Within the mazelike medina, souvenir stall owners will yell and hassle you to capture your interest, motorcycles will whiz past you leaving the air thick with the smell of exhaust, frying oil, and tagine spices, young men with suspicious smiles will point their fingers down alley ways hoping to mislead you, and I can’t forget to mention that desert heat!
For a first time visitor, Marrakech can be a bit overwhelming, especially for the senses. That’s why I’ve put together an insider’s guide so that you can enjoy this gem of a city as much as I did. This is how I recommend you spend your time in Marrakech and a selection of the very best things to do while you’re here.
skip the hotel, stay in a stunning riad
Although Marrakech is filled with many luxury resorts and hotels, let yourself have a more authentic experience and stay in one of the many beautiful riads within the old city. A riad is a traditional Moroccan house with a courtyard and are often centuries old and full of character.
Most riads are nestled within the heart of the medina, making them the ideal place to stay and experience the city, especially if you are only visiting for a day or two. When the medina or the heat becomes overwhelming, a riad provides the perfect tranquil oasis away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
During our first three days here we stayed at Riad El Fenn, a secluded retreat hidden down a back alleyway in the medina. This riad is an interior designer’s dream and filled with an eclectic mix of contemporary art and traditional moroccan charm. My favourite part about this hotel though is the rooftop, which offers stunning views over the rooftops of Marrakech and the Atlas Mountains in the distance. Even if you don’t stay here, I totally recommend stopping by to have a drink and watch the sun set down behind the city.
riad jardin secret
For the last two nights we stayed at the Riad Jardin Secret, Which was located in a more quiet area of the medina. If the name didn’t already give it away, this riad is practically a living jungle oasis and has been entirely restored to preserve and celebrate the local artisanal tradition.
Throughout the riad you’ll find a free spirit, laid back attitude towards life that is both inspiring and welcoming at the same time. With just 11 rooms, Jardin Secret is as intimate and relaxing as it gets. There’s even intricately decorated niches throughout, where guests can let themselves escape life for awhile.
get lost in the medina
If you’re looking to have a real, authentic Marrakech experience then the medina is where I suggest you spend most of your time.
Without a doubt, you will get lost.
The medina is essentially a labyrinth of narrow streets and souvenir shops that all begin to look-alike after making a few turns. It’s almost as if it was designed in a way to confuse, puzzle and mislead any visitor that chooses to enter it. Sometimes you might stumble upon a lamp store hidden away from the crowds or you might wander into a part of the city where you suddenly don’t feel welcome anymore; that’s the beauty of exploring the medina on your own, which can either come with risk or great reward.
So let yourself get lost for a while, sit down for a coffee in that back alleyway cafe, satisfy your sweet tooth with a freshly baked Moroccan pastry, and indulge in all that is simply and distinctly Marrakech.
If you are however traveling solo or worried about getting lost, a walking tour might be a better option for you.
Tip: Download an offline version of google maps in case you start to actually feel lost. Since the sim cards we got at the airport didn’t work this was a huge help to navigate the maze like streets of the medina.
test out your bartering skills in the souks
If you’re looking to bring home a gift, a hand-woven rug or a homeware then shopping here will definitely take some skill. The souk is like an open playing field, where you’ll have to play a game of give and take in order to get the best deal. Sometimes you’ll be rewarded for your efforts or sometimes you’ll just be properly ripped off.
Even if you love a rug or just have to have that particular one, never act too interested in it. The moment the shop keeper catches on, your bargaining power is weakened. Often times I acted like I didn’t have enough money or was really indecisive and that led the owner to continue cutting the price. Also, don’t be afraid to walk away. Many times the salesman will come after you agreeing to reduce the price or the last one you offered.
You should also always pay attention to the quality of the item you are purchasing, especially when it comes to rugs. We took a guide with us to ensure that the rug we bought was made of real wool. This can be easily proven by holding a lighter to one of the loose edges and if it doesn’t light then it’s real wool.
enjoy the serenity of la bahia palace
Colourful tiled floors, ornately carved archways and perfectly manicured gardens can all be found at one of the most exquisite palaces I’ve ever seen: La Bahia Palace, which literally means brilliant palace.
Not only does Bahia offer a tranquil space to take a break from the noisy city streets, it is a time capsule of the past that gives a glimpse into how life in morocco was like in the 19th century.
Wander through the palace’s expansive rooms decorated with intricately painted mosaics and Italian white marble walls or simply take a moment to enjoy the sun in the massive courtyard.
To avoid the crowds of the other well-known gardens of Marrakech and their overpriced entry fees, Bahia Palace offers a great alternative without having to compromise on beauty.
Where | Avenue Imam El Ghazali, Marrakech 40000, Morocco
When | 9am – 5pm
Price | 10dh
watch the sun go down at atay cafe
One of my favourite things to do after a long day of wandering the souks is to watch the sun go down over the city from a rooftop restaurant.
I highly suggest you visit Atay Cafe, which offers some of the best views of the both the city, Koutoubia Mosque and the Atlas Mountains in the distance. While the food is nothing to rave about and service can be pretty slow at times, it’s worth ordering a pot of mint tea or tajine to be able to see Marrakech from a different perspective.
Sit back, relax and take in the beautiful surroundings while the sun bathes the city in gold.
Where | 62, Rue Amsefah Sidi Abdelaziz, Marrakech 40030, Morocco
When | 10am – 10pm
More Info | Tripadvisor
escape the city & visit agafay desert
Past the luxury hotels and resorts, acres of olive trees and date palms, herds of goats wandering the roadsides and little villages full of life will greet you the moment you leave the city and head for Agafay Desert.
After being in Marrakech for 4 days, this was a great way to experience a much needed change of scenery and get a little glimpse into the daily life of most Moroccan people. Our hotel arranged for a driver to pick us up and take us to a desert camp called Terre Des Etoiles for dinner, which was just a short 45 minute drive from the city.
While Terre Des Etoiles was not nearly as nice or photogenic as the neighbouring Scarabeo Camp, it was still worth the visit. I would highly suggest spending a night “glamping” in one of these desert camps if you have more than a few days to spend in Marrakech. Just make sure to make a reservation at least a month in advance since they can get quite booked out.
Set against the stunning snow-capped Atlas Mountains, these desert camps offer everything you need to unwind and disconnect from everyday life. From camel riding to gazing at a sky full the brightest stars you’ll ever see, there’s something here for everyone to enjoy.
Where | Agafay Desert
Distance | 35km from Marrakech
Price | 900dh return to hire a driver
indulge in moroccan cuisine
There’s a reason why Morocco is famous for its cuisine and it doesn’t take long to realise why. Hearty tajines, mounds of golden couscous, and spicy shakshukas – Morocco is a paradise for food lovers in search of flavour.
nomad is one of Marrakech’s most talked about restaurants and arguably most instagrammed as well. The food served here is a modern take on traditional Moroccan cuisine and is perfect for vegetarians and vegans alike. If you ever want a chance to see what the hype is all about, then make sure to book a reservation well in advanced since it gets extremely busy with trendy travellers.
naranj is where I had one of my best meals in Marrakech. the food here is a distinct mix of Lebanese and Moroccan and the service is surprisingly fast. A dish that you must order here is the eggplant couscous, which is packed with flavour and a great veg option as well. We also ordered the fromage briouates and mezzés plate that are worth trying.
la salama while the food here is overpriced in my opinion and not incredible, the garden like atmosphere is something worth visiting at least for a drink. Lounge in the sun room as dozens of plants hang from the ceiling to create the perfect backdrop for a photo.
Other restaurants worth noting: Cafe Des Espices, Terrasse Des Espices, Le Jardin, I Limoni, Restaurant La Familie, Cafe Clock, Latitude 31, Beats Burger, the food stands at night scattered around Jemmna El-Fna
see what jemmna el-fna is all about
Jemma El-Fna is the main square of Marrakech, and is also home to the quirkiest characters you will come across during your time in this city. Snake charmers, men with monkeys on chains and henna scammers will all approach you hoping to lure you into one of their scams that at first glance seem “free.”
This is a place that you will always want to have your guard up and is where you will most likely be scammed if you aren’t careful. We almost got caught up in one of these scams ourselves when we were walking through the square and a man tried to place a monkey on my head as he followed closely behind us. I’ve heard other stories of travellers ending up unwillingly with arms full of henna and then begged and hassled for money until they gave in.
While Jemma El-Fna was one of my least favourite areas of Marrakech since it felt extremely touristy, I would highly suggest visiting here during the day and also at night for an entirely different experience. At night the square seems to light up with life and the energy begins to grow as crowds flock to the rows of food stalls. Soak up the nighttime ambiance by grabbing a meal from one of these stalls and then sit and watch a performance unfold before you.
Tip: There are also many ATMs here to take cash out, which is important to have for the souks and some restaurants
other tips and recommendations:
Jardin Majorelle: Leave the medina for a few hours and enjoy this botanical garden preserved by fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. The colourful grounds full of cacti, agave and other desert plants has become one of the most popular tourist attractions in all of Marrakech. However, this means that you must go early in order to avoid the crowds since it gets packed very quickly. We learned that the hard way when we walked 30 minutes there, only to be greeted by the awful sight of a line that wrapped around the building.
Saadian Tombs: A peaceful place, noted as the final resting place of Ahmad al-Mansur and his nearest and dearest, is a great alternative to avoid the crowds found in many of the gardens. Wander the ornately decorated rooms or marvel at the intricately tiled mosaics, one things for sure – there’s definitely not a lack of beauty here.
I hope this guide was helpful and that it inspires you to visit the vibrant city of Marrakech.