An Insight Into Marrakech, And 4 Things You Must Find Time To Experience

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Marrakech has to be one of the most breathtaking and astonishing cities in the whole world. It’s a riot of color, culture, music and life. The architecture is authentic even today, the squares and streets and bustling and busy. There is manmade nature to rival the peace and serenity of the natural beauty found high above in the cities mountains. It is the ideal place to spend a long weekend, a week or a fortnight. It balances chaos with calm, demure with boldness.

Read on for an insight into the incredible place, and four things you must find time to experience while you are there.

Stay In An Authentic Riad Or Villa

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First things first; staying in a beautiful villa or riad should be an absolute priority for your visit. If there is one thing that the Moroccans are truly excellent at, it is building and decorating their homes. You’ll quickly see that luxury in Morocco isn’t hard to find. If you want to be bang in the center of things, look for a luxury riad with a central location. If you want a little more serenity, a villa on the outskirts will be the place for you. Spacious ones, with their own pool and amazing views, are idyllic. There is also a pretty big chance that buying property here in future will make an appearance on your bucket list. You have been warned!

Trek The Atlas Mountains

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High up above the city, looking down like a grand and watchful guardian, are the Atlas Mountains. Book a private tour up to them, and then take a hike! The landscapes and vistas are breathtaking, and the views will be unforgettable. Don’t forget your walking shoes, hat and enough water for the high temperatures!

Wander Jardin Majorelle

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While the Atlas Mountains are entirely natural, back in the heart of the city you’ll find Jardin Majorelle. This place is also known as the Yves St. Laurent Gardens. That is because this is the guy who designed, built and curated this place. He is the guy who you will owe your huge thanks and blessings to when you see it with your own eyes. The colors are so bold and beautiful, they may make any you’ve seen before pale in comparison. And the plants, trees, water and shrubs are special enough to draw you in for a peaceful couple of hours.

Get Lost In Jemaa El Fna

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A great holiday or vacation is usually all about balance. So, balance the mountains with the gardens. Balance a luxury riad with the bravery to try some delicious street food in one of the many market squares. And balance a relaxing morning by your pool with a frenetic afternoon at Jemaa El Fna. This is Marrakech’s biggest, busiest and most popular hub of shops, stalls, restaurants and cafes. Don’t be content with staying around the perimeter. Pack a bottle of water, some long clothing and dive right in. Go and get lost in the winding streets, and finding authentic wares from friendly, cheeky market sellers.

Enchanting Marrakech

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.

Countryside of Marrakech from our plane
Countryside of Marrakech – bird’s-eye view from the plane

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.

Walking around the city, outside the walls of Saadian Tombs in Marrakech
Walking around the city, outside the walls of Saadian Tombs in Marrakech

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

The courtyard of our Riad Dar Al-Ihssan in Marrakech
The courtyard of our Riad Dar Al-Ihssane in Marrakech

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.

Our first dinner, traditional Moroccan Beef tagine with egg in a restaurant, Taj'in Darna, in Djemma El-Fna
Our first dinner, traditional Moroccan beef tagine with egg in a restaurant, Taj’in Darna, in Djemma El-Fna

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.

A souvenir shop near Djemma El-Fna, Marrakech
A souvenir shop near Djemma El-Fna, Marrakech

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.

Moroccan babouche (slippers) in a souk of Marrakech
Moroccan babouche (slippers) in a souk of Marrakech

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.

My daughter is being hauled in a luggage cart toward our riad, in Medina, Marrakech
My daughter is being hauled off in a luggage cart towards our riad, in Medina, Marrakech

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.

Djemma El-Fna at night, Marrakech
Djemma El-Fna at night, Marrakech

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.

A snake-charmer in Djemma El-Fna, Marrakech
A snake-charmer in Djemma El-Fna, Marrakech during day time

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.

Walking towards Koutoubia Mosque from Djemma El-Fna, Marrakech
Walking towards Koutoubia Mosque from Djemma El-Fna, Marrakech

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.

One of many courtyards with a fountain in El-Bahia Palace, Marrakech
One of many courtyards with a fountain in El-Bahia Palace, Marrakech

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.

A nicely preserved room in El-Badi Palace in Marrakech, Morocco
A nicely preserved room in El-Badi Palace in Marrakech, Morocco

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.

Walls of El Badi Palace in Marrakech - home of lots of storks and stray cats
Walls of El Badi Palace in Marrakech – home of lots of storks and stray cats

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.

One of the rooms with few tombs in Saadian Tombs, Marrakech
One of the rooms with few tombs in Saadian Tombs, Marrakech

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.

Calligraphic walls in main courtyard of Ben Youssef Madrassa in Marrakech, Morocco
Calligraphic walls in main courtyard of Ben Youssef Madrassa in Marrakech, Morocco

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.

Marrakech souks after dark
Marrakech souks after dark

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).

Road to Ouarzazate...beautiful snow-capped mountains and the valley
Road to Ouarzazate…beautiful snow-capped Atlas Mountains and the valley

In a land of Moroccan Barberes – Ouarzazate, Morocco

OUARZAZATE, MOROCCO:Ouarzazate is about 200 km south of Marrakech. Although 200 km sounds nothing for day trip but it took us about 4 hours each way on a private taxi. But the hectic journey through the rugged Atlas mountain range was worth every bit of it. If not for this trip, we wouldn’t have seen the true beauty of Morocco’s giant landscapes and its desert. 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 the local Berberes. 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.

Layers of Atlas Mountains on our way to Ouarzazate, Morocco
Layers of Atlas Mountains on our way to Ouarzazate, Morocco

We paid 1200 Moroccan Dh for the whole arrangement. He was a great driver, being very careful while driving on elevated roads of mountains without rushing or anything. The main problem came when we found out that we’ve asked for an English-speaking guide/driver and we were stuck with a French/Arabic-speaking driver for a whole day of the journey. He was a very charming man but could barely explain what we were seeing. Also, making a day trip with kids where we had to spend total 8 hours in the van was a bit tiresome. My almost-3 year old daughter actually fell sick from being in the car for that long and riding on twisty and zig-zaggy mountainous roads to reach there. Visiting all those place were actually very relaxing and enjoyable but it’s the van-ride that kinda made all of us sick. We were planning to take another day-trip to Ourika Valley but had to cancel it for the sake of the kids and especially after finding out that the same person would take us there L …. So, yeah…other than that I would recommend anyone going to Ouarzazate to get some real taste of the beauty of desert and mountains all in one place.

Roads thru Atlas in Morocco
Roads thru Atlas in Morocco

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. And Ouarzazate is even colder and windier at times than Marrakech because of its elevation and surrounding mountains.

Road to Ouarzazate...beautiful snow-capped mountains and the valley
Road to Ouarzazate…beautiful snow-capped mountains and the valley

OUR HOTEL: We stayed in a hotel (actually a Riad) called, Riad Dar El-Ihsaan 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 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 sofas, 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 mom used to prepare breakfast for us. We had cheese, olives, breads (sometimes home-made crepes or Indian style parathas), 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 DOORS 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: We stopped at a road-side restaurant near Ait Ben Haddou before entering the Kasbah. It’s a traditional style Moroccan restaurant, can’t really remember the name, with a gorgeous view of Ait Ben Haddou, nearby valley and mountains from its terrace. I wasn’t really up for any meat dishes after being in the van for 4 hours going thru the twisty highways of Atlas Mountains, so decided to go with simple rice, with some veges, and fried egg.

My simple lunch near Ait Ben Haddou in Morocco
My simple lunch near Ait Ben Haddou in Morocco

While walking towards Ait Ben Haddou, we saw some shops carrying local hand-crafts, like rugs, babouche (Moroccan slippers), tagines (their traditional cooking clay pots), and other souvenirs made by the native Berbere people. The price may be a bit cheaper than the ones in Marrakech, but the options and qualities here were limited. Other than these, we saw many other Berbere shops on the side of the highways while driving towards Ouarzazate. Moroccan argon oil is another famous (and very expensive) souvenir that tourists buy from here. We stopped at a road-side service inn for a small break on our way to Ouarzazate. It had a restaurant in one side and an argon cosmetic factory/showroom right beside it. We were lucky to get glimpses of the ladies breaking and processing the argon nuts to get cooking oil and for making cosmetics.

A lady breaking argan nuts in a road-side cosmetics store, on our way to Ouarzazate
A lady breaking argon nuts in a road-side cosmetics store, on our way to Ouarzazate

PLACES WE’VE VISITED: We visited only few spots in Ouarzazate in about 4/5 hours. It’s not just these places that amazed us, it were the snow-capped Atlas Mountains in the distance, the rugged desert during the sunset, beautiful valleys with old Kasbah every now and then, and up & down terrain of hilly landscapes that made this trip an enjoyable day-trip.

The valley from up above
The valley from up above

1) AIT BEN HADDOU: This was our 1st destination after about 4 hours of drive from Marrakech to Ouarzazate. This is a Kasbah in a desert valley where 15 native Berbere families still live. As far as I understand, Kasbah is something that rich Berbere (native Moroccans) families made to live together under one roof. They look like they are risen from the desert and are blended with the mountains for similar colors and textures. We didn’t go inside the Kasbah but standing on the scenic valley with a small stream running thru it and surrounding small hills were good enough to entertain our eyes and make good memories in our heart.

Ait Ben Haddou, a Berbere Kasbah near Ouarzazate in Morocco
Ait Ben Haddou, a Berbere Kasbah near Ouarzazate in Morocco

As soon as we arrived at Ait Ben Haddou, one young gentleman (probably a local Berbere) approached us to guide us through the Kasbah for 50 Dh (later he came down to 30 Dh) but we preferred to take time and do it ourselves instead. There are 2 ways to reach the mountain top overlooking the Kasbah: 1) thru the community, where you can actually see the life-style of Berberes, it costs 10 Dh per person to enter and 2) thru another entrance which requires more walking but is free. It takes you around the Kasbah to the top.

Walking back to our taxi from Ait Ben Haddou, going thru some Berbere shops. You can see their hand-made rugs hanging in one of the stores
Walking back to our taxi from Ait Ben Haddou, going thru some Berbere shops.
You can see their hand-made rugs hanging in one of the stores

2) OURZAZATE KASBAH or KASBAH de TAOURIRT: This Kasbah is from 1750 A.D. and was built by the same families who built Ait Ben Haddou. It was like a maze inside the building with few levels, many small doors and rooms. Some of these rooms still have Moroccan tiles on their doors or windows or fireplace while some had nicely carved ceilings. Small windows of these rooms give breathtaking views of Atlas and the surroundings.

One of the rooms of Ouarzazate Kasbah in Morocco, decorated with tiles
One of the rooms of Ouarzazate Kasbah in Morocco, decorated with tiles

This Kasbah is located right opposite of Cinema Museum of Ouarzazate and is less than 10 minutes’ drive from center of Ouarzazate. Its 20 Dh to enter the Kasbah and guided tour is charged separately. It took us about 30-45 minutes to go around and explore the rooms of this place. The small doorways and lots of stairs doesn’t make this a stroller-friendly place, but we couldn’t find a place to park it; so my husband ended up carrying it with us.

View from one of the windows of Ouarzazate Kasbah, Morocco
View from one of the windows of Ouarzazate Kasbah, Morocco

3) MAIN SQUARE of OUARZAZATE: This is the center of Ouarzazate and in a way the “Djemaa El-Fna” of the city where all the fun things happen. City town hall is located in this square in one side along with couple of shops and many restaurants. This was our last stop before heading back to Marrakech on another 4 hours’ drive. We sat down in a restaurant for mint tea and some snacks. The square was empty that time, but our guide was saying this place comes to life after dark with more vendors and street entertainers.

The main square or center of Ouarzazate, Morocco
The main square or center of Ouarzazate, Morocco

in Marrakech, Morocco

So, we are in Marrakech right now. We took a day trip to the Atlas mountain range on our 3rd day here. The day trip was actually to see some Berbere villages and their Kasbahs (their traditional houses). Our main spot was Ait Ben Haddou and then to Ouarzazate, about little more than 200 km drive from Marrakech. It was an exhausting day but the ending beautify of driving thru the Atlast mountains and desert (we were very close to Sahara) was fantastic. Here is a picture of the Atlas mountains from an  overview spot…eNjoY

 

Layers of Atlas Mountains near Marrakech, Morocco

Layers of Atlas Mountains near Marrakech, Morocco

 

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