With its rich cultural offerings, salmon-pink walls, and stunning architectural feats, Marrakech has been on my wish list for years, and with its relatively close proximity to the UK and cheap flight prices, it’s almost insane that I have only recently ventured to the Red City. During our four-day exploration, my friends Vivian, Sofia and I schedule our time around appreciating the city’s enchanting offerings, delicious food, and welcoming culture as well as experiencing some of its less pleasurable aspects. For a breakdown of this trip, look to the bottom of this page, otherwise, scroll down for more.
When in Morroco, a stay in a riad is a must. These traditional houses are characterized by their interior courtyards and act as peaceful sanctuaries from the busy atmosphere beyond their walls. After some blunders with our bookings on Airbnb (the first riad we booked had double booked on our dates, the second used fake photographs) we opted to use Booking.com to reserve our accommodation in Marrakesh. This was the first time I had used the site and I was hugely impressed by its free cancellation promotion. It was important to us to find somewhere that was as visually appealing as it was welcoming so we hit the jackpot when we found Riad First. Hidden behind rustic, rose-tinted walls, Riad First is a sleek and contemporary take on the traditional Moroccan house.
Run by a mother and her son, it boasts a stunning courtyard with an outdoor pool that is overlooked by wide balconies and a sun-drenched rooftop terrace. Each morning we were greeted with warming Moroccan hospitality, fresh mint tea, and a traditional breakfast. The riad is on the pricier side of what can be found in the city but for me, it was worth every dirham.
Following our stay at Riad First we actually moved to another riad named Riad Kasbah (also found on booking.com), however, we’re less than impressed with what we were presented with. While Riad Kasbah had praising reviews, we were shocked and disappointed to find that it was pretty much a construction site, the pool being half empty on the first day and laborers and bags of cement occupying the rooftop area we had dreamed of sunbathing on. This is the first time I had experienced such a situation and I was mostly annoyed that we had not received any warning in advance or any apology until we complained. After complaining we received a refund for half of what we had paid. Nonetheless, after such an incredible stay at Riad First, this put somewhat of a damper on the latter half of our trip.
The Saadian Tombs
Even though it was hugely disappointing, had we not moved to a second riad, we probably would never have taken the time explore the Saadian Tombs. Located beside the Kasbah Mosque, the Tombs date back to the 16th century and comprises the graves of around 60 members of the Saadi Dynasty. It was the Saadians who created much of city’s grandeur, however, many traces of the Dynasty were destroyed by the Sultans of the Dynasties that preceded. Rediscovered in 1917, the Tombs are one of the last traces of the Saadi era and exploring them is almost like unearthing something spectacular. Around each corner is a new and seemingly hidden archway, within which you will discover grand yet intricate carvings, tiling, and inscriptions.
Ben Youssef Madrasa
Founded in the 14th century and re-built by the Saadians in the 16th, The Ben Youssef Madrasa was an Islamic college of science and theology. During its operation, it was one of the largest theological colleges in North Africa, however since it opened up to the public in the 1980’s it acts as an example of one of Marrakech’s most magnificent architectural achievements. The central attraction here is the bright, airy courtyard that is decorated with carved cedar, marble, and tucco in traditional Islamic geometric designs. Beyond the courtyard, you can explore the dormitories once occupied by the college’s students, and, from the windows gain an unforgettable birds-eye view of the grounds.
Marrakesh is full of elaborately designed gardens and palaces and, continuing our exploration of the city’s impressive architectural offerings, we take the time to discover the late 19th-century beauty that is Bahia Palace. The decadent Palace features a large interior garden adorned with fragrant cypress, orange, jasmine and banana trees as well as a grand marble courtyard. At the time of its construction, it was intended to become the ‘greatest palace of its time’, and while I am yet to explore many 19th century palaces, I was surely taken in by its charm. I will say, however, that after also visiting the Saadian Tombs and Ben Yousseff Madrasa, wandering around the city’s courtyards can become quite repetitive, so if your stay in Marrakech is of a longer duration, space the visits out or just pick a couple of must-sees.
Though one of the city’s more expensive attractions, priced at 70 dirhams per person, Jardin Majorelle (Majorelle Garden) is a must-visit for those with a keen eye for aesthetics. Stepping into the walled grounds of the private garden is almost like stepping into a Moroccan wonderland. Designed and constructed by French painter Jacques Majorelle, the garden took approximately 40-years to complete. Its grounds are scattered with an assortment of luscious foliage that Majorelle had collected during his travels around the world and include various cacti, coconut palms, bamboo, weeping willows and floating water lilies. The contrasting yellow and cobalt blue exterior of the iconic villa that sits at the center of the garden is like nothing else in the Marrakesh and exudes a unique blend of Moorish and Art Deco architecture.
Following Majorelle’s death, in 1980 French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his close friend Pierre Berge purchased the garden, preventing it from being sold and replaced by a hotel. A visit to the garden will present no doubt as to how much of a tragedy this would have been.
Nomad et al
During our time in the Red City we often only ate two meals a day, being breakfast and a late lunch. This was mostly because we often got swept away in the quest of discovering what each nook that Marrakech has to offer, and also because the intense heat greatly suppressed our appetites. When we did eat, however, we sought to do it well, seeking out the most recommended spots in the city. The downside to this was that we often overlooked cheaper restaurants frequented by locals, the plus side was that we were, for the most part, guaranteed a good meal.
Of the restaurants recommended elsewhere on the web, we visited La Terrasse des Espices, Nomad, Comptoir Darna, and Pepe Nero. I highly recommend a late-night visit to Comptoir Darna where, when the clock strikes 11, you will be treated to an exuberant belly dancing performance as well as an afternoon stop at Nomad, which will effortlessly fulfill every Instagrammers dreams. While the service wasn’t incredible (possibly a cultural difference?), the food was delicious; here, I opted for the Tunisian Brik with a side of green beans for my main and had to double up on dessert as both the Moroccan Date cake and Amalou ice cream seemed too good to resist; this was easily the best food decision of the trip.
Located in Marrakech’s ‘old city’, Jemaa el-Fnaa is the main square of the city. Frequented by tourists and locals alike, the square hosts an eclectic marketplace of goods, food, and entertainment. The square is also host to popular currency exchange. As we make our way across the square, we’re enthralled by the chaotic atmosphere it exudes. Expect to be approached by just about anyone with something to sell and to be summoned to numerous attractions including snake charming, and monkey handling. I personally would not recommend giving time or money to any attractions involving animals as they generally involve cruel practices (that you can read more about here) however there are many human-centered forms of entertainment to enjoy.
Both here and in the souks, that I discuss below, you need to take on a very strong stance when rejecting the unwanted advances of those looking to make money. It can be quite intense and frustrating at times as many vendors are extremely persistent when it comes trying to convince tourists to buy something and in many cases, it seems like they are simply trying to wear you down until you submit. My advice is to avoid engaging in unnecessary conversation or explanation, simply say ‘no thank you’ as sternly and frequently as you need to until they give up or until you are out of their vicinity.
By venturing a little further beyond the main square of Jemaa el-Fnaa you can quickly find yourself lost in the labyrinth of small stores and vendors that make up the city’s famous souks. There’s something quite enchanting about the seemingly endless trail of cubicles with offerings ranging from glowing golden lanterns, hand painted ceramics and brightly woven tapestries, however for me the Dyer’s Souk was the most enjoyable part of our visit.
Inspired by an Instagram search of sights in the city, Vivian uses images saved on her phone to ask locals where we could find the brightly colored hanging wool pictured above. With some helpful direction, we make our way to the dyer’s souk where we find alleyways draped in vibrant shades of red, orange and blue. Here you can learn about the natural dye powders used to give color to materials used to produce the technicoloured fabric goods sold throughout the souks and even watch the incredibly skillful act of dipping the wool into the hot dye. As I discuss further below, you may be roped into purchasing wool products or giving money for an explanation of the dyeing process. If you do not wish to do so, be confident in your refusal, if you do: haggle, haggle, haggle.
Quad Biking through the Palmeraie
If you’re visiting Marrakesh and don’t have time to take an excursion beyond the city to discover the Sahara desert, a visit to the Palmeraie is an excellent opportunity to appreciate the vast lands and sands of Morocco, and what better way to do it than on a quad bike. Using TripAdvisor, we pre-booked our quad biking morning with Dunes & Desert. The service includes a pick up from our riad as well as a break for snacks and tea with a local Berber family.
All of us were beginners and found the instructors to be incredibly attentive and considerate of each our varying confidence levels, giving those who were more confident to speed ahead and staying close to those who were less speed-prone. During our snack and tea break, we were served Moroccan crepes and honey and were provided with a tour of a traditional Berber house. This was very insightful, however, I would be aware that offering a tip to the host is favorable.
The Uglier Side of Marrakech
As wonderful as Marrakech is, there are some aspects of its tourist-focused environment that cast a shadow over its beauty. While I understand that everyone needs to eat, and making money from unsuspecting tourists is simply a way of life for many Marrakech locals, as a traveler it is important to know what to anticipate particularly when your own money and wellbeing is involved It is more than likely that when wondering Marrakech’s streets, some individual will appear happy to offer you assistance out of pure good will. While there are a select few who do actually do so, many a time by accepting such an offer you will find yourself being roped into some kind of sales pitch or expected to hand over cash for the time spent helping you. This was my least favorite aspect of Marrakech, and it certainly was for Vivian and Sofia too. It can be stressful, leave a bad taste and if those involved are aggressive enough, be sometimes frightening. Let my experience be a tale of caution:
While looking for the city’s tanneries, one young man offered to show us the way ‘free of charge’. After we repeatedly asked if we had to pay for his time he said ‘no [he] wants to show [us] the city’. Impressed by his eagerness to help, we follow him to the tanneries where he hands us off to another guy who gives us around a 15-minute tour and explanation of the leather making process that occurs there. Again we ask if this will cost us, again they say no. Following this tour, we are blindly lead into a leather shop where we are pressured to buy homeware by an eager salesman who pretty much chases us out of the store aggressively shouting prices when we uncomfortably refuse to buy anything.
In shock and feeling betrayed, we complain to both the initial guide and the guide from the tannery, however, the second guide is more concerned about being paid for the tour of the tannery that he told us was free. Agitated, we end up arguing in a narrow alleyway about this for some time, appalled by the deception and ridiculously high price he suggests. Eventually, we reluctantly concede to giving a smaller amount of money, and as an apology, the initial guide offers to take us back to our starting point free-of-charge. How naive we were. Once we arrive at our starting point and are ready to depart ways, our initial guide asks for money for his time. After a) offering his initial guide for free, b) scamming us into paying for the tannery guide, and c) apologizing for this and offering the last guide for free. We did not pay. The moral of the story is don’t accept guides from strangers unless you absolutely need to; don’t expect said strangers to stick to their word about payment; and in 9/10 circumstances if something seems too good to be true, expect an ulterior motive.
(The same applies to those who invite you to see inside of a Berber house, however, I do recommend you do this just to taste and perhaps purchase the Berber tea and eucalyptus they may offer as it is 🔥🔥🔥)
How we traveled: We flew from London Stanstead to Marrakech Menara Airport with Ryanair. We booked around 2-months in advance for and the return ticket was priced at £86. When in Marrakech we traveled mostly by foot, using app Maps.me to navigate the city’s streets and occasionally taking a taxi when we were too tired or the distance was too far. When traveling in Marrakech and using a taxi service, I recommend only hailing or accepting rides from yellow taxis as these are official and registered, and most journeys can be haggled for around 50drm (£4.5).
What we did: We spent much of our time discovering the most popular attractions throughout the city. We visited the Saadian Tombs, the Ben Youssef Medersa, Bahia Palace, Jemaa el-Fnaa, the dye souks, the tanneries, Jardin Majorelle and also spent a morning quad biking in the Palmeraie.
Where we ate: The most notable restaurants we dined in include Nomad, Les Terrasse des Espices, Comptoir Darna and Pepe Nero. They are what I would call ‘tourist spots’ so the prices are similar to what you would find in cities such as London, with meals costing around £20 per person. It is possible to eat much more cheaply in Marrakech, we just didn’t do so on this visit.
Tips & Tricks: There are restrictions on the amount of local currency that you are able to bring into and take out of Morocco, I recommend entering with money in GBP, EUR or USD and exchanging it in the airport or elsewhere in the city. When you arrive at Marrakech Menara Airport, expect the customs process to take at least an hour, similarly, when leaving the country, arrive at least 3-hours before your flight as the security process is extremely lengthy.