Several years ago, I accepted a job as the managing editor for a Moroccan-based tour company. For three years, I became fully immersed in everything related to Morocco.
I learned the best times to travel to the country (spring and fall), how to ride camels (lean back as they stand up), culturally appropriate dress (loose and cool), and where to surf (Taghazout). Reading my writers’ articles, I edited to meet our style needs but absorbed the information and fed my wanderlust. I loved choosing imagery, lingering over photos with vibrant colors, sunlight illuminating the desert sand, and locals laughing over steaming mint tea.
What really stuck with me, though, were Morocco’s markets. Any portfolio of Moroccan photography includes nighttime shots of Marrakech’s Djemaa El Fna. This market comes alive when the sun sets and food stalls pop up for the late-night hours. The stark night sky clashes with the brightly lit food stalls, where steam rises and human activity blurs.
You can almost smell the grilled meat and hear the hawkers calling out to lure passersby to their booths.
This iconic image is the one that always stuck out for me, but Djemaa El Fna isn’t Morocco’s only market. Far from it, in fact. Morocco is packed with markets, and they’re all bustling with activity, smells, sounds, and sensations. Working for this Moroccan tour company, I made visiting Morocco’s markets one of my Life List goals.
Many years after moving on from that job, I am thrilled to say that I have shopped in the market in Morocco — and it was as wonderful as I hoped it would be.
Before I dive into the highlights and my favorites, a quick clarification of terms:
Medina: This is the old walled part of a North African city.
Kasbah: Multiple buildings behind a defensive wall, which could be in or outside a medina.
Souq / souk / market: The traditional marketplace or bazaar, often found in the medina.
Nearly every sizable city we visited had some sort of market. Some stocked touristy goods while others served the locals. My favorites mixed the two, and a swarm of people rubbed shoulders as they weighed dates, sipped mint tea, and rummaged through baskets of tangine dishware. For those markets housed in medinas, all this hustle and bustle takes place in narrow alleyways.
We wandered through the “locals” market streets, carefully stepping around off-the-back-of-the-truck market goods, where men sitting on plastic stools were busy eating lunches. I bought a hot, sugared pastry, and the shop owner shook bees off of it before wrapping it in brown bag packaging, and C bought a pita filled with grilled veggies. Stray cats snoozed in doorways down shaded alleyways. Barrels with iridescent spices and red plastic scoops sat lined up under a blue tarp tented area.
The Kasbah des Oudaias was a tangle of narrow roads with white-and-blue-washed buildings tightly tucked together. It looked a bit like Oia, Greece. Like many kasbahs, it didn’t have a market in it, but we wound around and along the cobblestone roads, stopping to snap photos of intricate tile work and verdant green plants.
Beyond the kasbah was the touristy souq, lined with leather goods, ceramics, silver, and hand-woven rugs. Rabat’s souq sits on wider walkways, so there’s room to breathe and not feel so closed in. Friendly and welcoming shop owners didn’t harass us to buy.
From a distance, Fes’ medina looks like a ghost town, but that’s because it is so tightly packed. Surrounded by 10 miles worth of wall and stretched over 740 acres, it has 9,000+ alleyways and only 12 entrances — an actual maze of a media. A guide is essential, not only to ensure you can find your way in and out but also to make sure you hit the highlights within.
For years, I have dremt of seeing the famous tanneries in Fes. The scale of these massive tubs of dye can only be fully appreciated from a birds-eye view. We only found them because a guide led the way. We received sprigs of mint to counteract the smell before we went to the viewing platform, but I didn’t find the smell repulsive or overwhelming at all. The view, though, was jaw-dropping — truly everything I hoped it would be and more. I could have spent hours watching the men at work as they walked along the lips of the barrels, dunking leather into the huge vats of color.
We spent hours in the crowded medina. In many places, the walls were so narrow we could reach both sides of a “street” with outstretched arms. Locals rushed around corners, and people pinned themselves against walls as wheeled carts barreled down the uneven paths. Shopkeepers were far pushier in Fes and quite surly. Perhaps it’s the close quarters or the fact the sun rarely warms the medina.
It feels chaotic and claustrophobic and unbelievably unreal. I loved it because it fit the picture of Morocco in my head. I will recommend a visit to anyone who wants to visit the country.
Ait Ben Haddou
This small city’s stunning old kasbah features buildings stacked on each other overlooking the river and the “new” city on the other bank. Surrounded by desert, I suppose it’s little surprise Ait Ben Haddou is featured in several television shows and movies like Game of Thrones, Jewel of the Nile, and Gladiator. Many locals play extras or work when their lovely town serves as a backdrop, and shopkeepers post photos and autographs on their shop walls.
Only five families live in the kasbah today. We wound our way up to the top for the best view in Ait Ben Haddou. Along the way, we passed artists selling tiny paintings made from lemon juice and saffron warmed by a flame and scarves in every color of the rainbow. I practiced my bargaining skills and bought a few souvenirs for friends and family. I also eyed the silver, plotting a plan for future shopping excursions.
Yes, it’s a bit touristy. Yes, it feels a bit “easy” for a Moroccan city. But I loved this coastal city and the easy-to-navigate medina. Set out in more of a grid shape, Essaouira’s old city has hundreds of shops and even more street cats. It doesn’t have the “character” that some of Morocco’s other cities do, but it’s relatively clean, safe, and friendly.
Because we visited Essaouira near the end of our trip, we spent nearly a whole day wandering the streets, sipping tea, and shopping. Bargaining is a given throughout Morocco, and I found Essaouira’s shopkeepers to be easygoing throughout the process. They didn’t drive a hard bargain, and didn’t lay on the guilt or hard sell if something didn’t suit us. (And I finally found the perfect pieces of silver jewelry!)
By the time we reached Marrakech, there wasn’t anything left on my “to buy” list, but I was eager to see the famed Djemaa El Fna. At night, dozens of food stalls pop up, their lights illuminating the market square. There was a free concert the night we went, and the crowds were intense.
Traveling with a small group tour, our guide eagerly kept our group together. My preference would have been to choose my own place to eat and meet up with the group later. As a vegan and vegetarian, our food choices are limited. But I also have certain standards when it comes to street food, looking for crowded stalls and hot food. With no choice, however, we all crowded in to a pre-arranged “food stall experience” — an experience I didn’t feel good about even as it happened.
My gut feeling was right. I ended up with food poisoning and knocked out for the last couple days of our trip. After all the excitement to see Djemaa El Fna in all its glory, I didn’t get to see all that much that night. While I slept, C went back to check out the market during the day. He reported back that the snake charmers and monkey handlers would have broken my heart.
So, the Marrakech markets ended up being a bust. But overall, Morocco’s markets did not disappoint. I loved it all: the busy crowds, the cats sleeping among the wares, the sweet savory smell of hot pastries, and the colors. All the colors.
Life List dream thoroughly and happily completed.