Easily classed as one of the most beautiful and fascinating cities in Morocco, no trip to Northern Africa is complete without checking out Marrakesh.
Kasbah District, Marrakesh
This city is over 1000 years old and is home to a thriving Medina, incredible shopping experiences, and some of the most aesthetic architecture you will find, all set to the backdrop of the Atlas Mountains.
Marrakesh is also famous for its beautiful riads (guesthouses often converted from family homes), colourful spiced market stalls and mint tea all dotted within the winding streets of the city.
Some Useful Information:
ℹ️ Travel: Marrakesh is served by Menara International Airport that is 2.5 miles (3.7kms) from the city. Flights from The UK roughly take 3 hours. For British citizens a passport is valid with at least 6 months on it and is visa free for 90 days. Transferring from the airport to the city approximately takes 15 minutes by taxi. Blogs and travel guides warned of taxi drivers quoting exuberant prices to tourists quoting up to 500 Dirhams (GB£40) to go the short distance. Most advice given says a typical price (although I wouldn’t say fair) for a transfer is around 250 Dirhams.
I had no bad experience. For the 2.5 mile ride I had in my head would pay no more than 200 Dirhams (GB£15) at absolute most. The first taxi driver to approach me quoted exactly 200 Dirhams – my attempts for negotiation were foiled!
ℹ️ Time Zone: As of October 2018 the Moroccan government has decided to no longer use Daylight Savings Time. Morocco used to follow GMT and therefore was on the same time zone as London. Morocco now follows Central European Time and is +1 hour ahead of London going forward. Daylight Savings Time is no longer recognised.
ℹ️ Currency: The Moroccan Dirham (MAD).
Morocco is a ‘closed country’. That means you cannot bring local currency into or take it out of the Country. In the airport are numerous Currency Exchange booths. There are numerous exchange venues peppered around the city.
ℹ️ Credit Cards and Banks: ATMs are surprisingly fairly common place on the streets of Marrakesh. Most up market stores and restaurants will accept cards but the main transactions are by cash, especially at smaller local establishments and market stalls.
ℹ️ Weather: My visit to Morocco was the end of January. Daytime was warm and sunny with temperatures in the late teens. However, the evening times went very cool. Take a jumper for the evenings. Summertime temperatures can reach into the later 30c’s.
ℹ️ Accommodation: I stayed at the 4* Dellarosa Boutique Hotel located in the Ville Nouvelle District, priced at GB£55 p/n with Continental breakfast. It was a very comfortable 15 minute walk to the Medina District were you will discover the maze of Souks for shopping, street performers and restaurants.
ℹ️ Local People: My visit to Marrakesh was out of Season. Many guidebooks advised to be wary of the local market traders as they would be likely to hassle you for your attention, or taxi drivers charging outrageous fares. Whether travelling during the off Season helped at all but I had no issues with the locals. I was not targeted at all. I had a couple of children begging for money – that’s all. I found the locals to be friendly, courteous and always smiling to its visitors.
USEFUL TIP: Moroccans speak Arabic and French. I was surprised how much French is spoken. Most locals speak a good level of English but a few helpful French phrases and words will become useful, especially around the Souks.
WHAT CAN MARRAKESH OFFER?
Marrakesh is separated into distinct areas known as Medina’s. If you have a good pair of walking shoes and are of reasonable fitness then all these districts can be accessed on foot.
Ville Nouvelle, or New Town, is where modern day Marrakesh is branching out to the Western World. Its main high street is lined on both sides by high street stores such as Starbucks, H&M and Zara. Look for a roundabout named ‘Place de la Liberte’ with a fountain in its centre and that’s the beginning of the high street. It’s a happening area where the younger generations socialise over a burger at McDonald’s or KFC.
There is a small shopping mall here known as Mohamed 5th with an assortment of clothes lines and technology shops.
The biggest draw for me was the Skybar at the top of the Renaissance Hotel that offers cocktails at its rooftop bar overlooking the Atlas Mountains at sunset.
The Ville Nouvelle District is a fairly large area that also boasts some of Marrakesh’s most beautiful botanical gardens. From the Central Souk District this can be walked in 20 minutes.
is a 19 Acre botanical garden populated with sweet smelling roses, olive trees and beautifully manicured hedgerows. As the name suggests the garden offers free WIFI access. You will know you’re at the right spot as it runs parallel with the main road lined by orange trees from Le Place de la Liberte roundabout all the way through to Koutoubia Mosque.
Le Jardin Harti
Located in the centre of le Ville Nouvelle is a tranquil park lined with palm trees, park benches and a cactus garden. Why not take a stroll to escape the noise of the high street?
Le Jardin Majorelle
The Jardin Majorelle was gifted by Yves Saint Laurent in the 1960s. It’s a stunning oasis in the north part of Ville Nouvelle. It’s a bit of a hike compared to the rest of the sights around Marrakesh and the one with the longest queues to enter, but, arrive early and inside is a canvas of colours and architecture. Entry is 70 Dirhams (GB£5.50)
Jemaa el Fna and Central Souk District
This district seems to be the hive of the city. It’s a labyrinth of narrow streets that lead to numerous smaller satellite market squares. It incorporates the Central Souks itself and the main square of Jemaa el Fna.
Jemaa el Fna:
is Marrakesh’s main square and is the largest in all of Northern Africa. It is easy to get to by taxi or walking. From the hotel I was staying at in Ville Nouvelle the walk took 15 minutes.
The square is always crowded by day or night and filled with snake charmers, magicians, storytellers, musicians and acrobats. At dusk, it changes into a huge open air dining area packed with stalls lit by gas lanterns. But in order to actually watch any of the performers and take photos of the food stalls, you will have to give them a few Dirhams.
While eating at the square is an amazing experience, be very careful as some of the food stalls prey off unsuspecting tourists. They will bring you extra plates of food and say it is complimentary. However, at the end of the meal they will stick you with a huge bill including all of the ‘complimentary food’. I thought Street food (after my experiences in Asia) would be cheaper than the restaurants, but I stand corrected. It was almost twice the price, and came with an upset stomach afterwards.
Central Souks :
There are plenty of souks around Jemaa el Fna square, so you won’t miss them. Even if you are not planning on buying anything, wondering around busy market streets of the souk is an experience in itself. The Souks around the Square lend themselves into narrow alleyways where every street looks exactly the same. Put away your guide book and Google Maps and deliberately lose yourself.
The Souks are a mecca of aromatic spices, especially saffron, colours, sounds and tastes. If you like antiques and traditional decor, you might want to bring home a Moroccan lamp or local Berber pottery. Don’t forget to haggle!
USEFUL TIP: There is a little etiquette to haggling. Always say hello and ask how the vendor is. Always have an idea how much you are prepared to pay and stick to your guns. If the vendor offers you mint tea accept it! The vendor will always offer a high price – you go in with a low price. Both of you barter away until both parties mutually agree to the sale or you walk away.
If you manage to navigate the narrow streets through the souks you may find a small square named Place Rahba Kedima. Its a small square with ladies offering Henna tattoos and men selling wicker goods. Take time and stop at Cafe des Epices for a mint tea and watch the world pass by.
is Marrakesh’s most famous landmark. It was commissioned by Abd-al-Mu’min, the construction of the Koutoubia began in 1141. The highlights of the mosque are the minaret tower that stands 226ft (69m) high. Non-Muslims are not allowed to enter the mosque but have the freedom to walk around its perimeter.
Places to Refresh:
There are so many places to eat and drink around the Medina district but I want to list two of my favourites.
Cafe de France – Located in Jemaa el Fna Square is a great place to stop and recharge those batteries over a cafe latte or mint tea.
Cafe Kif-Kif – Located opposite Koutoubia Mosque is a great three story venue offering a rooftop terrace. Order the delicious Chicken Salad!
Mouassine & Bab Doukkala District
Le Jardin Secret:
Take time out from all the Souk shopping in a surprisingly peaceful garden in the middle of all the street hustle and bustle. The garden is a mix of traditional and exotic Islamic design. Entry is 50 Dirhams (GB£4.00)
Everytime I saw the signs for Kasbah I couldn’t stop thinking of that song ‘Rock the Casbah’ by The Clash.
Busy Kasbah is home to old world souks, street food vendors selling grilled meats and breads and trendy cafes. It’s also home to Badi Palace, Kasbah Mosque and Saadian Tomb Mausoleum.
Built in the 16th Century by Saadian sultan Ahmed el Mansour, this famous palace, translated as ‘The Incomparable’, has been stripped of much that once made it so grand.
Yet that does not mean that this vast palace is not worthy of a visit or that the true scale of its grandeur is entirely lost. These ruins are vast, and those with even a passing interest will need at least an hour or two to truly take in the surrounds. It also has some nice views over Marrakesh, as well as some very loud Storks roosting on top of the turrets.
Entry is 70 Dirhams (GB£5.50)
Built in the late 1100’s, the Kasbah Mosque is the main mosque for the southern end of the medina. Not as grand as the Koutoubia mosque but still impressive in its own right. Non-Muslims cannot enter the mosque but you have the freedom of the grounds outside.
Saadian Tombs is a place of bountiful orange trees, landscaped gardens and birdcall. This remarkable spot is the final resting place of Saadian Sultan Ahmed al Mansour ed-Dahbi as well as nearly 200 of his nearest and dearest. It was pretty much forgotten about until 1917, when aerial photographs revealed what his successor had chosen to hide.
Saadian Tombs is a wonderfully peaceful place, even when busy, this is where to come when the medina has become a little too much. Wander the mausoleum and marvel at the marble and colourful mosaic tiling.
Entry is 70 Dirhams (GB£5.50)
There is a superb cafe that you must stop at for a drink and a bite to eat. The Kasbah Cafe has a rooftop seating area where you will be rewarded with views of the Kasbah mosque and square. The cafe is opposite the entrance to the Saadian Tombs. Order the chicken Tajine. A hot dish that is cooked in a crockpot with potatoes.
The Atlas Mountains
The three ranges of the Atlas Mountains create a striking barrier between the arid sands of the Sahara and Morocco’s milder coastal climate. The middle of these ranges, the High Atlas Mountains, begins close to the Atlantic in Agadir and run in a jagged line northeast through the country.
One of the most rewarding walks is up the slopes of Mount Toubkal, the highest point in North Africa.
A 90 minute drive from Marrakesh, the range is easy to visit and you can opt to explore on foot or in a 4×4. If you choose to go on foot, there are a variety of routes you can take, from moderate walks to challenging multi-day treks.
I took a full days trip into the mountains that involved a fairly rigourous couple miles hike through Ourika Valley to Ourika waterfalls.
After the hike I took a drive through the mountains to stop to have lunch with a traditional Berber family in their home.
If you have the opportunity to take a trip into the Atlas Mountains then make an effort to do it. Its a great experience feeling the coolness of the mountain air. The peacefulness of the environment after the bustle of Marrakesh.
The trip to the Atlas Mountains was booked through Trip Adviser that cost 730 Dirhams (GB£57)
If There Is Time
If your stay allows time why not try some other experiences that does not involve sight seeing.
Coiffeur: For the gentlemen (or ladies too), why not try having a Moroccan haircut and shave at one of the numerous barber shops known as ‘Coiffeur’. These shops are branded everywhere around the streets of Marrakesh. Most are just the name written on a wall outside the shop. I tried a back street barber shop, and in my broken French and the barbers broken English, established a haircut and shave with a cut throat razor for 100 Dirhams (GB£8.00). I have to admit it was one of the best haircuts and shaves I have ever had.
Hamman: If you have the confidence then try a traditional Hammam. These are public bath houses, some mixed sexes others for men and women only. It’s a place to wash away the dust and heat from the city. There are two types of Hamman.
There are those that are used by the locals and those a little more spa like aimed at tourists that offer treatments and massages. Either way it’s a great experience. No one bathes nude. You can keep your underwear on!
If you are looking for a little adventure then opt for the local Hammans. You will need to make up a kit though that consists of a towel, soap, flip-flops and a waterproof mat to sit on.
Some Hammans will be signed others will just have a picture of a man or woman stencilled next to the doorway on the street with an attendant inside to take your money.
No travel guide and research can prepare you fully for Marrakesh. This is a city that moves to its own frenetic beat. Within the labyrinthine Medina the modern world clashes with the old and scents and stenches unbeknown to you will strike at will.
During my stay in Marrakesh, I fell in love with the city on a daily basis. An experience would occur or a scene would unfold that would make my heart swell, whether that was the city itself or the freshness of the Atlas Mountains.
Not everyone will love their time here, but nobody will be able to leave this city without a sensory experience that will stay with them for some time.