“The passages of Marrakesch are so packed with people, animals and objects that you have to learn to move through them in a new way. I found myself wayching local Marrakechis who have spent their lives roaming the median. They don’t walk so much as glide, ready at any instant to dodge to the right or the left to avoid a pile of oncoming hides, a blind beggar or a charging pack mule.”
– Tahir Shaw, In Arabian Nights, pp 98
Spending time in Morocco is a study in contrasts, a confluence of old and new lives jumbled together, straining to move toward modernity while sustaining ancient traditions. The streets of villages around the Sahara, full of colourful jalabas and babies swaddled to the backs of their mothers as they go about their days, seems a world away from the luxury apartments of the bigger cities. And there’s no better place to see the confluence of those many worlds than in Marrakesh.
Like many big cities, arrival can be overwhelming – which is where this crash course comes in. While I love the narrative and photoessays (they are a pleasure to write and share) I also want to be a help for the people looking to travel to the places I love. To wit: where to stay, what to do and where to eat – hopefully they will help demystify the capital and leave more room for soaking it all in.
Where to Stay.
The quintessential question depending on who you are and how you travel. I stayed at several places during my time in Marrakesh, from apartments to hotels to hostels, and wanted to give an overview for those looking to spend time in the city.
You’re on a budget and you want to stay in the Medina. Riad Massin, all the way. I recommended this place to a bunch of different travelers, from Allen who wrote about the Himalayas here, to readers who wanted a budget stop in the heart of Marrakesh. My G Adventures roommate Danielle provided the photos below (thanks lady!) but I can attest firsthand that it’s a wonderful place to park yourself for a few days. You’ll meet fellow travelers, get a riad experience and be a short walk from the famous Djemaa el-Fna. Finding the place from the start may be your biggest deterrent to staying there, but it’s worth the runaround.
Address: 48 Derb Sidi Mohamed L’Haj, Bab Doukala, Medina, Marrakesh. ☎ (+212) 667 53 45 08
If you’re not on a budget but you want to stay in the Medina: If you want to stay near the Fna and inside the walls of the mazelike old city, you can also go high end. The place to do this? Riad Dixneuf La Ksour, impeccably decorated, clean, contemporary and with great service. Breakfast is included and it’s provided in your room – fresh orange juice, fresh tea, coffee or hot chocolate, homemade bread, crepes, Moroccan pancakes and homemade chocolate loaf with fresh jams and honey. Address: 19, rue Sidi El Yamani , Bab Ksour, Marrakech. ☎ (+212) 05 24 38 41 32
If you want a hotel in the new (European) part of the city: Hotel Oudaya has two connected buildings, free WiFi, a big breakfast and a pool to call your own, this hotel was the last stop on the G Adventures trip I took but I’ve recommended it to several readers already, as it’s centrally located with a considerate and generous staff and lovely rooms. For $80 a night, you can get a cheaper place within the medina but if you want to be away from the bustle (and near a big supermarket and cheap restaurants), this is a good place to pick. It’s also within walking distance to the train station, which makes it quite convenient for the next hop through the country. Address: 147 Rue Mohamed El Baqal, Marrakesh, Morocco.☎ (+212) 4444 8512.
If you want to rent an apartment in town: I wanted to stay in the city for a few days after the G Adventures trip was over to process my photos before heading to the desert, and renting an apartment seemed like the best way to do so. I looked into AirBnB but my friend Kim suggested Home Away, who offered me a media rate for renting in Gueliz for 5 nights. As I’m ridiculously picky about who I work with, I assure you I wouldn’t be mentioning them here were it not a product I really enjoyed. As home offices go, however? I had no complaints at all.
The apartment was a 40-minute walk to the main square, but a quick stroll to the train station and supermarket. I reviewed the apartment glowingly on Home Away’s site despite the fact that I wasn’t requested to do so – it ended up being a perfect place to stay. The owners (unaware they would be written up here) would ring daily to make sure I was enjoying my stay. Upon my departure, they invited me to stay with them in France if I returned for a visit.
The apartment rate included daily cleaning, a SIM card and phone, WiFi and a manager named Aziz who ended up arranging for a car rental and transfer to the train station after the contract was over. While not the most budget of all options for solo travelers, it was lovely to have a full kitchen and place to call my own or a week. It was the first time I’d thought about shorter-term apartment rentals, but it won’t be the last. And the Moroccan-style decorations made it a cosy and comfortable place to come home to after the chaos of the city during the day.
Address: Résidence Nadia, Apt 17, 22 Rue Moulay Ali, Marrakesh, Morocc0 .☎ (+212)6 61 74 35 20
What to Do.
Saadian Tombs: Dating from the 16th century, these tombs were sealed by Moulay Ismail in the 17th century when he decided to built Meknes as the next imperial city. Left to memory during the length of his reign, they were only rediscovered during an aerial survey conducted by France in the early 20th century. With separate tombs for men, women and children, each surrounded by cascading patterns of colourful tiles and ornately carved wooden arches, it’s a beautiful place to spend part of your day. Address: Probably best to head over to Google Maps for proper directions to the tombs.
El Badi Palace: Also dating from the Saadian times, this palace was replete with treasures and reflected in prose as one of the most beautiful palaces in the world. With the main riches removed by Moulay Ismail in his shift to Meknes, the palace is only an echo of its former glory. However, the architecture and sheer size of the palace make for a good use of your time in Marrakesh. Address: Google Maps has the exact location here.
Ben Youssef Madrasa: Built by the Merenids in the 14th century, the Medrasa remains one of the oldest places to study in the country. With dizzyingly complex carvings of wood and marble and geometric tiling on the walls, floors and ceilings, it’s well worth a wander. Address: Google Maps has the exact location here.
The Medina: Get lost in the medina itself, the sprawling old city that will ensure that even the most seasoned of travelers will get lost. With dead ends, narrow alleys and doorways and a knack for putting you right back where you started (and not where you wanted to be), you’ll need to allocate quite a few hours to this endeavour – and a lot of patience.
Djemaa el-Fna: A centerpoint for exploring the medina and surrounding souks, the Fna becomes the epicenter for movement and fun in the evening. wrote a whole post about the wonder and awe at sitting and staring at the maelstrom of movement as dusk approached. It’s not to be missed.
“In Marrakesh, night falls in the blink of an eye.” – Tahir Shaw, In Arabian Nights, pp 104
Souks: From the Djemaa el Fna, the souks spread outwards in spokes, sections at the front devoted to the main tourist wares and in the maze of back alleys, specific sections for each craft. Metalworks, wood carving, tanneries, shoe cobblers – each with its own set of streets and craftsmen. Bargaining is the name of the game, with the aim being to feign the most successfully authentic indifference, as though the piece you want is something you really, truly couldn’t care less about.
Majorelle Gardens: Created in the early 1900s, these botanical gardens are now owned by Yves St. Laurent, replete with blue buildings and elaborate cactuses. Hundreds of different plants, flowers and succulents abound. For some respite from the crowds and bustle of the medina, this is a great place to pick up a book and relax. There is a 40 dirham ($5) entry fee, but if you’re in need of solitude, you’ll be happy to pay the price. Over and above the entry, there is a 15 dirham ($2) fee to stroll through St. Laurent’s former villa, now used to house a rotating collection of Moroccan art. Address: Google Maps has the exact location here.Koutoubia Mosque: The largest mosque in Marrakesh, the Koutoubia mosque looms over the Djemaa el-Fna (and provides a good landmark when spinning around in circles among the crowds, lost). The minaret was completed in the late 1100s, and is close to 230 feet high. At dusk, the call to prayer richochets off the alleys of the Medina and the increasingly busy Fna, providing one of the more wondrous welcomings of nighttime. Address: Find the Fna. You can’t miss the mosque when you do!Koutoubia mosque, in downtown Marrakesh”][/caption]
Where to Eat.
La Nouvelle Sirene: Newly opened near the apartment in Gueliz, La Nouvelle Sirene makes traditional Moroccan food with a French twist. The owner hails from Montpellier, France but his chef is Moroccan and their food reflects both strong personalities. The meat and prune tagine, below, was from his restaurant. Address: 35, rue de Yougoslavie, Gueliz
Sandwich Toubkal: Beyond the fact that I went back here so many times the staff started giving me free food, I found this tiny snack shoppe a comforting, down to earth presence in glitzy Gueliz. Manned by two waiters, one old and one young, the food is the basic Moroccan fare: tagines, couscous Fridays, sandwiches with fries and harira soups. But what sets this restaurant apart is the wide smiles you get when you walk in and the fact that you always know you’ll have a reasonably priced meal in the middle of the European part of the city. Address: Zerktouni, near the corner of Rue Mohamed El Baqqal, Gueliz. Across the street from Hotel Tachfine.
Stall 32 and Stall 14 (of the juice stalls) at the Djemaa el-Fna: There are a dizzying amount of stalls to choose from, and they will all be calling you over, trying to take you by the arm, even. Cajoling, and smiling, eventually turning sour when it becomes clear you’re not going eat their meals. Why? Becauase you’re going to make a beeline for Stall 32 and get perfectly grilled lamb sausage and harira soup, stuffed like a sardine around a rickety, u-shaped picnic bench. Seriously. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. Get straight to Stall 32.
If you’re still thirsty after dinner, Stall 14’s orange/grapefruit cocktail was one of the few that didn’t add sugar to sweeten the juice. The fruit spoke for itself. (Note that for the juice stalls, these are separate, set aside from the long tables of food. I’m recommending Stall 14 in juice numbers, not food numbers.)
Snacks inside the Medina: An ideal way to eat your way through Marrakesh is to literally eat as you walk, picking up some of the many sweets on offer as you wind through the old city. Macaroons, pastries and pistachio treats abound, cheap and delicious. You’ll find it hard to resist.
This is but a small insight into the wonderful month I had in Morocco, but together with the incredibly insane driving, copious eating of tagines and spending time with cats (there are a lot of cats in Morocco my friends. A lot of cats….) I hope it paints a picture of excited exploration, which is exactly what I felt waking up every day to see what it had to offer.