Morocco has long been on my list of places to explore, and I was beyond thrilled at the chance to experience Marrakech. But, after just an afternoon of exploring the medina, I was ready to write Marrakech off as a chaotic tourist trap full of pushy peddlers. I spent the entire day fending off youngsters offering help and demanding money, haggling for literally EVERYTHING and just generally feeling like I was getting taken advantage of at every turn. I was beyond disappointed and completely exhausted. But on the following day, Marrakech revealed a new side of itself to me, and just like that, I was sold.
The souk overflowing with gorgeous textiles and traditional babouches, the spice shops electric with bright colors, the doors and floors with intricate designs and detailing, the mint tea and orange juice...Marrakech is a feast for the senses. I came away from this trip feeling so inspired, and I only scratched the surface of what Morocco has to offer. This is a place you'll want to return again and again. I know I do.
Here are some highlights, tips on traveling in a Muslim country and in general, a few things I wish I had known...
WHERE TO STAY
For something splashy and indulgent, check out La Mammounia. It's a private oasis just steps from the Medina. The pool is the perfect place to spend a sweltering afternoon and check out the spa for a traditional hamam experience.
Riad El Fenn is well designed and well priced.
The Four Seasons Marrakech is a taxi ride from many attractions, but offers excellent service and is great for families.
WHAT TO DO
Hardin Majorelle is everything you want it to be and more. The instagram-worthy blue walls of Yves St. Laurent's estate will not disappoint. Better still is the gallery showcasing his "Love" prints. Tip: Go just an hour or so before closing to avoid the crowds.
The Medina is the main attraction in Marrakech and has it's fair share of tourist traps (Want your photo taken with a monkey? This is the spot...), but it can also be an amazing place to explore if you're willing to go off the beaten path. Getting lost here is inevitable. Don't fight it. But, looking lost and breaking out a map will be the first indication to those interested that you're easy prey. Seemingly innocent looking young boys will offer to help you find your way, only to get you more lost and then demand money in exchange for delivering you back to where you started. It's a racket. So, give yourself plenty of time to get lost and wander around. When you are ready to make your way back, pop into a shop or cafe to ask for directions or consult your map. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy the experience. This is what Marrakech is all about.
Shopping in the souk is not for the faint of heart. Be prepared to haggle. For everything. There are so many trinkets and treasures here...handwoven baskets, hammered metal lanterns, earthenware tagines and beautiful linens. Tip: If you hate to haggle (like me!), most of the hotels have wonderful gift shops where the prices are set, but still reasonable. I found it more enjoyable to shop in this kind of environment without the pressure of negotiating. Still, if you're up for it, brushing up on some basic French pre-trip will better serve you as you barter your way through the souk.
By far the best day I spent in Marrakech was touring with Marc and Veronique. Their photography workshop is the best way to see the real Marrakech, and the bonus is you will leave with some wonderful photographs! If you have the time, I'd highly suggest it.
Faim d'Epices is another wonderful way to spend an afternoon once you've had your fill of the souk. Located outside the city on an olive farm, I spent the day cooking a traditional Moroccan feast. Making traditional Berber bread was a highlight.
Shopping for rugs is another signature activity in Marrakech. I think it might be impossible to find the same rug shop twice in the labyrinth of the Medina. At the very least, visit a few shops before making a purchase...and of course doing a bit of research beforehand is recommended. Knowing what style you're after (Kilim? Beni Ouiran?) will give you the upper hand when negotiating, and trust me, you'll need all the help you can get. These guys are good. You'll be offered Berber whiskey, but really it's just mint tea. It is a gesture of good faith, but also a way of keeping you in the shop. Tip: Pack an extra bag for carrying your new rug home. I suggest something like this. You'll save a bundle on shipping and customs fees.
Treat yourself to an authentic Moroccan spa experience. Les Bains de Marrakech is a favorite. A hamam will leave you feeling refreshed and with baby soft skin.
WHERE TO EAT
There is no shortage of good food in Marrakech with a great many restaurants catering to the tourist set, but if you want something a bit more authentic, riad dining is the way to go. We loved Villa Des Orangers for delicious Moroccan cuisine in a gorgeous setting (tables set around the pool with candles everywhere). Tip: This is also a lovely hotel with a great location, very proximate to Jemaa el Fna (main square of Marrakech).
Dar Rhizlane is another riad with wonderful food and a very romantic setting (FYI there are rose petals covering every square inch of Marrakech. Prepare to be amazed).
For lunch and a welcome escape from the Medina, check out Terrasse Des Epices. Everyone recommends it, and for good reason. The decor is chic and minimal, plus there's wifi and delicious orange juice to be had.
Le Grand Cafe De La Poste is an excellent option for an evening cocktail or dinner. Tip: Gentlemen, beware, closed toe footwear is required. We learned that lesson the hard way after being turned away for flip flops. Lucky for us, there's a Zara across the street so after a quick purchase of new shoes we were back in business. Be sure to try the oysters from Dahkla (Saharan coast of Africa!) and the monkfish tagine. Oh, and the frozen mojito is a delight.
Le Churchill Bar at La Mammounia is a bit of Britain in Africa. Tufted leather walls, leopard print chairs and stiff drinks in a smoky piano bar setting. We also enjoyed a sundowner or two in the garden bar of La Mammounia under the shade of the orange trees. It's not cheap, but the setting makes it all worth it.
GOOD TO KNOW
Don't forget, Morocco is a Muslim country and while it has the most generally lax attitude about many things (women, drinking, etc,), there were many moments during my trip when I was reminded that liberalism aside, religion is taken seriously here. You should also note that religious rules are observed even more fiercely during the month of Ramadan. There is no explicit dress code, but I always felt more comfortable (despite the heat), when I wore pants as opposed to shorts. I felt on the whole that I was approached much less and it was easier to blend in. Loose pants and a hat are recommended.
Alcohol is not widely sold and is not permitted to be consumed in view of the general public. Most terraces that serve alcohol must be removed from view of the street area (i.e. Le Grand Cafe de la Poste). Tip: Try the Moroccan wines! They are very tasty and well priced. Casablanca is a refreshing and crisp beer; perfect for a hot day in Marrakech!
Taxis - You MUST negotiate the price for a taxi before entering. I found it helpful to ask someone at the hotel what the fair price for a taxi from point A to point B would be. That should give you a baseline for negotiating a rate. Moroccans drive a hard bargain; don't be afraid to walk away and find another taxi. Also note, taxis will always be more expensive in front of your hotel or a main tourist spot (like Jardin Majorelle). If you're on a budget. it's worth walking a little bit out of the way to find a taxi off the beaten path.
For a trip outside the city, check out my guide to the Atlas Mountains.