Daughter of the Desert. The Red City. The Ochre City.
Founded in 1071 the ancient city of Marrakesh cloaked in exoticism and yet approachable. Friendly even. I spent a week in and around Marrakesh and I have to say, it was very much as expected. This was my first visit to Morocco. There’s a lot to see and for me, not enough time to see it all. My trip with a girlfriend was part tour, part independent travel.
[HOT TIP: One piece of advice. When you plan your travel, be sure that you are not spending too much time in the car. It’s not the best way to experience Morocco, and sometimes, the time it takes to cover the kilometers is deceiving – think hairpin mountain passes that take a while to cross. We would have liked another day or two in every place we visited. So, either a longer tour, or fewer cities.]
Inside the walls of the old fortified city is known as the medina. It’s a seemingly complex maze of streets, some less than six feet wide, packed with vendors, pedestrians, people on bicycles and motor bikes. I could have done without the smelly motor bikes, but hey, when in Rome. The rest of the city of Marrakesh is bordered by modern neighborhoods, the most prominent of which is Gueliz.
It was my first time in Morocco, here’s a list of the highlights from our time spent in and around the medina.
Jemaa El Fna Square
This well-known square is worth a visit and nearly impossible to miss. Be prepared to get bombarded by the sellers. If it’s a juice drink, lantern or cheap sunglasses, a snake-charmer or musical performance you’re after, feast your eyes. It’s different by day and night, so try both.
Eye candy and bargains abound! Apparently the souks are organized in some manner, but we never figured it out. Just wandered. We bought spices, hats, lanterns, purses, pillow cases, poufs, babouches (slippers), blankets, baskets, books and a big bag to put it all in to take home!
I’ve done a ton of haggling in my life in markets like this one, and I have to say, the Moroccans have a way of wearing you down. Meaning, they will throw out a ridiculously high price (think half of what they want as a fair price) and then ask you 100 times “What’s your best price?” After answering them 99 times while walking away, they will happily acquiesce.
This can be maddening but once you do it a few times, you’ll get used to it. My main rule, which I always, always use when bargaining, is to never ask about something I’m not seriously interested in buying. If you want it, get your game face on and have FUN!
[HOT TIP: Let me say that again, you can actually buy an extra piece of luggage (we spent $10 for a huge duffel) and then check it on the airplane, which was free. At the time $1 USD was about 10 Moroccan Dirham (MAD). An easy conversion when you are bargaining.]
Best to hire a guide. You can get someone local to take you to so many sites that are a short walk from one another, Bahia Palace on the circuit. You’ll learn a lot more about Moroccan history and explore the Palace. ‘Bahia’ means brilliance, by the way.
Just outside the Medina one stop on your history tour should be the Saadian Tombs. Again, go with a guide so you know what you are looking at, or read up on your own. It’s a pretty place and doesn’t take long to see.
A Must-Stop on your Marrakesh History Tour. One of my favorites. The Melah, the Jewish neighborhood in Marrakesh, has been welcoming refugees from Europe and Morocco for centuries. Still an active place of worship, the synagogue was built by Jews expelled from Spain under the rule of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. The small museum illustrates the story of over 500 years of Jewish history in Morocco.
If you only have time to see one garden in Marrakesh, make it this one. Also in the Melah, it’s fun to try to find! Enjoy a relaxing self-guided tour, reading the signs, watching a short film and taking in the breathtaking and immaculate gardens.
Cooking Class | Café Clock
We took the full cooking class, beginning with a short walk to the market vendors for some ingredients. I expected the class and meal to be four hours but we were there six! Make reservations in advance.
IF YOU NEED A PLACE TO STAY…
The absolute best asset to this new riad is its staff; they are quite simply, wonderful. Like many riads, at the end of a narrow street is this lovely boutique hotel, beautiful inside, with a terrific rooftop restaurant and nightly live music.
IF YOU’RE THIRSTY…
My friend and I went in search of drinks one night and took a peek at Le Marrakchi, right off the Jemaa El-Fna Square. Several floors, we headed to the one with small tables serving bar drinks and snacks. The room was downright romantic, candlelight sparkling on the mosaic-tiled walls, and us!
Again, in search of happy hour, we found Le Salama, just off the main square. The restaurant is gorgeous; it’s worth seeing the decor alone. I recommend heading straight up three flights to the glass enclosed Skybar with 360 degree views of the surrounding medina. You’ll note a lot of foreigners enjoying 2 for 1 drink specials, as we did. At Le Salama, conviviality reigns.
IF YOU’RE HUNGRY…
La Cantine des Gazelles
Within the bustling pedestrian-motor-bike-sharing-skinny streets of the medina is this charming restaurant with terrific food. It was our first meal in Morocco, long before you tire of eating tagine and couscous, and it was excellent. Discover the meaning of the ubiquitous gazelle! [6 Dabachi Kennaria]
We ate lunch at Koulchi Zine in cool, misted shade while listening to Beetles cover tunes. The food was decent, with offerings for plant-based peeps. I just love this street in the medina, great shops and atmosphere. [164 Riad Zitoune Lakdim]
Cool cafe art gallery with food. Fill up and snatch up original paper collage art by owner Lori K. Gordon.
MORE SHOPPING ON ZITOUNE STREET…
In addition to all the usual suspects on this street (carpets, tea service, babouches, baskets) you’ll find some unique shops with interesting additions, minus the bargaining. These were my favorite.
Jad Bougie & Senteur – [134 Riad Zitoune Kedim] Divinely scented candles, room sprays and diffusers. No haggling, just pretty things to take home to remind you of your stay.
Wafl Design – [126 Riad Zitoune Lakdim] Urban concept store with cool graphic t’s, bumper stickers.
Les Engants de Michelin – [84 Riad Zitoune Kedim] The gold star for most unique item found in Morocco. Chic and smart upcycling, handmade from old tires, jewelry and handbags.