The Best Things To Do In Marrakech, Morocco
I wasn’t really sure what to expect before heading to Marrakech. Here I’m going to give you by no means an exhaustive list of the best things to do in Marrakech, Morocco. The geographical location of the city makes it the one must-visit place in the country if you have limited time. I expected it to be an absolute tourist haven which would have ruined many of the local traditions and customs. I was very wrong! Marrakech is a vibrant example of raw Morocco which does have its fair share of tourists but you shouldn’t let this be a deterrent. I’m going to give you some of the top things you can do in the city, they are what I considered the highlights of my visit to Marrakech. It’s very well catered to tourists and you could potentially come to the city with an endless ‘to do’ list. To see the main highlights, however, then I recommend spending at least 3 days in Marrakech. You can also see plenty other of Morocco’s highlights by using the city as a base. The most notable of these is going on a tour to the massive Sahara Desert.
If you want a real learning holiday where you just immerse yourself in the history of Marrakech then you may want to consider hiring a city guide. There’s not a huge amount of historical information (enough for me, but not compared to some other cities) so this is an option.
A Bit About Marrakech
- It’s Morocco’s 4th most populous city with an approximate population of 930,000.
- It’s a very multilingual city with plenty of residents speaking French and Arabic, English is also generally well-spoken.
- The city as known as ‘Red City’ due to the colour of the old town.
- It’s divided into the New City and the Old City, you’ll probably spend the most time in the Old City.
- You will get hassled and asked for tips wherever you go, it’s all about being firm and not afraid to say NO.
- Mint tea is the city’s national drink while couscous is the national dish – they are both available in abundance.
- It is one of the most liberal cities in one of the most liberal Arabic countries but you should still be respectful of the Muslim culture at all times. Sadly, males are still rather dominant here so women shouldn’t show too much flesh. Nothing will happen if you do, you’ll probably just get uncomfortably stared at.
- The Moroccan Dirham is quite weak so your pounds/euros/dollars will go far here.
- Marrakech with a ‘C’ is the French spelling while Marrakesh with an ‘s’ is the English spelling. I’ll stick to the French spelling for this article. Just because I prefer it!
- You should never be afraid to haggle or walk away if you feel you’re being ripped off, it’s part of the culture here and tourists are often targeted.
- The climate is generally good all year round; it ranges from scorching hot in summer to more comfortable conditions in both spring and autumn.
- Jemaa el Fna is the main square and the city’s focal point. If you’re lost or want to get your bearings ask for directions to ‘el Fna’.
- Be very careful when taking photos of snake charmers and other street performers. As soon as the camera comes out you are expected to pay and if you refuse the hasslers can get aggressive.
- Avoid street meat – hygiene is pretty poor and we heard several stories of dodgy stomachs and even hospital visits because of street food.
- Buy bottled water, tap water isn’t safe to drink even if you are told otherwise.
- Crime rates in Marrakech are low because of strong police presence and hefty sanctions for offenders (even heftier if it’s against tourists I think). Use normal common sense like in any other major city and you’ll be fine.
- The easiest way to get around outside the Medina is by using the ‘petite taxis’. Initial price quote will be through the roof, haggling down is almost expected by the drivers which is why they start so high. Never pay more than 50 Dirham (it’s slightly more to the airport, a fixed rate).
With no further ado let’s look at what you should be doing if you decide to visit Marrakech.
Best Things To Do In Marrakech
1. Spend Time On The Main Square
The main square, which is locally known as Jemaa el Fna (meaning ‘assembly of the dead’), is the focal point of the entire city. The square itself is absolutely massive and it’s very easy to spend an entire morning/afternoon here, some even say that it’s the busiest city square in the whole of Africa. I’d recommend spending at least an evening because that’s when the square really comes to life. There are snake charmers, storytellers, medicine men, street vendors, rooftop cafes (Kessabine is a great budget option with cracking views), juice stalls, countless souvenir and clothing stalls, there even exist people whose sole purpose seems to be just pester tourists and not do anything in particular. You can also take a Calèche Ride (horse and cart) from here if you so wish but I didn’t think that the horses looked too up for it. There’s a great view of the Koutoubia Mosque which is the largest mosque in Marrakech and serves as a brilliant navigation point for getting your bearings on the square.
There is a massive barbecue which takes place most evenings which consists of local vendors sizzling up a huge variety of interesting dishes ranging from standard chicken breast to a slightly more exotic sheep’s heart. Eat at your own risk bearing in mind that street food here doesn’t have the best reputation. The shot below is my best attempt at a panoramic of the square, it’s just coming to life here.
As previously mentioned, you need to be careful if you are planning on taking pictures of the snake charmers. It’s very tempting, if not instinctive, to reach for your camera when you see a live king cobra being flaunted on the street. I recommend that if you’re going to take a picture that you either 1. Gather a few coins to give to one of the charmers when they come asking for money (which they will). 2. Be very subtle taking your picture, the second time I was passing by I actually waited until another poor tourist was hassled before getting a cheeky snap of the serpents (see below). 3. Prepare yourself for some abuse and maybe even aggression if you’re not willing to pay up.
All in all, the square can’t be missed (it would be difficult even if you tried). It’s one of the most vibrant places I’ve visited in a city centre and I promise you that you will never get bored of exploring it during your time in Marrakech.
2. Get Some Photos Of The Koutoubia Mosque
If you spend some time in the Jemaa el Fna (which you undoubtedly will) then you’ll see this beautiful, looming structure. It towers above all neighbouring buildings which are restricted by the ancient law stating that no building in Marrakech may be taller than a palm tree. The Koutoubia Mosque really is the postcard symbol of Marrakech and, even though only muslims can enter, it’s something you can admire and gawp at as you cross El Fna.
3. Get Lost In The Medina
The Medina in Marrakech is a UNESCO World Heritage Centre and it’s easy to see why. It is located just north of the main square and when you get in….it could be a while until you get out again. Medina literally means ancient quarters and this area of the city differs from the rest in that the streets are extremely narrow and maze-like. My advice is to give yourself a few hours to explore the Medina and not panic too much if you feel like you’ve lost your whereabouts, it will happen and the main streets of Marrakech are never too far away.
The Medina itself is an absolute beehive. There are more stalls than you can even imagine and it really is a case of take your pick in terms of what souvenirs to bring home. Looking for ceramics? Handicrafts? Books? You can find it here. There are also several cute cafes and restaurants dotted all over where you can take a well-earned break from getting lost in these winding alleyways. The shot below is one of the few places of peace and tranquility in the Medina.
Be wary of people claiming to be ‘professional guides’ and speaking with you just to ‘practice English’. Before you know it you’ll end up following them down a few side-streets and land in an uncle or friend’s shop where you’re always expected to buy something. All it takes is a firm NO but this can be difficult for the softer souls out there.
Another thing I would say is be wary of relying on your GPS to get you around the Medina. Because of the extremely high walls and narrow streets, the little blue icon on your phone will love to go walkabout. It helped in a couple of the more open areas but in general we ended up more lost than before. Immerse yourself in the Medina and let the streets take you!
4. Eat Traditional Moroccan Food
Couscous and tagines. So much of it.
I’m sure you know what couscous is but tagine, you ask? Basically, it’s a slow-cooked stew. I honestly found that the best tagines I had in Morocco were the ones that (annoyingly) had me waiting for the longest. Tagines generally include a healthy mix of vegetables and marinated with plenty of herbs to give it that succulent taste. A fun fact is that ‘tagine’ is also the name of the dish it’s served in. Besides these, Moroccans also love plenty of well-cooked red meat. The below photo is what we got when we asked a police-officer for a ‘restaurant selling typical food that tourists don’t know about’. It was just off el Fna and the meat and salads were delicious.
Generally, tagine and couscous are the two dishes that are served absolutely everywhere, not just in Marrakech but all over Morocco. If a restaurant is down to its last two things on the menu then it will be these. There are plenty of eateries dedicated to Moroccan cuisine and some of these include Dar Chef, Libzar, Bazaar Cafe and La Cantine Des Gazelles.
Something slightly different and also common in Marrakech is a dish called B’stilla. It’s a pie with a strange mix of sweet and savoury but I found it to be extremely satisfying. Inside it has pigeon meat with some nuts and eggs, the outer layers of pastry tend to be coated with icing sugar and cinnamon. It sounds like an odd combination but give it a try, you might be surprised.
I highly recommend staying off the main square due to the inflated prices. There are plenty of great restaurants located in and around the Medina and you really can just take your pick. We found that a lot of the menus were just a variation of couscous and tajines.
Another thing you can do is go on a Marrakech food tour which I didn’t do but have read many good reviews about them. This is for those who want the real deal and try foods that they might not find alone. Certain things you may try are snails and sheep head, check it out here and read what others had to say about it.
5. Drink Mint Tea
A bit like couscous and tagines, mint tea is ubiquitous in the entire country, especially Marrakech where it is the city’s national drink.
Mint tea is green tea with the added taste coming from spearmint leaves and the Moroccans do love to sweeten it with a fair whack of sugar. I couldn’t get enough of the stuff and generally ordered a glass of it in every cafe we visited. Glass you say? Yeah, it’s slightly strange but in the vast majority of places the tea was actually served in a teapot with a glass on the side.
It’s not just mint either, several cafes had entire tea menus with the other favourites of mine being ginger and luiza tea. A cafe I highly recommend is Cafe Kif Kif. You get a spectacular view of the Koutoubia Mosque, it has a really cosy and homely atmosphere, and not to mention excellent tea! Here’s a snap from that cafe.
6. Explore The Souks
The Souks are the markets located in the Medina of the city and they really do epitomise Morocco. Marrakech has the largest marketplace in the entire country and they are what gives the city its heart and soul. These markets sell just about everything and they are semi-divided into categories (although I felt like a lot of it seemed to merge into one). Some of the most popular ones are the Spice Souk, Metalworks Souk, Slipper Souk and the Carpet Souk.
My personal favourite was probably the Spice Souk just because of the pungent scents and massive variety on show. I couldn’t get over just how the sellers managed to heap the spices into such huge cones without them collapsing. It’s an amazing sight and you could easily spend a day just taking in the different smells. If you want to get hold of some spices typical to Morocco and North Africa then this is your place with really good prices.
I recommend that you just dive into the Souks and don’t get too caught up or bothered by the hassle and calls for attention from the sellers. If you’re firm with them, they will leave you alone. A good technique if you’re keen on buying something is to look interested in the item, ask how much it costs and when they give you a quote (which is usually more expensive than it should be), politely say ‘thank you’ and start to walk away. You will be amazed by how many of them will slash the initial price by quite some margin.
7. Stay In A Riad
This applies to anywhere in Morocco, not just Marrakech. Riad’s are basically traditional guesthouses built around a courtyard. They have typical Moroccan interiors and tend to be excellent value for money. The beauty of Riad’s is that they aren’t situated on the main square or bang on a busy highway, they are generally very nicely hidden in the maze of the old city. This is great for a good night’s sleep but can be a problem for getting lost, especially the first day.
We stayed at the Riad Menzeh in Marrakech and for me, the best part was the transition from the hectic bustling Marrakech streets to the peace and tranquillity of the Riad literally by turning a couple of corners. Menzeh also offered a hearty continental breakfast which will set you up for the day nicely. I would say that the main downside of staying in a Riad is that sound travels very easily through the thin walls. It’s not really the accomodation for party animals, however, so I wouldn’t worry too much about this.
Click here to find some more Riads and hotels in Marrakech, there are plenty to choose from and you can also see what other guests had to say.
8. Take A Desert Tour
I mean, who goes to Morocco and doesn’t take a trip to the Sahara Desert? This absolutely massive expanse of rolling sand dunes surrounds Marrakech (effectively making the city an island) and there are multiple tour companies offering various trips into the desert. Realistically, you will only get to see a tiny fraction of the desert itself, you can fit the UK 38 times into the whole Sahara so you may need a while to see the whole thing.
Most desert tour companies offer your typical camelback riding, camping and stargazing at night. Some of them do sports like ATV rides but these will be quite a bit more expensive. We went with Marrakech Desert Trips (creative name, I know) and they were satisfactory for a two-day trip which is what we were restricted to due to time limitations. We went on the two-day tour to Zagora which is a town on the edge of the Sahara.
The tour started off with a spectacular 7-hour bus ride through the Atlas Mountains. As the minibus slowly weaved its way up the mountains the snow got deeper and deeper until it was almost knee height and the roads were particularly precarious. This landscape lasts a while before dropping down to more rocky desert-like terrain. You’ll then stop at the beautiful walled village of Ait Ben Haddou which is the filming location for several blockbusters such as Game Of Thrones and Prince Of Persia. From here, you’ll head into the desert where you’ll get a camel ride and decent meal with very hospitable hosts. Recognise this place below?
If you’re stretched for time, then I would recommend this tour to see the stunningly diverse Moroccan landscape in the space of a couple of days. However, if you’re staying for longer then you should definitely check out the other slightly longer tours they have on offer. The downside for me was that the guides weren’t very personable and I felt like at times we were herded a bit like cattle. Check out what others had to say about it here.
9. Visit The Ben Youssef Madrasa
You might not think that visiting an academic institute should be a priority in Morocco but this is an exception. Before I go any further, I want to mention that we didn’t actually go in. Apparently, it is closed this year for maintenance work so if you do go to Marrakech in 2018 then you may have to give this one a miss. I’ve still decided to include it in this review because it’s one of the places that is put down as an absolute must-visit.
The Ben Youssef Madrasa was founded in the 14th century and was mainly an institute for students who wanted to follow a scientific path. It was also a home for lots of its students and these 130 chambers are open for the public to explore. I found the snap below on Wikimedia Commons and the credit goes to Tom Neys.
The first place you’ll set foot on is the inner courtyard and it’s a visual masterpiece. The sumptuous decorations and stunning mosaics will definitely take up a few megabytes on your camera. Most sources I have read state that you really should take the time to look at the sculptures and imagine just how much time and intricacy was required.
The entrance fee is 40 Dirhams (approx £3) which seems like an absolute steal. You have the option of paying for a guide but I doubt this is necessary unless you are really keen on learning about the history (as is the case in most of Morocco). I have been told that simply wandering around and taking it all in was enough. See what others had to say about it here.
10. Visit A Palace
Marrakech has three palaces, two of which are open to the public. We visited Bahia Palace which is in great condition and has plenty of neat artwork on the inside. It is surrounded by gardens and has a large courtyard. We spent a lot of time here photographing the doors and windows because of the intricately sculptured wooden patterns on them.
One downside of the palace is that there’s not a huge amount of historical information inside, it’s more a place to enjoy the architecture and take some photos. If you do want to learn more about the history then I recommend hiring a guide, be sure to agree on a price beforehand and if you can, try and go with a group (it works out cheaper). A small entry fee applies and it was in the range of 30 Dirham (£2.50).
The other palace open to the public is the Badi Palace which I didn’t visit but I do know that it’s not as well maintained as the Bahia, but that it does have more history.
11. Have A Freshly Squeezed Orange Juice
Next time you buy a pack of oranges from tesco or wherever your local supermarket may be, take a second to look at where they’ve come from. You’d be surprised that lots of them actually say Morocco. It’s for this very reason that you should make trying some freshly squeezed orange juice a priority while you’re in the country.
Head to Jemaa el Fna and you’re absolutely spoiled for choice by the amount of juice vendors. it’s hard to walk past them without echoing shouts of ‘my friend!’ ‘best juice here’ ‘good price!’. For once they’re actually not far off – the price is very good at about 5-10 Dirham (£1-2) for a glass, and it really is some of the best fresh juice you can try. It is refreshing, healthy and has a citrusy zing that you rarely get with oranges at home. Pay attention while you’re walking around Marrakech and you’ll see the amount of orange trees everywhere makes it easy to understand why Moroccan oranges are so famous.
Didn’t Make The ‘Must See’ List
One of these may be a bit controversial, especially when compared to most general Marrakech guidebooks. I honestly wouldn’t go rushing to the Jardin Majorelle while you’re in Marrakech. I KNOW that 90% of web-pages and guidebooks will say that this place cannot be missed but I honestly didn’t see what was so special.
Yes, it’s a nice garden and has a cute layout, but who really goes to Morocco to see plants and trees? If I wanted this I could head to the jungle in Sub-Saharan Africa, or even a fancy botanic garden at home! I don’t want to be a killjoy, yes it is very pretty but I just don’t think it’s worth it if you’ve come to Morocco for the true Moroccan experience. If anything, your reason for going to the gardens should be to appreciate all the years of work and effort put in by the artist Jacques Majorelle (the creator of the gardens).
The other one is the tanneries. I will say that if you’re just visiting Marrakech and don’t plan anything else in Morocco then you should definitely check out the tanneries. If you are going to be doing a bit of touring, however, then you should definitely go to the tanneries in Fes which are the biggest and most impressive in Morocco. We didn’t even go to the Marrakech tanneries because we heard that they aren’t comparable to the ones in Fes.
Getting To Marrakech
If you’re heading to Marrakech for a short visit then your best bet is going to be flying. Many airlines operate routes direct to Marrakech Menara Airport from the UK and the most popular of these is Ryanair, Easyjet and British Airways. There are also several other flights available from various major European cities. As always with flights its definitely best to shop around for the best deals. The one I always use and would recommend is Skyscanner, make sure you look at different dates around the time you’re thinking of going and different nearby departure cities. You would be amazed by how much money you can save with a little extra work searching for flights.
TIP: When departing from Menara Airport for your return flight you need to make sure that the people at the check-in desk have looked at your ticket. This mainly applies to Ryanair flights which is different from European airports where you can check-in online and simply advance through security. At Marrakech airport you need to get it looked at by the check-in people (they’ll probably tear the ticket or scribble something on it). If you don’t, the guards at security will send you on the long walk back across the airport with a big smile on their faces (I learnt the hard way).
It’s also possible to get there by land if you’re coming from Spain and you take a train/bus down from Tangier. This is for the hardy backpackers or those who will be spending a lot of time in the country and want the full ‘Moroccan experience’. Trains and buses connect most of Morocco’s major cities but I’d recommend getting the ticket when you’re there. Train tickets must be purchased in the country and the bus website isn’t very clear. The main train company is ONCF and the most popular inter-city buses are Supratours and ALSA.
This post is based purely on my experience of Marrakech and I am being 100% honest with my views and opinions. Marrakech is, for many people, the only place they will see in Morocco and if this is the case then you’ll likely be spending up to a week there and could add several more things to this list. I do recommend getting out and seeing some more of Morocco if you can because there are plenty of gems in this richly cultured nation. The fact that you can go from arid desert to the landscape below is a prime example of Morocco’s diversity.
If you’re just going to be a couple of days in the city then hopefully I’ve given you a decent idea of the best things to do in Marrakech. I absolutely loved the place and was surprised that, even though it does get swarmed by tourists, it still maintains that local Moroccan cultural feel about it. It’s a safe city whcih requires the same level of caution as a major European city.
Thanks a lot for reading and, as always, please chip in with your thoughts and questions in the comments section below. Safe travels! 🙂