Camels, Mint Tea, And Palaces in Marrakech
None of my past adventures as a tourist in Europe, Asia, or North America could have prepared me for the truly unique experience of visiting Morocco. I definitely assumed that the country’s close proximity to Iberia and the constant influx of European visitors were signs of cultural similarity; but having spent a few days in Lisbon right before, I can confirm that Morocco and Europe are a world apart.
If you want to visit Morocco, there’s a handful of large cities that you can choose from. I decided to visit Marrakech, a landlocked city near the Atlas Mountains known for its tourism industry and its rich cultural history. In general, Marrakech is a good place to visit if you’ve never been to the Arab world before. Everyone I ran into here spoke Arabic, French, and English, and there’s enough tourism infrastructure to help you navigate the city. With that said, I will admit that I really experienced some culture shock on this trip. At the end of this post, I’ll pass along the lessons I learned so you don’t make the same mistakes I did!
But first, let me introduce you to the amazing food, stunning sites, and exhilarating adventures to be had in Marrakech, Morocco!
Where to Stay
If you’ve read a few of my posts, you know I’m a huge fan of Airbnb, but in Marrakech I recommend staying in a local hotel called a riad. These are kind of like a local version of bed-and-breakfasts and are an integral part of the experience of Marrakech. I stayed at L’Oriental Medina Riad & Spa and absolutely loved it. With an open-air courtyard and an amazing complimentary breakfast, this place was definitely worth the $65 per night. I found L’Oriental Medina on the hotels section of the Delta Airlines website, but this article lists a number of other options.
If you decide to stay at L’Oriental Medina, be sure to note that the hotel is located here; if Google Maps tries to tell you it’s located somewhere else, that’s an error. No matter where you stay in Marrakech, it might be best to print out a map with the location of your lodging as well as a contact number before you get in a taxi at the airport, especially if you choose not to purchase a SIM card here. The old town where most tourists stay is truly a labyrinth of streets and alleyways, and you might need to contact your riad if you get lost.
Within the middle of town, you’ll definitely be making your way on foot. Many of the streets function as outdoor markets and are lined with small shops selling everything from coffee to souvenirs. If you go out of the “old town,” you’ll most likely take a taxi. (Uber doesn’t operate here as of March 2018.) For info on how to negotiate price, read here.
Moroccan food is delicious, fresh, and full of spices and fragrance. There are a bunch of restaurants clustered in and around the Jemaa el-Fnaa, which is the main public square in Marrakech. Rooftop restaurants in this area offer some really stunning views of the mountains that are harder to see from street level.
I also really enjoyed the dinners I had at my riad. They were more expensive than meals in restaurants, but it really did feel like a high-class dining experience and everything they served was amazing.
So what’s worth trying, you ask? My favorite dish was tajine, which is served in a shallow dish with a distinctive cone-shaped lid. After it’s brought to the table, the lid is lifted to reveal a stew that’s usually served with a piece of meat (chicken, lamb, etc.). It was always served with bread which was great for dipping!
Other classics include couscous, lamb confit, and Moroccan salad.
One of my favorite dishes here was the complimentary breakfast at the riad. It was served with bread, biscuits, and a plate of four dipping sauces. The most amazing one was made out of locally sourced argan oil. It tastes a bit like peanut or sesame sauce but is much less viscous. Definitely worth a try!
And lastly, mint tea is a local treat that is great at any time of day. It’s a little bit sweet but very refreshing even though its served hot. I also recommend trying spiced coffee, which can be found on most restaurant menus.
In the City
I’ll start off by saying that I only had one full day in the city, which wasn’t enough time to see everything I wanted to. I was able to see the Jemaa el-Fnaa, Palais El Badiî, and the Jardin Majorelle, but I didn’t have enough time to check out the Palais Bahia or Tombeaux Saadiens. The highly recommended Ben Youssef Madrasa was unfortunately closed due to renovations. If you want to see everything, I’d recommend at least two full days to check out the city center.
Marrakech is divided into an old town (medina) that is encircled by a wall and more modern, suburban neighborhoods with trendy apartments and shopping malls. Inside the medina, Jemaa el-Fnaa is the main public square. It’s filled with everything from food stands to snake charmers and musicians playing traditional local instruments under wide umbrellas. Even if you’re headed to a palace or other attraction, you’ll probably end up crossing through this wide space filled with commotion.
Adjacent to the square are a bunch of multi-story markets selling everything you could imagine. Venture further towards the center of the medina and you’ll find streets too narrow for cars that are lined with small shops on both sides.
Palais El Badiî
This is a palace that was built in the late 1500s. Its center is a huge open-air courtyard with some interesting ruins, but be sure to explore the underground section as well as the balcony upstairs.
This French botanical garden located outside of the medina was designed by the artist Jacques Majorelle in the 1920s. Inside are a bunch of different species of cactus as well as other interesting plants. The main building is a beautiful blue and yellow structure that houses some exhibits, one of which is dedicated to the designs of Yves Saint-Laurent, who owned the garden until he died.
A taxi from the Jemaa el-Fnaa bus stop to the garden should cost 50 dirham one way.
Outside of the City
Be sure to take one day to leave the city and check out the surrounding areas. I did a tour of the Atlas Mountains, which brought us to the Berber villages of Imlil and Tamatert. I booked it through Viator and really enjoyed seeing the mountains up close as well as Moroccan life outside of the city. If the desert sounds more enticing, there were quite a few signs in Marrakech advertising tours of the Sahara Desert.
Our first stop was a short camel ride, which was quite an exhilarating experience! You’re much higher off the ground on a camel than on horseback, so hold on tight!
Afterwards, our driver brought us to Tamatert where we met our guide for the day. We ate lunch in a family owned restaurant and then began our hike. As we walked, our guide explained the history of the villages in the valley.
One thing they didn’t warn us about was the fact that we would be hiking on steep mountain trails and through rivers. If you go on a tour, know that they may require strenuous physical activity and there may not be a disclaimer about it.
As long as you’re aware of this, I highly recommend leaving the city for a day on a guided tour like this one. Seeing the villages and outskirts of the city is a unique experience, but it’s also quite relaxing compared to the pretty busy atmosphere of Marrakech. If you want to book before you leave, Viator is a great place to browse (this is the tour I did, and here are some others to choose from).
There are a couple of things you should know before arrival to make your trip as smooth as possible.
Unfortunately, taxis in Marrakech do not have fare meters, which means you’ll need to negotiate a price with the driver every time you take one. If you are traveling from the airport to the middle of the city, you shouldn’t be paying much more than 100 dirham. There is even a sign on the passenger window of the vehicle in French and Arabic that lists this as the set price. Be willing to walk away if a driver is trying to rip you off!
For other rides you may need, ask the front desk of your riad how much a cab should be from one destination to another. Hold your ground and the driver will eventually accept when they realize you know how much the fare should cost.
Guys on the Street...
My biggest complaint about Marrakech are the locals on the street who are desperate to “give you directions.” Essentially their tactic is to yell out to tourists that “the gate ahead is closed,” which implies that you’re heading towards a dead end. With so many alleyways and twists and turns, this is easy to believe even if you are confident about where you’re going! If you engage with them, they will attempt to walk with you for a few minutes, then ask you to pay them for their “help.”
So first and foremost, don’t engage with anyone on the street, especially people offering directions. If you do get someone who won’t go away, duck into a shop and ask the owner to help you out. And if you are lost, ask other tourists or business owners for help finding your way. There’s a good chance they’ll know where to go and will be willing to help – for free!
As in all places, be careful about pickpocketing and petty theft. I didn’t experience this but with such crowded streets, it was clearly a risk here. You’ll also encounter a huge number of motorcycles and mopeds impatiently inching their way through the souks and markets filled with people, so just be aware of your surroundings because they tend to be aggressive.
Lastly, exercise caution after dark. Since small streets and walkways aren’t well-lit, it might be a good idea to stay on the main avenues if you need to walk home after the sun goes down.
So be careful, use common sense, and you should be good. Marrakech really is completely different from any city you’ll find in the United States or Europe, so you won’t have to seek out unique experiences; they will definitely come to you! Come with an open mind, try some new food, and get out of the city if you can. No matter what you decide to do, Marrakech is a trip that you won’t forget!