February 5, 2018
Marrakech is a bold and vibrant city and has a lot to offer both the adventurous traveller and those who are looking for a bit of luxury.
It’s essentially a city of two halves; the Old Town – or Medina – offers a beautiful but chaotic melding of ancient Moroccan music, culture, food, and architecture, with influences from sub-Saharan African, Islamic, French and the native Berber tribes. In contrast, the New Town offers a more Western European vibe, with designer shops, fancy hotels and restaurants.
With so much on offer, what should you see and do? Here is my top 10 list of things to do in Marrakech.
You will find all sorts in the souks of Marrakech, from incredible antique doors selling for £100, 000 to handmade Berber blankets, spices and mint tea, all the way down to small hand-carved ornaments and trinkets. The spice shops are a particular highlight, with highly fragrant mint tea, frankincense and all manner of traditional soaps, medicines and Berber make-up.
I found the best way to explore the convoluted maze of streets and alleyways was to dive in and allow myself to get slightly lost if necessarily. There are a few signs dotted around which will point you back to the Dejeema el Fna, and locals will be happy to help you out if you ask – though if they offer to walk with you they may ask for money. This isn’t a problem as you can politely decline, but often they do a good job of showing you something you’d ordinarily miss, so it doesn’t hurt to give them 10 or 20 dirham (less than £2).
Remember when buying things that bartering is part of the Moroccan culture. It can be a lot of fun and a really good way to talk to local people and learn more about their way of life. By the end of the week I was buying things at one sixth of the asking price and being invited for mint tea with shopkeepers.
The whole medina is bursting with history and stories of a rich past. From the famous Koutoubia Mosque completed in the 12th Century at Djemaa el Fna to the Ben Youssef Medrassa Islamic College, the architecture in Marrakech is stunning. El Badi Palace, Menara Gardens and the Marrakech Museum were some of my highlights and are all easily reachable within the city.
Djemaa el Fna is a UNESCO world heritage site and the largest square in Africa. The atmosphere changes from day to night, making it worth visiting twice.
In the daytime you will find the blistering heat tends to keep things more subdued, but it makes for a good chance to see the square in its entirety before it gets dark. You will come across market stalls, story tellers and snake charmers who are best admired from afar (unless you want to pay to have a rather large snake removed from your shoulders!).
It is by night that the square really comes to life though, resembling more of an impromptu carnival than a public square. You’ll find food stalls, games and music, as well as seemingly spontaneous shops laid out on rugs in the street. As well as locals bartering around piles of new trainers, you’ll also find beautiful lanterns for sale.
Be cautious if you decide to eat at the square, as although the food is generally fine it’s best to avoid foods that aren’t boiled, fried or peeled in front of you – an upset stomach is always possible, though rarely serious.
There are many upmarket resorts and hotels in Marrakech, but none will make you feel like you’ve travelled back in time and woken up in a palace of some magical and distant land quite like a traditional riad.
The intricate carvings and decorations feel like they should form an ancient temple, and the thick solid walls and giant nondescript wooden doors give you a feeling of protection and comfort hidden away from the chaos of the streets. The riad courtyards are so cool and quiet that you’ll feel you have entered the tranquillity of a secret garden, and the roof terraces provide a beautiful space to stay up and chat until the early hours.
Most riads are small and intimate in comparison to hotels and resorts as they are essentially converted large family homes.
5. Visit a Hammam The Moroccan Hammam is a place where locals go to socialise, relax and meet one another, but also to get scrubbed within an inch of their lives! Unlike western spa treatments, the goal here is to open up the pores in various steam rooms of varying heat. You then scrub yourself and others as hard as you can with an exfoliating glove and a gooey soap called savon noir (made from natural olive oil).
This gets rid of all the dead skin and dirt. I didn’t find the time to visit a hammam but any discomfort is probably worth it as you’ll feel incredibly clean when it’s done. Covering yourself in argon oil afterwards is common and leaves the skin incredibly soft.
If you do decide to go to a traditional hammam it’s worth familiarising yourself with the local etiquette first. For example, local hammams are strictly segregated and while it may be acceptable and normal for women to enter naked, men must wear shorts. Wasting water is considered very rude, but helping a stranger to scrub and clean themselves is normal, expected, and a sign of kindness.
If this all sounds a bit much you can opt to go to a tourist hammam where the experience will be similar to the above but much more relaxing and less painful. This often includes a relaxing massage as well as the scrubbing and steaming method.
The nearby Atlas Mountains provide a stunningly dramatic landscape to explore. The nomadic Berber tribes that live there offer an insight into a lifestyle which is strikingly different to anything of the western world.
Away from the hustle and bustle of Marrakech, it’s hard to believe you are only three hours away from the UK. If you travel out further you reach the Sahara Desert where you can arrange to stay in a traditional Berber tent and sleep under the stars.
You can book trips out to The Atlas Mountains on a daily basis from the city. Most trips will include some sightseeing in the Atlas Mountains, visiting places like Kasbah Ait Benhaddou, Ouarzazate and Todra Gorge, and a night in the Sahara under the stars at a Berber camp, experiencing traditional Berber music and food by the camp fire. Be sure to research tour operators online before you go as this is something you’ll want to make the most of and a good tour guide is priceless.
Art and music play a huge part in Moroccan culture, and Marrakech itself has a history of attracting well known artists and musicians. Highlights of the year include The Marrakech National Festival of the Popular Arts, The Marrakech Folk Music Festival and The Marrakech International Film Festival. You can also catch an opera in the New Town and you’ll find painters, artists and musicians all over the streets of Marrakech.
A highlight for me was meeting a real Gnaoua or Gnawa musician from the Sahara and having the opportunity to play together at our riad.
Gnaoua culture originates in ancient African Islamic culture but is very much an integral part of Moroccan tradition today. Every year in July they hold The Gnaoua and World Music Festival in Essaouira which incorporates all Gnaoua styles, including Gnaoua fusions with jazz, blues, hip hop and reggae. The festival lasts three days and attracts 400,000 people!
Although the tanneries are a million miles away from the luxuries of the New Town, and the pungent smells border on the obnoxious to the western nose, there is something very authentic about a visit to the tanneries. The tanneries and the crafting of leather have remained unchanged here for hundreds of years.
When you visit the tanneries you will be invited in by a local and offered to be shown round for a small fee. These guides are generally worth the money, but the leather shop they take you to at the end is a little overpriced, so bargain hard.
Essaouira is roughly two hours by car and about three hours by bus. Although you could easily spend a few days here, it is possible to visit on a day trip if you are short on time. Unlike Marrakech, which is hot and arid most of the year, Essaouira is cooler and benefits from the fresh, cool breeze of the Atlantic Ocean.
The town itself is incredibly laidback and wonderfully picturesque. The Portuguese influence can be seen in its beautifully whitewashed buildings, bright blue boats and ancient seafront fortifications. Although Essaouira is naturally increasing in popularity it still retains its charm as a relaxed, bohemian seaside town rich in culture and history and doesn’t feel particularly touristy.
If you want a little respite from the chaos of the city, head to the Jardin Majorelle. Famed for its use of cobalt blue paint and tranquil picturesque ponds, it’s a refreshing break from the dust and heat of the main streets.
Quiet walkways wind through ponds, exotic trees and plants. Created by Jacques Majorelle, a French painter, over a 40-year period, it was first opened to the public in 1947. In 1980 it was bought by Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent when they discovered it was going to be turned into a hotel complex, and it has remained a sanctuary of tranquillity in the centre of Marrakech ever since.
You can fly to Marrakech from airports all over the UK on non-stop flights. Easyjet operates from Gatwick, Stansted, Bristol and Manchester, and Ryanair operates from both London’s Luton and Stansted airports.
British Airways flies daily from Gatwick, and Royal Air Maroc also operates from Gatwick as well as Heathrow via Casablanca.
TUI also has charter flights into Marrakech from Gatwick, Birmingham and Manchester.
Prices can be as low as £28.99 one way without checked bags, however an average fare would be in the £150 mark return.
Marrakech offers everything from cheap hostels to 5* luxury hotels and, of course, the famous traditional riads. The Old Town has more of this type of accommodation and the New Town houses more modern hotels. Outside the city in the palm groves you’ll find a range of luxury hotels. Prices below are examples but can be far higher at peak times. Early booking is advised for finding the best prices.
Prices taken from TravelSupermarket for stays in May 2018, based on a two-night stay for two people.
Consider packages and compare these against separate flight and hotel costs. Packages offer ATOL protection.
Walking is the way to get around in the Old Town due to the maze of narrow streets and bazaars. There are taxi services between the new and old towns and for destinations such as the Majorelle gardens. Ensure you agree a fare before getting into the taxi, but they are cheap and will not cost you much.
If you are staying in the Old Town it pays to have the staff of the riad meet you at the airport to find your way to the property. These transfers will cost you no more than £20. Otherwise there is an airport bus which costs around £4 return.
It is very cheap to eat in Marrakech and you can easily eat like a king at one of the many small food stalls and ‘pop up’ style restaurants. If you want to eat more western style food, the larger hotels and some restaurants in the New Town cater to these tastes.
Coffee – £1.27
Bottle of beer/lager – £2.32
Three-course meal for two, including wine – £14.72
Prices obtained from Numbeo.com.
Moroccan Dirhams – approximately 12.89 Dirhams = £1
Please note: All prices and deals were updated as of February 5, 2018.
Images © CC 2.0 Will Schiller unless otherwise stated.
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