot more enjoyable. We finally understood how it all worked, and discovered that by playing the ‘game’, it was actually a lot of fun. We had learnt how to tame the “Beastie”. One of our biggest breakthroughs was working out how to navigate the souks with their maze of infinite alleys and passageways, lined with babouches, spices and sometimes chickens. Being able to find our way around means we now love spending time in the souks, and want to help you do the same!
We want you to enjoy Marrakech as much as we do and with these tips we’ve learned over the years, we’ll hopefully take some of the stress out of your own trip.
How to navigate the souks of Marrakech
1. Walk the route from your riad to Djemaa el Fna
If you’re staying in the old medina for the first time, familiarising yourself with the route between your riad and the main square is something we highly recommend. Some of the most popular areas to stay in the medina are north of the Marrakech souks, so it’s likely you’ll have to walk through them to get down to the square. Don’t be tempted to veer off, just stick to the main route and try and commit as much as possible to memory. That way it doesn’t matter where you go afterwards, you’ll always know your way home, assuming you can get to Djemaa el Fna (if in doubt, just follow the crowds!) And when you reach the square, take a note of where you come out. There are numerous entrances and exits around the periphery and it’s easy to be distracted by the bustle all around and not take notice of where you’ll need to return.
Once you have this sorted, head back into the souks and enjoy!
2. Get your nose out of the map!
Let’s be honest, no one really wants to get properly lost, but please don’t walk around with your nose in the map. You want to take in and enjoy your surroundings. Plus, if you’re walking around with the map permanently out, you’re making yourself a prime target for the “helpful” local scam.
We’ve also found that maps don’t necessarily reflect the accurate layout of the Marrakech souks, which can be rather confusing. On our first trip (which is probably why we had such a battle with the “Beastie”), we had three maps produced by three different companies, and none of them were the same. Remember maps are more like guidelines, and don’t stress too much if what you see on the ground doesn’t match what you have in your hand. Knowing that maps aren’t always helpful forced us to pay more attention to what was in front of us, which encouraged us to learn how to navigate the souks by ourselves.
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3. Keep a trusty map handy and add to it
No, this isn’t contradicting the above. We never leave a riad without a map, but just keep it tucked in a pocket should we need it. We’ve also found a map that is a fair reflection of the souks (see below), so the same map tends to come with us on each trip.
We also annotate our own location prompts on the map, noting shops, cafes or prominent signs. This is partly because we may want to find them again, but mainly because they act as markers for us with regards to directions and remembering our way back to the riad.
4. Don’t forget to Look Up
There are signs in the souks, not many, but a lot more than when we had our first visit. You just need to look up!
Her Ladyship used to be really impressed with my navigating skills around the Marrakech souks (she spent too much time with her nose in the shops to worry herself about directions), but that was before she found out about the signs, which were helpfully showing me where to go. The official tourist signs are different colours for different areas (or themes, such as artisan shopping) and are generally hung overhead or on the side of a wall. Ignore hand written signs. Unless you want to end up in a carpet shop.
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5. Use non-changing visual aids
If you want to ditch the map, or at least have it tucked away “just in case”, then good on you! What will help you navigate the Marrakech souks is looking out for “non-changing visual aids”. Other than tourist signs, there are plenty of other structures that you can use. It could be an archway, permanent shop signs, or a poster for ‘Laughing Cow’ cheese triangles (you’ll see lots of these signs in the souks, we use them a lot as directional markers!).
Try and avoid using shop fronts as your markers. Many look almost identical, and when the traders go home at night, their goods are packed away and you will no longer be able to “turn left at the spice mountains” or “hang a right at the scarves”! The souks can be a completely different experience late at night with little noise, no bustle, and if you’ve been relying on them, no shops to navigate by!
6. Stick to where there are tourists
If you’re not confident about navigating your away around, then a good “comfort blanket” will be to stick to the main thoroughfares (you will still see plenty in the souks) where there are lots of other tourists. If in doubt follow the crowds. The odds are they’re heading for a main attraction where you’ll be able to reset your bearings and set off again on the right track. If we’re lost, we often ‘reset’ back at the main square, and start again.
So there you have it. Our top tips for navigating the Marrakech souks. Hopefully they’ll save you a bit of stress on your trip, but if you go expecting to get a little lost then you’ll enjoy your time there far more.
And if in doubt, just ask a shop keeper for directions to Djemaa el Fna. Where you can start your explorations all over again.