It’s not hard to explain why Marrakesh, the fourth largest Moroccan city, is such a popular destination nowadays. This is a city with numerous praises worldwide, such as the title of leading African destination twice in the last years. However, it was only in 2006 that the airspace monopoly was cleared for non-Moroccan airline companies to operate. Obviously, this gave birth to the touristic boom of the country as a whole. Although it’s the farthest city from Europe of those four (and not the capital), Marrakesh had plenty of attributes on its side to become a travel giant. The “red city” – the metropolis’ nickname is due to the reddish color of its walls – has long been a very important cultural and economic center of the country. As a matter of fact, it was on several occasions and for many years, the actual capital of Morocco.
In the 60s and 70s, Marrakesh was a “hippie Mecca”, gathering many world-famous celebrities. Oh yes, I’m talking about the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Yves Saint Laurent. In 1985, the medina (the walled and original city center) was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Marrakesh was, later on, the place of important worldwide events and continued to grow cumulatively along with Morocco. Also, it greatly benefitted by the economic push that put in place by King Mohammed VI, who particularly helped the accommodation industry of the city.
Arriving in Marrakesh for the first time can be an impactful experience, to say the least. It can depend immensely on whether or not you’ve been in Africa or in a Muslim country before. It will not take you a lot of minutes to notice that temperatures are rather high (sometimes closing in at the 50º Celsius). The skyline is very low, with the exception of several minarets that signal the presence of mosques and act as sound extenders upon praying hours. Beige and reddish sandstone describe the facades of houses and buildings, with thick walls avoiding windows (because of the heat) and layouts leading to inner courtyards.
Marrakesh’s nickname is the “red city”.
And then you notice the traffic. Forget what you learned in driving school because in Marrakesh it’s every driver for himself. Cars rarely stop for pedestrians (they rather go around them), while drivers venture in the opposite direction if that improves their route. There’s an amazing amount of trust that those 10cm from nearby cars will always be enough not to hit them.
Marrakesh is a city that amazes you through its people and the ambiance of a place culturally different. To be fair, the majority of the locals you’ll meet will be vendors trying to sell you something. Yet, I couldn’t help but see through that shallow intention. And when you do, you’re warmed by the genuine joy and desire of making a real connection with someone from another “world”. In Marrakesh (and in Morocco in general) I bought / spent more than anywhere else in the world, I give you that. But more importantly, I also chit-chatted, laughed, got mad, learned and had meaningful conversations with the most people ever too.
Jemaa el-Fnaa is the busiest square in all Africa.
Here’s the kind of situations you go through when roaming the busy streets of Marrakesh.
1 – Vendors physically stop you to either check out their goods or follow them back to their shops or workshops. In some of these places raw materials are processed (tanneries, herbs, spices, etc.), so you learn a lot in the process. This process would underpin you would tip not only the “scout” but also the actual vendor.
2 – Locals offer you a tour of a specific part of town.
3 – You’re greeted every single time you pass through the same vendor, even though you never stopped to check his products.
4 – You discuss with them mutual conversation topics.
5 – You get help locating yourself or things you need (the medina is an authentic maze in much of its area).
6 – Last but not least, the most classical of interactions: bargain the prices.
I would be lying if I said some of these moments weren’t initially received with an unsettling and bothered mood. However, I always left the scene with a smile on my face and a little happier with humanity. And that makes everything better in the end.
Don’t be afraid “to give in” to street vendors.
Talking about these interactions in the markets, you should also know the basics for conquering the commercial alleys of Marrakesh:
1 – They speak Arabian and French (of course some English too);
2 – The Moroccan dirham is very cheap comparing to the Euro or the Dollar (and the Euro conversion is very easy to remember);
3 – The traditional shopping area is called a souk, for which Marrakesh has the largest number in Morocco, 18.
Regarding the most common things to acquire in a trip to Marrakesh, the list goes on and on. You can always find interesting wearing and cooking accessories, blankets, house decorations, and rugs. The tagine pot – a clay container used for keeping the traditional Moroccan food – is always a classic. However, nothing beats the sensorial festival that you get when watching, smelling and tasting spices, herbs, and fragrances.
You can bring home objects of many kinds. Some may break or grow old, and that’s fine. But your nose will NEVER forget the beautiful aromas of Marrakesh!
Make sure you have space in your suitcase for dreamy souvenirs!
When it comes to points of interest, you should also feast your eyes on specific attractions scattered across the city to complement your stay.
Jemaa el-Fnaa – The busiest square in all Africa and the top attraction in Morocco / Africa. Be sure to experience everything it has to offer, from snake enchanters to the food stands.
Bahia Palace – For the lavish interior architecture and a safe haven from the busy streets outside, be sure to visit at least one of these places. It’s really incredible how everything else fades once you set foot in these grand residences.
Gardens – I recommend Menara and the colorful Majorelle.
Koutoubia Mosque – The most important and largest mosque in the city. Watch out for the 5-times-a-day Muslim praying in these places.
Marrakech Museum – Check one of the museums of the city for a look at the amazingly rich cultural and artistic footprint of its people.
Ben Youssef Madrasa – Almost as many and as popular as the mosques themselves, a madrasa is the name given to Muslim religious schools. Youssef Madrasa is the most popular and with an amazing architecture and interiors.
Last but not least, make yourself a favor and stay in one of the riads that populate the whole medina. These are literally small museums that you can call home during your stay in Marrakesh. Many of them have indoor pools, free mint tea, and many other relaxing activities for you to enjoy a more peaceful time away from the crowds. They also act as middlemen between you and tourism providers nearby, such as the ones offering dromedary or 4X4 rides.