Founded in 1062 AD by Berber chieftain Abu Bakr ibn Umar, Marrakech is arguably the
most important of the four great imperial cities. Almoravid King Ali ibn Yusuf built the majority of Marrakech from 1122-1123 AD. Known as the “Red City” for its red sandstone buildings, Marrakech is the San Francisco of Morocco – young, liberal, a melting pot of people and cultures, artsy, entrepreneurial, a vibrant city and a little quirky (ok very quirky).
Located at the foothills of the great High Atlas Mountains (containing the tallest mountain in North Africa) and also at the gateway (just over those mountains) to the desert and Morocco’s impressive Sahara, Marrakech was at an important crossroads for trade between Africa, Europe and the East. As a result, the city became a significant cultural, religious and learning center. Today, Marrakech still bears the evidence of its importance in the medersas (university for teaching law, theology, Arabic literature and grammar), old mosques, ancient palaces, and a well-preserved medina.
I started my Moroccan journey in Marrakech, a great introduction to the country and culture. With 4 days in the Red City before heading over the High Atlas Mountains to the Sahara, I had ample time to dive into the city and peel back the layers. It’s a vibrant, energetic and lively place to spend some time with plenty of opportunities to get to know locals and Morocco culture, if you know where to look, where to go, and what to do.
My first impressions of Morocco are of a vibrant, warm culture that loves good food, family and is fiercely proud of their cultural heritage. A smile and a laugh gets you far here. Genuinely wanting to connect with people breaks down barriers in Morocco (as in most countries).
Highlights of Marrakech:
Supposedly the busiest square in Africa (I’m sure many other large African squares would
beg to differ), Djemaa el-Fna delivers in the entertainment category. It’s a constant three ring circus. By day, snake charmers, dancers, musicians, acrobats, henna tattoo artists, monkey handlers (Please avoid giving them money to take photos with their monkeys. They treat these lovely critters very poorly.), and peddlers selling all manner of items from across the continent vie for tourist’s attention and dirhams. By night, the chefs move in their mobile kitchens and whip up some of the best street eats in Morocco. Look for stalls filled with locals, avoid places that have few patrons or all foreigners. And don’t be afraid to turn town the persistent and passionate chefs and servers that will compete for your attention. With the food arrive the storytellers, boxers, musicians and street artists. The show and nightly festivities continues into the wee hours of the morning.
Djemaa el-Fna is a high energy place that can feel quite touristy, but it’s been like that for
centuries – all the way back to when it was the site of public executions. The type of tourists may have changed over the years, but the shows haven’t and still draw crowds. As you take it all in, remember to watch your wallet. This is prime picket pocket real estate. You don’t need to be paranoid about it, just smart and keep valuables in zippered inside pockets or in bags with good zippers and latches. If you snap a few photos give the street artists a couple of dirhams.
For a great sunset spot overlooking the square, grab a seat and a drink at one of the terrace restaurants above the square. Get their early to grab one of the best seats. These restaurants usually charge a one drink entrance which ranges from 15 DH to 20 DH. (DH = Dirhams)
Marrakech’s medina is a maze of twisting laneways within the old city ramparts. Lined with all manner of colorful shops, eateries, and cafes; getting a little lost here is great practice for Fez, where you are guaranteed to get lost. All major arteries run in and out of Djemaa el-Fna (the big square). The Koutoubia minaret serves as a great landmark for finding the square (pop up to a café terrace and you can easily spot the minaret since it’s the tallest structure in the medina).
The few blocks around the main square are the busiest and also most expensive shops. Wander a little farther afield to specialized souks for a slightly slower pace and better prices. (You’ll still have to bargain hard. Start with half what they offer and be willing to walk away.)
Stroll through the medina and take in the sights, sounds and smells of Marrakech – brightly colored, buttery leather slippers (called babouches) hang from stalls, sweet shop owners hastily fill 50DH boxes with their tasty treats before curious tourists can protest that they just wanted to look, finely crafted leather satchels and briefcases are piled high in front of shops, brass and silver delicately carved lanterns emit shimmering light, turquoise and coral encrusted traditional Berber jewelry (as well as artists’ reinterpretations) are displayed in many jewelry shops and souks.
The merchants and shopkeepers would make excellent used car salesmen. Listen to their
clever phrases as they try to attract your attention.
“I am tassel man. Would you like a tassel?” one shouts. (He has a shop that is bursting at the seams with tassels, in all shapes, sizes and varieties).
“Try some Berber Aromatherapy! I have special Vicks Berber that will cure your headache or cold.” Another hollers, waving at his store filled with all manner of spices, plants, herbs, soaps and strange concoction. Seems the Berbers were able to cure everything with natural remedies – from the common cold, to migraines, to that pesky neighbor that may have put a hex on you.
“Alibaba never had this fine of silks,” a third merchant shouts, adamantly gesturing to his fabrics hanging on display.
For the best lunch in Marrakech, visit the Masion de la Photographie. Their terrace café (no admission to the museum necessary), is a wonderful little oasis to catch a breather from the intense medina. It has a great view of the Marrakech skyline, serving delicious (and reasonably priced) chicken tagine and a savory/sweet pastry filled with chicken stuffing.
Meaning ‘beautiful’ in Arabic, the Bahia Palace was built by Grand Vizier Si Moussa in the 1860s and later improved by slave-turned-vizier Abu ‘Bou’ Ahmed. The Bahia Palace is one of the better sites in Marrakech and worth a wander through to see the stunning Moroccan architecture.
The Badi Palace is located just down the street from its better dressed (and decorated) neighbor. This important building requires visitors to tap their imagination. Built to rival the Alhambra in beauty, today it’s sporting the “ancient ruin” style. The palace was looted 75 years after Sultan Ahmed el-Mansour constructed the masterpiece. If you’re a Moroccan history buff stop by, otherwise skip the Badi and spend more time enjoying Marrakech’s other attractions.
The Saadian Tombs house (and immortalize) Sultan Ahmad al-Mansur and his clan. The tombs are the final resting place of 60 members of the Saadi dynasty (late 1500s-early 1600s). Sultan Ahmad al-Mansour and 170 of his chancellors, wives, sons and relatives are buried here. He spared no expense and it shows in this gorgeous memorial to his legacy.
Smaller than the tanneries in Fez, and one of the main tourist scams, this is where the
leather in Marrakech is dyed. Each day a different color is used. The day I visited was ‘brown day.’ One of the most prevalent scams in Marrakech is locals telling travelers that today is “the only day to see the Berber auction at the tannery. Because the Berbers only work one day a week and it is today.” The person will then guide you there saying they can’t stay long because they have to get back to work and that they would never take any of your money for showing you the way. Upon arrival at the tanneries, you are handed off to one of their friends who will show you around. (This first “helpful” person will get a cut of what you tip the guide.) The second person will hand you mint for the stench of death and chemicals; then show you around the tanneries. Afterwards, thus “guide” may demand a 100 or more dirhams for the 10 minute tour. If you are visiting Fez, I recommend skipping the Marrakech tanneries, since the tanneries in Fez are more impressive. If you are not visiting Fez (which is a travesty), the Marrakech tanneries are worth a look to see the impressive manner in which leather is made. When visiting, negotiate the guide fee before entering the tannery. 50-60 DH is a fair price. Another option is to hire a guide for one day in Marrakech and include a stop at the tanneries. A fair price for a full with a guide is 400 DH (about $40 USD).
If you fall for this or other scams (I’ve fallen for a few, only to realize partway through or after what had happen), chalk it up as a cultural experience. Most are harmless, aiming to eek only a few dirhams out of you. Remember, it’s nothing personal. Most Moroccan live on 100 DH a month (that’s roughly $10 USD), and jump at any opportunity to gain an extra dirham or two. Add these experiences to your list of adventures and misadventures in Morocco – have a good laugh over them and let any negative feelings go. Most Moroccans are very friendly and genuinely want you to have a great time in their country.
Cultural Programs and Café Clock:
Café Clock isn’t just a restaurant that offers excellent food at an affordable price and great
atmosphere, it also offers a wide array of culture programs (some free and some cost a few dirham) to help travelers understand and experience Moroccan culture. Stop in for some great Moroccan cuisine, take a cooking class, learn to play to the oud, learn about traditional Moroccan dance, take a morning yoga class, check out ‘Kech’ download and learn about Moroccan culture, or attend one of the free even music jams sessions or traditional storytelling with a master storyteller.
The owners are working hard to include Moroccan women in all their programs. They have women storytellers, dancers, yoga instructors, chefs, women who lead their ‘Kech’ download programs (where you can ask ALL your questions about Morocco and Moroccan culture), and an all-female band.
Marrakech is a wonderful city to spend a few days getting to know Morocco. An excellent introduction to the country, culture and people. I’m looking forward to getting out of the city and heading over the High Atlas Mountains to the great sand sea that is the Sahara desert.