Morocco is a country teeming with beautiful cities and landscapes to explore.
My first visit to Morocco was in 2011 via the ferry from Algeciras in Southern Spain to Ceuta in Northern Morocco. With other university students, I visited Tetuan, Tangier, and Chefchaouen – each city offering something different to visitors.
This time around, our travels took us to Marrakech and Casablanca for an extended weekend. Marrakech is an ideal destination for a weekend visit, or, with more time, you’ll have the option to spend time outside the city exploring the Atlas Mountains (something that I hope to have a chance to do in the future).
While not a definitive list for visiting Marrakech, what follows is information from my own experience in this vibrant city that can help you plan for and enjoy your time exploring the souks, indulging in the food, and learning about a multi-faceted and adaptive culture.
- Investing some time to better understand the history and cultural influences of this country will enrich your experience. A primarily Islamic culture, Morocco’s cultural identity is closely aligned with the first inhabitants of Northern Africa – the Amazighs or Imaziɣen (Berbers), but has been strongly influenced by the Arabs, Romans, French, Spanish, and Jewish inhabitants that later settled in this country.
- For evidence of the blending of cultures across continents, look no further than between Marrakech and Andalusia, Spain. The Koutoubia Minaret of Marrakech inspired the Giralda of the Cathedral of Sevilla and likewise the Alhambra of Granada inspired El Badi Palace in Marrakech.
- The official languages of Morocco are Arabic and Amazigh. Learning a few simple Arabic phrases will be helpful to you and facilitate polite exchanges with your hosts and other locals.
- Greeting others with Salaam alaikum or simply Salaam means peace upon you
- Expressing thanks with Shukran or no thanks with La shukran
- In terms of other languages, French is widely and well-spoken by many Moroccans except in the northern region where Spanish is a common language.
- Dressing conservatively is not only respectful, but also helpful for blending in. Even in the scorching Moroccan heat, a pair of light-weight pants with a t-shirt is appropriate and comfortable for both men and women. A longer skirt also works well for women while men can get away with wearing shorts – a good rule of thumb for everyone is to cover from shoulders to knees. I would advise wearing sneakers rather than sandals for walking around the city and having a scarf on hand is useful for covering your shoulders or head if you want to enter a mosque.
- Morocco is a cash society so make sure to exchange currencies for the Moroccan Dirham or find an ATM upon arrival. The exchange from Dirhams to US Dollars is currently about 10 to 1. Have cash on hand throughout your visit for every day purchases (meals, souvenirs, entrance fees, etc.) and tips, which are standard practice. Also note that you would be expected to tip upon accepting the assistance of someone who insists on helping you navigate the medina.
- Speaking of the Dirham, if you’re planning on doing some shopping in the souks, be prepared to negotiate the price. With limited room in our carry-ons, I wasn’t looking to shop, but if something catches your eye in the markets, it will likely not go unnoticed. Shop owners are more than eager to make you offer and expect a counter offer in return.
- While browsing the souks, it can be tempting to take pictures of the store owners and their merchandise. A helpful piece of advice offered to us on our first day in the medina of Marrakech is to not take pictures of locals without their permission. If you do, anticipate paying them directly or making a purchase from them.
Eat & Drink:
- Perhaps my most heartfelt recommendation is to plan ahead and book a Secret Food Tour with Warda. Meeting and touring the medina with Warda was the highlight of the trip. Our conversations framed not only my understanding of the instinctual communal approach to food, like tangia, in Moroccan culture, but also societal customs that only a local can convey. Get to know Warda and her tips for a visit to Marrakech by checking out my Get to Know a Local section.
- Learn how to pour the beloved Maghrebi mint tea so you can enthusiastically welcome your own guests. Mint tea, commonly referred to as Berber whiskey, is another important aspect of Moroccan social life that goes hand in hand with the country’s impeccable hospitality. If you aren’t into drinking tea in the heat, there’s always the incredibly fresh orange juice or fruit smoothie that the Moroccans have mastered!
- A side note on alcohol – don’t expect to find it at every restaurant or café you visit, but those establishments that cater to tourists will typically offer it on the menu. Carrefour, the larger European grocery store chain, does have a liquor section accessible to tourists.
- If you’re looking for a delicious meal that also supports a great local cause, visit the Amal Women’s Training Center in Gueliz. The non-profit runs a restaurant that empowers women in the community through culinary skills training. My pumpkin gazpacho and vegetarian tajine were delicious!
- Get lost in the medina… it’s the easiest thing you’ll do during your visit! The souks awaken slowly, but by late morning, each step you take through the maze-like streets will overload your senses with vibrant colors, pungent smells, and the commotion of neighbors greeting neighbors. Here you’ll find plenty of tourists browsing the merchandise, motorcycles honking as they passed on your shoulder, and shopkeepers beckoning you to their stores. The expansive Jemaa el-Fnaa main square is where you’ll find snake charmers, henna tattoo artists, and other assorted performances that last late into the night.
- Once you manage to navigate your way outside of the medina, head to El Badi Palace. This ruin of a 16th century palace is still magnificent despite much of the opulence having been removed and relocated elsewhere in the 17th century. For about 70 Dirhams, you can walk the grounds and enjoy the view atop the wall while imagining this grand palace serving as the sultan’s place of entertaining important guests. Don’t miss the drawings depicting the foundation of the city of Marrakech in 1062 and photographs of the municipality through the 1900’s.
- Jardin Majorelle is a walled in botanical garden that was previously owned and restored by Yves Saint Laurent and is now open to the public (for admission of about 70 Dirhams). Filled with beautiful plants that provide welcome shade from the sun, along with interesting and colorful buildings of mixed architecture, there are also museums and exhibits on site. This well-manicured oasis is popular with tourists and can be overcrowded.
- Other notable and popular sites are the Koutoubia Gardens, El Bahia Palace and the Saadian Tombs. I was interested in visiting Medersa Ben Youssef but this is closed for renovation until 2020.
- In my opinion, staying at a riad in the medina is an integral part of the experience. The riad is a traditional Moroccan house with a central interior garden or atrium and multiple levels, oftentimes including a rooftop. It’s an oasis from the chaos of the medina. We found our accommodation on Airbnb, and for around $100 a night, our riad stay included a delicious homemade breakfast.
- While not absolutely necessary, pre-arranging transportation (for a relatively low price) when commuting to and from the airport offers peace of mind as driving conditions can be chaotic. If the host of your riad offers to arrange this service, it’s not a bad idea to take them up on it. Our driver could only take us as far as Jemaa el-Fnaa square, but our host met us and walked with us the rest of the way to the riad.
- A word of advice for navigating the medina (because a GPS is all but useless) – memorizing the location of your hotel, riad, etc. solely based on the look of adjacent souk stalls that are set up during the day won’t help if you are trying to find your way back at night. The medina looks completely different late in the evening when the souks have closed and the chaos has subsided. Identify more permanent structures like permanent buildings signs as a means of orienting yourself.
With some preparation and level-setting of expectations, Marrakech is an enjoyable city to experience delicious food, incredible hospitality, and a feast for the senses. A return visit will likely include a trip to the Atlas Mountains and a visit to an Amazigh village, as was suggested by our guide Warda in my Get to Know a Local post.
For funny stories from our visit and my perspective on the intersection of cultures in Marrakech and Casablanca, check out my detailed recap of our trip in October 2019.