Exotic, intense, chaotic, crowded, colorful, and uniquely beautiful. These are the adjectives that surface as I reflect on my recent trip to Marrakech, Morocco with Shirley of This Errant Life.
Marrakech was my first foray into Africa. It’s exotic enough to shock the senses yet mild enough to recognize you’re just dipping your toes into the desert sands of North Africa, let alone the rest of the continent.
Marrakech is a quick four hour flight from London, yet I disembarked the plane in a different world. Wandering the narrow dirt streets of Marrakech’s old town you’re more likely to see mule-drawn carts than cars.
Entire families layer themselves onto two-seater motorbikes while snake charmers and henna artists crowd the main square. Five times daily the call to prayer rings out from dozens of mosques creating a cadence of daily life.
Shopkeepers shout out prices in broken English for tourists and then ease back to native French and Arabic for their neighbors.
Men sip on sweet mint tea at cafes rather than downing beers at the pub. Hundreds of cats roam the streets and wait patiently outside butcher shops.
I never thought I would say this about another city, but Marrakech is more chaotic than London.
Four days was the right amount of time to immerse ourselves without becoming overwhelmed by it all.
Day 1: Arrival & Dinner at our Riad
We left London around lunchtime and arrived in Marrakech by late afternoon. The first order of business was checking into our riad. There are hundreds of riads in Marrakech, B&B-style guest houses built around open air courtyards. We selected Riad Le Clos des Arts which was the ideal retreat within the medina (old town). Rooftop pool, anyone?
The riad arranged our airport transfer so we didn’t have to mess with taxis or public transport on day one. We were welcomed like long-lost family members by owner Massimo and spent an hour pouring over the city map while staff topped off our mint tea and plate of almond cookies. That evening we opted for a home-cooked authentic Moroccan meal made by the riad chef. Thus began my love affair with Moroccan food. To be continued…
Day 2: Guided Tour
We awoke rested and ready to explore on day two. I had booked a guided tour with Youssef Kharroubi of Marrakech Tour Guides after seeing rave reviews online. He met us at our riad and we set off to learn about Marrakech from a local.
Our tour began at Jardin Majorelle, colorful botanic gardens gifted to the city by adopted resident Yves Saint Laurent.
The cobalt blue gardens were designed in the 1920s by the painter Jacques Majorelle and have over 300 desert plant species. I was too fixated on the stunning colors to count cacti.
We also learned about the city’s largest mosque, Koutoubia Mosque and saw the main gate to the walled old town, Bab Agnaou.
Next we toured the Saadian Tombs which are well-preserved 16th century tombs rediscovered in 1917 by the French.
We ended with a tour of the souks, the largest traditional market in Morocco. It’s like no other market I’ve ever seen. Absolutely packed with goods of all kinds arranged like a spider’s web of intersecting pathways.
Day 3: Cooking Class
My love affair with Moroccan food continued as we’d arranged a cooking class with Le Riad Monceau’s MarrakChef Cooking School. During the four hour class our chef Rachida taught us how to make Berber tajine of lamb and chicken, plus a savory pastry appetizer and sweet pastry dessert.
Tajine is a method of cooking unique to Morocco and describes the pyramid dome shaped earthenware dish used to heat and cook the food inside.
Day 4: Hammam and Souks
Hammams are Turkish-style bath houses that are commonplace in Morocco. Most locals will go once a week for a full scrub down. We opted for a nice relaxing massage on our last day in town at Les Bains de Marrakech.
Fully relaxed, we wandered back to the souks for one last souvenir and spices shopping session.
Know Before You Go:
Disclaimer: This is a long list because my anxiety-prone self was nervous for my first trip to Africa and an Islamic country. You don’t need to worry as much as me. Travel anxiety can be a real jackass.
- Morocco is an Islamic country so dress more conservatively to be respectful and avoid unwanted attention. As long as your shirts cover your shoulders and pants or skirt cover knees you’re fine. Morocco and especially Marrakech Muslims are more modern than most.
- Stay in a riad instead of a big hotel, they’re an oasis from the chaos of the medina while still allowing you to stay near the center of action and walking distance to most tourist attractions.
- Currency is the Moroccan Dirham (1 USD = 9 Dirhams today). We grabbed some from an airport ATM.
- Drink bottled water and avoid ice and unwashed produce. Western stomachs aren’t accustomed to the water here.
- Arrange for a driver to take you to your riad upon arrival to avoid getting lost in the winding streets.
- The most common language is Arabic but they also speak French due to the French occupation until the 1950s, and many people are fluent in English. We learned a few phrases in Arabic to do our diplomatic duty and befriend some of the locals and hotel staff.
- Marrakech is very safe for the most part. Both our guide and riad owner pointed out some areas to avoid late at night, but as two girls we felt safe and rarely hassled. We obviously used our street smarts like we would traveling in any foreign city and kept our wits about us.
- Walk on the right side of the streets or you’re fair game for motorbikes and mules to run you down.
- When taking a taxi always negotiate the rate or agree to use meter beforehand or they may charge you the unspoken tourist tax.
- Negotiate in the souks (the market stalls), it’s expected. Just don’t undercut the prices too much because you’re likely much wealthier than these folks. Prices are already cheap for tourists, no need to nickel and dime the locals.
- Best time of year to visit is March – May or September – November according to my guidebook.
- On the way out of town give yourself plenty of time at Marrakech Menara Airport (2-3 hours). Even if you don’t have to check bags you have to go to check-in desk to stamp your boarding pass, then fill out a departure passport card, then wait in a turtle’s pace passport line.
- Some more resources for you:
I’ll leave you with my collection of Marrakech doors, but I’m not closing the door on Africa for good. I’ll be back!