In October of 2018, I had the chance to discover Morocco on a two-week trip that started in the city of Marrakesh. As far as first impressions go, Morocco made a great one! On our very first afternoon in Marrakesh, we had checked in for a night in a beautiful riad, gotten lost and found ourselves in the Medina, seen the Koutoubia mosque and drank our first mint tea before watching the sunset over the city from our very own rooftop patio. So far so good!
What to do
Marrakesh has a lot to offer so here are a few must see during your trip:
The Marrakesh Medina is where you will find markets, shops and restaurants. Even if you're not into shopping, visiting the Medina is an experience. It's busy, colorful, the smell of different types of spices blends with the smell of rose water, olives, leather and other unidentifiable smells. People are welcoming you from every side hoping you'll visit their shop. The alleys are narrow and seem to turn and twist in no discernible pattern. Honestly, it is hard to describe and you can't possibly understand until you see it for yourself.
Jemaa El Fna square
Jemaa El Fna is the biggest market place in all of Marrakesh. Not only are there fruits and vegetables to buy, like any market place, but you'll find snake charmers, fire breathers, artists, fortune tellers and henna tattoo artists. It especially comes alive at night when locals come to the square from all corners of Marrakesh.
The Koutoubia Mosque was probably the only landmark that I knew of before we started doing research and making reservations for our trip as it inspired the Morocco pavilion in Epcot, in Walt Disney World. From the side where we entered the Jemaa El Fna square, we could see the mosque on the other side. The tallest building around and decorated with ceramics, arabesques and geometric patterns, it seems to captivate you the moment you lay eyes on it. Surrounding the mosque, there are also beautiful gardens where you can sit in the middle of the flowers and bushes to get a few minutes of shade and silence if you need a breather from walking in the busy Medina all day.
The Bahia Palace is probably my favorite place in the whole city. Even though it was pretty crowded with tourists when we visited, we could still take our time to explore the palace, take plenty of pictures and enjoy its relaxing atmosphere. The palace consists of multiple richly decorated rooms, fountains, interior gardens, stained windows, high wood ceilings painted in floral patterns, zellij motifs and courtyards full of orange and palm trees. It is definitely worth the few Dirhams it costs to enter.
The Badii Palace is only a few streets away from the Bahia Palace, but while its counterpart is still richly decorated and well preserved, this one was striped of most of its decorations and left in ruins. It was built by the Almohad Dynasty in the 12th and 13th century, but after its fall, the materials were used to build a new palace in the new capital city of Meknes. It is now used as an exhibition space for the Almoravid Minbar and offers a great view over the city.
The Majorelle Gardens were created by Jacques Majorelle in 1923 and restored in 1980 by Yves St-Laurent and Pierre Bergé. It is now part of a non-profit organization and features multiple art museums and the Berber museum. The gardens in themselves are a sight to see, with their fountains, a collection of cacti and exotic plants and trees. It is definitely one of the most beautiful sights in Marrakesh, but it was so crowded when we visited, even though we were there when it opened in the morning that what should have been a casual stroll was actually chaos.
Where to sleep
I definitely recommend sleeping in a riad in or close to the Medina! Depending on your budget, you are sure to find something that will work for you and still be incredibly beautiful and comfortable. We stayed in two different riads during our stay, one when we first arrived in Morocco and another a few days later when we came back from the Sahara and both were great. The first was a little bit out of the way, but still a walking distance from the Medina and the second was a hostel in the middle of the Medina. The only difference between the regular riad and the hostel being that we had a private room in the first and a shared dorm in the second. Both had pools, a rooftop patio and a close proximity to everything we wanted to see in Marrakesh. I think staying in a regular hotel would be disappointing as you would lose all of the charm of small riads.
How to get around
The first thing to know is that it doesn't matter if you have a great sense of direction, a map or even Google Maps with you, it's almost guaranteed that you will get lost at least once in the Medina. The important part is that you have the address where you want to go so you can ask someone if needed. In the Medina, there are no cars as the roads are more like narrow alleys in between buildings. Most places to visit are close together and easy to reach by foot. Outside of the Medina, there are taxi cabs almost everywhere so you can just walk up to them and ask for a ride. Always agree on a price before getting in!!! No matter what you wear or how you act, we all look like tourists and, if you don't agree on a price before hand, you can't negotiate once you get to your destination. They will charge you more than they should and there are no meters in mosts cabs.
If you are lost, first try not to look lost. Second, don't follow someone offering to give you directions. Most of the time, they will bring you to their shop or restaurant and have no intention of bringing you to your desired destination. Go up to someone and ask for directions, you are more likely to get an honest answer. Otherwise, I found that walking around until we found a landmark that could locate us on a map was the best way to go. Trust your instincts!
I personally loved Marrakesh! Except for Chefchaouen, it was probably my favorite city in Morocco. Not only was there a lot to see, but I felt safe, the food was delicious and it wasn't crazy expensive.
The only thing that bothered me was not being able to trust the locals. They would knowingly give us bad directions or lie to us about landmarks being closed to bring us to their shop or restaurant. Everyone that we met was very nice and charismatic and we had great conversations with them, but we always had to be careful who we trusted and to follow our guts especially when looking for a place in particular.
I hope you get the chance to visit this amazing city at least once in your life. It has so much culture, beauty and life and deserves at least a few days of exploring and discovering.
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