Morocco is an exotic land. The smell of spices stewing in lamb tangines. The brightly colored scarves that it seems everybody wears. The sticky feel of the midday sun heat against your covered skin. The cacophony of sound that emanates from the streets and public squares. Your eyes will grow wide when you walk by snake charmers. And your ears will perk up to the sound of traditional music, coming from seemingly every which way. Marrakesh epitomizes the overstimulation and chaos you will experience in Morocco. For a first visit to this distant land, Magical Marrakesh should undoubtedly be part of your itinerary.
It is a mistake to dismiss Marrakesh as unsafe.
In fact, it is very safe. So much so, that a young child walking in the Medina alone would not be cause for alarm. I think people confuse the hustling that goes on as a threat to safety. It can be annoying, but it is not a threat to your safety. As far as actual safety goes, the crime rate in Marrakesh is low, beyond petty crime.
Ironically, when I first arrived in Marrakesh, I was asked about the dangerous conditions in my home town of Portland, Oregon! The owner of the riad where I stayed had heard on the international news about the homeless problem in Portland and the dangers it implied. That kind of put things in perspective for me.
Keep these ideas in mind as you navigate the labyrinth that makes up the Red City, so you can more fully enjoy magical Marrakesh
You may prefer to visit with a friend.
Depending on your personality, Marrakesh is a location where you may prefer to travel with a friend. I did.
There are several cultural differences that I found interesting and intriguing, as part of my travel experience. Yet at the end of the day (and during the day), I was worn down. Giving and receiving support from a friend felt wonderful. And to me, was a necessity.
For instance, at least in the Medina most things and services you will use, including meals, are negotiable. I certainly made a concerted effort to embrace haggling, and sometimes I was successful. Actually, I had a lot of fun. And sometimes I was not half bad, other times I was decidedly proficient. Still, there were other times, I would step back and let Dan take the lead. In some instances, it seemed best to approach a negotiation together.
Also, Moroccan culture has different behavioral norms for public and private spaces. More on that later though.
Haggling like you have never seen before
I formerly thought Cambodian children took the cake on that one. Clearly, I was mistaken. Marrakesh is the only place I have been where virtually everything is negotiable. Even a citizen’s electric monthly electric bills! Accept it and embrace it.
Even menus with written prices seemed to be game for haggling. Maybe you order a side of plain cous cous and you are brought cous cous with lamb on it. If you don’t notice the upsell and start to eat it, you will be charged accordingly.
Saying no to an offer is seen as an opportunity for further negotiation. I walked away from a negotiation for a small lantern, after we could not agree on price. I proceeded to wander through the maze of the souks. To my surprise, fifteen minutes later, the lantern vendor came around the corner and offered me the lantern at a favorable price. I don’t know how he found me that deep in, but he did!
One afternoon I agreed to purchase some nougat at full price. I had low blood sugar. It was delicious and the price seemed fair. No questions asked! The vendor asked if I wanted a bigger piece of nougat, for a slightly higher price. Really? Even when there is nothing to negotiate about, they will find a way to create something. This had me cracking up.
Accept that you will get your price some of the time, you will overpay some of the time, and don’t be afraid to walk away. They’ll be plenty more of whatever you seek, possibly just yards away.
Everyone and their brother wants to be your guide
Before I arrived, my understanding was that if you spoke French, or dressed conservatively, or just stated you did not need a guide, you would more or less be left alone. Nothing could be further from the truth!
The walled city, otherwise known as the Medina is literally a maze of narrow streets that branch off like tributaries from the handful of busy streets. Not only is it easy to get lost there, it is virtually impossible to not get lost. Although Google Maps is a lifesaver. I downloaded the offline Google map of Marrakesh before I arrived, and I recommend you do too. Verizon did not have a favorable data plan for Morocco.
Well, as soon as a local sees a Westerner trying to get their bearings, they are on you like flies on honey. The first day we were there, we did not even realize a “guide” latched on to us until we were obligated to give him a few dollars. The less aggressive men will simply say hello and start walking along side you. If you acknowledge them at all, even to say hello, they are now your guide.
The more aggressive ones will specifically state they are not a guide, they don’t want any money and they will continue to follow you. We spent over an hour dodging an aggressive man who insisted on following us to the tanneries. Turning down dead-end alleyways was one avoidance strategy. We hid in shops until we were sure he was gone. And as sure as the day is long, he would resurface, sometimes ten minutes later. And the game would continue.
There is hope – you can strategize to use or not use guides
There were moments where it all became frustrating. Although there is a silver lining. This behavior is concentrated in the souks and Djemaa el-Fna, the main square. It exists to a much lesser degree in Mellah, the Jewish Quarter. But you know what? There is a lot more to the Medina than the souks and Main Square. So, while they should definitely be included in your wanderings, you should by no means spend all of your time there.
You may feel like a guide could help you navigate the chaotic streets in Marrakesh. There are government certified guides and most likely, your riad can connect you with one. We liked striking out on our own and exploring at will. So, we did not take advantage of the guide, as much as we appreciated the gesture from our riad. But if you feel like you need a guide, particularly to get oriented initially, go with a government certified one.
Please don’t hop on one of the tour buses and miss the whole experience of engaging with the people, sights, sounds, and smells of the city. Either connect with an official guide or wing it on your own (with the help of Ms. Google). The experience of getting lost is crucial to visiting Marrakesh.
Polish your French speaking skills, if you can
If you are starting from ground zero here, then don’t worry about it. Don’t let not speaking French hold you back from visiting Marrakesh. It is too intriguing of a place to pass up for that reason alone.
I was actually surprised at how many Moroccan’s spoke a modicum of English in Marrakesh. But maybe I should not have been. I was certainly grateful. As much as I love to travel, foreign language has never been my strong suit.
The city always has been a cornerstone of converging cultures. For 1,000 years, it has served as the main trading post between Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa. This happens to be one of the reasons it is a liberal Muslim country.
The reason Moroccans speak French is because France occupied much of the country from 1912-1956. Almost every person we encountered, except in the far reaches of the Souss Valley, spoke reasonable French as well as Arabic. French is taught in middle school. So clearly, if you can speak French, it will be advantageous in your travels.
Honor the differences between public and private life
These differences have their roots in religion. Morocco is a Muslim country. Although it is relatively liberal, it is more conservative compared to Western Europe or parts of the United States. The differing social mores for public and private life play out in the architecture, gender roles as well as in the behavior you’ll encounter on the streets. The traditional Moroccan home, the riad, fosters tranquility inside. It is inward looking and balances the frenzy that is typical on the streets.
Men are considered to have higher social standing than women in Morocco. For instance, it was a rare sight to see women selling wares in the souks. They are generally inside the home, the private spaces, taking care of domestic matters. It is the men who interface with the public world.
Behavior in public spaces is much more in your face, and can include staring and hardcore upselling. It is not considered rude by Moroccan standards, although from an Americans’ standard, it can be off putting. From my reading on the matter, the same in your face men on the street, will shift their behavior once they enter a private space. Moroccan hospitality reigns and tranquility is respected.
And as always when you are traveling, don’t let yourself generalize about people. I had many friendly conversations with both Moroccan men and women, including very conservatively dressed women. And that happened both in Marrakesh and even more so in the Souss Valley where I visited after the magical Marrakesh.
Be aware of cultural differences pertaining to etiquette
Please don’t photograph mosques.
Muslims do not do it themselves and would appreciate if you did not either. Although I will admit that I did take some mosque photos from a distance and felt fine with this.
Please don’t photograph people without their approval.
I found after I had some rapport with someone, they often were happy to allow me to take their picture. This was usually after I bought some food or art from them. However, some people still preferred that I did not and I respected that. And some see it as a hustle to get money. So, proceed if you can agree on a price, if not, walk away.
This applies to photographing people any country you visit. Although since photography used to be prohibited in Muslim culture, it is wise to be especially cognizant.
Show respect by wearing appropriate clothing.
That means clothes that cover your shoulders, knees, and cleavage if you are a woman. That means no shorts or tank tops. In Marrakesh, the vast majority of the Westerners and a surprising number of Asians I saw did not follow this. Now, I don’t know if Marrakesh has become so liberal that modesty is no longer required. Everything I read beforehand suggested that is not the case and modesty is appreciated. Westerners have enough valid reasons to be a source of embarrassment in the world, let’s not voluntarily make another one.
Make sure to bargain.
Some people thrive on the game of haggling. I am not one of them, but I can get into it when it is part of the culture and experience. Well, in Marrakesh, it definitely is. There is no formula for what you should be paying compared to what they suggest. Sometimes their price was not that far off, other times it was ten times what I was willing to pay. More often, it was about four times more than I was willing to pay (which could still be more than it’s worth!). But the point is, start at rock bottom. No offer is offensive to them and it all is the beginning of a conversation. So, have fun with it, and get some great deals.
However, if you are over whelmed by the bargaining, there is one place in the Medina with fixed prices. Ets Bouchaib Complexe D’Artisant, has a huge selection of Moroccan artisanal products, all at what seem like fairly reasonable fixed prices. I wandered through just to get an idea of what the fixed prices of goods might be. However, I was not tempted to buy anything and ended up getting better prices for the items I bought in the souks. So, Bouchaib is a shopping alternative, but you will have more fun in the souks.
Even a seasoned traveler will want to utilize these tips to stay grounded
Stay in a riad
Riads are the traditional multi-story Moroccan homes that have no windows facing outside. Instead, they open to the inside onto a courtyard and terraces and spaces at all levels.
There are about 1,000 of them inside the Medina that have been turned into hotels for tourists. I always prefer my lodging to be reflective of the culture, so that is one good reason to stay in a riad. And they also superbly separate the public and private spaces. Introverts will find their solace in the riad a necessity and extroverts will appreciate it.
There are so many to choose from and they span being modest to palatial in nature and all things in between. Hip Marrakesh is one place to get started. I stayed in Riad Hikaya and have nothing but glowing praise for every aspect of my experience.
Riads are the traditional housing all over Morocco. So check them out when you go to other areas as well. I stayed in a very different, but equally fabulous one when I was in the Souss Valley.
Duck into museums and cafés to escape the crowds and intensity
Each neighborhood has a few museums, so wherever you are, you are not far from one. The bigger attractions like the Saadian Tombs and Bahia Palace will have their own crowds, although they will still be less than on the streets. If these places call you, go early before the tour buses arrive.
Cafés are everywhere, so there is no need to seek out a particular one, just for escaping the crowds. Whichever one you are closest to, surely is the best one! Many have rooftop seating, and there are few things more Moroccan than sipping mint tea on a rooftop.
Visit Djemaa el-Fna in the morning
That is as simple as it sounds. I am not sure what time the party ends from the night before, since I retreated long before that point.
But I do know that come morning, the only thing remaining on Djemaa el-Fna are the orange juice booths and vendors of odds and ends. The food booths that blanket the square at night have packed up for the day (and they are fun to visit as well, but the pace is frenetic).
So, find a vendor with a sense of humor and make him your go to guy for your morning fresh squeezed orange juice. Plain and simple.
Visit a public hammam
To be honest, for the sole purpose of staying grounded, you could visit a private hammam as well. The private hammams are for tourists and males and females can partake simultaneously. Although they would be more akin to what we would consider to be a spa.
The public hammams are primarily for Moroccans, although tourists are welcome, as long as they follow the protocols. Until running water was available in personal homes, the hammam was the only place to come to get clean. Today it is still considered the best place to come to get truly, truly clean. As it is so much more than just a shower.
Please note females and males are not allowed in the same space at the same time. Some hammans strictly serve one gender or the other. More of them have specified hours for each gender. And I was happy to find Hammam Mouassine, which accommodated both genders at the same time, as there were separate entrances.
There is a lot to say about traditional Moroccan hammams and having visited only once, I don’t feel authorized to be comprehensive. But I will mention that you should not do anything unless you have seen others do it. Where people sit, the system for water buckets, the order of applying body care products is steeped tradition. Honor this.
For about $20, I had a Moroccan woman help me in the hammam. I was given instructions each step of the way and she did all the scrubbing and massaging. It was totally worth it, and I was silky smooth by the time we said our goodbyes.
Make time for visiting multiple neighborhoods in magical Marrakesh, beyond the souks and main square
The Jewish Quarter
The Jewish Quarter, the Mellah, used to be home to thousands of Sephardic Jews. Most of them fled after political unease in 1948. They are slowly returning. And very slowly, as there are less than 1,000 that have resettled.
Yet the Jewish Quarter still remains and has its own draw. The spice shops there are not as high pressure as in the Medina. The selection is more than you could ask for and I even ground argan seeds in a mortar and pestle at one of the shops.
The plaza of the Mellah is one location to pick up a carriage ride and one of my high points was having the horse take me to the Miaara Jewish Cemetery. The rows and rows of same size white tombstones were eerie. But the story behind the cemetery is rather moving.
This is where my riad was, so I spent plenty of time walking in this part of the Medina. Although I’d be lying if I said I learned the roads like the back of my hand.
The Saadian Tombs are considered to be worth dying for. And indeed, Sultan al-Mansour of the Saadian Dynasty did just that in the early 1600’s. I saw a man in the corner creating tiles with a hand tool. This is the traditional Moroccan craft known as zellige and he is doing it today, just like is has been done for centuries. He said he had studied for two years to learn the craft. And in fact, it is zellige tile that covers the walls of the tombs. Impressive.
Café Clock is kind of a fun café of note. I had a camel burger, which is interesting in and of itself. It was a bit like beef, but drier and chewier. However, what drew me was the English storytelling of traditional Arabic tales one evening. In short, Café Clock is a place where music, art, and cuisine converge, weaving those elements together with tourists and locals.
The tanneries are fascinating
Unfortunately, the most aggressive would be guide that we encountered was hell bent on getting us to the tannery. We could not get rid of him, if our life depended on it! But luckily it didn’t.
There are vats of pigeon shit soup that are several feet deep. The urea breaks down into ammonia and this is what softens the hides. It was humbling to say the least, to watch men in waders thigh high in vats of pigeon shit.
That was only one step. There are lots of vats, none of them pleasant smelling, that seem to be used in different phases of tanning. There are also piles of hides and piles of wool that have been separated from the hides. It’s both gruesome and fascinating at the same time.
We saw men using tools to scrape off the processed hides, to make them very smooth. Everywhere I looked, were hides, hides and more hides. All in varying degrees of processing. Across the street and down the steps, was a workshop, where leatherworkers turned the leather into consumer products.
The man who gave us the tour of the tanneries (different than the guide), was very soft spoken with a sweet demeanor. When I thanked him and shook his hand goodbye, I could not help but notice his hands felt just like leather.
Keep an eye out for the storks
The storks nest in Marrakesh and fly outside the city during the day. Storks are magical looking creatures. Their long legs and necks are graceful. And watching them is captivating. They best time to see them is early evening, when they are returning to their nests.
Stork nests are located on top of the Saadian Tombs, so you can stand on the ground and look up. Alternatively, you can eat on the rooftop of Kasbah Café, linger over mint tea, and admire the storks.
Listen for the call to prayers
Adhan is called out from the mosques five times a day. This is the call to prayer for the Muslims. There are loudspeakers on the minarets, which project the calls. The times of day shift, as they are linked to dawn and sunset. The most fixed time is the afternoon call to prayer. Friday is the most serious day for prayer and I made a concerted effort to be outside Koutoubia, the main mosque in Marrakesh, during the afternoon prayer. Not only to listen, but to see people gather for prayer.
You can find out what time the calls to prayer are by checking here. And even if you don’t visit a mosque when they are going on, just keep an awareness out for the singing. It is hauntingly beautiful. So much so, it stopped me in my tracks.
And just in case you are not aware, non-believers are not allowed in mosques in Morocco. This rule was put into practice by the French when they occupied Morocco. There is nothing in Islamic rules that prohibit non-Muslims from entering a mosque.
Contrast Ville Nouvelle with the Medina
You can thank the French for the new village. During their occupation of Marrakesh, they created it, so to feel a bit more at home. Instead of the maze of alleyways that define the Medina, the Ville Nouvelle has wide boulevards and traffic circles. Like you would find in Paris.
Jardin Marjorelle – is that blue actually real?
The gem of Ville Nouvelle is hands down the Jardin Majorelle. The exotic cactus gardens were created by Jacques Marjorelle and his work will have your head spinning. I humbly admit I had no clue as to the wide variety of cacti. Some of the cacti made me wonder if I was on a psychedelic trip.
The French designer Yves Saint Laurent bought the property from Marjorelle and lived here until he passed away 2008. He and his partner lovingly maintained and conserved the gardens. And now there is a Yves Saint Laurent Museum in the garden as well. That Majorelle blue is electrifying on its own. Although its juxtaposition with the gardens is what made it truly remarkable. Photo ops abound here!
MACAM – the Museum of Art and Culture of Marrakesh
MACAM was a museum tucked away in an alley that we discovered when looking for another art gallery. We never found that one, but I am sure this was the right one to go to.
The woman was willing to keep it open past opening hours so we could fully enjoy it. The museum has only been in existence since 2016. And it happens to focus on modern Moroccan art, since roughly the 1950’s. Paintings were the art form, although within that, so many different mediums and styles were represented.
I visited here on my last evening in Marrakesh. So, having some experiences of the city under my belt, I was able to put a lot of the art in context. For instance, the traditional hammams, souks, and the red earthen buildings were all depicted. Although the scope is much broader and well worth your visit.
Al Fassia – the all women run restaurant
I had read about Al Fassia in Paula Wolfert’s book before I arrived. Seeing recommendations for it in the guidebooks confirmed that it would be worthwhile to make a reservation beforehand. Which will be needed, as it can get busy.
For Morrocan standards, this would be an upscale meal. Only Westerners dined there. But that did not bother me, as it was only one meal.
While women do the cooking in Moroccan culture (and most other cultures), it is usually men who cook professionally. Well, I was proud to support a restaurant that is completely run by women, especially here.
The food is traditional Moroccan. Yet the choices are many and so it’s an ideal situation to try a couple things you have not yet had, or are unlikely to find elsewhere.
While Morocco is not ideal for solo novice travelers, it possesses exotic appeal and magnetism. Once you have some traveling under your belt, make sure to include a visit to magical Marrakesh.