• Tomás S. Ó Ceallaigh

Marrakech Essentials

Updated: Jul 28, 2019

The Koutoubia Mosque seen from Le Jardin Secret
The Koutoubia Mosque seen from the tower in Le Jardin Secret

I often get asked by friends, and increasingly by strangers on social media, about places that I’ve visited. People want to know what to see, where to stay and what to be wary of. To make life easier, I figured that maybe it was time I made some of my thoughts into listicles (that is, articles that list stuff). This is not an exhaustive list, but just the things that came to mind when I was last asked about Marrakech.

Jemaa El-Fna

The Jemaa El-Fna is Marrakech’s beating heart. At any time of the day you will find people wandering about, but it truly comes to life the later it gets. There is a mixture musicians, storytellers (if your Arabic is any good) and performers, with groups of locals, Moroccan tourists and international tourists all gathered around. If you want to take photos/videos, make sure that you have some small change to give.

You can buy cures for anything from medicine sellers, get some henna done or get your hands on one of those quintessentially Moroccan lamps cheaper than they are sold for in some of the souks. Of course the traditional snake charmers and teeth-pullers can also still be found there too.

Also in the Jemaa El-Fnaa you’ll find food stalls in the middle of the square, with places like the Argana ice cream parlour and other restaurants around the edges offering views over the atmospheric square towards the Koutoubia Mosque and the setting sun. Expect some of the restaurants and food stalls to be a little bit pricier. For something cheaper, head to Snack Toubkal, just to the side of the square, or, for something really cheap pay 5dh (45p) for some snails from a stall in the square.

After dark, the square is at its liveliest and is a truly atmospheric experience. Be mindful of your pockets in a crowd, as you would be in any large gathering anywhere in the world, and of anyone offering you something that sounds too good to be true. If you get into bother, there are plenty of tourist police about.

The Jemaa El-Fnaa food stalls at night with the Argana Restaurant in the background. © Shutterstock

The Souks, Medina and Faux Guides

The souks are located in the medina and are a labyrinth of alleyways full of shops. In some cases they are organised into little zones where everyone sells a similar product, in other lanes it seems more random. You will find everything from photogenic lamp shops, to people selling fridge magnets, and from mounds of spices that look like the front of a Lonely Planet guide, to people selling fresh meat. It is an intriguing mix of things required for everyday life by those living in the medina, and products aimed at getting tourists' money.

As with the Jemaa El-Fna, it is at its most lively and beautiful at night. It can be a little nerve-wracking if you’re alone, but just keep a mental note of where you’re walking and retrace your steps if you get a little lost.

In and around the medina, and especially the souks, you will find people offering to guide you – sometimes referred to as faux guides. They can be very useful, but they are unlicensed and so you could be taking the risk – just like walking up to any stranger anywhere and asking them to guide you. If you do ask someone to guide you, always fix your price before you start walking with them.

Bahia Palace

The Bahia Palace is a one of Marrakech’s many architectural gems. The complex is made up of gardens and buildings incorporating Islamic and Moroccan design principles. The intricacies of the zellige tilework, stucco ceilings and doorways, wood carving and painting make for a stunning sight, especially in the bright Marrakshi sunshine. As with most tourist sites in and around the Medina, entry is cheap (20dh when I last visited).

Other architectural sites worth visiting include Ben Youssef Madrassa, the Saadian Tombs and (if you don’t mind a trip out of the medina and the much higher entry fee) La Jardin Majorelle, the former home of Yves Saint Laurent.

Carved and painted wooden window details at the Bahia Palace, with zellige tiling beneath.
Carved and painted wooden window details at the Bahia Palace, with zellige tiling beneath.

Le Jardin Secret

Le Jardin Secret is a beautifully restored Islamic garden build inside of two adjacent courtyards, and is nestled in the medina around a five-minute walk from Jemaa El-Fnaa. For 60dh you can step away from any noise, past fish swimming in a pond that shimmers in the afternoon sunshine, and into a beautiful botanical garden. The second, larger, courtyard contains a garden designed in the typical Islamic style to be a reflection of the paradise promised to all Muslims in Jannah (heaven).

There is a café inside a palatial-looking pavilion building and an observation tower that looks out over the whole of the medina that is well worth the climb. I visited about an hour before closing time and the only sound was the tweeting of birds.

It may not have the fame or the bright blue walls of it the more famous cousin Le Jardin Majorelle, but it doesn’t have the crowds, the walk or the higher entry fee (70dh+) of that garden too.

Looking across the tall grasses in the larger courtyard of Le Jardin Secret in the medina.
Looking across the tall grasses in the larger courtyard of Le Jardin Secret in the medina.

Taxis vs. Public Transport

Firstly and most importantly, always discuss your price before you are in the car. In my experience taxis in Marrakech operate in three different ways – although how official this is I don’t know. In theory, they all have a meter and should you hail a taxi, you are charged depending on the length of your journey and the time it takes. Often though, especially for tourists, the meter is ‘broken’.

Certain journeys are not metered, but costed according to a tariff that all drivers should display on their windows. This means that journeys to the airport, for example, are set at 70dh (although this will be higher later at night). If a driver tries to charge more, just ask “tariff?” to them and see what happens.

Finally, drivers will often pluck a price out of thin air. The more of a tourist you are, the higher the price. If you feel you are being quoted too high a price, simply walk away. You’d be surprised how often you will then get offered a lower price.

On the other end of the price spectrum is public transport. For getting in and out of areas like Guerliz (where there are more modern shops and restaurants) and to the airport if you’re not in a rush, buses go from by Jemaa El-Fna and cost as little as 10dh.

Where to eat:

  • Something fancy: Nomad - located in the medina, located near the Spice Souk. In peak tourist season it is sensible to book in advance.

  • Something basic: Snack Toubkal - to the side of Jemaa El-Fna, near to the Mosquée Kharbouch. Simple Moroccan staples (harira soup, Moroccan salad, merguez sausages) all at low prices.

Where to stop for a mint tea

  • Something fancy: Hotel Mamounia – a short walk from Jemaa El-Fnaa. You will need to dress reasonably smartly to get in though and they don’t really like men in sandals.

  • Something in-between: Café des Épices – in the Spice Souk. It has a beautiful terrace with views towards the Koutoubia Mosque, but can get very busy with tourists at certain points of the day.

  • Something simple: Basically anywhere – it’s available in restaurants, on the streets, in Jemaa El-Fnaa, on rooftops and in alleyways.

Where to stay

I’ve only ever paid to stay in one place in Marrakech and that’s Equity Point. It's perfect for backpackers, but also has a number of beautiful private rooms set around two riads. The biggest draws for me are that the staff are super-friendly, it has a swimming pool and the roof terrace and restaurant are a perfect setting to breathe in the evening air.

Have I missed something? Let me know! Got a question? Either leave a comment, use the contact page or send me a tweet at @tsoceallaigh. I'm always happy to help.

#Essentials #travel #Marrakech #Morocco #advice

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