Hubby and I recently ticked off Marrakech on our list of places to see. As it’s an amazing place with a dramatically different culture to the UK, as well as a uniquely exotic beauty market, I thought it worthy of a blog post. So here’s my roundup of things to do in Marrakech.
So Marrakech in a nutshell… a place charmingly locked in time, where donkeys, motorcycles and people all meander their way along cobbled streets. But it really is a tale of two cities. The old town – the Medina – is bustling with souks, tourists and very pushy salespeople. Meanwhile the new town – Gueliz – is a built up metropolis boasting shops such as Zara and Mango. They really are poles apart.
However, what binds them together is their very distinct architecture. Marrakech is known as the ‘red city’, because of its high, red walls which allows people privacy in their own homes, and neighbourhoods. The walls are over 16ft high, so onlookers can’t pry into people’s lives. Houses are walled off like fortresses, and the garden is on the inside, with the house built around a central courtyard, which offers natural light, fresh air, and access to greenery and nature.
This build is very suited to the Muslim culture, and is a far cry from not only the western culture, but most other countries where wealth is worn on sleeves, and houses and gardens are in full view and decorated to display privilege, and make the neighbours jealous.
The high walls also make the cobbled streets feel even narrower, and you literally feel like you’ve stepped back in time as you have to make way for donkey’s pulling carts, as well as men on motorcycles. In the Medina, or old town, the cobbled streets don’t have pavements, so it literally is every man, woman, vehicle and animal for itself.
Marrakech – a traveller’s caution
On that note, I would perhaps say it’s not a very child-friendly place. If you stay in the Medina, there’s a lot of hustle and bustle, not to mention the ongoing assault of motorcycles which appear from out of nowhere. I tended to see more friends, groups and couples during our stay. The only children in sight were the locals.
Anyway, I think that sets the scene. We pretty much covered the must-do activities of the city, as well as exploring further afield in Morrocco.
So here’s a quick lowdown on things to do in Marrakech, and what not to do in red city:
Things to do in Marrakech #1 – Shop at the souks
No trip to Marrakech is complete without a trip to the souks. The traditional flea market stalls sell everything from spices, argan oil and leather handbags, to woodwork, souvenirs and artefacts. The trick with souks is to barter away. Souks are there for tourists, so of course their prices are hugely inflated. So whatever they ask for, you can expect to get it for half the price. If you’ve been Asian clothes shopping, then you should be down with this. If not, then it’s a good Apprentice-style experience, so just have fun with it and try your luck.
Another piece of etiquette with souks is to only barter for items that you genuinely want to buy. Bartering for fun or half-heartedly doesn’t go down well with the locals.
The only downside of the souks is that you get hassled by the shop owners. In Moroccan souks, salespeople haven’t really adopted the concept of the soft sell. Instead, every item you even glance at sideways is then thrust upon you as you’re asked to name your price. This is slightly off putting as you daren’t show interest in anything in fear of being forced to make a purchase.
Even when walking past the shops, you either get shouted down, or you hear a soft and efficient one word whisper which encapsulates what they sell, such as ‘spices’ or ‘leather’.
Despite this, we made several trips to the souks and bought a myriad of things from black soap, to clay tagine pots and lanterns. I even bought a couple of leather handbags, as the region is known for its quality leather.
Things to do in Marrakech #2 – Visit Jemma Al ‘Fnaa square
Jemma Al ‘Fnaa square
The square is one of the highlights of the city. It’s a haven for tourists and locals alike, and the place really comes to life in the evening as snake charmers, musicians and other entertainers put on a show for tourists. Of course, nothing is free so if you’re caught enjoying the show or taking a sneaky photo, you would be expected to pay for the privilege!
Again, like the souks, you do get a lot of people vying for your dirhams. Whether it’s a young child selling toys, or a man with a monkey on his shoulder, you don’t get to stroll through the square peacefully.
The square has some good street food eateries which are frequented by locals, as well as tourists. We tried the street food a couple of times – it’s relatively cheap and cheerful, you can grab a couple of tagines and a soup for around £10.
One of the street food stalls at Jemaa Al ‘Fnaa square
There are also a lot of restaurants and cafes surrounding the square. We ate dessert on the rooftop of an ice cream parlour, so enjoyed great views of the lively square.
Things to do in Marrakech #3 – Take a desert excursion
While Marrakech has a lot to offer, you can tire of the central square and the souks within a few days, so it’s a great idea to escape from the madness and explore the rest of Morocco. There is an array of excursions on offer, whether it’s quad biking, visiting the Atlas Mountains or camping in the Sahara desert.We opted for the latter, as we liked the idea of sleeping under the stars. So we went to one of the many tour operators dotted around the medina, and booked a trip to the desert with an overnight stay.
This involved a drive through the mountains – with a few stops offs – followed by a camel ride across the desert.
Our excursion cost around £80, though you have to barter to get a good price. We went to the desert city of Ouarzazate, which was high up in the Atlas Mountains. Our tour guide took us to see the old town, which was built around the 11th century. The area was now inhabited by just eight families, with no electricity or running water. This was the area where Hollywood blockbusters such as Gladiator was filmed, and more recently, Game of Thrones.
A night in the desert
But the highlight of the excursion was definitely the overnight stay in the desert. We were taken on a 90-minute camel ride (ouch!) through the desert. Though I was a bit nervous as my camel also had all the baggage and he was wheezing slightly, so I thought he may buckle under the strain and take me with him.
Once we reached our spot, our hosts – some Arab and Berber men from local villages – cooked us dinner (a three course meal, no less! Though the last course was a gratefully-received cantaloupe melon) and set up a campfire. They provided music throughout the night, and came over the speak to us about our stay, and shed light on their lifestyle.
I was speaking to a 20-something Arab boy, who had garnered his well spoken English from working as a tour guide from the age of six. It was both humbling and enlightening to speak to people who weren’t entrapped by modern society – and who were so happy with so little.
On so many holidays, you are in a foreign bubble, not seeing or speaking to the community in which you’re staying, so it was great to speak to somebody from the desert, who could tell us about a life far removed from ours.
The downside of the excursion
However, I think there are some important points to share about the excursion. Firstly, we spent much more time than expected in the coach. We set off at 8am and arrived at the desert by around 8pm, yet we only spent a couple of hours stopping off, sightseeing and eating lunch.
Secondly, you do end up spending more than you expect on an excursion. We were only provided with an evening meal and a breakfast of bread, so lunch, so we had to stump up the cash for lunch, additional drinks and snacks.
Also, we had to pay hidden charges, such as a fee for the Berber village tour, which we weren’t expecting. The desert hosts also asked for a donation, though we happily gave this, as it was likely that they don’t get much of the excursion fee we paid. On top of this, you are taken to many tourist hotspots where there are souvenirs aplenty, so there’s literally temptation to spend at every corner.
Finally, despite enjoying my evening in the desert, sleeping there wasn’t quite the experience I’d have expected. There was sand in my bed, the toilets are very far from your tent so you don’t venture out at night (there was a lot of peeing in the sand going on, though not by me), so you really are at one with nature. However, if you’re a seasoned camper or have even done Glastonbury, you’ll be fine with this. I think I’m just a sheltered being not used to roughing it.
My overall thoughts
However, I would still definitely recommend an excursion to the desert. It’s a fantastic experience and a great window into the community. Plus the scenes from the desert are truly breath-taking, so you’ll have pictures and memories which will last a lifetime.
Things to do in Marrakech #4 – Relax in a hammam
The Hammam – otherwise known as a Turkish bath, is one of the real treats of Marrakech. Taking place in a steam room, a Hammam offers you a deep pore cleanse as you are scrubbed, pummelled and hosed down until you are squeaky clean. Traditional, public Hammams are single sex, with different times for men and women. However, some private Hammams offer couples treatments. We opted for this during our stay at a Boutique Hotel, which I’ve reviewed in detail here.
Things to do in Marrakech #5 – Visit Marjorelle Garden, Ben Yousef Madrassa and other sites
The Marjorelle Garden, as designed by Yves Saint Lauren, is a colourful garden containing an eclectic mix of plants and trees from across the globe.
While the garden is pretty, I’m not sure if it justifies its status as one of the must-see sights in Marrakech, as it essentially lots and lots of greenery. However, the plants are pretty impressive and make for great photos. Plus we did kill a bit of time lying on their colourful benches.
For great architecture, Ben Youssef Madrassa and the Museum are worth a look. Showcasing ornate Morroccan architecture, the Madrassa – which is no longer a boys Islamic school and is open to the public – is stunning.
Ben Youssef Madrassa
The same can be said of the Museum of Marrakech, which is situated near the Ben Youssef Masdrassa. The Museum, which is housed in Dar Menebhi Palace, showcases traditional architecture and exhibits both modern and traditional Moroccan art, along with examples of historical books, coins and pottery of Moroccan Jewish, Berber and Arab cultures.
What NOT to do in Marrakech
Visit a tannery
The smelly tannery
We were convinced by a local to visit the one of the Tanneries in the Medina. I was genuinely intrigued to see how leather bags were made. But I have to say, it wasn’t an enjoyable experience. We were given a mint sprig upon arrival to distract from the smell, and boy did we need it.
Little did I know that leather was treated with a mix of pigeon droppings and lime, and the smell was so overpowering I was wretching. We negotiated pits full of pigeon poop, and despite the tannery managers best convincing, we just couldn’t bring ourselves to explore further. I was physically heaving at the smell, and pretty much lodged the mint sprig up my nostrils.
Back in the UK, a work colleague had actually had a better tannery experience on her visit to Marrakech. She got to see the colourful pits where the leather is dyed. She also said that the smell wasn’t overly offensive. This leads me to believe that not all tanneries in the city are the same, and some may offer more insight and interest than others. But for me, it was NOT the highlight of my trip. What topped it off was that both the tannery manager and the guy who took us there demanded payment for their trouble – something we were unprepared for.