The Best 10 Things to do While in Marrakech
The best 10 things to do while in Marrakech
Marrakesh, one of Morocco’s major cities is also known as The Red City. Much of the city’s buildings are made from tabia bricks, which is a mixture of red mud and water from the Hazou plains. But red is just one of the kaleidoscope of colours that you’ll see here so the nickname doesn’t do it justice.
As soon as we arrived in Marrakesh we were hit with the sights, sounds and smells that makes Marrakesh such an incredible place to visit. Bustling markets, peaks of brightly coloured spices, snake charmers, soaring minarets and loudspeaker prayer calls. It’s only a four hour flight from our London home but Marrakesh feels like another world away.
Horse and carts are still widely used in Marrakesh and the rest of Morocco.
When in Marrakesh expect the unexpected. There’s no predictability here as you’ll be seeing new things around every single corner and in Marrakesh there are a lot of corners! Within the walled medieval city it’s labyrinth of alleys and streets zig zag in all directions. Forget the map, it won’t help you here. You will get lost but that’s part of the fun of being in this maze like city.
Marrakesh is perfect for a weekend getaway but has enough to see and do to keep you busy for much longer. We visited the city for 7 days and could have stayed much longer to explore its endless Souks and beyond. So what are the 10 best things to do while in Marrakech.
1. Browse and haggle at the Souks
Nut and dried fruit seller in one of Marrakesh’s many Souks.
You could spend days exploring the endless maze of markets. Your dirhams can be spent on a huge array of items from sumptuous spices, brightly coloured textiles, Moroccan sweets, locally made lanterns, ornate tea sets to the biggest tagines known to man. Nothing in the markets has a set price so feel free to haggle with the vendor but remember to smile and be realistic. Is it worth haggling over a small amount of dirhams that isn’t much value to you as a western traveler but could feed his or her family that night.
Selling fresh fish at a local Souk.
Even if you have no plans to buy anything the Souks are a fascinating place to just wander. They’re a real feast for the senses. The most popular Souks are those off the main square of Jemaa el-Fna but do check out those further away from the centre. Being more frequented by locals makes them feel more authentic and you’ll get yourself better bargains than those off the square which have been known to rip off tourists. Some of the starting prices for items we wanted to buy were unrealistically high in the Souks off the main square. So high in fact that we could have bought the same items cheaper in London!
2. Take in the sights of Jemaa el-Fna
Jemaa el-fna during the day.
Jemaa el-Fna, the heart of old Marrakesh is one of the most epic city squares we’ve visited. By day it’s a little more sedate but when the sun sets the square comes alive with a circus of activity. Snake charmers, monkey handlers, dancers, musicians, storytellers and acrobats populate the square which brings huge crowds of locals and tourists.
Amongst the madness are stalls selling anything from shoes to henna tattoos and a large choice of old carts selling freshly squeezed orange juice. The juice is sweet, delicious and cheap so we often found ourselves sinking a cup several times a day in the shade.
Shelley at one of the many fresh orange juice stalls
Snake charmer at Jemaa el-Fna.
At night dozens of pop up food kitchens suddenly appear from nowhere who all compete for your tourist dirham. There are lots to choose from and most sell the same local cuisine of tagines, grilled meats, kebabs, sausages and vegetables. The only identifiable difference from each stall is a number so make sure to take a look online for recommendations!
3. Stay at a traditional riad
Our traditional riad looking into the central courtyard from our room.
Shelley enjoying breakfast at our riad
Why go to Marrakesh and stay in a bland hotel when you can stay in a traditional riad. Marrakesh has a great choice of beautiful riads for all budgets. From larger 5 star riads with luxurious rooms and pools to budget friendly but still beautiful and authentic smaller riads. We booked our French owned budget friendly riad through AirBnB. Based at the Southern end of the old walled city it was an oasis of calm from the crazy city streets outside it’s walls.
Traditional riads consist on an internal outdoor courtyard circled with the other rooms in the house. All room windows face the internal courtyard so the outside noise is kept to a minimum. Having breakfast in the small courtyard to the sound of bird song was such a lovely way to start each day. Most riads also have sunny roof terraces too to enjoy the city’s unique skyline.
From the outside all riads look the same as are all simple doorways in a windowless wall. This is deliberate as in their culture it’s considered distasteful to show any kind of wealth. So it’s impossible to tell if the owners inside are poor or rich.
4. Visit the Koutoubia Mosque
The minaret of Koutoubia Mosque.
The Koutoubia Mosque is Marrakech’s most famous landmark and symbol. It’s minaret towers over the rest of the city so can be seen near and far. At 77 meters it isn’t actually that high but local planning law forbids any other building in the medina to be higher than a palm tree.
Non Muslims are not actually allowed to go inside since it’s still an active place of worship but we still enjoyed walking around its exterior and gardens.
5. Eat like a local
The unique tasting Pastilla.
Me trying a delicious Camel burger
The star of Morocco’s culinary show is the Tagine, a pyramid shaped clay cooking pot seen bubbling away in almost every cafe and restaurant across Morocco. There are a myriad of tagine dishes to choose from including lemon chicken and minted lamb, all stewed with a selection of fresh vegetables and served with rice, couscous or bread. Delicious!
Kefta’s are also a popular choice. Beef or lamb mince with garlic, parsley, coriander and cinnamon rolled together into balls and cooked in a tomato and onion sauce. Near the end of cooking, eggs are cracked into the sauce to finish.
For something different try a Pastilla. Served in various sizes the Pastilla blends the savoury and sweet in an usual way. Savory meat is cooked in spices before shredded and added to layers of pastry, almonds, cinnamon and sugar. Can be eaten hot or cold but on all occasions we only tried cold. I liked them but Shelley not so much.
6. Visit Ben Youssef Medersa
Central courtyard inside Ben Youssef Medersa.
Founded in the 14th century, the Ben Youssef Medersa was a Quranic school dedicated to teaching Islamic scripture and law. It was later enlarged in the 16th century and then more recently given a further polishing in the 1990s to make it what it is today. It’s a beautiful example of Moroccan architecture at its best. A large serene courtyard with a water filled basin in its centre, surrounded by ornately decorated walls with detailed carvings and colourful patterned tiles.
At the far end of the courtyard is the even richer decorated domed prayer hall which offers a great photo opportunity through the arched entrance looking into the courtyard. Overlooking the courtyard on the level above are more than 100 small student chambers. Some windowless with tiny internal light wells providing the only natural light. It feels like a school from a bygone era but was in fact still in use until 1962!
7. People watch at a local cafe
Local mint tea and coffee with milk.
Sometimes it’s the simplest of things that can be the most enjoyable. For religious reasons not many Moroccans drink alcohol so instead of pubs and bars you will see groups, especially men, gathering at cafes. Cafes are everywhere in Marrakesh so we regularly grabbed a seat with a view to watch the hive of activity on the city’s streets. Accompanied with a mint tea or Moroccan coffee it’s an enjoyable way to get some respite from the African sun.
There are also many rooftop cafes which overlook Jemaa el-Fna so we recommend finding a table to see the sun set over the Red City and for a bird’s eye view of the square transforming from day to night. It’s a fascinating watch.
8. Visit Badii Palace
Inside the expansive courtyard of the ruined Badii Palace.
The ruin of Badii Palace is a great way to kill an hour or two. The palace is one of the two principal monuments of the Saadian era with the Saadian Tombs being the other. Constructed between 1578 and 1607 its walls once were encrusted with gold from Timbuktu. Within the walls is a huge courtyard (Moroccans love a courtyard) with a huge pool in the centre and four sunken gardens. There are also underground servants quarters to explore with long passages gaining access to what would have been servants bedrooms and kitchens.
The whole place is a huge tranquil open space which is in total contrast to the cities busy and claustrophobic streets. It’s peace and quiet may encourage you to hang around longer than planned as it did to us.
Overlooking Badii Palace
9. Take some downtime at a Hammam
After a few days walking around busy Marrakesh, do as the locals do and treat yourself to a Hammam. A Hammam is a steam room, similar to a Turkish bath where men, women and children gather at least once a week for a few hours to socialise and cleanse their bodies.
Typical Moroccan interior decoration
Men and women bathe separately but be prepared if you’re more of a reserved Westerner. Even though outside the Hammam many Moroccans cover themselves with clothing from head to toe, this is not the case inside a public Hammam! Once you are used to all the naked bodies, find your spot for washing, exfoliating or simply just chill out.
Spice and herb shop in the medina.
10. Visit the Saadian Tombs
Another of the city’s big attractions is the Saadian Tombs. Sealed up for centuries until their rediscovery in 1917 the tombs are magnificently decorated with colourful tiles, detailed carvings and Arabic script. The earliest known burial dates from 1557 and all the elaborate buildings were built under Sultan Ahmed el Mansour (1578 – 1603).
The enclosure consists of two main mausoleums, with 66 tombs laid out within them and over 100 more outside in the gardens. Many prominent citizens are buried here, the last being the “mad sultan” Moulay Yazid in 1792, who ruled for 22 violent months. Access to the tombs is via a small passageway at the right-hand corner of the Kasbah mosque. Be prepared to que!