Since its foundation in the 11th century, the Moroccan city of Marrakesh has welcomed those with coins to spend. In the past, traders from across North Africa traveled by camel through the Sahara Desert and the Atlas Mountains to sell their goods in the souks of the former capital; today, those souks are still enchanting visitors who come to haggle with artisan vendors for jeweled slippers, hand-dyed silks, and spices. The souk, which sprawls northwards from Djemma el Fna, is split into separate markets for specialist wares: the dyer’s souk, for example, and the blacksmith’s souk. Those who want a more modern shopping experience will find designer boutiques scattered throughout the Gueliz and Bab Doukkala areas outside the medina.
Souk Semmarine is the main thoroughfare through the medina souks, and the starting point for most Moroccan shopping adventures. Be prepared for a sensory overload: the sound of haggling vendors, the scent of dust and leather, the rainbow colors of stalls illuminated by light filtering through the slatted ceiling. Souk Semmarine sells something of everything you’ll find in the more specialist souks, and although the prices are often a little higher, some visitors find it less intimidating to navigate just the one main route. Look for intricately worked leather purses, kaftans in shades of fuchsia and cobalt, and stalls piled high with dates and pistachios. When you find something you like, don’t forget that it’s expected to negotiate the price. Accepted etiquette suggests that you start at around half the price you are happy to pay, and then work your way upwards. Bring your best sense of humor.
Souk el Attarine
Wander the length of Souk Semmarine until you reach a fork, then turn left into Souk el Attarine, the area of the souk historically reserved for perfumes, essential oils, and spices. Although the offerings have since diversified, this is still the best place to shop for oud, the distinctive perfume beloved in North Africa and the Middle East for its rich, seductive, woody scent. With the value of oud oil estimated to be 1.5 times that of gold per kilo, this scent has become a symbol of prosperity and makes for a generous gift for friends or family back home. Nowadays, Souk el Attarine is also known for its Moroccan homeware, from mirrors and lamps to candlesticks and teapots crafted from gleaming silver. Visit in the late afternoon to admire the glow of the lantern shops, where masterpieces of stained glass and filigree copper transform the space into a veritable Aladdin’s cave.
Souk el Kebir
If you fork right off Souk Semmarine instead, you will find yourself in Souk el Kebir. Traditionally the territory of the town’s artisan leatherworkers, it is the place to go for fine leather goods including bags, wallets, purses, and belts. You can find every item in a kaleidoscope of different colors, some of them embossed with intricate patterns and others with incorporated panels of brightly colored Berber fabric for a more distinctive North African look. Often, you’ll be able to watch the leatherworkers crafting their goods using the same techniques that their ancestors employed for centuries before them. Souk el Kebir also runs seamlessly into areas of the market that specialize in clothing, fabric, and carpets. Sometimes the best way to shop is to simply let yourself get lost and marvel at the wonders you find along the way. Ask for directions to Djemma el Fna when you want to return home.
If you have your heart set on the ultimate Moroccan souvenir (a handwoven Berber rug or carpet), the best place to visit in the medina is the Creiee Berbere souk. Because prices are negotiable here, you’ll get a much better price than in the more formal carpet boutiques of the Ville Nouvelle. The souk is located on the north side of Rahba Kedima square, the entrance marked by an archway emblazoned with the words "Le Souk Principal de Tapis," or the main carpet souk. Stalls within are packed high with thousands of carpets of every conceivable color, style, and design. Many of them tell a story through their specific use of colors and patterns. Don’t be afraid to ask the shop attendants to unroll carpets for you until you find the one you love. If you can’t find the right one, a tip is expected for efforts that aren’t rewarded with a sale. Most shops can ship your carpet home for you.
Souk Cherifia is located just off Rue Mouassine in the medina, close to the ornate 19th-century palace and garden complex known as Le Jardin Secret. Part market, part mall, it’s a galleried space with two floors occupied by a curated selection of boutique shops. Here, you’ll find younger, edgier Moroccan designers selling their wares, which include everything from clothing and accessories to homeware that mixes traditional Berber influences with bohemian Western style. Prices are fixed, so Souk Cherifia is more expensive than the traditional souks, although the quality is often well worth the cost. For many visitors, the chance to browse at leisure without parrying enthusiastic salesmen and their attempts to engage in negotiations is also welcome. When you’re finished, head up to the rooftop where trendy café La Terrasse des Épices serves up Moroccan and Mediterranean cuisine alongside stunning Atlas and medina views.
Bab Doukkala and Dar el Bacha
Marrakesh’s Bab Doukkala neighborhood rubs up against the medieval walls that mark the medina’s western edge. Just inside the walls is Dar el Bacha palace, the former home of the famous 20th-century pasha, Thami El Glaoui. These two adjacent areas are dotted with some of the city’s most desirable boutiques—the kind where the city’s best riads source their furniture and top tier models shop for clothing on their jaunts to the Imperial City. Mustapha Blaoui is an emporium so legendary it doesn’t require a sign. Inside, rooms filled with artisanal Moroccan furnishings and fabrics await. From lanterns to cushion covers, everything is of exceptional quality. Other highlights include Topolina for wax-printed, tasseled loafers and vintage patterned coats, tops, and dresses, and Laly for women’s fashion made from quality raw materials in jewel-colored tones. In between shops, refuel at the palace’s magnificent Art Deco coffeehouse, Bacha Coffee.
In the Guéliz area of the Ville Nouvelle, a distinctly European atmosphere prevails, and you will find familiar European high street outlets (think Mango and Zara) rubbing shoulders with a treasure trove of independent fashion boutiques and artsy concept stores selling must-have homeware items. Many of these are centered around the main thoroughfare, Avenue Mohammed V. Be sure to check out the fine leather shoes at Atika on Rue de la Liberté before hitting up 33 Rue Majorelle, a sophisticated, curated gallery featuring clothing and homeware by a host of up-and-coming and established Moroccan designers.
Just outside, the Jardin Majorelle is well worth a visit. Created by French artist Jacques Majorelle in the 1920s, these breathtaking botanical gardens were once owned by iconic fashion designer Yves Saint-Laurent. A museum dedicated to YSL is now located next door.
Sidi Ghanem is Marrakesh’s industrial zone, located circa 6 miles north of the medina. Taxis are more than willing to take you there; just be sure to agree on a price before accepting a ride. Once there, you’ll find many craft workshops, artist studios, and designer showrooms where the goods found in the Gueliz boutiques are actually created. In addition to getting a much cheaper price, buying from the source means putting money directly into the creator’s pocket and also having the chance to watch master craftsmen at work. If they speak some English (or your French/Arabic is particularly good), you can find out the story behind your particular piece firsthand. Some travelers choose to visit Sidi Ghanem with a guide for this reason. A favorite stop for fashionistas in the know is Marrakshi Life, a brand launched by New York fashion photographer Randall Bachner that specializes in hand-woven, fashion-forward cotton tunics, kaftans, and jumpsuits.