A medina is an old village that grew up around a medieval city fortress. In Morocco, those fortresses are called Kasbahs and while Kasbahs are often only preserved as historical sites, the medinas of the ancient cities are active and thriving communities where many people still live and work. The Moroccan medinas of Fes, Marrakech, Essaouira, and TĂ©touan are each inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites because of their masterpieces of architecture, living cultural history, and artisanal trades.
Moroccan medinas are typically a warren of narrow streets with sections for residences, restaurants, and souks (markets). Donkey carts, push carts, and even motorbikes deliver supplies to the shops and stalls through the tangled labyrinths. Travel Maestro tip: Be alert for the call of â€śBallak! Ballak!â€ť or â€śAttention!â€ť (in French) coming from behind as you walk through the narrow stone alleys. The warning means a laden supply cart is coming through and you need to jump out of the way â€“ fast!
Shopping in the Medina
The first thing you need to know about shopping in Moroccan medinas is that about 97 percent of the time, it requires bargaining. Haggling is a true Moroccan experience that is built into the culture. You can consider it an ancient form of gamification that locals practice as they purchase their everyday necessities. Of course, itâ€™s a lot of fun for visitors, too.
If youâ€™ve never bargained for purchases, it can feel daunting at first but the only way to master it is to jump right in and try your skill. If you donâ€™t really know where to begin, start by offering about one-third to one-half of the asking price. The shopkeeper will come back with another offer â€“ higher than yours, but lower than the original. Just go back and forth until you come to an agreement â€“ or he throws something else in for â€śfreeâ€ť to make the sale. Travel Maestro tip: There is no right or wrong. You might pay more or less than another shopper, but if the price is acceptable to you, youâ€™re a winner and you have a great memory to savor.
In the Moroccan medinas, youâ€™ll find leather goods, ceramics, silver, hand-embroidered clothing, argon oil products, shoes, spices, fruits and candies, metalwork, and all kinds of handcrafts. Itâ€™s a treasure trove of color, scents, and the sounds of daily life. Travel Maestro tip: Roving musicians pass the hat after a performance and expect a tip if you snapped a photo.
Getting lost in the Medina
Getting lost in the maze of a Moroccan medina is part of the charm and a truly authentic experience. Embrace getting lost and enjoy wandering. Local boys will offer to lead you â€“ for a tip, of course â€“ and they are likely to lead you right to their relativeâ€™s shop! Travel Maestro tip: In Fes and Marrakech, the medinas are HUGE, and the streets are a baffling network. You can hire a local guide (denoted by an official badge) to lead you to the most interesting sights such as the Fes tannery or souks that specialize in a certain type of goods.
The busy souks are naturally frenetic with people shopping and haggling but youâ€™ll also find quiet residential alleyways in the medinas. Behind beautiful doorways lie private homes called riads. A riad is a traditional noblemanâ€™s home that has enough rooms to house an extended family. Usually, all the rooms face inward toward a central open courtyard that contains gardens and a fountain or pool. Any windows face inward toward the courtyard and thick walls shut out the bustle of the medina outside. Travel Maestro tip: Many riads are converted into boutique hotels that offer guests a tranquil respite with the flavor of ancient city life.
Plan to spend a minimum of a half day in one of the famous Moroccan medinas. Just walking among the daily life of the medinaÂ will give you cultural insight you can only gain by being there in person. Even if you donâ€™t choose to shop, feel free to chat with a store owner. Moroccans are famously hospitable. Many speak English, or you can always use the international language of pantomiming with a smile.
To plan your own Moroccan medina experience, talk with one of the expert vacation advisors at Covington.