(© Aussies In Morocco Tours™)
There’s something quite magical about medinas. These majestic walled cities were designed to protect citizens from attack, and date back to as early as the 9th century (in the case of Fez). Inside every medina lies a labyrinthine maze of streets, alleyways, bustling “souks” or markets, squares, communal “hammams” (bath houses), mosques, shops and riads.
Most of the attractions for a visitor lie in the medina, rather than in the “nouvelle ville” or more modern/residential part of the city, so it’s good to keep some tips in mind to get the most out of your first experience in a Moroccan medina.
Getting around the medina
It’s perfectly normal to feel a little overwhelmed on your first walk through a medina. They can get particularly busy in narrower parts, if construction work is taking place and causes a bottleneck, or in the evenings (particularly in Marrakech) when many locals and tourists are out en masse to take in the lively atmosphere, do a spot of shopping or grab a bite to eat at one of the many food stalls.
Obviously make sure the stall looks clean though before digging into the cuisine. Indeed it is adviseable to eat food from stalls where you can see your order being cooked – and thoroughly. Better yet book a food tour with us and one of our local food experts will tell you the best ones. (Alternatively, if you are visiting the night markets in Marrakech on one of our tours, we have a couple of favourites amongst the numbered food stalls there, to suggest to you).
Finding your bearings
- If you’re staying in a riad or dar (traditional guesthouse) in the medina, ask a member of staff to take you on a quick walk to the main square, the nearest ATM, and the closest exit to the medina, so you can get your bearings. Failing that, get them to mark it out on a map for you.
- Take note of landmarks along the way — distinctive gateways, buildings or signs will all be useful. Shops or stalls can look completely different from day to night when they’re closed, so focus on the permanent landmarks.
- Always carry a business card, flyer or screen shot of your hotel with you — these will come in handy for giving directions to taxi drivers or showing to a local shop owner if you do find that you’ve taken a wrong turn and need some assistance finding your way back. (By the way, when we say “shop owner” we mean just that; not the guys who are seemingly simply hanging around offering to give you advice or to show you the way)
Read more about safety tips for female travellers here.
Getting from A to B
- Follow the direction of foot traffic, which generally means walking on the right hand side of the street.
- If you’re in a group, walk single file where possible, to avoid getting in the way of a motorbike, mule cart or bicycle. While there’s little or no motorised traffic in the Fez medina, due to the hilly terrain, Marrakech locals are increasingly choosing wheels over walking, so be sure to have your wits about you.
- Google maps can be helpful for navigating the medina without a guide. If you don’t have roaming or a local SIM card you can program your route whilst in the hotel WIFI, and the GPS ‘blue dot’ will still work without data and follow your path while you’re out and about. Be warned though that Google maps is unlikely to be infallible just as it is not infallible here in Australia. However no need to be concerned because with the new Aussies In Morocco Tours™ tailor-made mobile app, about which we will be giving more details soon, there is no chance we will ever lose you (provided you have activated the tracking component for us).
- While the medinas of Marrakech, Fez and Essaouira are relatively safe to walk around in the evenings, it’s best not to venture out alone at night in Casablanca or Tangier.
- If walking solo, avoid using headphones or listening to music. It’s wise to stay alert and aware, so you can hear people and vehicles approaching around you.
- While Marrakech and Essaouira medinas can be easy to negotiate once you find your bearings, Fez’s medina has a reputation for being somewhat of a rabbit warren that will leave anyone but a local stumped. For this reason, it’s recommended that you do engage an official guide (identifiable by a laminated badge) to accompany you, if you plan to go exploring by yourself.
As you walk through the backstreets to or from your accommodation, it’s not uncommon to have locals telling you “c’est fermé!” (it’s closed). While this can be useful if you’re about to walk down a dead end, it’s also based on the assumption that you’re a lost tourist who’s strayed away from the main square accidentally. So, if you know you’re on the right route back to your riad, be sure to hold your head high, smile politely and continue on your way with conviction.
If you would like to know what interesting activities we can arrange for you in any particular ancient medina, there is already a wealth of information about that on our website and in some of our other blog posts both past and upcoming, that we invite you to read. For example we have a blog post that is in the works on the subject of five honest and skilled artisans located in Marrakech’s ancient medina, together with images of each of these individuals. For those of you who book with us we will also provide a map to assist you to find them with a minimum of fuss.
Refreshed and updated November 2020