MARRAKECH, MOROCCO: Marrakech is one of the major destinations not only in Morocco but in whole Africa for its location and unique landscape. Situated near the foothills of snow-capped Atlas Mountains and very close to Sahara desert, Marrakech is a city with magic in every corner. We didn’t really spend time in the new part of the town. All the tourist attractions were mostly located in the historical district, known as Medina.
The locals here speak very well English along with Arabic and French. Moroccans are very friendly and helpful. Walking around Medina on foot is the best way to experience the city and its culture. Just be careful when crossing roads as too many bikes, motorcycles, donkeys, and horses sometimes make it a bit harder to walk in the main roads.
TIME of TRAVEL: We flew to Marrakech on the first week of January 2013 during my daughter’s winter break. It can be very cold in Marrakech around this time of the year. Some days were really pleasant but got a bit chilly after dark.
OUR HOTEL: We stayed in a hotel (actually a Riad) called, Riad Dar El-Ihssane in Marrakech. This is actually not really a hotel, it’s a traditional Moroccan style Bed & Breakfast type inn, usually known as Riad. Our riad was located inside the boundaries of Medina (old town) thru some small alleys and passages and very close to Djemaa El-Fna and other major souks (bazaars). These riads are usually decorated with very traditional Moroccan style features, like cozy inner-courtyards surrounded by the guest rooms, bright-colored living spaces with old-style furniture and linens; some riads may have swimming pools and other cool features. Every day after coming back to our riad, I used to order some Moroccan mint tea, sit down in the courtyard, and enjoy the surrounding which was warmly decorated with some Moroccan lamps, candle-holders, some plants, and a small fountain. It’s a family run riad and one of the staff’s sister used to prepare breakfast for us. We had cheese, olives, breads (sometimes home-made crepes or Indian style parathas), home-made jam, fresh orange juice, fresh fruits, boiled eggs, coffee, and milk for the kids. The breakfast and Wi-Fi were free. Our room was very clean and all the staffs were very helpful and friendly. Every night they used to burn incense in the courtyard and I could get that sweet smell from our room…I felt like I am sleeping in a Sultan’s palace. But one thing specifically about our room was that we had NO DOOR for our bathroom…yes, it sounds weird but I guess that was a little part of the whole experience in Marrakech. Using the toilette and taking shower in a bathroom without doors is a funny feeling, especially when you have curious kids around you. I never got used to that during our stay there, so I ended up using the bathroom near the reception J
EATING and SHOPPING: You can get wide variety of dishes inside the old walls of Medina. There are few permanent restaurants in one side of Djemaa El-Fna, where we had our first dinner. The place was called “Taj’in Darna”, we sat on the 2nd floor with a whole nightly picture of Djemaa El-Fna from the window. Dried fruit juice and avocado juice were something we never tried before and had to taste it. We also had beef kebab taj’in with eggs that night. “Café Arabe Marrakech” is another place we went for a lunch which is very upscale and luxurious multi-level restaurant with a terrace, courtyard, and inside sitting options. I didn’t see any locals here; mostly westerners come here for drinks, to chill, or to have exquisite meals from professional chefs. This was by far the best place we’ve dined in Marrakech. Café Arabe has menus offering traditional Moroccan dishes as well as Italian dishes. I tried harira soup, which combines vegetables, rice, lentils, chick-peas, and lamb in aromatic spices. Another evening, we ate in the open food-court in the middle of Djemaa El-Fna. You won’t see these restaurant during day time. They start setting their restaurants up every day before evening and there are too many of them to choose from. I won’t highly recommend eating here if you are looking for some good food. We had some tasteless kebabs with fries and salad that night and I never wanted to go back there again.
For shopping, I literally went crazy while roaming around the souks in Marrakech. I wish I had more space in our suitcase during this trip. You can seriously empty your pocket buying many unique souvenirs from here. I ended up buying different sizes of tagines (traditional clay pottery for cooking and serving), a Moroccan style hanging candle-holder, tea set, silver tray, small folding table for serving tea, babouche (Moroccan slippers), and saffron. I still wanted to buy a painting, a silver tea-pot, scarves, more spices, rugs, mirror, colorful serving platters, and bowls. We saw many vendors in and around Djemaa El-Fna who were selling dry fruits like dates, figs, raisins, and other things. Don’t forget to drink freshly squeezed orange juice from here.
You have to bargain while shopping in Djemaa El-Fna or other nearby souks. Start bargaining from one-third of whatever the price the salesman tells you. You can find pirated CDs for cheaper price here too. You can use credit/debit cards pretty much in any of the shops but I won’t recommend it for fraud and extra fees. There are many exchange booths near Djemaa El-Fna who will give you good rate for your currency.
PLACES WE’VE VISITED: All the places we’ve visited in Marrakech were inside the old walls of historic district, Medina. It’s hard to picture the hustling-bustling and enchanting life inside Medina from the other side of the wall. The fun is to get lost in the mazes of this old part of Marrakech and navigate thru the exotic alleys without any map. Other than the places below, visiting tanneries, museums, and some gardens may be good choices if you can spare some time. Royal Palace is also located very close to Djemaa El-Fna but cannot be accessed since the royal family still resides there. In Marrakech we spent 3 full days and it was perfect. Doesn’t matter how long you stay here, dip into the magical life inside Medina and enjoy every bit of its character to the fullest.
1) DJEMAA EL-FNA: This is the beating heart of Marrakech and the place to get a vivid picture of this enchanting city. If you have only couple hours to spend in Marrakech, Djemaa El-Fna would be the spot where you would want to stay absorbing its unique atmosphere. This is the biggest and main square surrounded by many restaurants and shops. During day, the place is packed with many snake-charmers, people with monkeys, women to design henna on tourists, horse-wagons, and smaller vendors selling trinkets. At night, it’s a totally different picture and is the best time to enjoy Djemaa El-Fna. Hypnotic music and loud drum beats fill this place with excitement. Musicians, dancers, and actors/actresses keep this party alive until late at night. Enjoy different kinds of dishes that the open-air restaurants offer in the middle of the square; after that may be a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. This is the best place to see, hear, and taste Marrakech to the fullest; this place is all about enjoying life and the moments…so enjoy every second.
Just to give you some ideas of the prices on different services in Djemaa El-Fna, I must say some shows, like musicians/dancers usually don’t demand any fix amount while snake-charmers or monkey performers may want a specific amount. It’s always better to agree on the price before anything. Horse-riding for 45 minutes charged us 75 DH and henna tattoo on both of our daughters (on one hand each) was for 50 DH total. Whatever you do, don’t let bargaining ruin your fun…really not worth it.
2) KOUTOUBIA MOSQUE: The mosque was completed in the late 12th century and the exterior is made from brick and sandstone. This is known as the “Eiffel Tower” of Marrakech and its tall tower can be seen from many parts of the city and from Djemaa El-Fna. It doesn’t take more than couple minutes of walk to reach there from Djemaa El-Fna by passing the rows of rental horse-carriages. Unfortunately, the mosque is not open to tourists. Muslims are allowed inside only during prayer time. Since we couldn’t go in, we decided to just walk around the perimeter of the mosque passing some old ruin and gardens.
3) EL-BAHIA PALACE: Located within walking distance from Djemaa El-Fna and El-Badi Palace, El-Bahia Palace is really an awesome attraction and a must-see in Marrakech. This gives a good impression of what it was like to be a nobleman in the 19th century in Morocco. The ornate rooms, long passageways, tranquil gardens housing many lovely plants, calm courtyards with fountains can keep its guests entertained for couple hours. Enjoy the original tile works on the fire-places, doors, windows, and lots and lots of stray cats outside the building.
The palace charges 10 DH per person (free for kids under 12). Be careful of the tour guides inside the palace; they usually pick random people and start telling history, then charges a lot of fees for showing you around. If you want a guide, better to bargain and set the price beforehand.
4) EL-BADI PALACE: The unique Badi Palace was a royal palace constructed by the most famous king of Saadien dynasty, Sultana Ahmed Al Mansour Addahbi in 1578. The general plan of this palace was inspired by Alhambra Palace of Granada. The palace is now in ruins and home of many storks and stray cats. Couple of the rooms still have the original exquisite mosaics and tiles.
It took us good 15-20 minutes of walk from Djemaa El-Fna, passing some busy and congested streets. It’s open from 9 am – 4.45 pm and entry fee is 10 Moroccan DH (free for kids under 12). We spent about 45 minutes in this palace enjoying its rooms and gardens leisurely.
5) SAAADIAN TOMBS: This is a very well-preserved graveyard from the time of Saadien around late 16th century. This is the home of many tombs from different religions and background. The fantastic wood and stone carved doors are totally jaw-dropping. Inside the main building, you can take a peek at the room with few important tombs decorated with overloaded Moroccan tiles. The garden is a nice place to walk around and enjoy different colors of roses, tall palm trees, and many other pretty plants.
Entrance fee is only 10 DH (free for kids under 12) and you can easily spend a good hour enjoying its garden and the tombs.
6) BEN YOUSEF MADRASA: This madrassa (Islamic school) is one of the largest madrassa in the North Africa and has been standing here since mid-16th century. Located in Medina, this is another great example of early Islamic art and architecture. We saw the small rooms where little children and may be teachers lived once. The center and the main courtyard is intriguingly marvelous and is decorated with mosaic floor, tiled fountain, and calligraphic walls…the beautiful carvings of them are something beyond my limited words can describe.
The madrassa is open from 9 am – 6 pm. Ticket to enter is 50 DH per person (free for kids under 12) only for madrassa and 60 DH for the madrassa and museum.
7) SOUKS: Souks or the markets are the best place to enjoy the real essence of Marrakech. Located just beside Djemaa El-Fna, these souks sell almost anything including tagines, lamps, spices, babouche, tea sets, tea-pots, Islamic clothing, home decorations, shawls or scarves, and many other things that you won’t find anywhere else in the world. Of course, you end up paying more for being a non-Moroccan. Nevertheless, do what the locals do and don’t forget to look around and bargain before committing to buying. You can have a whole day dedicated just exploring the little alleys of these souks and looking for the best bargain.
8) DAY-TRIP to OUARZAZATE: Ouarzazate is about 200 km south of Marrakech. This was a nice way to get out from the city life and visit not only the natural beauty of this country but also the life-style of local Berbers. We needed some fresh air after being in Djemaa El-Fna, Marrakech for few days and this was just a great escape to the wilderness. We paid 1200 Moroccan Dh for the whole arrangement which included a tour-guide who was also a driver. Please visit my page on Ouarzazate on the right-side bar for all the information on the city. There were many other day-tours we could’ve chosen (e.g., Ourika Valley) which were available through our riad (hotel where we stayed).