Crash Course Marrakesh: Stay, Do, Eat

Categories Crash Course, Morocco

“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

Birds eye view of living area Hostel Riad Massin

Birds eye view of living area Hostel Riad Massin

Bathroom detail in the ensuite at Hostel Riad Massin

The all important bathroom!

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

Poolside in Morocco

Poolside in Morocco.

Moroccan Breakfast in the Medina

Moroccan Breakfast in the Medina

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.

Home Away apartment in Marrakesh

My 'office' for 5 days in Marrakesh

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

Beautiful detailing in the apartment

Beautiful detailing in the apartment

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.

Kittens at the Saadian Tombs

Kittens at the Saadian 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.

Spices aplenty in the Medina

Spices aplenty in the Medina

A quiet alleyway in the Medina

A quiet alleyway in the Medina

 

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.

Saffron from Morocco

Saffron from Morocco, up close and personal.

Shoes for sale in the Medina

Shoes for sale in the Medina

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

Beef, prune and almond tagine at Cafe Sirene

Beef, prune and almond tagine at Cafe Sirene

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.

Sweets in the Medina

Sweets in the Medina

Moroccan Macaroons - the perfect afternoon snack

Moroccan Macaroons - the perfect afternoon snack

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.

-Jodi

45 comments to Crash Course Marrakesh: Stay, Do, Eat

  1. Every time I speak with my father now he tells me, “You really need to go to Morocco.” With your articles and photos on Morocco it just keeps coming up moving up the wish list! Good thing there are now cheap flights from Europe :)

    Thanks for such a thorough write up (I love “ridiculously long”) and beautiful photos to not only inspire others to visit Marrakesh, but to give them the resources to plan and enjoy.

    • I think you two would really fall in love with Morocco. Like me, you love a study in contrasts and the thread of narrative that runs through the country’s history is a compelling one to follow. If you’ve not read In Arabian Nights (the book I quoted from and linked to above) please do pick it up. Once you read, I’ve no doubt you’ll want to get to the country sooner rather than later!

      • lovely pictures and useful advices.. i’ll go to Morocco probably in october for one week..So happy to know you..I have found your mail on an Italian review..If you come to Italy let me know…

  2. Great tips and guide Jodi! I would love to taste the sweets there. The riad there reminds me of a B&B I stayed at when I was in Ronda, Spain.

  3. On February 7, 2012 at 11:27 am gene in montreal said:

    You saved the best for last!! Very nice, thank you! :)

  4. Great timing as I’m heading back to Morocco later this year, it’s been 8 years since my last trip so it’s great to have some up-to-date recommendations. Beautiful photos too!

    • Glad the post came at the right time for you! Feel free to reach out if you have other questions about the country. Spent a month there, and would be happy to give recommendations for other cities too.

  5. I would love to go to Morocco, and your beautiful descriptions and gorgeous photos are only making this more so. Definitely bookmarking this for a future trip.

    • Thanks Laura! I think you’d like it quite a bit. It takes a few days to adjust – it’s far more chaotic than Istanbul or even parts of Southeast Asia – but once you fall into the rhythm and colour and movement, you want to stay forever.

  6. Brilliant post, Jodi! Great information and completely accessible (despite the length … but I agree with Audrey that thorough is good!). And, of course, I loved the photos!

    • Hi JoAnna, glad you found it helpful, especially as you help run a Morocco site too. It was some extra work to put together but well worth getting it on one page, I think. Hope life is good!

  7. Amazing pictures and a great read. Now I need to bump Morocco up my list of places to visit. Great job as always Jodi!

  8. How do the cats taste in Morocco?

  9. I love Marrakech – even as a vegetarian I found plenty to eat, and I love that they end a meal with fresher-than-fresh oranges and pomegranate. Delish. That said, every time I’ve gone there I’ve got a stomach bug. Not so pleasant…

  10. Loved this post! Take me there now please!!! I want to be in that pool with a Moroccan mint tea in my hand. ;-)

  11. Nice review as I head to Marrakech next month and looking for all the info I can get.

    Cheers

  12. Gorgeous! The accommodation recommendations are good. This is definitely on my top 5 list. Thanks for inspiring the wanderlust Jodi!

  13. I’ve never been to Marrakesh, but after reading this post, I really want to go!

  14. Medina is my last name and I know I am destined to seek out my ancestors there. haha. The colors of your photos are gorgeous. Great post!

  15. I had a bit of a love/hate relationship with Marrakesh. It’s definitely very intense and I found it quite stressful with everyone pulling me one way to look at their shop and the other way to try their food. I felt like everyone wanted something from me all the time. But then when you realise that, and you accept that this is just the way they do business and the way they work together here, you start to relax and have the confidence to say no. I definitely want to go back – and the night markets were amazing.

    • Hi Vicky, I understand completely – it’s easy to be overwhelmed in the chaos and pushiness of Marrakesh. I actually found Essaouira a lot more aggressive and almost offputting, but within the more busy parts of the Medina in Marrakesh it was certainly a lot of being pulled in many directions, all at once. I’d say if you go back to do the same as I recommend for other countries: save the chaos for last. Spend time in the south like Ourzazate or in the north (I was in Chefchaouen for a week and it was lovely, right in the Rif mountains) and then return to Marrakesh again when you’ve recalibrated to Morocco once more. Safe travels to you either way and I hope you get back soon! :)

  16. I enjoyed reading about your adventures in Marrakesh, Jodi. Did you ever feel unsafe especially with the bombing targeting Westerners last year in Djemaa el-Fnasquare? The US State Department’s website has warnings about pan handling, pick-pocketing, and robberies by knife and it worries my mother (more than me) about traveling solo. Also, did you go to the Atlas Mountains and are you going to write about them? Your photos and writing are amazing. Thanks for sharing your adventures!

    • Hi Bob, thank you for writing.Glad you liked the post. I didn’t feel unsafe, no – or at least no more unsafe than many of the other places I’ve been that have either the subject of warnings. There are certainly worries about pickpocketing everywhere – N. America included – though for what it’s worth no one I met in my month in country had any issues in Morocco. I did get to the Atlas – climbed up to a small village (Imlil) and stayed there overnight and drove also from Marrakesh through the mountains and to the Algerian border. For the driving portion here’s my (somewhat sarcastic) take: http://www.legalnomads.com/2011/11/driving-in-morocco.html.

      While I’m not telling you to ignore the warnings or your family, I did not have any issues there and the country is not currently unstable like others in the region. That said, as with any trip, it’s important to pay attention to the news (I’m sure you will) and have a way out if you need to. But this applies to anywhere, not just Morocco :) Safe travels!

  17. Looking at the foods makes me hungry.:)

  18. I would love to experience this! Great article!

  19. A lovely article! Marrakech is one of my favorite destinations and one of the first spots to which I voyaged solo. How I miss the city’s souk and circus-like medina atmosphere. Thank you for bringing back those fond travel memories!

  20. Sounds kind of intense, but with ways to escape the intensity when you need a break. I know it’s obvious for historical reasons, but your photos show that the Reconquista in Spain left intact the finer aspects of Islamic life in Spain.

  21. Your photos are lovely! Thank you so much for all the great information.

  22. I totally agree for the Orange juice stalls, i was there last July, and my kids loved the fresh squeezed orange juice( i believe the name of the guy was Youssef)he was quite friendly…he got me by giving free juice to one of my kids!! lol, so i felt i had to buy from him. And i am glad i did. Anyway great post about Marrakesh, it is really a fascinating city…and has some wonderful medina Riads if you are looking for cheap hotel rates… or maybe you could head to the Gueliz cartier if want the jetset party style kind of crowd.

  23. On June 23, 2012 at 11:55 am mairead.fenlon said:

    Having read of your experiences has made me even more certain that I shall now book my visit to the place that I have always wanted to visit. Thanks for all the wonderful information & fab. photos.etc.

  24. Hello! My friend and I are touring Morocco and are in Marrakech for our last few days before heading back home. We are in ,ove with the Moroccan Macaroons and are looking for a recipe on them. I see you’ve posted a fantastic picture of them, do you know what the name of them is exactly? I can’t seem to find them when I generically search for Moroccan Macaroon.

    Hope to hear from you soon…until them I’m sure I will be having a few more.

  25. My husband and I just returned from a two-week hiking trip in Morocco, just outside Marrakech in the Atlas mountains. Unfortunately I was not a great fan of Marrakech. I found it noisy, crowded, smoggy, and I was groped in the main square in the middle of a large crowd. I would not go again.

    We also contracted the Shigella bacteria from pre-made sandwiches at the Marrakech airport. All-in-all, not such a great trip.

  26. Going tomorrow! Actually going there a bit blind as I’ve not done any research until now. Got a couple of weeks for a quick spin through the country. Great article as usual and I’ll surely come back for another look when I’m in country. Looks like a top place.

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