Marrakech is an absolutely enchanting place. It’s a constantly overwhelming flurry of colors, sounds and smells. The medinas and souks offer an exhilarating journey through the storyline of Moroccan culture—between all the different shops and food vendors, snake charmers, tannery workers, and henna artists, a first time traveler can gain a fairly good understanding of Morocco’s charm and overwhelming nature in a matter of minutes. The music is loud, the colors are bright, and the food is inundated with spices. Marrakech is a larger-than-life place that every traveler must see at least once.
Contrary to what you may have heard, the people are friendly, welcoming and eager to share their incredible culture with you. So my recommendation for Marrakech is to try everything, take in all the sights and sounds, speak to as many locals as you can, eat traditional Moroccan dishes, and don’t assume everyone is out to scam you (but still be smart of course). It is a beautiful country with so much adventure to offer.
Things to know before going
Morocco is a very conservative place. Women should take care to always cover their shoulders, and their knees. Women don’t need to Cover their heads with a scarf—though some women in Morocco do and sometimes can be seen wearing a hijab or niqab—but it may be wise to bring some form of scarf in case you need to be more conservatively dressed.
Don’t ever, ever drink the water. I’ve heard horror stories about what can happen when you drink the water. The most common is that you spend a week on the toilet (similar to Montezuma’s revenge) but I’ve also heard that you can get hepatitis or things like typhoid fever from the water or from eating sketchy food. I, myself, am pretty sure I picked typhoid while in Morocco... though to be honest, it was probably less about the water and more about all the sketchy food I ate (no regrets!). To be smart though, try to avoid salads or things with raw vegetables, smoothies, and drinking non-bottled water and restaurants. Also try to avoid drinks with ice. The good thing is that most of Moroccan traditional dishes or cooked, so as long as you stick to traditional Moroccan cuisine—usually well-cooked inside a tajine—you should be fine.
Be careful. Places like the Jemaa el-Fnaa (the main square in Marrakech) where the tourists are known to linger can often be pretty overwhelming. If you've heard horror stories about tourists being swindled or mugged, it probably happened in a place like this. Some of the shadier locals pray on unsavvy tourists, where they'll either try to get you to buy a fake Rolex, sell you goods for way over their value, try to grab your arm or touch you, or worse: sexually assault you. The street harassment in Marrakech is often at its ugliest, so just know two words going into your trip: "la shokran", meaning "no thank you". Try to ignore the people who follow you and don't get flustered. Be smart and don't walk off in narrow, dark alleyways alone.
DO NOT follow those offering to guide you. They will likely lead you on some very long, roundabout way—where you're sure to get pressured to buy something from the stores you stop in along the way—and will likely charge you some offensive sum of money at the end.
Finally, don't take photos without asking first. I always ask permission before taking a photo of a person, but in Morocco you likely need permission to take a photo of an object, a store or, well... just about anything. Photos are pretty taboo in Morocco in general, and if you take a photo without permission the locals may get angry and demand that you pay. If you want a photo of a snake charmer, don't expect it to be free.
Also, learn to haggle. Don’t ever, ever pay full price for anything. Don’t pay the first amount that you were told when shopping in the soups or in the medina shop vendors will always come off of their first price, Often times coming down as much as 50% from where they initially started. Be sure to always have cash on you specifically the dirham, as you will have a more difficult time bargaining with people if you have the dollar or the euro (though if you were in a bind most vendors will take it). It’s also wise to have a good understanding of the exchange rate before you go shopping so that you can think quickly on your feet and haggle with the shopkeepers in order to get the best deal.
Though Marrakech now has a beautiful and very westernized airport, the efficiency in which it runs is still an indicator that you are in Africa. Planes still board and de-board on the tarmac, signs are few and far between, and the lines to get through immigration and customs are insanely long. The plane we arrived on did not give us immigration forms, so we were scrambling to grab the forms and then run to the line, filling out our forms while we stood in line (remember one of my basic travel tips and always bring a pen!). I would say there were probably just a shade under 500 hundred people in line and it took us over an hour to get through it. The immigration people just plugged our names into the computer, which didn’t appear to be working all that quickly, so I am guessing that is why the line gets so long.
What’s worst though is that just when you think you’re free to go, you end up having to wait in another 30+ minute line for customs. There were another 500 people or more in the “nothing to declare” line and absolutely no one in the “declare” line. So many people in fact that we were tempted to just say we had something to declare, but figured since we were in a new country that playing by the rules might be a good idea. Then all they do is put your bag through the machine. During the entire time we were there, we did not see one person get stopped. So the entire process—from landing the plane to getting through the airport doors to the outside and finally being free—took well over an hour. So if you have somewhere to be upon landing, plan ahead.
The next slightly unnerving situation comes when you exit, as hundreds of shouting men are holding signs with names or yelling “Taxi? Taxi?” Since just about every person who’s been to Morocco says that taxis from the airport try to screw you over, I would advise against getting a taxi unless you absolutely have to. Your best bet is to arrange a car ahead of time by contacting your hotel. Just about anywhere you stay can arrange a ride for you. Our first hotel, Riad BE, arranged a car for the two of us for $20 total.
Where to Stay
Royal Mansour Marrakech - $$$$
There is no question that Royal Mansour is the nicest place available to stay in all of Morocco, and arguably one of the best properties in the entire world. Continually ranked number one by big travel names like Conde Nast and Travel + Leisure, Royal Mansour is sure to blow you away. However, the price is reflective of this, as their cheapest riads run about $1,200 per night during the low season (which is astronomically expensive for Morocco, but if you're from the States like me, might not sound too bad for extreme luxury). Don’t let the price derail you though; it is such a magical place that if you have the opportunity to splurge—even if just for one night—you should try to do it just to be able to experience this place once.
Watch the YouTube video HERE for a complete tour of our three story riad!
Quite possibly the most photogenic hotel on earth, Riad BE is an Instagrammer’s heaven. The entire Riad is adorned with stunning colorful tiles in different patterns. Everything from the floor to the walls to the ceiling is tiled. Ornate lanterns hang from chains from the ceiling and candles are lit all over. There is also intricate ironwork and hand-carved doors and window coverings. The interior courtyard with the pool in the middle serves as a communal meeting place, with books to borrow, several seating areas, and the cutest little cats and kittens roaming around wanting to play. The rooms are absolutely adorable—tufted bedding, beautiful rugs, curtains hung from the ceiling to frame the bed, and one-of-a-kind, hand painted furniture in bright colors. Everything is so chic and tastefully decorated.
Prior to our arrival, my friend reached out to the hotel to arrange transportation from the airport. The hotel arranged for a car, to pick us up, and I’m pretty sure it only cost us about $20. There was some difficulty finding him at the airport amongst all the people (so I would recommend getting an international data plan to use your phone when you arrive), but we called the hotel and were able to find our driver shortly thereafter.
When we reached out prior to our arrival, we also inquired about dinner options because we were expected to arrive at the hotel rather late (after 8). They had dinner prepared for us, which they beautifully set up on the rooftop terrace. We had a traditional Moroccan tajine chicken dish with vegetables. Breakfast was also included, which consisted of bread, jams, yogurt and fruit—and it was delightful.
The price for this place might be the best part. It was only $180 a night, which we found to be a deal in light of how cute it was and how great the service was. The staff were all so friendly and accommodating; we didn’t want to leave! And compared to the other places we stayed at, this was the cheapest, though certainly not the least “nice” of the bunch. It beat some of the more expensive riads we stayed at during our trip to Marrakech.
Riad Les Yeux Bleus is another beautiful hotel that is similar to most of what you have seen the Instagram influencers photograph on their travels. Though the rooms are tiny, our room was nicely furnished and had a forest green accent wall and beautiful Moroccan-style lamps strewn about. The linens are soft, the bed had nice pillows and the bed was comfortable—all things a traveler needs after that amount of travel. The monogrammed linens and towels were also a nice touch.
More at this place than others though, we definitely felt the logistical and infrastructure issues of Morocco. A lot of things didn’t work—the faucet dripped, the sink (although a beautiful, hammered copper) didn’t drain, and the bathroom was definitely not large enough for two people to be in at the same time. The check-in process also took forever, and since we had just gotten back from the desert when we stayed here, we really wanted to get in our room and take showers. They also forgot to give us a lock for our door, which meant we had to go back downstairs before leaving just so we could lock our room. And upon our return, we stood outside the Riad for at least 5 minutes ringing the door bell at 11 pm waiting to get back in. All that said though, this is a great place for the price and still a good option.
Other wonderful hotel options include La Maison Arabe (which is right in the heart of the old city, and there's also a great restaurant there), the uber cheap Riad L'Orchidee (perfect for a budget traveler) and the spacious, high traveler-ranked Savoy Le Grand Hotel.
Where to Eat
Nomad is a very centrally located restaurant, right off of Jemaa al F-naa, with an eclectic, international vibe and good, healthy food options. It's definitely a bit touristy due to its central location, but the food was actually quite good—good enough for us to return a second night, which is obviously an indicator of how we felt about it.
Le Grand Café de la Poste
Le Grand Café de la Poste is great French restaurant. This place reminds me of your traditional Parisian restaurant/cafe, with a bustling, loud indoor dining room and a sexy, smoker-friendly patio with cafe tables. The waiters even look like your traditional French waiters would—dressed in white shirts, black pants and a black apron. They specialize in seafood and even have a large seafood counter inside where you have the option to pick your fish or your lobster, should you desire to do so. My girlfriend and I each had a tomato salad and shared a cheese course—simple, yet still delicious. Le Grande Cafe de la Poste offered great service, good food, and was reasonably priced.
If you’re an adventurous eater, one of the food stalls in Jemaa al F-naa square is a thrilling way to experience traditional Moroccan food. Though you’ll be bombarded by men that will get in your face and even go so far as grab your arm or get within inches of your face, as long as you can tolerate this type of conduct, you should easily be able to find a good place to eat just by following your nose. You can smell the best vendors from a mile away. And since they all have their food out on display, you get to see exactly what you’ll be eating ahead of time. We each bought a bowl of snails in a broth for about .50 cents a piece. They were little shells full of briny, delicious goodness.
Though I can't remember the name of any of the local, more traditional restaurants, my favorite places ended up being the locals joints that served up more traditional Moroccan fare. My suggestion—rather than sticking to the safe bets like those I mentioned above—would be to eat at these traditional Moroccan restaurants as often as possible. The food is hearty good, well seasoned and overall just better than when they try to recreate American or European food. I listed the restaurants above because sometimes you just need a break from chicken and olives cooked in a tajine, but that shouldn't dissuade you from trying the local joints.
What to Do
See the Desert
From Marrakech, we opted to do a four day trek to a luxury tent camp in the desert, with a company called Desert Tours Morocco. Trips like this can easily be embarked upon from Marrakech, so if you have some extra time while in Morocco, I would highly recommend making the trip.
For an in-depth account of our stay in the desert camp, click here.
Experience a Traditional Hammam
Unlike any American or European spa experience you've had before, a traditional Hammam or Turkish Bath is a great way to relax and unwind. It's definitely not for the shy or modest though—a hammam treatment typically involves a complete stranger scrubbing down your entire body—note: ENTIRE body—then rinsing you, giving you a massage, and then lathering you up with a lot of lotion. You lie completely naked on the marble with a total stranger getting up close and personal with all your parts. I really enjoyed the experience but can see how some might not be super into it.
Shop the Souks
Whether you’re into shopping or not, a stroll through the souks is a perfect way to experience Marrakech’s quirks and eccentricity. While walking through the souks, you are constantly bombarded with different colors, smells and sounds. The overwhelming combination of sights and smells and the constant tug-of-war between them are what makes Morocco so special.
Be sure to haggle though—shopkeepers start almost 200-300% above what they will ultimately take. The more you negotiate with them, the better deal you will get. Never just take the first price you are told and agree to pay it; there’s always a better price if you just haggle a little. The dirham is the best currency to have in your pocket, but if you find that one of a kind piece that you absolutely have to have and don’t have any local currency, most shopkeepers will take the euro or the dollar.
What to Buy
Marrakesh is shoppers heaven. Be sure to pack light on the way there so you have plenty of space to bring things home. On my trip, I chose to take only a backpack on the way there in order to keep things light and easy. I ended up purchasing a very cheap rolling suitcase in the Medina for around $30 so that I could bring an entire truckload of goodies home. Though known for having incredible home goods, the souks are known for selling rugs, tapestries, beautifully ornate light fixtures, colorful cashmere scarves (be sure to try to find the real cashmere, as most are fake), linens and bedding, pillows and poufs, and leather goods like handbags belts, shoes, wallets etc.
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