Despite the increasing abundance of budget flights and package tourists, Marrakesh has managed to retain its exotic charm and would be my number one place to see in Morocco. You could easily spend a month of your gap year there, but even if you’re only there for a few days, add these to your to-do list….
1. Visit the Djemaa el-Fna by night
The Djemaa el-Fna square is the centre of Marrakesh life by day, but at night it takes on a whole new atmosphere. The snake charmers and juice sellers clear out to make way for a maze of literally hundreds of food stalls which appear with tents and benches, ready to serve up everything from barbequed lamb and sticky pastries to snails and whole boiled sheep heads. The place is a loud, steamy mix of locals, visitors and charming Moroccan men trying to convince you of the merits of their particular dishes. Don’t be seduced by the smooth talking (and be on the look out for pickpockets), take time to properly explore before you choose a place and try a new one every night!
2. Stay in a Riad
Backpacker hostels are generally the cheaper option in Marrakesh, but splurging for a night or two in a riad will leave you with better memories. A riad is a traditional, multi-level Moroccan house or palace built around a courtyard (often decorated with gorgeous mosaics and filled with a fountain and some orange trees). Sip mint tea on your rooftop terrace and you’ll probably be able to see the sun setting over the Atlas mountains beyond the edge of the city. You can often stay at the nicer ones quite cheaply in the off-season (avoid Christmas/NYE and school holidays).
3. Have dinner at a hole-in-the wall in the depths of the Medina
Like the Djemaa el-Fna, when the sun goes down BBQ stalls open up all through the Medina (old city). They’re mostly populated by local men, not tourists, so they’re a great place to meet and chat with locals in broken English over some very cheap and tasty Moroccan food. The old trick of picking the busiest one means that everything will be fresh.
4. Experience a real hammam
Swanky tourist ‘hammams’ are really just the kind of indulgent day spa you find in every city. A genuine Moroccan hammam is a whole different story. You’ll probably need a recommendation and introduction from a local (try the housekeeper at your riad!) as they’re hard to find and it’s likely noone there will speak much English. Once you’re in, they are basically a communal bathhouse (men’s and women’s are separate) where you can expect to steam together on the tiles (naked), then be scrubbed aggressively from head to toe with a exfoliating mitt and doused with buckets of hot water by the bathhouse attendant. Leave your modesty and personal space at home, and expect to be cleaner than you have ever been before!
5. Explore the souks (markets)
They’re dim, colorful and winding and you’ll probably leave with a backpack full of bright clay tagine dishes, curly-toed leather slippers, silk kaftans, strings of silver beads and bronze lamps. The further in you get, the cheaper things become, so don’t buy at the first place you come to. Bargain hard, they know you’re a tourist!
6. Take a Moroccan cooking class
Moroccan food is amazing and you’ll miss it once you’re gone… so learn to make your own. There are a lots of great cooking classes on offer in Marrakesh, La Maison Arabe are the most famous but probably not for the backpacker budget. This is one thing worth booking early, as they’re very popular and might be full by the time you get there.
7. Visit the Bahia palace
The best Islamic art and craftsmanship on are display in this gorgeous palace, which was apparently built to house the concubines of Ahmed Ibn Moussa and is still occasionally closed when the royal family is visiting. The entrance fee is less than $2/£1, so it’s worth getting a guide to explain the details. Go on a sunny day and enjoy the gardens too!
Image: sleepy chan
…and one experience that you definitely should miss: getting scammed. If it sounds sketchy, it probably is. Never go anywhere or buy anything (tours etc, and definitely not drugs) from someone who approaches you on the street. Fox Nomad has a useful post on the top 4 scams of Marrakesh and how to avoid them.
This article was guest authored by Fiona Soper. Currently, she is trying to find creative excuses to balance travel with a PhD, brushing up on her Arabic and dreaming of Oman.