Marrakech is one of those great cities you have to spend a good time to immerse yourself into its culture and chaotic-medina lifestyle.
While Marrakech is known as the Red City, its name derives from the Berber words mur (n) akush – meaning “Land of God”. The city is composed of two major areas: the medina with its ancient alleys, strong historical character, and countless local shops; and Gueliz or Ville Nouvelle with its European feel and modern restaurants.
Here’s a quick guide on how to navigate Marrakech and get the most out of your visit, whether it is for a few short days or an extended time.
Sights Not To Miss
You could easily spend days people watching in the Medina, walking through its countless narrow alleys, or exploring the souks. This is the heart of the city and it is the liveliest, craziest, and most active part of it. Here you will get a cultural overdose as you see locals perform their daily tasks. Just walk the medina and get lost!
While the mosque and minaret are closed to non-muslims, the gardens and surrounding areas are open to the public. Just walking around it and standing outside in the courtyard looking at the tall minaret rising over the two-storied medina will give you the sense of scale of this mosque. Get close to it and admire the architectural details created with the brick patterns. It is a beautiful mosque and at night it is even more beautiful when lit.
Djemma El Fna
This is among the highlights of a good night in Marrakech. Musicians, dancers, and storytellers pack this main square at the heart of the medina. There are dozens of stalls selling a wide array of Moroccan dishes and treats. Just walk around by night and the smells alone will make you want to stay and eat! There are various “street shows” performed randomly on the square that are worth watching – just know that you might have to pay a few dirhams to watch. During the day the square is a lot tamer, but you can still find a few snake charmers, monkey, and a few food stalls.
While this 16th century palace is mostly a ruined shell these days, it is well worth visiting it to get a sense of the power once held by the Saadien Dynasty. Walk through its underground passageways and explore the palace grounds, but most important, walk up to the terrace to get the impressive view of the Atlas Mountains!
One of the surprising facts about these tombs is that they were not discovered until the beginning of the 20th century. Unlike the Badia Palace, they were not destroyed and have been preserved just like they were during the glory days of the Saadian rulers. It is full of Zelij (Morrocan tiles) and beautiful decorations.
If you have more time, then also visit…
- Tanneries – Smelly and quite gross, here you’ll see the leather tanning process which is a major industry in Marrakech. Don’t fall for the “leather museums” which are actually stores looking to sell.
- Majorelle Gardens – An excellent respite from the hustle and bustle of the city streets. The park has a collection of plants from across the globe, including what seems like every cactus species on the planet.
- Dar Si Saïd Museum – Set in an old palace, it houses many different artifacts from Morocco through the ages, such as woodcarvings, musical instruments, and weapons.
- Ben Youssef Madrassa – One of the largest Madrassas in the North Africa region. It is a school attached to the Ben Youssef Mosque and is has some beautiful art and architecture.
- The Menara gardens – Consist of a mixture of orchards and olive groves surrounding a central 16th century pavilion which is a popular sight on tourist postcards. Also a popular place for locals to picnic.
Getting There and Around
Marrakech has a great and easily accessible location in the center of Morocco, just by the foothills of the snow capped Atlas Mountains.
The Menara Airport is located six kilometers southwest of the center and many international airlines, including budget airlines, fly to this airport.
It’s easy to travel Morocco by bus, and Marrakech is one of its central hubs. The two main bus companies to consider are: CTM and Supratours. I believe CTM has slightly better service and schedule, and their prices are slightly cheaper. Supratours, on the other hand, is connected with the train service in Morocco, so you can easily buy your bus tickets at the train station and change between them easily. Still, Supratours does offer really good service and I traveled with them between many cities.
Marrakech has a new train station in the Gueliz, though if you fancy walking, you could walk about 30 minutes to the medina or take a taxi for about 20 dirhams. There’s McDonald’s, KFC, a few coffee shops and stores, and an ATM at the station. You can check the train schedule of ONCF online.
There are shared taxis mostly used to go between cities that are not too far apart (usually a couple hours apart). When you walk around Marrakech, you will see small signs on the sidewalk (almost like a bus stop sign) that say “Grande Taxis”. From there, you could hop on one, depending on your destination. Otherwise, you can ask for the Grande Taxi main hub and from there you can select where to go.
Getting Around the City
Marrakech is a big city, but most sights are reachable on foot in and around the medina. Still, it takes a decent amount of walking. Outside of the medina, it is ok to use the Petit Taxis, which roam the entire city 24/7. By default, drivers will want to scam you by charging a lot of money, but know that prices range between 20 to 50 Dirhams. For example, from the train station to the medina should be around 20 – 25 Dirhams.
Talking with People
While French and Arabic are the two predominant languages here, English is widely spoken. Also, you’ll be surprised by how many locals speak Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and other languages (especially when they are sellers). People are very friendly, so it’s easy to have a conversation with anyone.
Shopping in the medina is synonymous of bartering; that is unless you’re shopping at a formal store. Unless sellers display the prices, you can assume that the price is negotiable; that they might be charging you more than normal, and that you can bargain with them. Also, some sellers are open to trades – whether it is a pack of gum, candy, a pen, whatever – for what you’re interested in buying. You can lower the price with the trades.
As a rule of thumb for tipping is about 10 percent on your dinner bill. In some cases they might look you with a frowning face because “it is not enough”, but don’t fall for that.
The places to eat real good food at night are the stalls at Djemma El Fna – great selection of local food and snacks. Another place I liked was Le Salama, right next to Djemma El Fna on Rue Des Banques. It is a bit “upscale” and the prices are slightly above average, but the lounge environment is really good as well as the food.
Where To Stay
The Medina is packed with Riads and Dars (old grand houses converted into hotels and inns).
If you’re looking for budget accommodation in the medina, I recommend Hostel Riad Marrakech Rouge (my favorite accommodation there), and Trip and Friends Hostel. Both are riads and both have nice environment. But, if you’re looking to experience a riad with most of its architectural characteristics untouched, then you should stay at one of the riads from the Angsana Riads Collection. They are more upscale, but the traditional Moroccan environment and their architectural beauty will make you feel like you are experiencing the real Marrakech from over a century ago.
All of the above are located centrally in the medina, close to Djemma El Fna.
If you’d like to stay outside the medina and its associated “chaos”, and can splurge a bit more, you can stay both at Palm Plaza Hotel Marrakech and Hotel Les Idrissides. Both are beautiful, upscale, modern European style hotels. The Palm Plaza is located on the southern part of the city and a bit far from the medina, but their service is great! There’s also a small mall close to the hotel. Hotel Les Idrissides, on the other hand, is slightly more accessible since it is a walking distance from the train station. Great service also!
Beyond this, the best thing to do in Marrakech is just to go out, explore, and immerse yourself in its culture and active life.