After reading tales from a thousand and one nights, images immediately spring to mind of vibrant colours and exotic flavours, vast deserts and bustling town squares, towering minarets with echoing calls to prayer, and above all, a deep-seated mystery that’s just waiting to be solved. Although Marrakesh is in North Africa and not the Middle East, its Arab influence over the years gives it an undeniably Arabian atmosphere, and this is the city that reeks of magic more than any other. It is the gateway to the Sahara, home to the incomparable Djemaa El Fna Square, and a city that everyone should visit at some point in their lives.
Stay in a Riad
While hotels can be found to suit every budget, at some point during your stay in Morocco you should experience staying at a traditional Riad, and Marrakech has the largest selection to suit any budget. A Riad is usually a house converted to a guesthouse, although many are purpose-built. They range from basic with just a few rooms situated around an open courtyard, often with a rooftop straight out of Arabian nights, to those with large, luxurious rooms, sparkling pools, and every amenity you can think of. In our experience, the best local food can be had at a Riad, and even if you aren’t staying at one, you can usually book a dinner at one just for the experience.
Retail therapy at the medina
The ancient, red stone walls of the medina beckon in Marrakech, built in the 12th century to protect the inhabitants within. A lot of the tourist attractions mentioned below are concentrated in this area, and they are all worth a visit. In addition to the historical and cultural sites below, bargaining in the souk is also an enjoyable experience.
Marrakech is a good place to shop for spices and trinkets, but particularly for argan oil if you’re not visiting Agadir or Essouira. Argan oil has a myriad of uses, from cosmetic applications for smooth skin and healthy hair, to cooking applications and raw use as a dressing. There are lots of fakes around as well, where the oil is mixed or diluted with other ingredients, so it is important to stick to reputable sources and verify if it is genuine. Argan oil has an unmistakable nutty aroma, and is not totally clear in consistency. It is yellow, not golden, and should cost approximately 150 Dirhams for 250ml. Lots of places appear genuine and will sell you stories about how they are fair trade, but in reality they aren’t. To ensure you don’t get scammed, either ask a reputable tour agent or buy it at a supermarket. There also a ton of cosmetic products enriched with argan oil as well, like face creams and hammam-scrubs.
Read Salah at the Koutoubia Mosque
While not as modern or intricately designed as other mosques in the country, it is the largest in Marrakech and borders the Djemaa El Fna Square. Built during the 12th century by the Almohad Dynasty in the characteristic red stone of the city, it is an iconic landmark on the city’s skyline. It is off-limits to non-Muslims who can only appreciate the exterior, but for Muslims it is a lovely experience to stand with locals, interact with them, and enjoy a moment of respite from the chaos outside.
Experience the magic of the Djemaa El Fna Square
This famous square requires two visits, or the better part of a day to appreciate. Visit in the day time, and it is a bustling square filled with hawkers peddling their wares, and animals in costume locked in cages. As the sun sets, you’ll be treated to a spectacle that defies description. People gather around telling stories in Arabic and occasionally French, and though we could not understand a word, the atmosphere is electrifying and we found ourselves getting caught up in the act. There are snake charmers and magicians, lithe acrobats and passionate musicians, henna artists offering intricate tattoos and Berber water sellers all dressed up with their tinkling cups. Adding to the mystery is the constant sizzle and fragrant smoke arising from stalls grilling meat in the square, where treats of all kinds can be had for a few bucks.
Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, it was once the site of public executions. This is where it gets its name from, which means ‘assembly of the dead.’ There is nothing dead about the square now though, and if you need a break from the carnival-like atmosphere, there are a few rooftop terraces around the square from where you can appreciate the festivities at a distance.
Tip: The crowd is intense and we were warned about pickpockets, so we kept our bags in front of us and didn’t have any incidents. There have also been reports of people using chemical henna that burns your skin; this is usually a problem with the darker henna as it is naturally red so confirm before letting anyone near your skin.
Pay respects at the Saadian tombs
A visit to the stunning mausoleum is a refreshing change of pace after the flurry of the medina and the chaos of the Djemaa El Fna. The tombs are adorned with ornate carvings and impeccable craftsmanship, and even the graves are decorated with striking zellige tilework. Walking through the garden is peaceful, and provides you with a chance to reflect on the great dynasties that once ruled the land.
Step into the opulent past at the Bahia Palace
The Bahia Palace was built in the 1800s, with the intent to create a showpiece of Moroccan and Islamic style. The stained glass windows and vast courtyard are notable features, and it is even more impressive once you consider that it was built as a private residence. There are numerous rooms and chambers, with imposing fireplaces and carved ceilings, a great harem and a traditional garden. Not all of the palace is accessible to the public, but it is open daily and gives a good idea of what life must have been like in that era.
Relax at the Majorelle Gardens
A beautiful blue oasis in the midst of the Red City, the Majorelle Gardens are a lovely place to relax and get close to nature, while also providing tons of photo-ops amongst the exotic trees, trickling fountains, and stark blue features. There are benches dotted throughout, alongside covered coves and winding, paved paths, so there’s plenty of places to escape from the scorching heat. There is also a little designer store and library on site, and is overall a nice modern site at which to spend a few hours.
Bath in a hammam
We were quite two-minded about visiting one, and missing out on the experience is one of our regrets. In the past, hammams or public baths were an integral part of the community, and that tradition is still alive today. They were usually built next to bakeries, so that the heating costs of firing up ovens could be shared with heating up water in the baths. There are different kinds, some where you get access and do your own thing, others that are more like a modern spa, and then the traditional ones which are usually cheaper and more authentic. They are split, either with separate sections for men and ladies, or else with different times for men and ladies to ensure segregation. You begin by sitting in a steam room, then get scrubbed to within an inch of your life by local attendants, and you can then relax and enjoy the amenities after. If the thought of being naked or almost-naked in public doesn’t appeal to you, you can purchase black soap and scrubbing gloves in the medina so that you can re-create some of the experience in the privacy of your home.
Explore the desert
Due to time constraints we did not have sufficient time to explore the desert, but spending the day on the back of a camel and spending the night under the vast, starry, African skies is an experience not be missed.