The first night I arrived in Marrakech was an instant wonder, especially since I had not visited a similar environment before. As I got picked up from the airport by my hostel escort and rode into the city center, it was alive and bustling even though it was pretty late into the night. Cars, motorcycles, people weaving in and out all through the streets. Arriving at my hostel was even a cool experience, the decor was rustic, with mosaic tiles and pastel-colored concrete walls up 3 floors. And the single night I stayed there was only 7 dollars!
I had many expectations about Marrakech when I planned to visit. And it lived up to just about every single one, good and bad. When I say bad, I just mean there are certain cultural and societal systems in place that clash with my own Western practices, and that's something I just had to accept as a visitor and guest. I'll discuss a few of them in this article. Be that as it may, Marrakech is a city I recommend to everyone looking for an Arabian experience. It's a city steeped in the past but embraces the modern changes that comes with renewed tourism. It's messy and chaotic because there's so much happening at once. But at the same time everything seemed organized and methodical, like the harmony of a perfect storm.
“A visit to Marrakech
was a great shock to me. This city taught me color.”
- Yves Saint Laurent
I had actually first heard of Marrakech in a Sociology class back in college. I was required to read a book, "A Street in Marrakech" and it was an intimate window into the public and private world of the traditional Muslim city. The wondrous colors, activity, and noises instantly draw you in. All of your senses are activated and engaged as your mind prepares itself for the adventure ahead.
Culture & Customs
As with any foreign city, it's always important to respect the culture and traditions established in that society. I believe it is especially important in Marrakech due to how it is constantly in the process of change. Indeed, the predominant Muslim tradition and the conflicting western ideology that comes with increased tourism was visible here, at least to me. Locals want tourists to come because it increases the amount of money spent there, but at times I felt the enthusiasm was not completely genuine. My girlfriend and I received many stares... just about everywhere I went because we stood out so much. But these weren't menacing looks, they were more of intrigue and concern, probably with the undesired changes in the city. Don't get me wrong, the locals here are incredibly hospitable and love American culture, they just weren't exactly sure what to make of people who were so different from them.
Taxis - Taxis wait for arrivals at the airport and will likely overcharge to drive you into the city. I recommend arranging a ride with your hostel/hotel in advance, it will cost about 150 Dirham (~$16 USD) but save you a lot of pain. If this is not an option, make sure you know how much you are paying and negotiate. On the topic of taxis in general, it's usually a hit or miss with service. Some will be very straightforward and fair, and others can be deceptive and agree to a price beforehand and renegotiate once you're in.
Currency - Morocco uses dirhams as its standard currency. 100 dirhams equals about 10 euros, so it comes to a little over $10 USD, pretty easy to remember - just divide by 10. I believe it is best to exchange your currency immediately after arriving at the airport. There are currency exchanges and ATMs in the central marketplaces but it is just much easier if you do it right after arriving.
Be prepared for the street hassle - The biggest gripe I had while visiting Marrakech was being pestered and a constant target of racial slurs. Especially if you're Asian or stand out, it's easy for locals to spot tourists and point them out. I'm not kidding when I say this, every time I stepped out of my hostel for an extended period I received at least a dozen jeers, yelling "China!" or "Japon!/Konichiwa!" in my direction just to get my attention. There was unfortunately no sense of racial sensitivity. But then again, what can you expect out of a country with very minimal exposure to Western civilities and decorum? So I think it's best not to get emotional in these situations. My advice is to just smile, ignore them and keep a very low profile when you're out, they will stop bothering you if you remain uninterested.
Be respectful of the culture - As an Islamic city, Marrakech is very conservative and the Arab customs and religious responsibilities are an important part of people's lives. So please be mindful of your interactions with locals and the religious rules; respect their ethical and moral codes. Dress conservatively, don't be rude or disrespectful towards anything you don't understand, and don't take any photos inside religious buildings unless allowed. It is important to be aware of your actions and ensure you don't offend locals, especially during the holy month of Ramadan (usually during beginning of summer).
Watch for young personal guide scammers - Again, the locals can spot tourists easily and some will try to take advantage. There are young boys, usually teenagers, just looking for a quick buck. They're not shy and will come up to you and ask where you are going then intentionally misdirect you, including telling you a pathway is "forbidden". They will agree to a price but at the end of the escort may ask for several times more. So always make sure you agree to a price beforehand (and potentially pay immediately) as previously stated or just ignore them and act uninterested.
One of my best experiences in Morocco was the accommodations and the variety of selections available. I had great experiences with the riads (traditional Moroccan home - hotel/hostel) I stayed at, all being incredibly hospitable with impeccable service, and usually extremely affordable compared to other countries.
The riads themselves are beautiful, they've all basically been renovated from homes into hostels/hotels. With stunning tiles and colors, it really makes you feel like you're on an adventure. Some eclectic and homey, as if you're renting a room from a friend. Others like a oasis with a mix of chic, comfort, hospitality, and art. They will all usually have open courtyards and rooftop terraces where you can sunbathe.
The hostels are usually more homey, with a shaded interiors to allow people to relax especially during hot summer nights and be sheltered from the extreme heat. From the outside, they just look like massive walls without windows. They aren't perfect but are very cheap and authentic, going for about $15 USD for a shared room and $45 USD for a private room. You can find one that will offer you free breakfast (delicious flatbread with fruits and honey, with coffee) but it is not necessary. I stayed at Riad Souad, which was exactly as described, with splendid decor and design.
The luxury hotels are on a bit of a different scale. They resemble more of art museums but are more open and relaxing. You would never expect to see this type of space located here, but you can say it serves as a sanctuary from the the chaos of the old town outside. My stay at Riyad El Cadi could not have been better. We were welcomed by a charming European host (the owner) and felt immediately at ease, like our vacation had really just started. I can still remember our breakfast on the pastel-orange roofs atop the city.
But enough of me gushing about these riads. My recommendation is to just check Tripadvisor and be thorough in selecting where you want to stay, though you can't go wrong with the ones I recommended!
Place Jemaa el-Fnaa - The central public square of Marrakech is a feast for the eyes, ears, and mouth. A destination for tourists and all travelers, this is where the magic happens. Entering the square is like straight out of a movie. You'll be bewitched by the local and foreign merchants, artists, entertainers, all vying for your attention. I remember henna artists, pet monkeys (a little sad), and even snake charmers. Though it's constantly active and chaotic, it feels more like a controlled danger. Especially in the evening, the marketplace is a fun place to walk around and explore, connect with locals and merchants selling all kinds of souvenirs and goods. Just don't let yourself get swindled. People will come up to you and just force their services on you only to demand payment in return. When this happens try to kindly deny them and move along. You'll get used to this.
Majorelle Garden - Jacques Majorelle was a French artist who was awestruck by Marrakech's sights, sounds, light, and colors when he first visited in 1917. He began buying land for a workshop and over forty years built a lush garden with plants from several continents creating a "cathedral of shapes and colours". After passing away, the garden almost fell into disrepair and a victim of a real estate hotel project before being saved by the famous designer Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge in 1980. Saint Laurent would say that it was an unlimited source of inspiration for him, dreaming of its colors often.
Today the original painter's studio has been transformed into a museum open to the public, with his harmonic vision still intact. The brilliant colors surround visitors with an enchanting and calming atmosphere, far from the rumble of the medina. The "Majorelle blue" is an especially strong, deep, and intense contrast to the greenery of the plants and makes them so much more vibrant. As the evening gets closer, there are echoes of frogs, insects, and birds who have all settled in the garden. Although it is relatively small, Majorelle Jardin is definitely a must-see if you're visiting Marrakech. It is about $10 USD for admission and $4 if you want to visit the museum. I recommend going really early or the late afternoon if you want to avoid the crowds.
Bahia Palace - Probably the most popular attraction in the city, the Bahia Palace is a historical monument that gives us a look inside Moroccan architecture. It was built around 1866 for the chamberlain (who was also a former slave) of Sultan Hassan I of Morocco and later became the personal residence of a French general before opening up to the public for visits. Designed like traditional Moroccan palace, it was built as a large riad surrounded by several gardens and features courtyards all around.
Decorated with moucharabiehs, marble, carvings and paintings on beech and cedar wood, stucco, zellige, and the first stained glass windows of the Maghreb, Bahia Palace is another feast for the eyes. When I visited, it resembled a labyrinth as each new room on my path led to a new mesmerizing surprise. With several enclosed and open spaces connected through intimate hallways, the lighting of vibrant colors contrasted with pristine white marble seem directly out of a dream. I actually wanted to visit a second time to take some more photos, but we didn't have time. It offers an unlimited variety of beautiful viewpoints, and the entrance fee was less than $5 USD from what I can remember. So be sure to spend an afternoon wandering the palace and taking some awesome photos.
Medera ben Youssef - Beginning in the 14th century and for about 400 years, this was an Islamic college that housed up to 900 students of law and theology before being transformed into a museum in 1960. A masterpiece of it's time, my first impressions of it actually reminded me of a beautiful dungeon. Though the walls were a hard, cold, and neutral brown and white, they were adorned with colorful mosaic tiles, carved cedar wood, and columns featuring intricately detailed sculptures and stuccos. Walking through the large inner courtyard, small class/student rooms, and along the large impressive patio gives a glimpse inside student life during that time. I don't remember the entrance fee exactly, but it's probably because it was so low - just a few dollars.
Trek to the Sahara Desert
This is absolutely one of the best activities I did during my whole trip. I'll always remember the experience of riding a camel into the desert sand dunes as the sun was setting. Though reputable tour companies are hard to distinguish, I definitely recommend extending your stay in Marrakech so you can spend at least one night in the desert. There are two options: the Zagora or Merzouga desert.
Zagora vs. Merzouga - The Zagora desert is closer so if you only have one night then this is the only option, which is what we did. It's a dry stone desert so the magnificent large sand dunes are hard to come by, but you'll see some good ones. The drive is about 6-8 hours (yes, very long) taking off early in the morning and arriving at the edge of the desert with guides and camels waiting for your ride into the sunset. When arriving at the camp, there are several glamping tents surrounding a common area with rugs and pillows to rest on.
The Merzouga desert is located a little farther away so you will need at least 2 nights for this experience. I wish we had more time for this option, it features the expansive sandy desert that we are all thinking of. These camps are apparently more focused around individual experiences, so the accommodations are more private, which means it will likely cost more. But you'll also have more freedom in exploring and activities such as sand boarding, something we couldn't do because it was already getting dark by the time we got to camp.
Private vs. Group Tours - There are many options for private tours that offer a more luxurious experience, but they are pricy. You'll be driving alone with a personal tour guide who can stop and explain things to you along the way. Expect to pay around $300 USD for a good option, though everything I've heard is that they offer incomparable experiences. With group tours you'll be put into a large van with several other travelers and are generally experiencing the tour together. It can get cramped but is still an experience worth having. Prices for this option will be around $70-$100.
Transportation - Since it is a long drive, it will start early. The tour company picks you up around 7AM and drops you off at the meeting point for other travelers. You cram into a van and are on the road for the next 7 hours. There are plenty of stops along the way. You'll visit several berber merchant shops on the road as well as the famed city of Ouarzazate, whose Atlas Studios has appeared in several films/shows (Game of Thrones, The Mummy, Babel, among others). Its a great city to explore, though you may be forced to pay a guide to show you around).
Experience - Since we did the Zagora option, the experience is more group-oriented and we did some fun singing activities and watched some performances at night. Unfortunately we weren't able to see many stars, but the weather was warm enough for some people to sleep outside (summertime). When morning comes you're on your way back to Marrakech, yearning for a few more hours to take in the landscape.
Explore Souks and Marketplace - A simple but very rewarding activity to do in Marrakech is to just wander and get lost inside the old city. There are "souks" (marketplace shops) everywhere you go, along with intimate corners and alleyways lined with interesting attractions. Though a bit overwhelming and chaotic, do not let it intimidate you. Embrace the city's rhythm and familiarize yourself with the streets before plunging yourself in. Once you feel confident enough, allow yourself to take in the colors, smells, energy, and sounds. It will be easy to get lost and enchanted by the exotic mix of souks and their artifacts. The narrow streets will guide you to the most interesting, eclectic shops. You'll find everything from spices, scarves, clothes, handmade leather bags and jewelry, and (to me) the most eye-catching of all: Moroccan lanterns.
Just be sure to keep a low profile for the best experience, and be comfortable politely declining the shopkeepers. The streets are extremely busy so it's best to calmly wander and not be overcome by everything you see. And don't be afraid to bargain! Most of the time I immediately cut my offer in half compared to what was asked, and we met somewhere in the middle. Also keep your possessions close in these tight quarters, my girlfriend actually had her phone stolen from her backpack just as we were walking through a busy alley.
Saadian Tombs - These tombs are another attraction that features traditional Moroccan architecture and history. We didn't get to visit but I've heard it is a luxurious mausoleum resembling a palace. Commissioned by the Saadian Sultan Ahmed Al Mansour Ed Dahbi as his final resting place in 1603, it has some magnificent marble tombs and are one of the only remains of the Saadian dynasty from the "golden age of Marrakech".
Hamman Steam bath/Spa Treatment - Marrakech is also well-known for their hammams, or traditional bathing and cleansing rituals, located in spas. We sadly didn't get to experience this either, but I've heard that a lot of the communal spas act as social gatherings. In these hammams you can relax in steam rooms and pools, lather and scrub yourself with soaps that leave the skin glowing, or receive other treatments to pamper yourself. There are a variety of options at different luxury (and price) levels, so be sure to do your research before booking one. A popular spa that locals often go to is Les bains de Marrakech.
La Maison de la Photographie - As a photographer, I was excited to go visit a local gallery. Unfortunately, we couldn't find it in time before it closed, which was disappointing. This is a museum dedicated to Moroccan photography, providing a catalogue of the country's history and insight into the lives of people during that time. The gallery it self is known to be stunning, and there is a rooftop terrace to relax on that provides views of the city and Atlas mountains.
Food options here are a bit limited, but they are all very cheap, which is important for most of us! I recommend staying in a Riad that already provides breakfast since the experience of eating in your hotel is nice in itself - coffee/tea/juice, with fruits, yogurt, and honey on bread or baked goods. And be sure to try the most popular drink here - the mint tea, an extremely hot and sugary tea that is consumed regularly throughout the day by locals. If you want a real cooked entree, your best bet is to go to the central marketplace - Place Jemaa el-Fnaa, where there are several western and local establishments that cater to tourists. It is a little pricier here but nothing like what you'll find at home. Otherwise there are little pockets in the city where you can find a nice restaurant, you'll just have to explore around.
The traditional Moroccan meal is tagine, which is just as colorful and exotic as the city. We ate this just about everyday we were here. It mixes marinated meat with cut vegetables into a pot with a mixture of intense spices, stewed very slowly over the course of several hours to preserve the flavor and soft texture. Accompanied with some flatbread, you can usually have your lovely meal on a terrace that overlooks the chaotic marketplace.
There are just about two options for getting around the old city of Marrakech: by taxi or on foot. As I mentioned earlier, taxis are usually hit or miss. They are not usually expensive, $5-15 per person (you must pay for each person, not per ride), but can turn into a hassle to deal with. Most establishments will have taxis waiting outside if you choose not to walk to your next destination. Sometimes the price is firm and reasonable, other times you'll need to negotiate. I recommend negotiating and paying before you even get in. There are times when you already negotiate a price and then they renegotiate once you are in. This happened to us and was a sour experience for our trip, especially because we got dropped off nowhere close to our destination.
But you've got to take the good with the bad and embrace the complete experience of the city. Just like all places, you are only a visitor to an established land that was there before you came and will still live on when you leave, so don't expect to be catered to.