Modern-day Marrakech is made up of ancient bamboo-covered souks, an endless array of bazaars, lush palm groves, five-star restaurants, snake charmers, fortune tellers, and characters of all shapes and sizes. With the snowcapped peaks of the High Atlas serving as a backdrop, it often feels as though Marrakech has sprung out from the famous tales of Scheherazade. With so many things to do, see, and eat, it should come as no surprise that Marrakech is one of the most popular destinations in the world.
Most travelers will find that Marrakech’s famed medina is more of a felt experience than a sightseeing stop. Somewhat surprisingly, there are only a few attractions and museums to tour in the area. Most sights can be visited between breakfast and lunch, leaving plenty of time to wander through the souks and bazaars, which is the real pastime in Marrakech. But be warned: if it’s your first experience in a Moroccan medina, the vast bustling streets of Marrakech can be stressful to navigate, and it’s easy to become disoriented. Streets are usually unnamed and there are plenty of confusing, often frustrating, dead ends. Thankfully, the lack of pressure to check off a list of sights makes it easier to stop in at a café or dawdle a bit longer over lunch (or perhaps reserve that much-needed massage), all in the name of relaxation—particularly after an adventure in getting lost. Don’t worry: it’s bound to happen, and is all part of the experience.
A stay in Marrakech wouldn’t be complete without a night out on the Jemaa el-Fnaa, the giant plaza that is the carnival heart of the city. Fortune tellers, jugglers, medicine men, musicians, henna artists, storytellers and snake charmers gather to entertain the crowds as they have for a millennium. Sip on fresh-squeezed orange juice from one of the twenty or so local sellers (prices run about 4 dirhams) and peer through the veil of smoke from lamb, chicken, and beef brochettes being grilled up at the numerous food stands, while the Gnawa drumbeat rhythmically draws you further into the festivities. This is a quintessential Marrakechi scene and truly something to behold.
The Ville Nouvelle offers some of the best restaurants in town, some of the best parks in Morocco, and some of the best nightclubs in Africa. Though lacking in major sightseeing attractions, a trip through the palm groves should be on your itinerary, as well as an early morning at the Majorelle Gardens.
Best Things to Do in Marrakech
Shopping the Souks
Chunky silver jewelry, hand-woven carpets, artisanal soaps, and hand-spun and painted ceramics are just a few of the goodies waiting for you in the labyrinthine souks of Marrakech. Of course, one of the charms (and one of the hassles) of Morocco is bartering. Prices are nearly always negotiable. The entire interaction is an intricate dance, with partners taking turns with the lead, spinning one another around until a final price is agreed upon. Moroccan dancing partners, at least when it comes to shopping, are notoriously aggressive and demanding, and you are expected to be equally aggressive and demanding. Don’t be rude, but be firm with a price you think is fair.
There are still a number of traditional hammams (Moroccan spas) running throughout the medina of Marrakech. These are simple affairs with a steam room and scrubbing available for 10-20Dh. Though intended for locals, many travelers find a visit to a genuine Moroccan hammam to be a memorable experience. You can ask your accommodations for directions to the closest one.
A considerably less traditional, though completely luxurious, spa experience can be had at almost any of the palatial hotels in Hivernage. The cream of the crop is the Es Saadi Palace Spa. The enormous spa grounds feature a thermal spa, high-tech swimming pool with multiple water pathways, thermal heat baths, massage rooms, open terraces for yoga, a complete gym, and a mirrored room for indoor yoga or dance. This is holistic body care at its finest.
Storytelling at Café Clock
Every Thursday night at 7pm, Café Clock hosts one of the most culturally interesting events in town. Professional storytellers from the Jemaa el-Fnaa come and weave their tales for audiences in English and Moroccan Arabic. Other weekly events include traditional music on Sundays (6pm), jam sessions on Wednesdays—where you can bring your own instrument and play with a cast of characters from around the world—(7pm), and live local music on Saturdays (6pm).
Check in with the dada (a woman who manages the cooking and children of a house) at the chic La Maison Arabe. Geared toward both amateurs and professionals, classes work with translators and use modern equipment. Classes begin with an explanation of the seasonal menu, typically with a Moroccan salad as well as a tajine of your choice (you can also forgo the salad and make a dessert instead). Then you’ll take a tour of the local market to pick fresh ingredients, make a quick stop at the spice market, and then get to work. After class, enjoy the fruits of your labor poolside in in this elaborate, upmarket riad.
Things to See
The restored Dar Menebhi Palace houses the Marrakech Museum (Musée de Marrakech). Though there is plenty to see on display, half of the fun of this museum is walking around the restored palace and taking in the attention to detail, the zellij tile work, enormous carved wood doors, and fine stucco work.
If you are touring the Medersa Ben Youssef and the Marrakech Museum, buy the combined visit ticket for 60 dirhams.
Medersa Ben Yousseff
The Medersa Ben Yousseff was a functioning Quranic school built during the Almoravid period in the 12th century, and was in continual use until the 19th century. It has recently been restored. Throughout the medersa, you’ll find photos of the recent restoration as well as beautiful woodwork carved from the cedar trees of the Atlas Mountains throughout the vestibules, cupolas and main prayer room. Marble imported from Italy, combined with the local stucco work, provide most of the decoration alongside complex zellij work of various shapes, techniques and arrangements.
Following the Zaouiate Lahdar from the Dar Bellarj west, toward Place du Maoukef, will bring you to the Photography Museum. Photographers and those interested in Moroccan history will enjoy the collection of black and white photos dating from 1870 to 1950. There is a short documentary from 1957 about the Amazigh, Chez les Berbères du Haut-Atlas, by Daniel Chicault that screens every hour. This is the first time that the Amazigh were ever filmed in color and the scenes, even if you don’t understand the French narration, are breathtaking. The rooftop terrace has gorgeous views of Marrakech and the distant peaks of the High Atlas.
Further west along the same road that led from the Place de la Kisseria, past the shops selling everything from bottled water to recycled metal sculptures, and all the way to the exit of the medina near Bab Debbaugh, you’ll find the tanneries of Marrakech. The tanners of Marrakech have been working leather hides traditionally for almost a thousand years with little change to the process.
Hides are first left to soak in a vat of quicklime, salt, water and cow urine to make hair and fat easier to remove. Tanners then leave the hides out to dry. Once dry, they are transferred to a vat of pigeon excrement, which makes the leather softer, before being dipped into a final vat of colored dye. The hides are left to dry in the sun once more and then cut and sold to leatherworkers who make slippers, bags, purses, belts, wallets and other products with them.
With all the bodily fluids, bloody animal hides, and hot sun, it’s no wonder that they tanneries smell as rank as they do—and obvious why they are so far away from the rest of the medina. You’ll likely be given a mint leaf cluster to shove up your nose, which will make the smell more bearable. It’s an impressive sight, all the same, and a truly medieval experience.
You’ll find the Bahia Palace just off the Rue Riad Zitoun el Jdid that leads to the Jemaa el-Fnaa. This ornate palace was given to the concubine Bahia, a favorite of the wealthy vizier Si Moussa, a former slave who rose to become the grand vizier to Moulay Hassan. Be prepared to strain your neck looking up at the beautifully maintained woodcarving, geometric painting, and stucco work covering the ceilings of the palace.
The palace is still used by the government, with the current Minister of Culture Affairs residing in a small section of it. A few scenes from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much were filmed on the palace grounds. Get here early to avoid the crowds and enjoy a more tranquil stroll through the palace and its gardens.
Originally walled in by Moulay Ismail in the late 17th century and then “rediscovered” by the French in 1917, the Saadian Tombs are some of the most ornate tombs in all of Morocco. It is the sheer beauty—or, some might argue, audacity—of their decoration that drives so many tourists here to gape at the gaudy mesh of stucco work, zellij tiles, inlaid gold and Italian marble. The mausoleum consists of three rooms and the elaborate gravestones spill out into the courtyard and its gardens. About 60 members of the Saadi dynasty (1554-1659) are buried inside the mausoleum. The most famous room is the Room of the Twelve Columns, which houses the grave of Ahmed al-Mansur, the best known of the Saadi rulers. He ruled from 1578 to1603 and built the nearby Badi Palace. It is rumored that French authorities found the tombs while conducting an aerial survey of Marrakech, though the locals say otherwise, maintaining that they have always known of their existence.
The Badi Palace is the ruined palace of the Saadian Sultan Ahmed al-Mansur. Al-Mansur began construction of the palace in 1578 to celebrate his victory over the Portuguese at the famous “Battle of the Three Kings” in the town of Ksar el-Kbeer near Tangier. The empty grounds are a bit more interesting after a tour of the Bahia Palace, where you will catch a glimpse of the history that has been preserved and then, at the Badi Palace, see that which has been left to ruin. The ramparts are excellent spots to photograph Marrakech, and the general lack of crowds will grant you a little peace and quiet after the busy medina.
The palace has a long history of being looted and sacked. In the 17th century, after the fall of the Saadian Dynasty, it was stripped of materials and marble was taken, perhaps to Moulay Ismail’s palace in Meknes. Today, the coos of pigeons and clacking bills of mating storks enliven the grounds. There are projects under way now to renovate certain areas and develop gardens.
Admission price does not include access to the small museum (10Dh) and the excellent minbar (a type of pulpit sometimes used by imams to deliver their Friday sermons) housed there. The minbar is a great example of 12th century artistry and has been faithfully restored. The museum is the best-preserved indoor area of the expansive palace grounds, and the admission fee is well worth it.
The wonderfully art deco Majorelle Gardens is the loving creation of French painter Jacques Majorelle, who began working on the gardens in the 1920s. Majorelle cultivated this garden over 40 years, first opening it to the public in 1947. However, because of health issues, he had to abandon the gardens. They suffered without a caretaker—the gardens were nearly destroyed and, at one point, almost mowed over to make room for a hotel. Luckily, in 1980, fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé purchased the gardens and set about a restoration effort.
Today, the intense cobalt blue walls (incidentally, this particularly intense shade of blue is called “Majorelle blue” after the French painter), water lilies, lotus flowers, and numerous cacti tucked beneath the shade of the towering palm trees make this a heaven for people and birds alike. Due to its popularity, however, the garden isn’t quite as relaxing as one might imagine (particularly when a bus full of tourists descend onto the property). It’s best to go early in the morning, when the crowds are away, the air is fresh, and the blackbirds, house sparrows, warblers and turtledoves who call these gardens home are at their most active.
There is a small café with a terrace inside the gardens, but it’s expensive for what it is. There is also the small Berber Museum that provides an interesting look at the neighboring culture of the High Atlas mountains, including its textiles and jewelry. The gift shop has original period photographs for sale, some of them decades old and all of them fascinating, though not cheap.
Planning Your Time
Most people spend at least three days in Marrakech. Three days is just enough time to see the sights, absorb the life of the medina, make a trip or two into the Ville Nouvelle to see the Majorelle Gardens, Palmerie (Palm Groves) and a few of the other attractions, while also leaving enough time to lounge for an afternoon or two in your luxurious medina riad. The wide variety of restaurants on offer, as well as abundant entertainment, make longer stays easily feasible.
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