LA-based Homepolish designer Galina Holechek guides you through shopping the souks of Marrakech, from what to buy to how to haggle.
In the last eight years, I’ve followed through on a promise I made to myself to travel internationally at least once or twice a year. It really gives me a new set of eyes to view design in a global way. With the internet, we have such overwhelming access to products and inspiration from all over the world. I love being able to bring a taste of that back to my clients in LA.
A trip to Marrakech a few years back was a defining moment for me. Being somewhere so completely un-westernized and so different from LA gave me a whole new perspective on how things are made. The nature of handmade goods comes to life when you see the passion, intensity, and hard work that goes into them.
Where to Go
The Main Square in Marrakech is called the Djeema al Fna, “the main medina.” Off of that square are what feels like hundreds of little alleyways with little shops all along (called the “souks” aka outdoor markets). It is respectful to greet the merchants whom you make eye contact with.
There are so many enticing things that are offered in the souks, but for the average traveler, buying a few smaller things that are beautiful and meaningful makes the most sense. I came home with: a hand-painted decorative plate, a set of small tea glasses, spices, and several leather slipper shoes (hello Aladdin Toe!).
Two items you see a lot are the Moroccan tea sets with the silver trays on top of a wooden hand carved base and the mirrors with colored ivory frames. They are beautiful—but not practical to travel with and may or may not be worth shipping home.
One item that may be on your radar are rugs. The good news is that the climate of Morocco lends itself to flatweave rugs as the standard, which are lightweight, easy to move—and can be folded into a suitcase. A good Moroccan flatweave rug should be made from wool, not synthetic fibers. Do your research and know what you are buying, instead of believing what the vendor is telling you. I have heard of travelers doing what is called a fire test—wool fibers should not catch fire whereas synthetic ones will. I have not tried this myself but have heard some will do it to verify their authenticity!
Moroccan lanterns are also fun to check out in the stalls. For me, knowing that I have vendors like Badia Design (in the Valley) or Berber Imports in the city meant these were fun to see, but not worth transporting home. These companies transport in bulk and get great deals on so they can sell for a fair price in the state. I buy all of my Moroccan hand-painted tile from Mohammed at Badia Design in North Hollywood. He is the best and always has a wildly amazing selection.
Above is a residential bathroom I co-designed for a client who was super into Moorish design! We purchased all the tile from Badia Design as well as the vanity that was retrofitted with a sink and the metal screen you see in the shower. For larger items like lanterns and mirrors, you can either ship these via FedEx (expensive) or pack them yourself and ship regular mail. Regular mail will take a lot longer than FedEx, and be sure to verify there is insurance and tracking. It’s not uncommon for vendors who take credit cards to offer to ship for you and you can use this as a negotiation tool.
Here’s How to Negotiate
Speaking of negotiation: A good rule of thumb is that the starting price of an item can usually be talked down to about half. Vendors do this to give the illusion of a great deal. My advice: take a stroll through the souks on the way to lunch in the square and window shop. Get a lay of the land. Have your eye on that set of Moroccan tea glasses? Have a number in your head of how much you want to spend. If the initial price offered less 50% is more than you want to spend, move on as pricing is not necessarily competitive. It’s up to you to decide if this is a travel splurge, or if it’s time to walk away with a simple smile and a “la shukran” (no thank you in Arabic).
While You Shop
Don’t forget to eat well and stay hydrated while you are shopping! The tiny little orange juice carts sell the best fresh squeezed OJ for less than 50 cents. If you are squeamish about the open air food stalls (some sell spiced snails and the likes), the food is very good and very inexpensive at most of the restaurants. Tip: try the veggie couscous, olives, Moroccan flatbread and a coffee, which is incredible and very filling—a whole meal which costs around $5.
Also, if you’re a woman, you won’t want to miss a traditional Turkish bath at a hammam. The treatment was not inexpensive but we decided it was worth the experience. The bath is given in a female-only spa using steam and black soap scrub. It’s a treatment locals get once a week to keep their skin glowing. Afterwards, you can relax with the typical green tea with mint, highly sweetened and delicious.