Visions of 1001 nights, snake charmers, vibrant souks and food – oh the glorious Moroccan food- : all these clichés came to mind when finally booking my trip to Marrakech. It’s a city I’d been longing to visit for a long time and after my weekend in Tangier the year before, I was now ready to visit the most famous and most popular city of Morocco!
I read up a lot beforehand and it looked like most people either absolutely love or hate the city. It’s not an “easy” city to visit, the hassle factor can be a lot to take in for a first-time visitor to Morocco, so you might want to take into account a few tips to avoid scams in Marrakech, but once you are aware of that, it’s a city you simply can’t afford to miss!
So, what should you do? How long should you stay? As always, the longer the better, but spending 3 days in Marrakech can give you a pretty good overview of what the city has to offer.
Spend the evening in Djemaa el Fna
Think of Marrakech and you think of Djemaa el Fna, the city’s main square. The square is the quintessential Marrakech experience. If you arrive late in the evening it can be a bit overwhelming, so take a moment to orientate yourself. The best place to get an overview of all the madness is from the balcony at Le Grand Balcon du Café Glacier, but by all means give yourself over to the undeniable charm and roam around aimlessly trying to take it all in.
To me, there are two versions of the square.Early morning, before 10 am, the place is pretty quiet, apart from the orange juice stalls and a few hopeful hawkers, snake charmers and monkey handlers trying to lure you into taking pictures of them in exchange for money. The monkeys used for these ridiculous photo-opportunities have been taken from the wild, so please refrain from encouraging this type of trade by simply refusing to take pictures with them!
Once the sun begins to set, the Djemaa el Fna takes on a whole different atmosphere. A flurry of cart-pulling men arrive to set up food stalls and makeshift seating areas. More sellers appear as well as the storytellers and the Gnawa musicians, dressed in colourful robes and red caps.
During my 3 days in Marrakech I came back numerous time to Djemaa el Fna, there is so much to discover, it never gets boring!
Wander aimlessly around the souks
From ornate lamps to handmade leather bags, from expensive rugs to an array of exotic spices: the souks of Marrakech are a true shopper’s paradise, they are the heart of the medina and have been a centre for trade for thousands of years. Today a big part of them are as much a tourist attraction as anything, but they still retain that exotic, chaotic feel.
Even if you are not into shopping, like me, you simply have to spend a few hours getting lost in the maze of the medina. And getting lost, you will! A map is pretty useless here and it doesn’t matter how good your sense of direction is, a few minutes in these dimly lit passageways will have you totally disorientated! But it doesn’t matter. Simply soak up the vibrant atmosphere and take it all in!
If you are planning on buying something, make sure you haggle! For westerners it might not come naturally, but this is the way business is done in Morocco, so give it a try. Offering a third of the quoted price is usually a good starting point.
Visit he most beautiful palaces of Marrakech
Of course Marrakech means visiting the famous Djemaa el Fna and haggling your way around the souks, but did you know that the city is home to some of the most beautiful historical palaces and religious buildings of Morocco? Make sure to visit them! These are my favourites:
1. Medersa Ali Ben Youssef
Situated in the middle of the medina, this will be one of the first historical buildings you’ll come across. The medersa Ali Ben Youssef is a theological college where students learnt the Quran. It was used until the 19th century. The courtyard is a beguiling mix of Hispanic and Moorish decoration: stucco archways, ceramic tiled walls and a refreshing water feature. Not a bad place to study! The courtyard is in stark contrast with the dormitories upstairs: small, cramped rooms that once fitted over 900 students!
2. Bahia Palace
Together with the Medersa, this is probably the best place to see what Moroccan artisans were capable of. This 19th century Grand Vizier’s place is the “crème de la crème” of interior extravaganza! The cedar-wood ceilings, carved arches and hand-painted doors are a testimony to some truly extraordinary craftsmanship! It’s worth to linger on here for a while to take it all in!
3. Dar Si Said
This 19th century mansion houses various galleries displaying Berber embroidery, carved doors and textiles on the ground floor. It’s an interesting introduction to traditional Moroccan crafts. From the inner courtyard, a set of narrow stairs leads you up to the spectacular wedding reception chamber! It’s worth listening to what the guide upstairs has to say, he gives you an idea of how the wedding receptions of the upper class unfolded.
4. Badi Palace
The beak-clacking storks overlook a vast complex of what was once a sultan’s palace. The lavish interior might have been long gone, but you can still get a pretty good idea of what it must have looked like back in the 16th century, wandering around the various parts and ruins. Don’t forget to climb up to the little terrace, which offers you a nice overview of the Kasbah part of Marrakech and over the Atlas mountains. One of my favourite historical sites in this city!
5. Saadian Tombs
Dating back to the 17th century, but only discovered in 1917 (!), the Saadian Tombs are a mausoleum for Sultan-al-Mansour and his entourage. The tombs themselves are rather small, but this is all about the decoration of the chambers! Get there right on opening time, it’s a small place, so as soon as tour groups descend, it can get pretty crowded!
Eat your way around Marrakech
From a simple harira to exquisite tajines: one of the best ways to get acquainted with Marrakech is through its food scene. You will probably be tempted to eat on Djemaa el Fna at least once: the food looks “recognizable” and there are plenty of westerners around, so it’s a safe bet. But challenge yourself and try some lesser known dishes too! I went on a food tour in Marrakech with a local company. I ate dishes I’d never heard of and discovered so much about the culinary traditions of the city! An absolute must!
Check out modern and hipster Marrakech
The medina is truly a magical place to explore! But if you want to have a more complete picture of the city, then don’t forget to visit the Ville Nouvelle of Marrakech, where you’ll discover a completely different side to Morocco. It’s the modern part of Marrakech, abundant with cool bars, hip restaurants, art galleries and some lovely parks. You are a long way away from Djemaa el Fna here!
Have you visited Marrakech? Did you like it? What have I missed?