It’s January and as the new year begins in the cold and rain, we all start dreaming of summer and exotic destinations…
Just under 3 hours away by flight from London, Marrakesh might very well be the perfect getaway.
Going through the maze of streets and alleyways that form the Medina (more on this later), Marrakesh is a journey through space and time for your senses.
The colors (spices and architecture), smells (food and animals) and the sounds (calls for prayer or mopeds whizzing past) all form a sometimes hectic yet beautiful cacophony.
With the good, the bad and the plain ugly, read on for my list of places to stay, see, avoid and tips and tricks to help you there.
When looking for a place to stay in Marrakesh, you should understand that the city mainly comprises three areas:
-the Medina, the old town surrounded by high ancient fortified walls
-the modern neighbordhoods outside of the walls (notably, Gueliz)
-further out, the desert-like areas, including La Palmeraie
Personnally, I would highly recommend staying within La Medina. It is the life and soul of the city and a unique experience you wouldn’t want to miss (but if you’re a light sleeper, best packing some earplugs as the first call for prayer starts at dawn, around 4-5am).
Most things you’ll want to visit are within those walls and everything is from easy walking distance, including detours you’ll inevitably end up taking as you get lost.
Most hotels there are called Riads and are a typical Moroccan type of dwelling including a garden or courtyard with a pool or fountain in the center, with all windows facing inwards rather than to the outside streets.
If you go outside the Medina, you’ll find more modern accommodation and some big hotels but you will have to use a taxi or public transport to get anywhere. During my stay, I visited two hotels at two ends of the spectrum: one cheap and cheerful with basic amenities but great staff, and one much more luxurious and private with individual villas with their own pool, chef etc.
With a double room costing 50 to 70 € a night including a traditional and copious breakfast, what Riad Errabii maybe lacked in comfort and amenities it made up with the kindness of its staff (especially Abdou who always welcomed us with a hot and delicious mint tea).
Featuring a typical courtyard, several relaxing areas and a rooftop, all within a very central side of the Medina, this hotel is perfect for those who want to explore the city and spend most of the day outside.
A true oasis of peace and quiet within the chaos of the city, the Riad Lavande was the perfect place to get away and recharge.
Around 250€ a night, the rooms are part of small villas located within a bigger hotel, Le Naoura, and all have a small swimming pool, balconies for the rooms and a chef. You can also use the hotel facilities which include restaurants, bars, a big heated swimming pool, a spa, a gym…
Quite simply, we didn’t leave the hotel the whole time we were there.
Couscous and tajines are aplenty in the streets of the city and you can find a lot of restaurants at various price points. Always be careful of the water, juices and anything that could make you sick (that even includes salad, rinsed with water) so be mindful of the places you choose.
My three favourites during the visit:
La ferme 236 Riad Laarrouse, Medina، Marrakech 40000
A cosy outdoor restaurant as well as a hotel, early arrival for dinner is advised as it can get really busy (we arrived around 7pm). Food is nice but not spectacular, however it’s a lovely setting dining by candlelight under the palm trees with Moroccan musicians playing in the back.
Atay Café Food, Rue Amsafah
Located a few doors down from another eatery popular with tourists, Le Jardin, Atay is well worth the trip and the somewhat dizzying flights of steps that will take you to the last level. Dinner here with sunrise to one side and the call for prayers to the other (a panoramic sound coming from all the mosques around) is definitely a magical -and affordable - moment to have.
Restaurant Lotus Privilege, 9 Derb Sidi Ali Ben Hamdouch,، Quartier Dar El Bacha
Perfect for special occasions, this restaurant will fulfil all your 1001 nights dreams. A hidden gem (it is located at the very end of a long alleyway, after an abandoned building) the setting there is sumptuous. It is best to make a reservation though, as we didn’t we waited with cocktails in the lush courtyard by the pool.
For dinner, the entertainment included a belly dancer, Gnaoua dancers and last but not least, two musicians singing Happy Birthday to me on traditional instruments in three different languages and then staying to play while we finished our dinner (we were the last people in the room so they played for no one but us). Prices are a bit steep especially for Marrakesh so it’s mainly tourists visiting but, in my opinion, totally worth it for the night.
Marrakesh is full of beautiful locations but be careful and always research your destination before going as some of them may be closed or not really worth the trip.
For photos, it is a feast for the eyes but be respectful of the locals as they often don’t like having their picture taken unless they tell you you can, or you might also end up with someone asking you for money in exchange.
Yves Saint Laurent’s former house and garden turned into a museum and an idyllic visit through the palm trees and cacti. Le Jardin Majorelle is a must-see during your visit and a splendid vision of colors and plants.
A victim of its own success perhaps, queues may be long and tickets can’t be bought in advance so it is advised to go early to enjoy it fully.
Probably my favourite visit of the trip, palais Bahia is an opulent masterpiece of Moorish architecture that will delight all architecture lovers. It is a succession of empty rooms and courtyards, allowing you to fully admire the ornate ceilings, colourful tiles and relaxing gardens as well as taking some amazing shots with minimal distraction !
Ah, the souks. A succession of undercover alleyways full of stalls selling products and goods where haggling, as in everywhere in the city, could be considered the national sport. Organized by specialty – lamps, spices, leather goods, carpets or pottery to name a few – getting lost here is half the fun.
Rule of thumb for haggling: whatever price a seller gives you, you should only really pay between a third or half of that so don’t be afraid to negotiate (but to be honest, I was not good at it and probably overpaid for about everything).
The main square of the city, Jemaa el-Fnaa is everything you might expect from old photos and more: snake charmers, men with monkeys, women doing henna, delicious food stalls, pottery sold on the side of the roads, tuktuks and donkeys; all clash yet cohabitate in this part of the town. But beware ! Scams are legion so don’t be afraid to say firmly no.
There are some good deals to be made (I recommend going for places that display the prices of what they’re selling so there’s no bad surprise or always agreeing to a price first) but you probably don’t want to stay there too long, or you’ll get rinsed.
Instead, head up to one of the cafes bordering the square and start going up: you’ll have a beautiful view and can admire all the hustle and bustle of below while sipping on a verbena tea, nibbling on briouates and all from the comfort of your terrace. My recommendation for this: Aqua café.
I would have loved to visit the Medersa Ben Youssef, a former school, unfortunately it
is closed until 2020 so no use trying there. The Koutoubia Mosque, the one with
the tallest minaret of the city , is also only visible from the outside as
tourists are not permitted to go in and it is reserved for prayer. It’s still a beautiful building you can see from almost anywhere in the city and good to help locate yourself.
Leather quarter: if I must give you one absolute warning for Marrakesh, this is it. DO NOT VENTURE into the leather quarter or listen to anyone trying to push you that way. It is a part of the city running on scams, local corruption and lost tourists and, if you even get offered a visit of the actual leather treatment facilities, not worth it.
Agdal gardens are only open once a week and that is probably enough. If an hour walk around the royal palace walls and onto a dusty road, leading to a muddy pond filled with ravenous fish sounds like your idea of fun, which is what I thought for a while, then by all means, go ahead. If not, Agdal gardens are a sight you won’t regret missing.
La Palmeraie: I did not try this one myself, but even though I was quite attracted to the idea of a camel ride, I did a bit of research and the general consensus was that the Palmeraie was in a sorry state, dried up by the luxury residences popping all around the area and that most camels looked famished and poorly treated.
Generally speaking, Marrakesh is not a great place for animal lovers. Stray cats roam everywhere but are full of bugs , poor donkeys are left with carriages in the sun while their owners run errands, horses are used to push carriages full of tourists all day but look undernourished and various parts or animals (I saw a few heads) can be found in markets all over the city.
Saadian tombs: didn’t visit, meant to be beautiful but really busy and a very short visit.
Money-wise, I used a service called Revolut which easily and instantly allows you to transfer money in different currencies and can come with a Bank card, so you can withdraw money or pay directly without being charged ridiculous fees.
Marrakesh is a great city and most locals are quite friendly, unfortunately scams are an everyday matter and people can be very persistant. Watch out for these scenarios:
- people asking if you’re lost and offering to take you somewhere (always say no, they will ask for money at the end).
- people starting to talk to you, and then walking off in a certain direction: this is to distract you and get you moving, again they will ask for money at the end.
- “that road is closed”: not true, just a way to steer you in a different direction, usually the leather quarter.
- people saying you should take photos: with monkeys, of places, shops, etc, most of the time they will ask for money after
- henna: this one can be really dangerous if it is done with black henna as it is toxic and some people have severe reactions. If you haven’t already discussed prices and patterns and they start grabbing your hand, PULL AWAY. Else they will start drawing on you and ask for extortionate prices.
I really loved this trip, leaving London in the rain and arriving in Marrakesh with 24-25 degrees all week in November to explore the place was a pleasant surprise. I found it a pretty special moment walking through the Medina the first time as it was so different than almost every city or place I know.
Hope you have found this guide helpful, feel free to ask any question in the comments below or contact me @morganemaurice!
All opinions in this post are my own and it was not sponsored,
All photos by me, shot on Canon 5D Mark IV and Iphone X.