Marrakech is more than just a city. It’s a whole new experience – a roller coaster ride through overwhelming smells, dazzling colours and exciting flavours. The thing is, you’ll either find it thrilling or absolutely frightening – OR possibly both.
My first few days in Marrakech were frightening. I couldn’t last more than an hour in the chaotic medina without seeking refuge at the riad. When I returned to Marrakech a year later, I fell in love with the city. I felt more at ease and strolled through the medina with more confidence.
If you’re a bit anxious about visiting Marrakech, you needn’t be! Yes, there are some things to be wary of (which I’ve highlighted in this post), but if you keep your wits about you, you’ll probably be fine.
Here are my top tips for visiting Marrakech.
1. Stay at a central riad
If you’re planning to spend a few nights in Marrakech, I highly recommend staying in a riad – a traditional Moroccan guesthouse with rooms built around a courtyard.
When it comes to booking accommodation in Marrakech, you’re spoilt for choice, but you should choose a riad which is just a short walk from Djemaa el Fna (the main square). You’ll be thankful for it in the evening.
Recommendation: I stayed at Riad Omar, a cosy traditional riad situated on a pedestrian street, just a minute away from Djema el Fnaa. The rooms are lovely, and there’s a roof terrace where you can have lunch while enjoying nice views of Marrakech.
2. Get a guide
While it’s true that this will spoil the intrigue that comes with exploring a new place, hiring a certified guide in Marrakech rewards you with sights that you wouldn’t otherwise come across.
A local guide will take you through the back streets of the medina, away from the crowds. You’ll get the chance to see artisans, carpenters, and blacksmiths at work. This less-touristy side of Marrakech is also home to several old palaces and other historic buildings. Moreover, the shops in this part of the medina are more likely to sell genuine products.
If you’re interested in learning more about the history of Marrakech, then you should definitely hire a guide. Also, you wouldn’t have to worry about navigating the maze of the medina to get back to your hotel. Some of the quiet, back alleys are known to be frequented by shady individuals who might act hostile towards tourists, but they won’t approach you if you are accompanied by a guide.
3. Dress modestly
Sexual harassment is very common in Marrakech. On my first trip to Morocco, I explored Marrakech with a couple of female friends, and we were catcalled and chased by persistent vendors quite frequently. Wearing modest clothes will not keep the catcallers away, but it will help you stand out less.
I highly recommend wearing long skirts or trousers, and tops or shirts with short sleeves. Avoid wearing clothes that expose too much of your arms and legs. Wearing sunglasses might also help you avoid making unwanted eye contact with harassers.
It is also important to respect local norms and dress modestly throughout your stay in Morocco, especially when visiting religious sites.
4. Chat with shopkeepers
Shopping in Marrakech can be two things; stressful or entertaining. Some shopkeepers might come across as a bit aggressive, but remember to remain calm and polite.
If you don’t want shop owners to treat you as just another tourist, start a conversation with them. Many Moroccans in Marrakech can speak at least two foreign languages, and most shopkeepers have some basic knowledge of English.
Moroccans are always up for a chat, especially if it concerns food. They’ll want to know where you’re from, and will ask you some questions about your country and your stay in Morocco. Be honest, and try not to be patronising. Shopkeepers will enjoy your company, and you might not have to haggle hard after a short conversation with them.
5. Ignore traffic rules
If you have to cross the road to get to Djema el Fnaa and the medina, you’ll have to say a few prayers first. Cars don’t stop at pedestrian crossings, so stepping into the busy road is the only way of making it to the other side. This, however, does not mean that cars will stop when they see you in the middle of the road. Instead, drivers will swerve their way around you.
Once you start braving your way across the road, the worst thing you can do is stop halfway. You wouldn’t want to find yourself standing helplessly amid the mayhem of cars, mopeds, motorbikes and carriages that won’t give way to pedestrians. Just keep walking carefully and determinedly – and pray that the drivers, bikers and horses will do their best to avoid you.
You’ll see locals constantly walking into the traffic nonchalantly – it’s a good idea to cross the road with them.
6. Take photos responsibly
Marrakech is a photographer’s paradise, but it’s also one of the most challenging places to photograph. Taking pictures of stalls will earn you a few angry looks from their owners, especially if you walk away without buying anything. Some shopkeepers will happily let you take pictures of their displays after you buy something from their stall. They might even be willing to pose for you if you ask nicely.
Moroccans do not like to have their photo taken, particularly women. You’ll be reprimanded for doing so without their permission – or pestered for tips. Their wishes should be respected, but that doesn’t mean that you should avoid taking pictures. Get a bit creative – take portrait shots from angles that yield good photos without violating the subject’s privacy.
7. Keep your belongings safe
Djema el Fnaa and the main streets of the medina can get very crowded. Keep a close eye on your bag at all times, and put your valuables in a very safe place. Avoid flashing expensive things, like cameras and phones, in the back streets of the medina, especially if you’re alone.
If you are concerned about your safety, try to steer clear of crowds and dodgy back streets, and avoid carrying valuable items or large amounts of cash when going out at night.
8. Buy some fresh orange juice
Before venturing into the medina, treat yourself to a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice from one of the stalls in Djema el Fnaa. Oh, and buy some nuts and dried fruit for the journey – you never know how long it will take you to find your way out of the medina.
My husband and I spent New Year’s Eve in Marrakech, and in the absence of champagne, we settled for two glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice from a stall in the square. It was one of the most delicious drinks we ever had!
9. Eat at the night market
Get a bit adventurous and have dinner at the night food market in Djema el Fnaa. Your dining experience in Marrakech can’t get more exciting than this, although choosing a food stall can be a bit stressful. Persistent waiters will approach you from every direction, flashing glossy menus at you.
Ignore the attractive tourist menus and go for a local delicacy. Your best bet is to sit down at a stall which seems to be teeming with locals. Ask the chef or the waiter what their specialty is, and agree on a price before you place your order.
Recommendation: Go on a gastronomic adventure by joining a tour of the food market with dinner.
10. Be wary of street performers and unwanted tattoos
In the evening, Djema el Fnaa becomes a lively hub of Moroccan traditions, with storytellers, Gnawa musicians and fire eaters performing against the imposing backdrop of the Koutoubia mosque. Some shops in Marrakech remain open until late, especially the ones around the square, but keep away from the back streets of the medina at night.
The most popular performers in the square are the snake charmers, who make money from tourists stopping to take photos with the serpents. What many tourists probably don’t know is that typically the mouth of the cobra is stitched closed with twine, leaving only a small gap for the tongue to flick through. As a result, the snakes develop tongue infections and are unable to eat. Most of them die shortly afterwards, but they are quickly replaced by new ones.
Another unethical attraction is the friendly monkey. Monkeys in tutus and other costumes are kept on a leash and used to lure tourists for a paid photo. And if you try to take a photo at a distance, their owners will still expect a tip.
Meanwhile, in the small square outside the carpet market, veiled women sit among heaps of henna powder. If you decide to get a henna tattoo, make sure you are firm with the artists. Some of them tend to stretch the design beyond the agreed size, and then, of course, demand more money for it. Be wary of unwanted tattoos creeping up your arms while you’re busy looking at other things, although this scam is more common in Djemaa el Fna.
11. Buy souvenirs from artisans
The medina of Marrakech is a bustling maze of market stalls, artisan workshops and old palaces. Built in the 11th century by the Almoravids, a Berber dynasty of Morocco, the medina became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985 for its wealth of historic buildings and impressive Islamic architecture.
Marrakech is also home to the largest Berber market in Morocco. The medina is divided into different souks, the largest of which is Souk Semmarine, where you can find almost everything; traditional jewellery, antiques, kaftans, colourful slippers, pottery and many other beautiful things that will have you returning to your riad with empty pockets. This, however, is the most ‘touristy’ part of Marrakech, so you might want to continue walking further into the medina and away from the overpriced shops.
If you hire a guide for a few hours, you’ll get to see the quiet parts of the medina, where local women shop for food and blacksmiths and carpenters toil away in their workshops. This is also the area where you’ll find genuine handmade products, which you can buy directly from the artisans.
Recommendation: Want to have a more authentic shopping experience in Marrakech? Take a babouch making workshop and create your own colourful pair of Moroccan slippers.
12. Visit an apothecary
If you want to give your legs a rest during your shopping spree, find the nearest apothecary and sit through a 30-minute demonstration on traditional medicine. You’ll be made to smell every type of soap, spice and herb in the shop. Some of these apothecaries also have brightly-coloured potpourrisaf, so have your camerea ready.
Be prepared to leave the apothecary with a year’s worth of soap and medical supplies.
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