Nomad Guide – Marrakech
Marrakech is easily one of the most fascinating cities in the world. No trip to North Africa is complete without visiting Marrakech, and truth be told, it is chaotic, overwhelming and fabulous in equal measures. Having traveled here solo, and unearthed some of the city’s best-kept secrets, it was only fair to share it with you, if you ever set your sights on this beautiful city.
My first advice? Prepare for your senses to be slapped – Marrakech’s Medina, dusted in hues of ochre and sunset-pink, is a chaotic jumble of Souks, discrete passageways, winding alleys and people. Always people.
Best time to go: If you are only visiting Marrakech in Morocco, Oct-May may be the best time to go, as it gets too hot between the months of June and September. Avoid busy times like Christmas and Easter, and if you are desert camping in the Sahara or hiking up the Atlas mountains, watch the colder temperatures between December and February.
- Flying into Marrakech is recommended, but once you de-plane, make sure to grab a customs form and get in the Immigration & Customs queue asap. These queues are notorious for being long and time-consuming. You will have lots of time to fill out your forms once in the queue
- Use pre-arranged airport transfers arranged by your hotels or book a taxi in advance. Airport taxi drivers tend to drive a hard bargain and rip off unassuming tourists. Save your negotiation skills for the Souks. Pre-arranged hotel transfers work best because someone on the other end will be there to receive you (especially if you choose to stay in the old city, where some streets can be accessed only on foot)
- When leaving Marrakech, you will be fairly seasoned in the ways of the Medina and its streets, so feel free to ditch the overpriced Hotel transfers back to the airport and book a cab in advance. Talixo worked well for me, their cars have wi-fi, they were quite punctual and they accept credit cards
Where to stay: If this is your first time, I would recommend staying within the Medina area at first. Although the Medina is touted to be ‘touristy’, most Riads and hotels are designed to relax and pamper their guests. As a slow traveler, I prefer nesting in one place, but Marrakech definitely made an exception to that rule. Hop around as much as you can, book 4-5 different Riads or Dars if your schedule allows for it, sample them all for a couple of days each – you won’t be sorry!
It is not only a great way to meet new people (including your hosts), but also offers a varying degree of hospitality and amenities. The deciding factor for me was the opportunity to see the thoughtful interiors and design aesthetics embodying modern and traditional Moroccan architecture. Most of the Riads are large homes bought out by foreign investors, many of them European architects, designers or art connoisseurs who end up curating everything from the bathroom linens to the courtyard flora and fauna, ultimately setting up a local team of property managers and staff before venturing off to their next project. It creates work for the locals, who put their own spin on the hospitality, thus authenticating the entire experience.
I chose to divvy up my accommodations between two vastly different areas of the Medina – The Old City and Dar El Bacha. Dar El Bacha houses a historic castle turned into a confluence museum now. The area is touted to be the more contemporary side of the Medina with lots of tourist-friendly art galleries, handicraft centers, security booths, and restaurants. The Old City is situated in the older part of town, here the alleys get narrower, the streets get more chaotic and less recognizable, if that were possible.
Places I stayed at:
- Dar Nour El Houda – read my review here
- Riad Jardin Secret – read my review here
- Riad Tchaikana – read my review here
- Riad Adore – read my review here
How to get around:
- Google Maps, Waze and Apple maps will work, but they are far from accurate. Your apps will show dead-ends where there are shortcuts and very likely show a longer route when there is a far shorter one available. Use maps provided by your hotel, study them and mark the spots you want to check out prior to heading out
- Take pictures of landmarks while walking, this will help you get back to the hotel when it gets dark
- Avoid getting help from locals who eagerly offer it, most of them will demand money and some may misguide you intentionally. Follow your map, or pictures and your instincts. If all fails, follow the signs to go back to the Djema Al Fna square, and try re-routing yourself. Calling your hotels, or asking local shop owners is always a back-up option
- Don’t worry if you’re lost. Soak it in, getting lost is recommended when you have time, a bottle of water and some loose change in your pockets
What to buy:
- Ceramics and pottery (ask if they are heat proof, look for cracks in the glaze before you buy them)
- Tagine ( Simple ones made from brown clay are used for cooking, colorful glazed ones are used for decor)
- If you are not vegan, Leather bags (almost all bags are handmade in the tanneries nearby, and they are also treated with fecal and urine matter, watch out for these. Clean your bags with an antibacterial wipes prior to using it)
- Mint tea (from the Spice Square) with dried Shiba, if available
- Rose water and Orange Blossom essence oil for flavoring cakes
- Argan Oil and Black Soap (go to Herboristerie Firdaus for the real deal. It’s hard to find, but follow the instructions here and you’re gold)
- Rugs (probably not worth it if you’re not able to carry it back with you. Shipping tends to overshoot the cost)
- Silver/ brass tableware (ask your vendor to do the silver test for you before buying it)
Word of caution:
- Always bargain. Negotiate down to at least 50% of the quoted price, sometimes more. It’s part of the culture and considered a healthy banter. Don’t be afraid to walk away if you feel like you’re not getting a fair deal, however, always be polite and kind
- You are not obligated to buy anything if you’re invited in and offered tea, it is a sign of hospitality
- Try not be overwhelmed by the chaos of the Souks. Hawkers and shop owners may call out to your aggressively, consider it as part of the experience, immerse yourself in it and try to ignore the noise
- Carry cash, few vendors take credit cards here. Most of them are likely to accommodate you to make a sale using their neighbor’s machine, but cash is much appreciated
- While Riad-hopping, do not hesitate to hire a porter, it’s means to an end for them and they will appreciate the business while you walk over to other parts of town (remember, streets and alleys are too narrow for cars or vehicles, you will most likely be walking to your next Riad). Porters are also immensely affordable and have a keen sense of direction and shortcuts
- Les Bains de Marrakech
- Le Bain Bleu
- La Mamounia
- Hammam De La Rose
- Terrasse des épices
- Café des épices
- Le Comptoir du Pacha
- Hotel La Maison Arabe
- La Table Du Riad at Riad 72
- Arrange for a local meal prepared by your Riad’s in-house chef
I personally avoid overly populated or famous sight-seeing landmarks, so none will be forthcoming from me, but there are many beautiful mosques, gardens and landmarks of historic significance all over Marrakech. My personal recommendation would be to let your day guide you. Plan a few things and tackle them in batches each day, and let the day take your where it may. The Ben Youssef Madrasa, Museum of Photography, Jardin Secret, and Bahia Palace could be some you may want to see. If you cannot, don’t fret. Your being here is an experience in itself.