Our most recent vacation was a long weekend break to Marrakech in Morocco. It’s a great place to experience – filled with culture and history – and something very different from most European cities.
Here’s a short guide to visiting Marrakech, with my four tops tips:
1. Accommodation – Stay in a Riad in the Old Town
It’s fair to say Marrakech is a divided city, both in terms of culture, but also quite literally by giant walls separating the Old Town and its newer Westernised counterpart.
As such your trip may be radically different depending on which side of the divide you choose to stay. Outside of the walls, the New Town features many familiar names such as Four Seasons, Cesar Resort and even an Ibis. While these are certainly luxurious for the city they don’t necessarily give a true representation of Moroccan culture.
For a better experience it’s inside the walls that you want to stay, to one of the many Riads. Riads are large houses, often built around a central plunge pool, and as such many have been converted into use for tourists. Because of this they have a very communal, welcoming feel, none more so than our choice Riad Edward.
2. Getting around – Use the taxis
You can travel short distances by foot in Marrakech but the terrain is largely dusty and bumpy, meaning a whole day’s walking soon becomes tiresome. Although the weather almost demands them in Summer, don’t wear sandals – you need something far sturdier.
Navigating the city is notoriously difficult – even using Google Maps (remember you can save offline maps in order to not need to use data, and will still be able follow your GPS position) isn’t a guaranteed method as many streets are incorrectly labelled or simply don’t exist. It’s not uncommon for a main road to suddenly turn into a cul-de-sac of endless houses, that soon become like a labyrinth to get out of.
Many Marrakech locals will also try to give you directions, and, while seemingly helpful, are nothing of the sort and will usually merely lead you to a relative’s shop or similar instead of where you want to go. Try not to ever seem lost or you will instantly be surrounded by such people. Pulling out a map and looking confused is a guaranteed way to make this happen.
We found that a combination of Google Maps, local paper maps (although again, most tourist maps are incorrect in places) and using the sun to know your direction is enough to see you through, but there’s a far better option…
Put simply, taxis are everywhere in Marrakech. You can’t look down a street without seeing a handful. They are cheap and fairly reliable (you will get the odd driver that might need some persuasion not to go his Uncle’s store) and well worth the small expense over walking.
Taxis come in two forms, Petit and Grand. The Petit ones are the most common – small, older cars painted in a unique yellow livery – and what you will probably use most. Grand taxis – air conditioned, newer, larger cars – are available, but charge per seat (around 10 Dirhams) including any unused seats, and are therefore more expensive. As most journeys in Marrakech are likely to be under ten minutes, Petit taxis are more than adequate.
Every single Petit taxi we used stated their price was 50 Dirhams at first (they don’t use the meters so set a price before your get in the car), but with the usual Moroccan negotiation games you can get this down to 20 Dirhams easily, if not lower. Occasional you’ll end up arguing over the equivalent of 30p, but it’s all part of the culture. Note: If your hotel books a taxi for you, the price will be for both the journey to the hotel and your subsequent trip.
A useful tip is to have your hotel write down the name of your destinations in Arabic for you – apart from the Jemaa el Fna (main square) and some of the bigger name hotels you might struggle to communicate where you are going. Even pointing to a place on the tourist guide maps isn’t always successful as they usually have tiny English writing that some taxi drivers can’t read.
Renting a car
Are you crazy? Seriously though, there’s no point unless you plan to do a lot of travelling outside of the city.
3. Activites – Plan ahead
Surprisingly for a city becoming built on tourism, there’s actually very little in the way of different sights and activities, which unfortunately goes a long way to explaining why so many people prefer to stay in luxury hotels outside of the city walls and only venture into the Old Town for the odd trip. This means you may well want to research excursions outside of Marrakech before you leave home.
You will have read about the medina and souks in Marrakech, it’s the highlight of the city. From undercover markets to beautiful architecture, this really is the beating heart of the culture and somewhere you will almost certainly want to visit.
That said, as a tourist it can be quite daunting with many shopkeepers trying all manner of tactics to get you to part with your money. There are few street signs, and those that there are often deliberately point the wrong way, enticing you to get lost in the maze of historic streets.
If it doesn’t sound like fun to you but you still want to visit, there are plenty of guided tours available, although it is best to book through your hotel to make sure it is a reputable company running them. Also if you fancy just looking but not buying in the souks, you can still buy gifts in one of two government run stores in the city, where you will pay slightly more but have the luxury of browsing in air conditioning and without hassle.
One of the only real ‘attractions’, and the one you will find on every list. Although only a short walk from the Old Town, you should still take a taxi as it’s not in the safest of areas to navigate through en route. The gardens themselves are beautiful, if somewhat limited, although an on-site café complete with cooling sprayed water mist can make this into a decent couple of hours.
There are a few decent day trips (or slightly longer if you desire) to extend your holiday beyond the city itself, the most popular being to the Atlas mountains and Sahara desert, where you can enjoy activities such as trekking, traditional camping and camel riding. As with most things it may be wise to book through your travel agent or hotel for excursions, rather than some of the cheaper alternatives.
4. The Locals – Keep Smiling
With very little in terms of tourist attractions, you will spend a lot of time in close company with the local people, and getting to know their ways is a large part of the Moroccan experience.
The main religion is Islam and you will find many Mosques – some incredibly grand and beautiful – on your travels. During Ramadan little is affected, but you should avoid eating or drinking in the street in front of the Moroccan people (in restaurants it’s business as usual). During this time you may also notice staff and other people getting more frustrated as their hunger increases throughout the day, so be patient with them.
Aside from religion, their other great love is money – and the pursuit of it – as seen in the souks. Generally the locals are friendly, but refusing to follow someone to their local shop or turning down an offer of business may make people seemingly aggressive. It’s not uncommon for someone to come up to you in the street and be ultra charming, only to flip and start swearing when you say “no” to them. Generally as long as you smile and treat the bartering and hassling as a joke you will be fine.
As with any major city there is crime unfortunately, as we found out when my iPhone was stolen. The general reaction of the local people, from our hotel staff to the police was that of disgust towards their people – they realise that tourism is the city’s only real income and criminals are damaging it. That said, Marrakech is no more dangerous that anywhere else, just have your wits about you as usual when carrying money and expensive possessions.
Overall Marrakech is definitely worth visiting, and is perfect to fit into a long weekend break or short trip. With a culture so different from our own it will always be a great experience, whatever your background and expectations.