When we got a week-long airbnb booking a few weeks ago, we decided it’s time to go where we’ve always dreamed of going: Morocco. We flew into Essaouira for the weekend (which you will LOVE) and then took a bus to Marrakech. It was when the taxi dropped us off in the Jemaa el Fna square that we realised that nothing can prepare you for Marrakech. No amount of reading, browsing, looking at photos can make you anticipate the reality of Marrakech – you just have to go.
Nevertheless, here follows our definitive top 10 list to fill your itinerary, and make sort of sense of the place, in no particular order:
1. Jemaa el Fna by day
Jemaa el Fna is the massive square in Marrakech from which the medina sprawls out, and there is simply no other place like it in Morocco or anywhere else we’ve ever been. It doesn’t matter how much you read about it before you go, nothing can prepare you for how unlike it is like anywhere else. It is a space for coming-together of locals, regional tourists, traders, foreigners. During the daylight hours you can expect to see tons of fruit stalls pressing any kind of juice you might imagine, monkey handlers, snake charmers lulling the countless cobras with their flutes, tooth pullers who sit ready with steady hands and pliers, medicine men with hundreds of bottles of foreign and unrecognisable bottled substances, henna artists aggressively selling their crafts (beware of ladies grabbing your hand and starting to henna you without your consent!), traditional water sellers, and fortune tellers ready to see the future. It is impossible not to be wholly immersed when exploring the square – even if sipping mint tea from a balcony overlooking the hustle, the sounds of the snake charmers’ flutes pull you right back down to earth. Marrakech is a beautiful, crazy, colourful, extra extra city, and Jemaa el Fna has everything to do with it.
Best time to go: The afternoon lull happens between 2 and 5ish, so if you’d like a more laid back experience exploring, that’s a good time to go. Head out at lunch to really have your mind blown by everything going on.
2. Jemaa el Fna by night
By dusk the same square starts filling up with people on their early evening walks. The square is then slowly transformed into something still characteristically Jemaa el Fna, but wholly different than the earlier hours. A large section of it changes to a night food market with outdoor stall-type restaurants, while the rest of the square is occupied by acrobats, fight clubs, storytellers, musicians, all drawing large circles of crowds around them, eager to see the next somersault, or who wins the fight, or how the story will end (according to DK Eyewitness the storytellers would often end their story on a cliffhanger, and crowds will come back the next night to hear what happens – all in Arabic, by the way). In between all this are the traditional horse-drawn carriages carting tourists to and fro, and thousands of people moving between the square and the grand Koutoubia mosque whose minaret is always towering above the old town.
3. Eat all the Moroccan Food
It really doesn’t matter where you go – Moroccan food is GOOD. Meat tagines with stewed fruit, cous cous with fragrant mediterranean spices, juicy olives and cooked aubergine, and icy cool mint, lemon, orange and cinnamon sorbets to cool you off in the midday heat.
We recommend: Dar Cherifa is a hotel in a beautifully restored 16th century Moroccan house. The restaurant is located in its courtyard, which features floating candles, intricate stucco carvings, muqarnas details, and characteristically giant wooden doors. The food and the atmosphere is magical. We got lucky and got a table for two, but it’s probably best to make a reservation. Also, follow your gut when trying to find the place. It’s tucked away in the medina, behind some dark alleys and a closed wooden door, but just knock and ye will be rewarded.
4. Get your OJ fix
You will not get fresher or cheaper orange juice anywhere else in the world. It’s cheapest in the square (2 dirhams, or 50 pence), but because of the nature of the stands you can never see them squeeze it. So there are some conspiracy theories that they water it down. (Whatever – it’s still good, and crazy cheap!). Just outside the square it’s a bit more expensive, and not so much catered for tourists – it’s usually just some guy at a table and he will squeeze it out per request.
5. Take it easy in your riad
Most of the Marrakech hotels are in renovated riads, which are traditional Moroccan living spaces with an inner courtyard. And most of them are just GORGEOUS. So we would really recommend just hanging out in your riad! Take a dip in the pool, catch some sun on the rooftop terrace, or spend all your time sipping mint tea by candle light under palm trees, and enjoy the incredible Moroccan hospitality.
6. Walk the medina (or, get lost in the medina) and get ready for kitten safari
One of the best ways to explore the medina is to walk without a destination in mind, otherwise it can be a very frustrating experience. As a rule, you will get lost in the medina. The alleys and roads make no sense, and while a valiant effort has been made, Google cannot 100% map the medina. So best is to let your nose lead you – it’s totally safe (I wandered around while Joel worked remotely, and as a solo female wanderer I can say I never felt remotely threatened) and it’s smaller than it feels.
Also, Morocco is a cat-loving-traveler’s paradise. Kittens, kittens, kittens EVERYWHERE.
Tricks and tips for walking like a pro
Walk with confidence! Even if you have no clue where you are going, pretend that you know exactly where you’re going. It’s common for young guys to help you get to your destination and then demand money. If you really need help getting somewhere, consult a shop owner.
If you just want to just walk around and not shop, go early in the morning (around 9am). The shopkeepers are still setting up, and are not yet determined to sell anything, so the atmosphere is a bit more laid back.
Beware the tannery scam!
The tannery is where hides are processed into leather goods, and it is for real something to be seen. But it is free, and it is better to decide if you actually want to go rather than being scammed into it. Some young guy might say ‘hey, there’s a special berber festival, they come from the mountains, it’s the last day’ or something similar.
There is no festival.
Then he will try and explain where it is, and a friend conveniently walks by and he says ‘oh look, that’s my friend – he works there’ (or his father works there or whatever). Then you will walk anywhere between 5 and 20 minutes to the tanneries, be given a brief tour, and after be shown to the shops, which is where, we guess, the real trouble starts. (We got out before the shops, but still had to pay them off to let us go without a hassle). Lesson learnt: If someone wants to show you a special festival, just say you’ve been to the tanneries already, and go at your own convenience.
Marrakech is not known for its museum scene, but as a MA Museum Studies graduate, I will always find the museums wherever we travel. Most of the museums in Marrakech are run privately, but the most expensive entry fee was around 50 dirham, which is about £10.
Ben Youssef Madrasa
This is the largest Madrasa (Islamic College) in Morocco. It opened in the 14th century, was closed in 1960 and opened later in 1982 as a museum. It’s the perfect balance of richly-coloured zellige tiles, muqarnas carvings, and marble and cedar courtyards, with the far more humble dormitories and plain classrooms.
This seems like the most popular museum in Marrakech, and is best visited in the morning to avoid the crowds.
Dar Si Said Museum
The Dar Si Said Museum’s collection is dedicated to the work of the master artisans of Morocco and displays wooden doors, Berber jewellery, ceramics, weaponry, carpets, and even an ancient wooden ferry wheel for babies in a beautifully palatial mansion with none of the humble bits of the Ben Youssef Madrasa. Though the collection is scarce, the building itself is something to behold.
The Marrakech Museum
Around the corner from the Madrasa, this museum has on display a small collection of Moroccan arts from long-standing traditions to contemporary practice. It is housed in the Mnehbi Palace, the central covered courtyard with its running fountain offering a welcome respite to the heat and hustle outside. It is a calm, quiet place, and, once again, the building itself largely overwhelms the collection and is a beautiful sight in itself.
MACMA (Marrakech museum of art and culture)
Marrakech’s most recent museum, it more closely resembles the museological institution as it has been systematised by the West. It is a very small gallery, but displays some big Orientalist names, who, more importantly, are answered by some of Morocco’s (and North Africa’s) biggest modernists (the likes of Chaiba Talal). It has a stylish little library where you can get free cups of coffee.
The Marrakech Museum for Photography and Visual Arts offers an intimate insight into the early ethnographical practices in Morocco. Beautiful open courtyard building with large black and white photographs and a quiet rooftop terrace.
8. Wander in the Majorelle Gardens
Speaking of museums, Marrakech’s most sophisticated museum (backed by the wealth of the Yves Saint Laurent Foundation) is the little museum of Berber culture in the Majorelle Gardens. I can’t recommend this museum enough. Inside they have one of the most simple yet beautiful museum displays I have ever seen, that can rival any of the Met’s most glamorous efforts.
The garden is an oasis of your most beautiful dreams. It was created over 4 decades by French artist Jaques Majorelle (whose paintings are exhibited at MACMA), and was later bought and managed by Yves Saint Laurent. Amble under the dappled shade of date palms, lounge around bubbling streams, be surrounded by the bougainvillaea and brilliant Majorelle blue and quiet greens of succulents. It’s a gorgeous, magical place to get lost in. And be sure to visit the café when you’ve found yourself again, where you can cool down with the most delicious sorbet and perk up with strong coffee.
9. Historical sites
An ancient city going way, way, all the way back, Marrakech boasts some truly impressive historical sites that are well worth visiting.
The Badii Palace is a giant palatial ruin just outside the medina of Marrakech. It dates from the 16th century and was largely built by Portuguese ransom money after their defeat against the Saadi Empire in the Battle of the Three Kings. The palace was later stripped of all its valuable building materials for a newer palace elsewhere in Morocco. Though it’s mostly ruins, the grand scale of the palace is not lost on you as you roam around the grounds with its pools, sunken orange groves, and underground slave quarters. And don’t forget to look up to see the gigantic storks nesting high up in the broken down palace.
If you weave through the narrowest little alleyway behind the Kasbah Mosque, you will find the Saadian tombs – and in doing so you may almost imagine what it was like discovering them again in 1917 after centuries of being walled up and hidden away. It’s like a little oasis of calm, a sort of parallel place in the heart of Marrakech, where the city sounds are dimmed by the high rising walls and lush garden. Inside are the plots of far over 100 of the monolithic Sultan al-Mansour’s chancellors and advisors and their families, all overshadowed by the grandiose mausoleum of the Sultan’s (and his family’s) graves, which boasts imported marble, the finest mashrabiyya windows, and pure gold.
Top Tip: Definitely go as early as you can, as the tombs are quite popular but rather small, meaning you might have to wait in line with tour groups to see some mausoleums. And look out for the turtles!
10. Get out off Marrakech!
Well, it just so happens that Marrakech is perfectly situated for a host of amazing day trip opportunities into the countryside. It was a tough choice, but we chose a 2-night, 3-day trip to the Sahara desert, and it was absolutely the highlight of our trip to Morocco.
I think it’s safe to say that Marrakech will see us again