Explore Marrakech, Morocco
Explore Marrakech also known as Marrakesh, one of the imperial cities of Morocco. The name Marrakech originates from the Amazigh (Berber) words amur (n) kush, which means “Land of God.” It is the third largest city in Morocco, after Casablanca and Fez, and lies near the foothills of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains. It is a few hours from the foot of the Sahara Desert. Its location and contrasting landscape has made it an enviable destination in Morocco.
The city is divided into two distinct parts: the Medina, the historical city, and the new European modern district called Gueliz or Ville Nouvelle. The Medina is full of intertwining narrow passageways and local shops full of character. In contrast, Gueliz plays host to modern restaurants, fast food chains and big brand stores.
Summers are long and hot with virtually zero rainfall and temperatures in July are usually well above 35°C during the day but cool to around 20°C during the night. That’s why the city really comes alive after sunset. Heat waves hit Marrakech every year and some can be so hot that the mercury can climb above 45°C.
Marrakech has an international airport with direct scheduled flights from London, Dublin, Oslo, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Paris, Madrid, and many charter flights arriving from all over Europe. If you are flying from the US, Canada, Asia or elsewhere, you’ll have to change planes in Casablanca.
Plenty of low cost companies fly to Marrakech. Some companies fly to Casablanca, where a plane change for the 45 min flight to Marrakech can be made.
What to do in Marrakech, Morocco.
Trekking in the Sahara is a great experience. Walking, camel, horse treks and ATVs are plentiful and natural to this locale.
Once in the medina, everything can be seen on foot, though you’ll be doing a lot of walking. GPS is invaluable if you do not want to constantly rely on the help of locals to find your way. For exploring more of the city, buses and petits taxis are plentiful.
There is a free travel guide and map application for Marrakech, called Marrakech Riad Travel Guide (you can look it up in the App Store), that can help you NOT to get completely lost in the medina. It uses GPS signal so there is also NO charge for using it and it also includes important places and some restaurants to visit.
An alternative and romantic way to travel is by caleche — pronounced kutchee — a small horse-drawn carriage. They can be hired at Square de Foucauld (the small park at the bottom of Djemaa El-Fna). It’s wise to agree on a price before setting off. As a guide price, you should pay around DH 150 per hour, per carriage.
What to see. Best top attractions in Marrakech, Morocco.
There is much to see and do in Marrakech. An entire day can be dedicated to wandering around the souks and seeking out the best bargains. The city offers several historical and architectural sites as well as some interesting museums.
Visit the Palmeraie Palmeraie is the green lung of Marrakech. It is a real oasis on the outskirts of the city. La Palmeraie covers 13,000ha and has about 150,000 palm trees and some hotels. It is the perfect place to take a nomadic space of a few hours during a camel ride. During the course of your 20km journey you can admire the palm trees, beautiful villas and with a little luck a international star resort in Marrakech ! Lesamateurs for thrills, Quad prefer to camels.
The square of Djemaa El-Fna is the highlight of any Marrakech night. Musicians, dancers, and story tellers pack this square at the heart of the medina, filling it with a cacophony of drum beats and excited shouts. Scores of stalls sell a wide array of Moroccan fare (some overcharging heavily; see the Eat section) and you will almost certainly be accosted by women wanting to give you a henna tattoo. Enjoy the shows, but be prepared to give some dirhams to watch. By day it is largely filled with snake charmers and people with monkeys, as well as some of the more common stalls. Ignore anyone who offers you something that you do not want or move away: They will be asking you shortly for (too much) money. If you don’t want to pay dearly for that henna or the photo of yourself with a monkey on your shoulder, politely decline when his owner approaches.
The Souks (suuqs), or markets of Marrakech, just adjacent to Place Djemaa El-Fna, are where you can buy almost anything. From spices to shoes, jellabas to kaftans, tea pots to tagines and much, much more. Undoubtedly, being a foreigner means you will end up paying higher prices than a native would, but bargain nonetheless. If you happen to run out of dirhams, you’ll find plenty of people in the souks who will eagerly exchange your dollars or euros (though a fair rate here is less likely than at an official exchange). All that said, the sellers are much less aggressive than, say, Egypt or Turkey, so have fun!
Tanneries Visiting the Tanneries can be an interesting experience. Even if some people tell you the area is only for locals, it is possible to visit the Tanneries without paying a youngster. After finding a Tannery, ask one of the workers if you can visit it and take pictures. The tanneries are at the east end of Avenue Bab El Dabbagh. That ‘main’ tannery, Dar Dbagh, where they seem to channel all the tourists is near the Bab Debbagh gate. You’ll be quickly approached by a guide who’ll give you a sprig of mint and tell you that the tour is no charge.
Koutoubia Mosque, right besides Djemaa El-Fna, is named after the booksellers market that used to be here. It is said that the minaret of the Koutoubia mosque is to Marrakech as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. The minaret is visible from Gueliz which is connected to the Medina by Avenue Mohammed V. At night, the mosque is beautifully lit. As with most mosques in Morocco, non-Muslims are not allowed inside.
Saadian Tombs were not discovered until the beginning of the 20th century. They have been preserved just like they were during the glory days of the Saadian rulers. Unlike the El Badi Palace, they were not destroyed, probably for superstitious reasons. The entrance was blocked so they remained untouched for hundreds of years. Inside you will find an overload of Zelij (Morrocan tiles) and some beautiful decoration. Once inside, you can expect to wait in line for about 45 minutes to see the most impressive tomb. While here, look for the tombs of Jews and Christians; they are noted by their different markings and direction of the tomb.
Majorelle Gardens, in Gueliz has an entrance fee and is more expensive than other attractions. It is somewhat overpriced for a modestly sized attraction that you can see in half an hour. However, it provides an excellent respite from the hustle and bustle of the city streets. The park boasts a collection of plants from across the globe, including what seems like every cactus species on the planet. Get here early to avoid the crowds. Inside the gardens is also the very small Berber Museum, for which an additional entrance fee is charged. The garden museum used to host a much larger collection, but the more interesting artifacts are now waiting to be displayed in a new museum next door when it is finished building in the next few years. The Majorelle Café inside the gardens is a pretty and quiet place to rest and get a drink and some food, albeit at very high prices. As you are a captive audience, don’t expect to be served haute cuisine. There is a gift shop filled with fascinating period photographs for sale (80-100 years old), though items are far from cheap. Outside the Majorelle Gardens, expect to be harassed very aggressively by taxi drivers and trinket sellers. Be aware that the queues can be long and move slowly, so you might expect to wait in line for 30 minutes or more before entering.
Dar Si Saïd Museum, on Rue Riad Zitoun Jdid has an entrance fee, is a museum 5 mins away from Djemaa El-Fna. Set in an old palace, it houses many different artifacts from Morocco through the ages, such as wood carvings, musical instruments, and weapons. It is dedicated to the Moroccan craft industry of wood, gathering a very beautiful collection of popular art: carpets, clothing, pottery and ceramics. All these objects are regional, coming from Marrakech and all the south, especially from Tensift, High Atlas, Soussthe, Anti Atlas, Bani, and Tafilal. The interior decoration is quite similar to the El Bahia Palace (though slightly less impressive), so if you visit the one, you might consider skipping the other.
Ben Youssef Madrassa is one of the largest Madrassas in the North Africa. It is a school attached to the Ben Youssef Mosque and is home to beautiful art and architecture.
El Bahia Palace is an ornate and beautiful palace, popular with guided tours and stray cats. The palace is well worth a visit and gives a great impression of what it must have been like to be a 19th century nobleman in Morocco. There is a nice garden with banana flowers, tranquil courtyards, and other lovely plants. The interior decoration is quite similar to the Dar Si Saïd Museum, which is considerably less crowded, so you might want to choose the one or the other
El Badi Palace is now in ruins and inhabited by storks and stray cats. There are some underground passageways to explore. The view from the terrace is majestic.
The Menara gardens, which are west of the city, and consist of a mixture of orchards and olive groves surrounding a central pavilion which is a popular sight on tourist postcards. The pavilion was built during the 16th century Saadi dynasty and renovated in 1869. It has a small cafe.
The Cyber Park, northwest of the Koutoubia mosque, following the Avenue Mohammed V. An ornamental garden open to the public. Frequented mostly by locals. Very beautiful and well maintained. In the entrance you will find a small exhibit on telephony and communication on Morocco, hosted by Moroc-Telecom, also open to the public. It is a very good place to chill.
What to do in Marrakech, Morocco.
The main square in the Medina is Djemaa El-Fna. It is surrounded by endless labyrinths of souks (bazaars) and alleyways covering all of the Medina. Djemma El-Fna is a must as there is always something to see there day and night whether it be snake charmers, acrobats, sooth-sayers, or the musicians and food stalls (some overcharging heavily). At night the square really comes to life as people navigate toward the exotic aromas and the entertaining sights. As the evening darkens, the hustle and bustle rages on. The exotic music appears louder and more hypnotic.
Directly south of the Djemaa El-Fna is Rue Bab Agnaou. A five-minute walk takes you straight to the famous Bab Agnaou entrance to the Kasbah district of the Medina. The Bab Agnaou entrance, through the ramparts, is by far the most impressive of all Medina rampart entrances. The Kasbah, in comparison to the Derbs (streets) surrounding the Djemaa El-Fna, portrays a calmer, less abrasive atmosphere. It is home to the Royal Palace, the former El-Badi Palace and the Saadian Tombs. This naturally creates better security, cleaner streets and a hint of being a special place in the Medina. The Kasbah has its own little bazaars (souikas), food stalls, restaurants, hotels and riads for travelers to enjoy.
A Riad is a Moroccan house with an internal courtyard. Most windows are inward facing towards the central atrium. This design of property suits Islamic tradition as there is no obvious wealth statement being made externally, no windows to peer through. Entering a Riad is like discovering an Aladdin’s Cave in comparison to its non-descript exterior. They are great places to stay and offer an intimate and relaxing retreat.
Due to its rich history, there are many spectacular Riads in the Medina of Marrakesh. Many of them have been decaying for years. In the 1980th and 1990th, some of them were bought and renovated, mostly by foreigners. The current king, Mohammed VI, who acceded to the throne on 23 July 1999 opened up the country to foreign investors. This unleashed a buying frenzy and by now many riads are in foreign hands and, fortunately, most of them are nicely restored. Many of theses riads are renovated with traditional Moroccan construction methods. The decoration of these riads (lamps, furniture, mirrors, bedspreads, curtains, etc.) are often crafted by Moroccan artisans, some of them still living in the Medina of Marrakesh.
Have a hammam
What to buy
The Moroccan dirham (MAD) is officially designated a closed currency, meaning it can only be traded within Morocco. However, they are being sold and bought in travel agencies and at major airports in several countries (notably the UK). The import and export of the currency is tolerated up to a limit of MAD1000. Currency purchased during a visit to Morocco should be converted back before departing the country, with the exception of the MAD1000 level. You’re advised to keep the receipts of currency exchange, as these will be required for the conversion back to foreign currency before departure, when you can change as many dirhams as you have left.
Most credit cards are accepted (especially Visa, MasterCard), although surcharges will likely apply as the cost of credit card processing in Morocco is fairly expensive for businesses. Do be aware that only a relatively small amount of businesses in Morocco have the ability to accept credit cards, although the number is growing slowly.
Advise your bank or card issuer that you intend to travel abroad so that no block will be put on the usage of your credit or ATM cards. Notify the issuer and give them a phone number where you can be contacted abroad. Before travelling, make a note of all credit card numbers and associated contact numbers for card issuers in case of difficulty. Consider emailing this information to yourself. The numbers are usually free to call as you can reverse the charges. Make it clear to the operator at your hotel, riad, etc., that you wish the call charge to be reversed. Preferably get a pre-paid card, with good exchange rates and low withdrawal fees eg fairFX.
When making payments with a credit card, for example at a hotel for services, it is vital to memorise the PIN as signatures in many instances are no longer accepted; certain establishments, such as restaurants, may use the old method of signing.
Many people now use a prepaid FairFX or Caxton card. These offer good exchange rates and are safe and money is protected if the card gets lost or stolen. They are accepted in Moroccan ATMs anywhere you see the MasterCard logo and in some shops, too.
ATMs can be found in abundance in most towns and accept Visa, Maestro, Cirrus, etc., but these will usually incur charges of around 5%. You should check with your bank as charges for using ATMs abroad may make exchanging cash a better option. Popular destinations such as Tangier, Marrakech, Agadir etc have ATMs in large tourist international hotels as well as on all main roads. The Medina of Marrakech has more than 20 ATMs.
Using a credit card (VISA, etc.) to obtain money from ATMs is possible, but interest is charged from the moment money is dispensed. The normal practice of an interest-free period which applies to purchases, typically over 50 days, made on the card does NOT apply to cash withdrawals. Banks will allow cheques to be cashed but must be supported by a guarantee card.
Marrakech is home to a large tanning industry, and leather goods of high quality can be bought here cheaply. Check out camel leather items especially jackets, round poufs, and handbags.
For shoes, always check they have no paper inside the plate (‘sole’ in French) because it is very common. Don’t be fooled by demonstration of how they bend the shoe and turn it back to the position. Try it yourself by feeling and hearing how the paper bends. For poor quality ones, you shouldn’t pay more than Dh 40 and for good ones no more than Dh 90. Shop around and learn the difference between the quality.
Also of interest are items made of the local cactus silk, which is really rayon, a natural fiber made of plant cellulose and produced in Morocco. Rayon holds the chemical dyes well which accounts for the vibrant range of true colors (natural dyes cannot produce a “true” color). On offer are scarves, handbags, tablecloths, bedspreads and throws in stunning colors. Some merchants try to charge a premium price for this “cactus silk”. Check well because there are many fakes and sellers will usually tell any lie to get you to pay a high price.
Wander round the potters’ souk, and look for brightly colored platters and bowls, as well as tagines in all sizes.
Lovely cashmere shawls can be had for less than a fiver with a little bargaining.
If you cannot stand the bargaining, there are two government-run shops where you can buy handicrafts at fixed prices. Look for boutique d’artisans. One is near Djemaa El-Fna while the other one is in the Ville Nouvelle.
An option to explore the souks in a more tranquil way is to go during the Friday prayer. Although some shops will be closed, most stay open and are significantly less crowded than at other times.
What to eat
Each night in the Djemaa El-Fna rows of street stalls are set up under giant white tents. These huts serve similar fare and have menus printed in French, Arabic and usually English. Everyone has tajine, couscous, brochette and soups. Some have specialties like offal, egg sandwiches or special tajines. Be aware that most restaurants employ rather insistent “greeters,” who are very aggressive in getting customers for their stall. The line ‘we already ate’ seems to work well to get them to stop. Be aware that some of the tent restaurants overcharge heavily; you may easily end up with a bill five times higher than you should normally pay.
“‘Cafe DuLivre'”. Rue Tariq Ben Ziad, just off Rue Zoraya near Av. Mohammed V. An English speaker’s oasis. This hip cafe has free wifi, a full bar, and designer flavors of tea and coffee. It has an English library of books for sale and to read in house. The menu offers more than the usual tajine and rotessorie chicken. Its not unusual to hear sublime and Bob marley on the stereo or hearing a cool young French or morrocan hipster strumming their acoustifc guitar. Lots of ambient cigarette smoke lingers. They have live music nights and lots of posters announcing yoga workshops and cooking classes. Basically a quintessential backpackers cafe.
Djemaa El-Fna in full swing
If you want to eat well in Marrakech, do what the locals do and eat at the food stalls in the square. It is a common misconception that these stalls are here for the tourists. Actually, they have been in existence long before Marrakech became a tourist destination. All of the stalls can be regarded as perfectly safe to eat at. They are strictly licensed and controlled by the government, especially now as it is a popular destination for tourists.
Be extremely careful when deciding whether or not to eat here. Mathematical “errors” are often made by staff when they’re making the bill. So-called “freebies”, like olives and bread (which are supposed to be free), which incur a charge. Smaller portions are often served to tourists. It’s a long list of what the staff will do to try and rip you off. The staff may appear very friendly and witty, but it’s all pretense. They want your money and will do what they can, even cheat and lie to you, to get it. You have been warned. Most stalls have extremely aggressive and pushy touts trying to get you to eat at them. They will block your passage which can make for a very uncomfortable experience.
Prices tend to vary a little. Depending upon how hungry you are, you can pay anything from Dh 10 for a bread filled with freshly grilled sausages or perhaps a bowl of harira soup to Dh 100 for a full three course meal with salad, bread, starter, main course, and tea. There are some real scams, though, such as being charged Dh 470 for some mediocre street food for three.
Try harira (great soup, of lamb/beef, red lentils and vegetables) and the fried aubergines. Don’t be afraid — try the lamb head: it’s really tasty. The “bull stew” (beef stew) should also be given a chance in the same stalls.
Don’t miss the tea! There is a row of tea sellers along the front of the food stalls who each sell tea for about Dh 5 each (as of April 2013). Most of the tea at these stalls is ginseng tea with cinnamon and ginger… most delicious and welcoming. They also have cake, made of basically the same spices, which can be a bit overpowering.
All food stalls at Djemaa El Fna display the price on the menus, making it less likely you’ll be overcharged, but many will bring starters to you without asking, then charge for them at the end.
The orange juice stores sell fantastic orange juice, although there are times when lemonade had probably been added.
Drinks are rarely on the menu so it is better to ask the price of them before ordering, as they can often be comparatively high. On the other hand, some stalls offer free mint tea to encourage you to choose them.
Early mornings, look for people frying riifa in the covered part opposite the Koutoubia. Riifa is dough stretched and flattened and folded over, then cooked in a frying pan, and is best described as a Moroccan version of a pancake or crepe.
What to drink
Street vendors offer fresh orange juice (jus d’orange) by the glass for Dh 4. Try it with a dash of salt like the locals, but be wary of vendors who try to water the juice down with tap water. Also, pay attention when you buy as they offer 2 types of orange…the blood orange juice costs Dh 10 per glass and a misunderstanding on what you want to drink could occur.
Confirm the price of your orange juice and pay for it before you drink.
They do not always clean the glasses very well. It is possible to get an upset stomach from the juice. However, many vendors will give you the juice in a plastic cup instead of glass for 1 Dh extra.
There are many beggars in the square, and they will watch to see if you buy a juice, then hustle over and demand the change, or a glass of juice for themselves.
Inside Medina: There is a very limited selection of places selling alcohol in the medina.
Guéliz, the newer part of the city, has several places where one can sit down for drinks. In keeping with the local culture, alcohol is kept out of public sight and places serving alcohol do not advertise it openly. If you are looking for a place that serves alcohol, look for the telltale signs: if the word “bar” is mentioned next to the place name (instead of just cafe/bistro), it will most likely have alcoholic drinks on the menu. A curtain protecting the entrance outside is another telltale sign. Keep in mind these places usually only open in the evening.
Carrefour, The supermarket in the basement of the Carre mall west of the Majorelle Gardens sells alcohol from a specific room. Local products are considerably cheaper than imported with wines being relatively much cheaper to buy than beer.
Marrakech is a generally safe city, with a solid police presence. However, staying alert about your surroundings and taking general safety precautions is always a good idea like everywhere. Here are some tips:
Violent crime is normally not a major problem, but thefts are known to happen. Keep your money close and hidden, and avoid poorly lit streets or alleys at night.
The tap water in Marrakech is OK for bathing. While locals drink it with no problems, visitors often find it hard to digest. To be safe, opt for bottled mineral water, available at the marketplace kiosks and food stalls. Make sure that the cap seal has not been broken, since Moroccan vendors have been known to save money by refilling plastic bottles from the tap. At restaurants, ask for your drinks without ice cubes, which are usually made with tap water.
An important issue concerning toiletries in Marrakesh, and the cities around as well, is that, in general, commercial establishments, cafés and restaurants also, do not have toilet paper in their bathrooms, even in ladies’s rooms. So a good practice is always to carry toilet paper with you.
Day trips from Marrakech
Marrakech can make a good base for exploring the High Atlas can book activities and excursions. Many trips can be done easily and inexpensively with public transport. Also rental cars are relatively inexpensive, and driving in Morocco is easy (with some care required because of the narrowness of the roads.
Visit the desert: One of the best experiences to really not miss when you are in Marrakech. You can go to the Erg Chebbi or Erg Chegaga dunes and spend one night or more there. It’s an exotic and authentic experience. Visiting Erg Chebbi involves a long car trip, and is best done by a public bus or a rental car, with overnight stops in places like Ouarzazate, Tinerhir, and Boumalne du Dades (one in each direction), and at least two nights in Merzouga.
Agadir – On the Atlantic Coast this is Morocco’s main port city and is about 2 and half hours drive from Marrakech. The city was destroyed in the 1960 earthquake and was rebuilt in a modern 60s low-rise style. It has wonderful beaches and is much cooler than Marrakech, perfect for those who want to relax on the beaches, wide range of restaurants, bars and clubs, world class golf courses and has all the facilities that the modern tourist demands.
Essaouira – A fortified town on the Atlantic coast of Africa, about 3 hours by car/coach from Marrakech. There are many tour companies that run day-trips from Marrakech and, unless you are planning a golfing holiday at one of Essaouira’s resorts, one day is more than enough. The biggest attraction here is the small Medina, which is a much more pleasant experience than the Marrakech Medina — with almost no harassment from traders, scam artists or pan-handlers. There is a beautiful beach to enjoy and you can explore the 18th century port.
Imouzzer The traditional small Berber town high up in the Mid Atlas. The natural beauty is outstanding. Whilst only 60km from Agadir it is up steep mountainous roads and the journey is not for the faint hearted. During the spring the waterfalls are at their best. Famous for honey, carvings and argan oil.
Jbilets Geological Site
These towns in the High Atlas can be seen as part of a day trip:
Amizmiz – With one of the largest Berber souks in the High Atlas Mountains every Tuesday, Amizmiz is well-worth a trip. This is especially true for those travellers wishing to experience the less urban, less touristy mountain towns of the High Atlas.
Asni – A lovely rural village in the Atlas mountains.
Oukaimeden – Ski lift at 3268m. The snow falls in the mountains just south of Marrakech every winter. And it stays. Wealthy people from all over southern Morocco have since long learned to enjoy skiing in their own country. This has given the ski resort, Oukaïmeden, a distinct Moroccan touch, too. You don’t need to bring your ski equipment from home, all you need can be rented. Oukaïmeden and the areas around are some of the greatest in Morocco, with four seasons, and ever-changing nature. In summer, few people enter this area — it is probably too well known for winter sports. But staying here a day or two is a real treat.
Ourika Valley, in the Atlas Mountains. Tours involve stopping several times en route to the valley to look in tourist shops, a Berber house, and a collective run for women who make products out of Argan oil — all very interesting! Tours will include a walk to visit the waterfalls. The journey can become difficult, so wear good walking and/or climbing shoes — suitable footwear is imperative. Think of clambering up rocks at the side of the river and eventually criss-crossing over wet rocks to travel up the mountain.
Setti Fatma. A village at the end of the proper motor road up the Ourika Valley. The residential part is above the road and is not visited too much. The attractions are the lovely valley scenery and a walk to seven waterfalls — or for most day visitors one waterfall from which the others can be seen.
Jebel Toubkal, highest peak in the north Africa with it’s altitude of 4167m is a destination for many tourists. The main season is in spring but it can be climbed all year round. The hike is recommended to split in at least two days, night can be spend in one of two refuges. You can either take a tour which usually involves a mules to carry luggage or you can do it by yourself. Note that recently rules were changed and as of (Mar 2019) a guide necessary to hike up Toubkal.
Some tour operators offer customized itineraries and trips, including advanced booking in hotels, riads, etc. most of the drivers are fluent in foreign languages.