Marrakech is loud and dirty and busy and insane. It’s also beautiful and exciting and colorful. There are many smells. There are few street signs. The cars very rarely worry about pedestrians. The scooters do not care about pedestrians. It could be easy to get lost. We didn’t get lost at all, but this was very surprising!
- Morocco is a Muslim country so women should dress somewhat conservatively. This is not a requirement, but would advise to do it. Especially if you are a woman traveling alone or only with other women. Covering knees and shoulders is most important. Covering your head is not really necessary unless you visit a mosque. Be respectful and you will feel more comfortable walking around.
- We traveled there in late June and it was VERY HOT. During the day the temperature was close to 100-105, but at night it cooled to about 70-75. It’s hard to do a lot of sightseeing during the day if you are out in the sun, you definitely need to take breaks.
- Many guidebooks suggest getting a guide to take you around the city and the souks. We considered doing this, but after speaking with the hotel manager, she assured us that we would be fine on our own. And she was right. If you are nervous about getting lost, then maybe something to consider. Otherwise, unnecessary. If you do get lost, women should ask other women for directions.
- There are two main parts of Marrakech – the old city or Medina, and the new city or Ville Nouvelle. Stay in the walls of the Medina. You can take a taxi to Ville Nouvelle to check out a few places there, but it’s worth staying in the old city.
- Taxi prices should be negotiated before getting into the car. Suggest getting a sense of costs from a trusted local (like someone at your hotel).
- Visiting during Ramadan: This is actually a great time to visit Marrakech. There are fewer tourists as other Moroccans are not traveling during this time. We were also told that the men are more well behaved during Ramadan…not sure how true this is, but we didn’t experience many problems while we were there so perhaps it is true! It is also really interesting to see the city from day to night during Ramadan, as everyone breaks fast at sundown with big parties. Most places in touristy areas will still serve food/drink during Ramadan, a few places were not serving alcohol at all during Ramadan but this was rare. Some restaurants are closed the entirety of Ramadan.
Getting there: We flew into Marrakech via Amsterdam. The airport is small and did not take too much time to get through customs. Our hotel arranged a transfer for us from the airport, it is a pretty short ride into the city from the airport. The toughest part is getting from the car to the riad. Many of the roads in the town are closed to car traffic so you will have to get out, put your bags in a wheelbarrow handled by an old man, follow the man to your riad, and your riad should take care of the rest. Be warned that the old man will probably ask you for money, but the riad should cover this – don’t pay anyone until you know for sure.
Where to stay: You want to stay in a riad. They are generally homes with many rooms, an open courtyard in the center. There are many riads to choose from in Marrakech, it can be very overwhelming to know where to stay! They also seem very similar to one another. What is important is that your riad feels like a respite/a sanctuary after being out in the crazy streets of Marrakech. You will long to come back here and relax, enjoy the quiet and stillness. Most offer meals (breakfast included, other meals at additional cost), some have restaurants that are open to the public also. We stayed at Riad Kaiss – I cannot say enough good things about it. The staff was very helpful and friendly, we felt very much at home during our stay. Our room was lovely, we had a large private patio (and a lot of stairs to climb). The only bad thing in the room was that the AC unit was in a place that didn’t enable a lot of air flow so it got a little warm. Breakfast was delicious, often so many things were offered (eggs, bread, yogurt, coffee, orange juice). We had a lovely pool to enjoy, this was our favorite place to retreat to after being out in the sun. The manager was able to arrange day trips for us with a private driver so we didn’t have to go in a tour group. There was also a hammam at the riad and we were able to book a treatment one afternoon.
Things to Do:
- Explore the souks – It’s a maze of shops and vendors selling a wide variety of items: spices, clothing, leather goods, ceramics, lanterns. There is some method to the madness as the souks are arranged by type of good. But despite this “organization”, it seems very confusing as the streets twist and turn and many of the shops look the same. You might get lost. Enjoy it. But don’t window shop! The minute you express any sort of interest in an item, the seller will be all over you. And we learned from experience that it will be hard to leave without buying anything once they engage you. If you do want something, be prepared to bargain. This is expected. We were told to cut the price by as much as 80% to start the bargaining.
- If you want to buy a caftan, there are many options. Mostly cheap. The best shop, however, is Maison du Kaftan. It’s a higher end store, but they have very nice caftans and are willing to bargain also.
- Historic sights – There are a few historic places in Marrakech, you can easily visit them all within an hour or two (Bahia Palace, El Badi Palace, and Sadi Tombs). The admission is cheap (about $1) so you won’t feel bad only visiting for 15 minutes at a time. The tile work at Bahia Palace is very nice, El Badi is basically one big ruin (and no shade). There’s frankly not that much to see at any of these old palaces, and if it is very hot outside, you will not want to spend much time wandering around the ruins in the sun. You can skip these if you don’t have time.
- Jardin Majorelle – Located in the Ville Nouvelle, you will have to take a taxi ride here. Our taxi was 30dh (well the driver wanted 50dh) from the Tombs. It is 70dh to enter the gardens, there is a separate Yves Saint Laurent Museum which costs extra (we didn’t go in). Because we arrived close to closing time (5pm during Ramadan), they only charged us 50dh. The gardens are very beautiful, but not very large and it was so hot we didn’t stay too long. There is a cafe inside with some shade, good spot to grab a drink or snack while you are there (though very expensive). After visiting the gardens, you can go to the Hotel Renaissance for a drink on the rooftop (after 7pm).
- Day trips – You can take day trips or multi-day trips from Marrakech, especially if you are staying longer. Also, I can see making Marrakech your home base for a trip in Morocco, traveling around for a few days and then returning to this lively city.
- Ourika Valley day trip – We took a day trip with a private driver (10a-4p) to hike in the Ourika Valley, part of the Atlas Mountains. En route, we stopped a few times at what seemed to be obligatory tourist stops where they try to get you to buy things. By going with a private driver we thought we were avoiding this, but turns out all of the drivers have arrangements made where they bring the tourists through. We were not into this. First stop was a Berber house which was interesting to see. Drove a bit further to an Argan oil “cooperative” where the women explain how oil is made and do a major hard sell on the oil. We felt like we had to buy something here. Then we drove on to Setti Fatma where the hike begins. You must have a guide for the hike, it would be incredibly difficult without one. The hike to the second waterfall takes about 1 hour, plus another 30 minutes for 3rd waterfall. Guide is essential for navigating the very slippery (and sometimes steep) rocks, grabbing our hands when needed. At the beginning and end of the hike there are some vendors selling stuff – we got talked into buying some spoons and a caftan (OK I wanted the caftan). For the hike, you have to wear good shoes and conformable clothes. While it starts off easy, it gets increasingly challenging. We saw a lot of people wearing sandals which seemed like a huge mistake. There’s some climbing & scrambling required, some of the rocks are far away from each other and takes some effort to get up to the falls. Apparently very crowded during the high season and the hike can take twice as long. Post hike we had lunch at a local restaurant where the tables are placed directly in the water running from the Atlas Mountains.
- Enjoy the market in Jemaa el-Fna – Not much happening during the day, but it really comes alive at night. Go to the square before sunset. Find one of the bars/restaurants that overlooks the square (check out Cafe Glacier). Buy something so you can have a seat. Watch the market come alive as the sun sets. Walking through the market at night you will see many food stalls (the smells are incredible), storytellers drawing huge crowds, we even saw boxers one night. Feels safe, but just be aware of your surroundings (pickpockets, butt grazing – this happened to us). Beware of the snake charmers during the day – they will totally mesmerize you and find a way to take a lot of your money…
You must eat tagine. You will get very sick of tagine after a few days, but it will be really amazing the first few times you have it. There are so many different kinds of tagine, try them all and then eat something different.
Drink orange juice – I don’t even like orange juice and i thought this stuff was fantastic. You can buy it in the square, there are many vendors selling juice.
Eat at the night market in Jemaa el-Fna. We didn’t do this, but it looked and smelled incredible. There are many stands selling various types of street food, lots of tables where you can enjoy your meal.
Drink mint tea – It is super sweet and probably has so much sugar in it, but it is delicious and really enjoyable even on a very hot day.
Kasbah Cafe – This is a very typical tourist restaurant near the Sadi Tombs. Decent spot in the area if you are visiting the sights, not much else around. Enjoyed some light, cool dishes like avocado & tomato tartare and nicoise salad as it was too hot to eat anything else!
Le Marrakchi – Located on Jemaa-el Fna. All of the restaurants surrounding the square seem very touristy. If you do a little research, you can find the better options as it is fun to enjoy a night eating on the square. The food here was very good and one of our favorite meals on the trip. There is musical entertainment, including belly dancers (yep, it’s that kind of place). But the restaurants sits up above the square and it’s a really fun dining experience. Recommend the assortment of moroccan salads to start, and meat dishes like lamb skewers and beef tanjia (similar to a tagine).
Nomad – In the Medina, within the souks. Has a rooftop terrace, which is why we wanted to check it out. It’s a modern Moroccan restaurant and had different take on cuisine, but overall not that impressive. Feels like it is trying too hard.
Cafe Arabe – Recommended many times. Good spot though nothing special. Mix of Moroccan and Italian food. Roof terrace is nice though a little hot up there during the afternoon.
Maison Arabe – Located in a riad, about 10 minutes walk from Jemaa el Fna, but a bit of a desolate walk and not much around. Wouldn’t want to stay in that area, but the restaurant was very nice. More expensive restaurant, no fixed menu which is nice. Monkfish tagine is excellent.