First Time Visiting Marrakech: What To See, Do And Expect

Marrakech, the most visited city in Morocco, seems a bit like marmite. Some people love it, some hate it and others fall somewhere in between. I still haven’t made my mind up. Did I like it? Would I go back? Would I recommend it to other travellers, especially women? In this post, I’ll share what I did and saw in the Red City and my impressions.

Visually, Marrakech is undeniably gorgeous and photogenic. I loved wandering around the Medina (Old Town), a UNESCO World Heritage site full of shadowy side alleys, sweeping archways and bustling markets. The Old Town is chaotic and confusing. You will get lost – it’s unavoidable. Download an offline version of a map, such as Google Maps or maps.me, but be prepared for some glitche, leading you to dead-ends! To combat this, we looked for our own signposts. Permanent fixtures like shops or fountains, alongside archways, graffiti, street art and less aesthetically-pleasing pointers like rubbish bins. Of course once the sun went down, all bets are off. Many of our markers became unrecognisable and we were turned around in circles. Instead of getting stressed, try to enjoy wandering aimlessly and letting your curiosity lead the way. You can ask locals for directions but they will expect money in return. Keep some coins on you for these situations, like 100 or 200 Moroccan Dirham (€1-2).

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Marrakech has maintained a lot of its charm. It isn’t one of those cities overrun by tourists, to the point where Moroccans have been pushed out. We saw lots of locals living, working, shopping and running errands alongside the crowds of visitors. Morocco is an Islamic country, where you see women and girls wearing burqas and hijabs. However, just outside of Marrakech’s Medina, you can find ‘New Marrakech’, a district featuring shops like Zara & H&M, full of teenage Moroccans wearing crop and mini-skirts. The juxtaposition is jarring and intriguing. In case you are wondering, tourists should dress conservatively, with women covering their shoulders, knees and chest, but it isn’t necessary to wear a head scarf or full covering.

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Where to stay

Marrakech has accommodation options to suit all budgets, from basic guest houses to 5* hotels. I suggest you stay in a riad; these are traditional guest houses which have been converted from family homes. Riad means ‘garden’ – riads have a central courtyard area (often with a small swimming pool or fountain), with rooms facing onto the courtyard. There is usually an open or glass roof so natural light filters all the way down. Riads can be very striking and photogenic, offering a cool, calm sanctuary from the hustle & bustle of the city. We spent around 20 euros per night on a double room, with an en-suite bathroom. You can find even cheaper if you look further out of the Medina. We found our riads on Airbnb but in the off-season, you can just turn up and book in person. All of our riads offered a complimentary breakfast, which was a nice perk!

For ease, look for a riad close to the Medina’s main gates. It’ll be easier to navigate yourself and you’ll be closer to the taxi rank if you want to travel anywhere else (no taxis or cars can enter the Medina). As with other places in the Old Town, some hotels and hostels are not clearly signposted. Many of ours were unidentifiable from the outside, with no signs saying the riad’s name and we only found them by following the building numbers (and not all buildings have numbers!) At one point, my boyfriend and I got so lost, we ended up in completely the wrong riad. The staff were really kind, even though we weren’t their guests. They called our riad host and he came to collect us and walk us to the right building. It was a tad embarrassing…

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What to eat

Moroccan food is spiced with saffron, cumin, cinnamon, turmeric, paprika, nutmeg, cloves and much more. You may have already tried ras el hanout, a Moroccan spice mixture made of twenty-seven spices. Dishes are usually served with cous cous or freshly baked bread. Moroccans love sweet treats: you will find cakes, pastries and biscuits flavoured with nuts, dates, figs, apricots, almonds, orange blossom and rose water.

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Morocco’s most well-known dish is tagine. It is a stew of slow-cooked vegetables, olives, lemon, garlic and spices, cooked in a triangular clay pot. We mostly had chicken or lamb tagine but you can find beef and vegetarian varieties. Marrakech is bursting with restaurants and some of the ones we especially liked include Chez Lamine, Cafe Kif Kif, Café des Espices and Cafe Clock.

Morocco is a Muslim country and alcohol isn’t widely consumed. Only selective bars and restaurants serve alcohol and it’s expensive. If you’re desperate, Carrefour supermarket sells it but we decided just to do without. Meals are normally accompanied by sweet mint tea, which is absolutely delicious. A word of warning: you shouldn’t drink the tap water in Morocco, so it’s best to stick to bottled water or use a water bottle with a filtration system.

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What to do and see

Marrakech is a city deeply enriched in Moroccan history and Arabic culture. There are many must-see landmarks and buildings in the city, such as Jemaa el-Fnaa which is the largest square in the city. It is buzzing from dawn to dusk with food vendors, musicians, street performers, dancers and snake charmers!

Marrakech has the largest traditional souk (market) in Morocco so it’s an excellent place to browse the stalls and exercise your haggling skills. Don’t be shy about bargaining over prices – vendors overcharge at first because they expect you to negotiate the price down. You can find everything in the souks, from leather goods to lanterns, carpets to ceramics, spices to brightly coloured, bejewelled sandals.

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We visited the Kasbah Mosque, Saadian Tombs and El Badi Palace, which were very striking and impressive, but lacking in information (both in English and Arabic). I suggest you hire a guide if you really want to understand the significance and history of what you’re looking at. Nevertheless, we enjoyed wandering around, looking at the well-preserved ruins and taking photos. Both the tombs and palace cost 10 Dirham (MAD) for non-Moroccans to enter.

We marvelled at the imposing Koutoubia mosque, which dominates Marrakech’s skyline. It can be seen from 30km away and if you’re Muslim, you can have a look inside. We also enjoyed our visit to La maison de la photographie – a small art gallery displaying photos of Morocco from 1870-1960. There is also a nice rooftop café with great views across the city (40 MAD entry).

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Here are some things we didn’t do in Marrakech that you might want to consider:

  • A hot air balloon ride across the city – a very popular but pricey excursion!
  • A hamman massage – known for its aggressive exfoliation which apparently leaves your skin feeling amazing. Some riads offer these massages on-site, or you can visit a hotel for a session.
  • Musee de Marrakech and Jardin Majorelle – 70 MAD to enter, or 100 MAD if you also want to go to the Yves Sant-Laurent museum.
  • The leather tanneries – We didn’t mind skipping this one as apparently the tanneries smell awful and there are lots of pushy guides trying to pressurise you into a guided tour.

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Top Tips!

Marrakech is not a dangerous city, but here are some tips to help you stay safe and trouble-free during your holiday:

  • Make sure your handbag or backpack is zipped up and keep the clasp/zip close to your body. Be careful of pickpockets in the crowded souk (market) areas.
  • If you photograph specific people, such as street performers, they will probably ask you for money in exchange for their photo.
  • Respect and follow the local etiquette when it comes to clothing. Both men and women should cover their shoulders and knees, whilst women should also cover their cleavage. However, I should add that even if you are covered up ladies, you will be stared at. It made me feel very self-conscious, especially as many of the oglers had the subtlety of the sledgehammer. Just ignore them and avoid eye contact, even though it feels rude (but then so is leering at someone!).
  • Don’t walk alone at night in quiet parts of the Medina (Old Town)
  • If someone says a museum or restaurant is closed, verify that with your own eyes. Don’t let them lead you away towards a random place because it’ll probably be their own restaurant, or that of a friend.
  • Research the usual taxi prices in advance, as taxi drivers are known to massively overcharge tourists. Ask your riad how much it should cost to arrive from the airport or bus station. If you can, pre-book a taxi from the airport.
  • Don’t let anyone grab your hands to apply henna or slide a bracelet on. It won’t be a gift – they will expect money in return.
  • Don’t participate in animal tourism. In the main square, lots of food stalls, animals like monkeys and snakes. The animals are abused and exploited so please don’t pose for photos with them (you will be charged for it and the animal will continue to suffer).
  • If you get lost, ask shopkeepers for directions; they can’t leave their shops to escort you and therefore probably won’t ask for money.

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I hope the above recommendations and advice have been useful. As you can tell, I am still very undecided about Marrakech. It isn’t my favourite city in Morocco, but I can recognise that it has a lot to offer tourists. Shopping lovers will enjoy bargain-hunting in the souks, whilst history buffs will lose themselves in the mosques and monuments. The architecture is stunning with its intricate details, colourful tiles and ornate geometric patterns. I enjoyed the variety and diversity of Mediterranean, North African, Berber and Islamic cultures sharing the city. The hustle and bustle – and frantic rhythm of the city – was dynamic and energising but would become draining for longer periods of time. Wandering around the Medina gave me sensory overload: from the noise, the chatter, the motorbikes streaking past, snaking their way through the crowds, from the heat, the smell of grilled meat and yesterday’s unsold produce starting to rot, from exhaust fumes and cigarette smoke. If you visit Marrakech, I encourage you to combine it with other places in Morocco so you can compare and contrast. You can read about the other places I visited in Morocco here.

Ciao for now

The Curious Sparrow

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