Safety Inside Morocco's Souks and Medina - A Few Tips

The souks and medina of Morocco draw visitors in to explore the labyrinth of alleys, shops and craftspeople. Here's how to avoid the dodgy spots and see it all safely.

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Morocco Photo © GettyImages/Pavliha

While those unfamiliar streets, dubious characters, and haggling shopkeepers can be daunting, Morocco's souks and medinas are wonderful places to shop and explore. Check out these tip to staying safe and well.

Medina, Souk and Quartier

The medina is the old historic part of town with high stone walls (like you'll see in Marrakesh and Fes) and is divided into Quartiers. Each quartier has a mosque, a hammam (bathhouse), a communal bread oven, a madrasa (educational institution) and a water fountain, which all serve the local community.

Souks are the traditional marketplaces and are often divided into sections for the various trades. You'll see herbalists, spice sellers, metal workers, tanners, and food markets congregated on trade-specific streets.

Souks are a maze of alleys and narrow streets, and it's easy to get lost. Look out for landmarks, like a flight of steps or an arch, so if you need to return after dark they can easily be picked out. 

It's not a good idea to walk around on your own after dark in Casablanca or Tangier. Marrakesh, Rabat and Fes are safer cities, but it's best to stick to the well-lit tourist areas after dark.

The biggest hazard in the souks are the mopeds that hurtle around at high speed. This, coupled with mule carts and wagons, can make walking here a challenge.

The unwritten rule in Morocco - but not Fes (see below) - is to walk on the right side of the street. Keep this in mind when you see an oncoming moped - stick to the right and avoid sudden movements. Take your earphones out, and pass on the audio tour, as you won't hear anything or anyone approaching you from behind.

In the Fes medina, people walk more on the left, if they follow any rule at all. Busy Fes medina intersections are chaos because everyone just pushes their way through. A note on earphones, though, I found them surprisingly effective as a way to ward off touts! Usually worn without sound, for safety reasons, but shopkeepers wouldn't bother me beyond making a little dancing motion and pointing at my ears when wearing them :-) - Johanna from TravelEater.

Finding a Guide in Morocco

It's highly likely you'll be approached by a "guide" in the souk or medina, who will want to take you on a tour, usually to a relative's carpet shop.

Be polite but firm and just say, "No thank you" and continue to ignore them.

Don't ask them anything, don't let them show you the best places to take photos, or advise you on what to buy in a shop - because once you do, you have actively engaged them, and they will demand money.

Most cities have licensed guides who will provide a comprehensive tour of the historic areas around the medina and souk for a reasonable rate, and many have built up relationships with the local community which helps visitors engage with the locals. These guides will take you to specific shops, and will often have good advice on what to buy. There is no obligation for you to make a purchase, but know, that if you do, your guide will be getting a cut.

Souk Etiquette

Being photographed is not something the community likes, particularly women. It's best to ask beforehand to avoid having your camera damaged, or offending the locals.

Tipping is expected for offering a service in Morocco, so if someone guides you, or helps you, they will expect some coins in return.

It's tradition to haggle for goods in shops, and it's considered best not to ask the price unless you definitely want to buy.

Walking away from a deal halfway through is one tactic for getting a stalled haggle moving in your favor, but only if you really intend to buy. But if you start a deal, walking away is considered rude and is likely to cause upset. Agree on a price and shake hands, and above all treat it as an experience and not a battle.

Some travelers have reported that vendors in popular tourist souks are starting at astronomical prices, expecting you to haggle your way down to a price that is still way over the odds.

Be aware that much of the silver used in jewelry is now imported, as vendors try to keep up with tourist demand.

Do your research, and try to determine a fair price for what you want to buy. Official government artisan shops, and even department stores, will give you a better idea around the fixed price of goods, so use that as a guide in your haggling. In the west, the price of a product is based on the costs to manufacture, transport and sell it. In countries where haggling is practiced, the price is based more on the value the buyer places on the product. Decide the maximum price you’d be willing to pay for a product, and bargain accordingly. A seller will never sell at a (net) loss.

Personal Safety Tips

Getting lost in the souk is not ideal. And if you haven't got an official guide, you could be taken somewhere you don't want to be.

If you are lost, walk into a shop or restaurant and ask for directions, the owner will be more than happy to help. 

Google Maps works quite effectively, even in the labyrinth of the Fès medina. The GPS works without WiFi or a cellular connection. Just mark your hotel and, ideally, a destination, before you leave your hotel WiFi, and the little blue dot will helpfully show you where you are.  The maps are not perfect, and tall buildings can interfere with the signal, but you should be able to find your way with only a few wrong turns. Telling helpful locals who want to give directions that you have Google Maps is very effective in dissuading them from offering their services. It's also helpful to say “I’m just exploring” or “taking pictures”.   

Most hotels have maps of the souks, and it helps to get the staff to mark and write the location for you.

Moroccans might also tell you that a street is closed (fermé) they could helpfully letting you know that the alley is a dead end, that the street is residential and you’d be bothering the people who live there, that they think there is nothing a tourist would be interested in seeing there, or that they want you to go down another street with their brother’s shop instead.

Watch out in crowded areas, as pick-pocketing and petty theft is very common. Don't wear expensive jewelry, keep your valuables out of sight and a firm grip on your bag (with zippers fastened).

Violent or serious crime is still rare in Morocco, however, there have been a few cases of robberies at knife-point. If you are mugged, don't be brave, hand over whatever is demanded and live to tour another day.

Attitude is all-important, if you go into a medina or souk with low expectations, you'll probably have a negative experience. Aim to enjoy it; walk with a sense of purpose, with a positive attitude, and you really will get more out of the event. Most locals are friendly and aren't out to get you.

Morocco is a very conservative country so dressing conservatively (covering shoulders to knees and everything in between; long shirt covering your butt, shirt not too tight) helps minimize unwanted attention and the locals will appreciate it. If you feel you’re getting lots of attention, pop a scarf over your hair and you’ll be treated more like a local woman, i.e ignored or respected.

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2 Comments

  • Glenn said

    I have been taken many times like what you warn against. Americans are stupid because we believe people. I am no exception. I get taken in this country too so it is my fault for believing these jerks. Plus we can not arm ourselves so we are no threat to anyone. I did want to ride my bicycle to Casablanca and visit Morocco. The mopeds raised hell with me on my bicycle in Tunisia and then they robbed me. We did negotiate and they did let me go after they sort of wanted to murder me. I called them on it and they backed down. I was chased by guys and the girls tipped them off to me. Douz was pleasant though. But then I met very nice folks too there so it was not easy who was a thief. I may reconsider going to Morocco now because my luck may run out. I do some bubble tours but I like to hang with the locals too and experience their lives. Crazy, huh.

  • Jack said

    Hands down the most useless comment. 'They sort of wanted to murder me but I called them on it and they backed down'.... Right.

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