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

The souks and medina of Morocco have a way of drawing in visitors to explore the labyrinth of alleys, shops, craftsmen, and life itself.

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Morocco

While those dark streets, shady characters, and the haggling shopkeepers can be daunting, follow these rules and you'll have a wonderful time in Morocco's souks and medinas.

Medina, Souk and Quartier - Huh?

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

Souks are the traditional market places, and are often divided into sections for the various trades. You'll see herbalists and spice sellers, metal workers, tanners, or 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 that aren't shopping stalls, so that if you need to return after dark they can easily be picked out. Steps or an arch are ideal. At the end of the day, the stalls are closed over with big doors and look completely different than when they are open and full of goods.

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 tourist areas after dark.

It's not the dangerous characters who lurk in the dark alleys which are the biggest hazard in the souks - it's the mopeds that hurtle around at high speed. This, coupled with mule carts and wagons, make walking in these places a challenge.

There's an unwritten rule in Morocco - but not Fes (see below) - 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 - a Rocky Horror-style "jump to the left" will probably leave you sitting on the handlebars of a passing moped! Take your earphones out, and pass on the audio tour, as you won't hear anything or anyone approaching you from behind.

For reasons no one could explain to me, in the Fès medina people walk more on the left, if they follow any rule at all. Busy Fès 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 :-)

- TravelEater

Finding a Reputable 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, I do not require your services", and continue to ignore them.

Do not ask them anything, do not 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. Your guide 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

Taking photos of people is not something that the community likes, particularly women. It's best to ask beforehand to avoid having your camera damaged, or offend the locals.

Tipping is expected for offering a service in Morocco, so if someone guides you, or helps you, they will be expecting 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 favour - 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.

Beware that much of the silver used in jewelry is now imported, as vendors try to keep up with tourist demand. Perhaps you should reassess your expectations of finding a bargain.

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 in the Souk

Getting lost in the souk is not ideal. And if you've got an unreliable guide, you could be guided 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 you the little blue dot will helpfully show you where you are.  The maps are not perfect, and tall buildings can occasionally interfere with the signal, but you should be able to find your way with only a few wrong turns. Telling helpful “students” who wanted to give me directions that you have Google Maps is very effective in dissuading them from offering their services. It is also helpful to say “I’m just exploring” or “taking pictures”.   

Moroccans might also tell you that a street is closed (‘fermé”) this could mean they’re being helpful 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. It's best not to wear expensive jewelry, keep money in a belt and hold a firm grip on the shoulder 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 they demand and live to tour another day.

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

Attitude is all-important, if you go into a medina or souk with bad 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.

Morocco is a very conservative country. Avoid wearing shorts, skimpy tops and cover up. If you’re female, dressing conservatively (cover shoulders to knees and everything in between; long shirt covering your butt, shirt not too tight) helps minimize unwanted comments. 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, ie ignored or respected.

Prostitutes in Morocco work by hanging out in bars and restaurants. Most solo women in bars and restaurants at night are working. They usually don't dress or act provocatively, though might wear a touch more makeup than the average Moroccan woman. Men should be aware when chatting with them that they are looking for business, not social encounters. Women travelling solo should be aware that some might assume they too are looking for customers (though this is less likely if they’re obviously from the west).

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1 Comment

  • 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.

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