A taste of the exotic only a few hours from Europe, Marrakech is very much a world apart. Over the years this city has been popular with nomads, French expats, hippies and celebrities. From Berber traders to Yves Saint Laurent to David Beckham, the city attracts a diverse clientele.
Nicknamed the Rose City, the architecture of the old town around the historic centre is very much in-keeping with what most would expect of an Arabic city.
Narrow maze like streets lined with clay built houses; street hawkers selling bubbling vats of stews which may or may not have sheeps heads in them; shop fronts packed with colourful trinkets. It’s everything you’re expecting and more.
For many Europeans, Marrakech can be a city break, but it deserves more time. However, a 48 hour trip is definitely doable.
No matter how long you’re in town, check out some of these must see attractions.
The beating heart of Marrakech, no visitor will pass through the city without coming here. In fact, you could easily make a day of just sitting in one of the cafes in or around this huge square and watching the goings on.
Jma el-Fnaa sits in front of the main souk (covered market) and just across the road from the city’s landmark Koutobia mosque. This open space plays host to all sorts of traditional activities from nomadic storytellers and musicians, food traders, snake charmers and monkey trainers, trinket sellers and even witch dentists. The latter is not recommended…
There is constant activity and in fact you’d be unlikely to make it from one end to the other without being offered a picture with a monkey or a fake Rolex watch.
By dusk, the dynamic of the market changes and a nightly food market appears. You’ll see all sorts from traditional tagines, kebabs and couscous through to burgers and doughnuts. All the food stands have very enthusiastic and persistent salesmen trying to drag you in, so a casual saunter can become something of an ordeal. However, there is no harm browsing and it can be quite fun in itself just to see what tactic each of the salesmen is using as you go.
Around this time you’ll also see the large gatherings around a man telling an animated story or a troupe of traditional musicians. These are some of the most timeless sights of Marrakech so even if you don’t understand a word, stop and take it in for a moment.
Cafes Around Jma el-Fnaa
There are several cafes dotted around the square which offer great viewpoints from roof terraces. Be warned, there is often a surcharge for having a drink or even for entry to these cafes. You normally pay on the way out and the price can pack a surprise.
Ask on entry if there is an entry charge. As a general rule, prices will be double what you pay elsewhere, so expect to pay around MAD15 for a mint tea or soft drink. It is often worth double checking as sometimes prices can be made up on the spot.
Cafe Glacier offers the best views although it’s notorious for poor service. Food in most of the balcony cafes is second rate, at best. Perhaps just grab a soda or tea and swallow the silly price then go and get some decent priced food at the market.
Monkey Men In Jma el-Fnaa
A word of warning: the monkeys in the square are notoriously very badly treated so please refrain from giving the monkey trainers any business. Even taking a picture of them will result in you being harassed for money, so if you must, do it discreetly. Be warned, these guys have sixth sense so they’ll know you took a picture even from 50 yards.
The covered souks are a collection of 5 markets, linked by winding alleyways. Getting lost is inevitable, so don’t fight it, dive in and follow your senses.
Technically there are different areas for rugs, pottery, spices and leather goods but you will see the same stuff pretty much everywhere. Salesmen vary from indifferent to infuriatingly insistent (as anywhere I guess!) so be prepared for a haggle match if you ask about prices.
A good tactic for working out prices is to find a shop where someone is already haggling and to either listen in or just casually ask a price and look uninterested. As with anywhere, especially in the developing world, you will be expected to haggle to an agreeable price for both sides.
The Leather Tanneries
A short walk from the northern exit of the souks is the leather tanneries. Here you’ll see men preparing leather the way it has been done for centuries. It’s crude and the smell is an assault on the senses, but it’s fascinating to see the work being done.
This isn’t for everyone so if you’re averse to people working in grimy conditions then you may want to give it a miss.
A guide can be hired at the entrance for a small fee although you will also find many people offering you a ‘free guide’. They will always expect a nice tip though!
Saadian Tombs and Bahia Palace
These two relics of the old ruling family of Marrakech are great places to see the Islamic architecture of the city, especially for non-Muslims who aren’t allowed to enter mosques in Morocco.
Both are cheap to enter at around MAD10 and both are a fascinating look at the opulent lifestyles of the past.
Most guides will tell you to head to the Majorelle Gardens, which are exquisite tropical gardens with a beautiful museum and cafe. However, it’s busy and expensive to get in.
The Cyber Park, between the Medina (old town) and Gueliz (new town) is free to enter and a great spot to relax in the shade of orange trees next to a bubbling fountain. Personally, I’d stick with this option unless you particularly want to pay around €7 to get into Majorelle.