Marrakech was unlike any other city I have ever visited. Known for it's architecture, food, luxury, history, landscapes and culture, it's hard to know where to begin when talking about The Red City. Before coming, I'd seen so many beautiful photos and heard so many enchanting stories that left me eager to visit. It's just one of those cities that exudes the perfect balance of mystery and beauty; securing it's rightful place on every traveler or photographer's bucket list. And while the magic of both Marrakech and Morocco as a whole is true, that electricity should come with a warning sign cautioning unsuspecting travelers against some very harsh realities they should be prepared for.
Moroccan Arabic and French are the most commonly spoken languages in the city, though greetings are commonly done in Arabic. Some useful Arabic phrases to know are:
Hello: Asalam Alekum
Goodbye: Ma’a Salama
How are you: La bas?
Thank You: Shukran
No, Thank you: La Shukran
Some General Tips:
Always stick to bottled water and always accept an invitation for mint tea.
For women, keep your shoulders and legs covered. To be honest, travelling as a woman in Marrakech can be bothersome - especially if you’re traveling solo (which I don’t recommend at all). But cultural norms and practices should be observed so as not to not draw unwanted attention to yourself, so definitely be careful in your outfit choices.
Beware of people who volunteer themselves to you - they want money. The hustle game in Morocco is strong (think Joanne the Scammer), so if people offer you help they usually want something in exchange. If you're walking through the medina and someone offers to show you where a certain place is, so not accept their help unless you are prepared to give them some money. Avoid looking lost (walking around with a map, dressing significantly differently from the locals, etc) to minimize the amount of people who might walk up to you to solicit their "help". ISSA TRAP. While you may wish to have “authentic” travel experiences and venture off with locals, Marrakech is one of the few cities that I would instead recommend paying for an above board tour or experience. It will be well worth the cost.
While Marrakech is a pretty walkable city, especially when navigating the maze of the medina, taxi’s are easily available. Just be sure to negotiate the price before you get in and be wary of shady taxi drivers who will insist their meters are broken.
Always haggle and negotiate and never accept the first price given to you.
Do not take photos of people or their belongings without their permission. Taking photographs of people in a foreign country is either welcomed, or not. In Morocco, be careful not to take photographs without the subject's permission. If you take a picture of a person, their animals, or belongings, they may demand a small fee from you.
Be prepared for major racial complexities - especially if you’re black. I found it odd that Moroccans referred to me as African but not themselves. I was also pretty jarred by how many people screamed random obscenities at me while walking through the medina or reached out to try to touch my hair without my permission. But to be fair, I never experienced even the slightest discomfort within high end establishments where staff were trained and used to interacting with travelers, however the people on the street were far too aggressive and bothersome for my taste. While I don’t believe all Moroccans are racist, I definitely had more than a few racist encounters.
Be careful where you get your henna applied. In the bustling markets and souks, vendors may try to cut costs by switching up the mixture so always do a small test patch first to check for an allergic reaction. Assess your surroundings and the actual henna before you get painted.
Where to Stay
For a local experience, opt to stay in one of the cities many riads. They are beautifully detailed structures, with internal courtyards, gardens, or even swimming pools in the middle of them and typically offer a far more intimate and boutique experience. They are great options if you want to stay close to (or in) the medina and be right in the hustle and bustle of the old city. I suggest:
For a more decadent and luxurious experience, you may want to consider one of the many resorts around the city that take the proverbial architectural cake. You also have the option of just visiting for the day, so if you don't want to break the bank but still splurge to experience much larger gardens, pools, the best customer service, and the ultimate place for relaxing in Marrakech, I recommend:
WHERE TO EAT lunch
After spending some time exploring the medina and walking through its narrow labyrinth-like alleys, you’re sure to work up an appetite. While I don’t think there's anything wrong with sampling some of the many local street food options, if you’re looking to find a quiet medina oasis for lunch to cool down, these are a few of the restaurants I’d recommend for lunch.
1. Nomad Cafe - If you’re not looking for it, you might miss it because it’s deep in the medina. Nomad was the oasis haven after dealing with the intensity of the souks, with its lovely high terrasse overlooking the medina. Their menu presents traditional Moroccan food with a modern twist, and their dessert was next level good (the date cake with caramel sauce… thank me later!). I also strongly recommend you stop by their shop that offers very well curated Moroccan goods.
2. Terrasse des épices: Another medina oasis and located just across the courtyard from Nomad, Terrasse des épices has a terrace café with a wonderful view of the medina and even better food.
3. Le Jardin - Owned by the same people that run Nomad, be sure to grab a bite at Le Jardin for amazing Moroccan infused bite in a huge lush courtyard. It quite hard to find and looks very unsuspecting from the outside, so be sure to call ahead and ask for directions.
WHERE TO EAT DINNER
1. Le Restaurant at La Maison Arabe - This restaurant has been a hotspot for foreign dignitaries and celebrities alike since it opened in 1947. While on the pricier side, you can enjoy a menu filled with classic Moroccan dishes.
2. Le Fondouk - I had my favorite dining experience in Marrakech here. It's locally known as one of the best fine dining experiences in Marrakech and located in one of the more easy going areas of the medina. As with pretty much everywhere in Marrakech, the decor here is stunning. However, I highly recommend getting seated on the terrace for your meal instead. Get there before the sun sets and you'll be treated to some of the best food (their tagines were my favorite after trying out a few different restaurants) paired with a lovely and relaxing view.
3. Dar Zellij - Another place with a terrace not to be missed and highly recommended by locals for an elevated traditional experience. They also offer a meet and greet service to help you find them which is very helpful considering the restaurant is hidden behind an unsuspecting wooden door. Enjoy the Moroccan salads, followed by a fish tagine or pastille, and couscous, paired with delicious drinks.
Hammams are Islamic communal bathhouses and spas with separate baths for men and women. While I highly recommend stopping by the spas at the bigger resorts I previously mentioned (mostly because they are just so insanely beautiful) their prices are far too expensive if you're a budget traveler like me. If you'd like to have a luxurious hammam experience without breaking the bank, a few options to consider instead are:
Market goods to BUY
It wouldn't make sense for you to come to Marrakech and not buy a few market goodies. A few items I would highly recommend are:
Brass, copper, and ceramic home goods
Tagines in various sizes & colors
A pair or two of babouches
Argan & Jasmine oil
Woven Baskets, Hats, & Totes
Berber Rugs & Other Textiles
Places to Visit
Djemaa El Fna: The central square, boasting a market place so enticing and raucous, you’ll be pressed to find a better place to shop for curios and Moroccan products alike. It can also be very intense (especially at night) so be prepared to have your wits about you. Don’t miss out on some a cup of fresh squeezed orange juice in the square and do not take any pictures of locals or their monkeys/snakes without permission.
Marrakech Souk: Entrench yourself in the mazes of this local marketplace, but also be ready to bargain and negotiate! The shops aren’t’ grouped thematically by any means – but you will find almost anything your heart desires while you search your way through it.
Koutoubia Mosque: The Architecture of Moroccan mosques is are unique, they feature beautifully raised square minarets, which peak through the skyline of the city. While it is a feature to see – it is worth noting that it is an active mosque, and non-muslims are not permitted to enter the space.
Ben Youssef Madrasa: A Madrasa is the Islamic version of a Sunday school – a place for muslims to learn about Islamic scripture, and religious beliefs. The Ben Youssef Madrasa one once the largest quranic school in the north Africa, whose architectural splendor still remains. While it is no longer an active school, the beauty of the now restored building is open to visitors.
The Bahia Palace: Homage to Arab architectural styles, this palace was once home to one of the sultan’s grand viziers. With elaborate details and finishing’s, especially in the harem, this palace is worth a visit to experience some of the grandeur of the time.
Jardin Majorelle: Created over 40 years by artist Jacque Majorelle, scattered with plants from around the world, this garden is a landmark of the city. After Majorelle’s death, the garden lay in disrepair until Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé bought it with the intention of restoring it to Majorelle’s original vision. This part garden, part villa, part boutique, part museum is a wonderful oasis in the midst of the city. This one is definitely not to be missed.
Maison de la Photographie de Marrakech: The Maison de la Photographie de Marrakech houses a collection of vintage photographs and documents, dating back to 1870. Wander through the three floors of the museum to see Morocco through the eyes of those who have lived there, or passed through from generations ago. When you’re done, be sure to have a cup of mint tea on the terrace.
Merzouga Desert Camp is on the fringe of the city, but a great taste of the Sahara desert. Choose to camp, or glamp, and take in a camel ride through the dunes. An unforgettable experience is watching the moon rise above the dunes at night.
Photography by Lee Litumbe
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