Marrakech has been on the radar of adventure and luxury travelers for decades, most recently as a must-visit location for movie stars and celebrities. Over 1,000 years old, the ancient “Red City” mixes history with modernity to provide an exotic gateway to the mysteries of Morocco.
The city’s geographical location, in the middle of the country, flanked by the Atlas Mountains and just a short drive from the Atlantic, makes it the perfect home base for visitors. The number one draw of Marrakech for many is for the world famous shopping. The souks (markets) of Marrakech wind for miles through old cobbled pedestrian streets. It’s easy to feel like you’ve stepped back in time as you wander this labyrinth.
Perhaps the most famous monument in Marrakech is the Khotubia Mosque. Standing 70m high, the minaret of this mosque was built in the 12th century and has had only minor restorations since that time. The mosque itself is off-limits to non-Muslim visitors but the surrounding gardens offer a great spot for a relaxing walk. Across the way towards the city walls is the famed La Mamounia – you’ll have to go through security but inside the gardens are lush and the hotel’s restaurants and Churchill Bar (open 5 nights Weds – Sun) are welcoming. No shorts or casual attire is allowed.
The market begins at Djemma al Fna or Big Square. A good rule of thumb to follow is that the closer you are to the square, the more expensive items will be so walk deeper to get a better price. Bargaining is a must in Morocco, though more and more shops are displaying fixed price items. If you are bargaining, offer 1/3 of the price you’re originally given and then negotiate. If you really can’t get the price you’re willing to pay, walk away. The seller may follow you and offer the item at your price, if not, you’re likely to find a similar item with a different vendor.
Constructed in the late 1800s, the Bahia Palace is more contemporary. Only a portion of the palace is open to visitors but you will have the opportunity to see traditional Moroccan craftsmanship at its best. South of the Bahia Palace is the home of Marrakech’s Jewish Quarter, the Mellah. Today the Jewish population of Marrakech is mostly expats who have come back to live, however a synagogue and Jewish cemetery are still functioning. Efforts are being made to build a cultural complex of Marrakech’s Jewish past.
The nearby Place des Ferblantiers is home to spice traders and the gold district of Marrakech.If history is more your cup of tea, you’re in luck. Marrakech has many historical sites that remain largely intact. The Saadian Tombs housed in the Kasbah, directly across from the Royal Palace are a great place to start your tour. The tombs were sealed for centuries, starting sometime in the 18th century, and only rediscovered in 1917. The oldest known burial date is 1557. Recently a lot of work has been done to restore the building edifice and attached mosque. Keep in mind this is a burial site and respect should be observed through modest clothing and behavior. Admission is 10 dirham and there may be guides offering a tour. If you decide to hire a guide, agree on the price before beginning. Another interesting small museum is the Musee Dar Si Said – it only costs a $1 so worth a peek. But no need to go out of your way.
Great care has been taken to bring natural beauty to the city as well. The Menara Jardin and Jardin Majorelle are the two best known gardens open to the public. A quiet oasis of flora and fauna, the Jardin Majorelle is truly an escape from the hustle of the city. The newly opened Yves Saint Laurent Museum is adjacent to the Majorelle and a sleek venue for the designer’s work. Make an afternoon of it and visit the YSL museum, Jardin and Majorelle museum inside the Jardin (combined ticket about $17, buy at YSL to avoid the lines at the Jardin).
Once you’ve pounded the pavement, and filled your bag with souvenirs, it’s time to sit back and relax. A must do item on any visit to Morocco is enjoying a traditional hammam. The hammam is a community bathhouse that has served not only as a cleanliness regimen but as a chance to catch up with neighbors and relax. The hammam experience is a mix between a sauna, massage and bath. Many riads and hotels have hammams on site, or can recommend one nearby. Some to consider are Les Bains de Marrakech, Hammam de la Rose, La Maison Arabe and Les Bains de L’Alhambra. There are many other local neighborhood hammams, however this may be uncomfortable to visitors. Expect to pay between 150-300 dirhams for a luxury hammam.
If you love hands on experiences, taking a cooking course during your visit will allow you to experience local markets and cuisine at a much deeper level than in restaurants. La Maison Arabe Ateliers and Dar Les Cigognes are two very well-known and reputable courses. In both you’re guided through the local markets to select seasonal items, learn about the spices and combinations used to season Moroccan food, and finally assist in preparing a meal that is shared at the end of the course. Expect to pay $50 – $100 per person for the course.
Moroccans, and especially Marrakechi’s, take food seriously, and there’s no chance you’ll go hungry here. A local specialty is tangia, a meal that is only made in Marrakech. This simple meat dish is comprised of lamb, slow cooked in a clay vessel with spices until tender and then eaten by scooping it up with soft, round Moroccan bread. All Moroccan meals begin with a trio (or more) of vegetable salads, olives and bread. This is followed by the main course, a tajine or couscous, and finally dessert – a selection of fresh seasonal fruits. At all times of the day glasses of sweet, hot mint tea is offered. Be aware that much of the food will skew sweet – tagines often have dates or other fruit in them. And the mint tea you find everywhere?
Meal times are different in Morocco than many North American visitors may be used to. Breakfast is served by 10am and is simple, usually bread, croissants, jam, cheese and hot tea. Lunch is the biggest meal of the day and is served between 2 and 4pm. In the early evening Moroccans enjoy “coffee time” where khawa hleb (3/4 hot milk + ¼ espresso + plenty of sugar) is served with cookies or other sweets. Finally dinner, often served after 10pm is eaten. Traditional dinners are simple, perhaps a bowl of harira or a sandwich.
The price of food and accommodations has gone up in Marrakech but is still a bargain when compared with other destinations. Breakfast can be eaten for a few dollars and a nice multi-course lunch or dinner is available for $15 or less. Fresh juice is everywhere – for $1 – $2 you can get squeezed orange or pomegranate juice. While Morocco is a Muslim country, alcohol is generally available for purchase in many restaurants though not in shops in the Old City.
55 Boulevard Mohamed Zerktouni | Gueliz
In the new part of town, this restaurant is both charming and swanky with delicious food both cooked and served by women. Expect to pay about $30 per person for some of the best cooking in the city.
La Maison Arabe
1 Derb Assehbe | Bab Doukkala, Marrakech
Eating at La Maison Arabe is an experience in and of itself. The beautiful décor is heightened by the delicious menu. Make reservations to ensure a table, dress up, enjoy the jazz and taste some delicious Moroccan cuisine. Expect to pay $25 – $30 per person for dinner.
The Amal Moroccan Restaurant and Women’s Training Center
Angle rues Allal ben Ahmad et Ibn Sina, | Quartier l’Hopital, Marrakech, Website
A newcomer on the Moroccan food scene, this restaurant doubles as a non-profit training center dedicated to improving the quality of life for single and disadvantaged Moroccan women through job training and building literacy skills. The restaurant is open from 11am – 4pm daily and has a limited menu, however the food you’ll enjoy here is the quality you would find in a Moroccan home. Lunch is available for between $5 – $10.
A nighttime visit to Djemma el Fna will introduce you to the smoking food stalls that light up the square. Grilled meats, salads and other Moroccan specialties like snail soup are available for purchase. Your best bet is to find a stall frequented by locals and pull up a seat. Dinner for under $10.
Tourism has been a major source of income for Marrakech and there are countless riads (Moroccan-style bed and breakfast), hotels, and apartments available to make your stay comfortable.
Courtyard at Riad Linda
63 Derb Jamaa, Website
This charming riad is a restored two story home in the medina of Marrakech. Each room has a unique decor – some open out directly to the pool. Cooking courses are available as are spa services. The on premises restaurant is quite good with tables around the pool.
Doubles from $170
Derb Sidi Bouloukate, Website
You can’t get any closer to the center of Marrakech. The Hotel Cecil is low-priced, quality spot, more of a mix of hostel and hotel, keeps you close to the action. Make sure to note if you would like air conditioning and/or a private bathroom. Single/Double: $30 Triple: $40 Quad: $50
116 Riad Zitoune Kedim | Derb Sidi Bouloukat, Website
The comfortable Jnane Mogador is also a good bargain. If visiting in summer, make sure to note you’d like a room with air conditioning. Double Room $40, Family Room $55. Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner available for an extra charge
Kilometer 13, Route de Ourzazate, Website
Escape the city and opt for a retreat to the countryside. This boutique hotel is beautifully decorated, offers delicious meals and numerous opportunities on-site and off-site to have an authentic Marrakech experience. Good location for large groups. Closed from June 15th – September 15. Contact for Current Rates
Courtesy Morocco National Tourism Office
Getting There: Numerous international carriers fly directly to Marrakech as do discount airlines such as RyanAir and EasyJet from many cities in Europe. American flights land in Casablanca and require a connection to Marrakech (customs and immigration are at the destination city.) If visiting from Casablanca, trains depart every 2 hours to Marrakech and cost $10 for a 2nd class ticket. Buses are readily available with both CTM and Supratours reliable and comfortable.
Visas: Americans do not need a visa to travel to Morocco and are permitted to stay up to 90 days.
Once you are in Marrakech, petit taxis are plentiful. Make sure to let the driver know to run the meter for a fare or agree on a price ahead of time if your destination is far. Most destinations in Marrakech cost $2 – $5 to reach. Grand taxis, usually circa 1970’s Mercedes, are also an option for the adventurous. These taxis only go point to point, or are rented to go between cities, and prices should be negotiated before departure. There are also public buses and private car hires available. Many hotels and riads also offer transfers to major tourist stops. Taxis are fixed fare from the airport (150 dh) – many hotels include airport transfers or can arrange transport.
The Moroccan authorities have taken great care to provide added uniformed and plain clothes police to protect tourists. It is safe to walk around the city, as most areas are well lit and have heavy foot traffic. Petty theft does happen, so use common sense, taking care not to carry large amounts of cash, or all of your money and identification in one place. Do watch out for faux guides who offer to give tours of the city or particular areas. Guides in Morocco must be licensed, so ask to see their guide license. All prices should be agreed on ahead of time to avoid any uncomfortable confrontations. People may approach you appearing to be helpful – just wave them off.
Marrakech has a semi-arid climate with very few bugs. There is very limited risk of malaria, yellow fever or typhoid fever. The drinking water in Marrakech is filtered and safe to drink though visitors may opt to stick with bottled water that is readily available and affordable. It is worth being vaccinated for Hepatitis A before visiting, and taking care to only eat cooked or peeled fruits and vegetables. Moroccan meat is generally quite well done but avoid ordering meats cooked rare. There are several clinics and doctors available that speak English if you are to fall ill.
Morocco’s currency is the dirham. There are ATMs and money exchange points all over the city. The most recent conversion is approximately 9 dirham to $1. Cash is king in Morocco and take care to have small bills and coins available, especially for small purchases.
Darija, a dialect of Arabic is the language of the street, however most people also speak French, and growing numbers speak English. You may also encounter people speaking Tamazight, one of the dialects of the Berber languages of Morocco.