Marrakech is known as the Red City because the early residents built the city with red clay. It is also called the City of Four Colors: can you guess which colors and why? (Spoiler alert: red for the red clay, green for the trees, blue for the sky, and white for the Atlas mountains in the distance covered in snow.)
The common tagline among the locals of Marrakech is “Marrakech is a cold country with a hot sun.” Surprisingly, it does get cold in winter; the temperature can drop down to single digits (in Celsius of course). And even though it is only 5 hours from the Sahara Desert, Marrakech can also get rain and snow in winter. However in summer, the sun is hot enough to make it feel like Africa.
Marrakech has a great location in Morocco, about one hour from the Atlas mountains and ski resorts, two and a half hours from the popular beach towns of Essaouira and Casablanca, and five hours to the Sahara Desert. In a one week vacation, you can easily see the three very different climates that Morocco has to offer.
Marrakech is a “modern” city as far as developing countries go. Though the official religion is Islam, many of the people are modernizing their religious clothing or ways of life.
Of course, the mosques still call Muslims to prayer five times a day and everyone still pauses in their daily routines or work days to pray. An Imam or Fakih performs the call for prayer (Adhan) live and it’s continuous throughout the day every day. The volume is turned up five times a day to call others to pray (once in the early morning before sunrise, the second at noon, the third in the evening, the fourth just after sunset, and the last about two hours later). The prayer follows the sun, not the clock: in the spring and summer as the days get longer, the prayer is one minute earlier each day to follow the earlier rising of the sun; in the fall and winter, prayer time is pushed back one minute each day as the sun rises later. The Imam or Fakih must memorize the entire Koran to recite it at births, marriages, deaths, or other such rituals. It requires high levels of Arabic and even a library for Koran explanations.
Our camel tour guide couldn’t hear the mosque’s call to pray outside the city where we were but he still knew by the sun that it was time to pray and performed his worship during the camel ride. It’s nice to see the people of Morocco dedicated to their religion because religion is essentially a moral guide (as long as no one takes any religious teachings too literally.) You can find a video of the call to prayer in Marrakech on my youtube channel.
It is polite to be respectful of the Islamic culture. Plenty of tourists visit Marrakech and don’t think about what to wear since it’s not a big part of Western religions. However, religion is very important in Morocco and the men and women in Marrakech still do wear traditional Islamic clothing (loose, baggy, fully covering). Plenty of visiting Westerners wear short shorts, spaghetti straps, small tight dresses, or modern clothing, but it looks out of place and anachronistic. Even in 30°C (86°F), Muslims will be completely covered from head to toe, sometimes only their eyes showing.
While I never saw anyone publicly ridicule a tourist for inappropriate clothing, I feel it is very important to remember where you are and to dress appropriately (whether it’s comfortable for you or not). Personally, if I was going to spend more than two days in Morocco, I’d love to buy and wear the local garb – they make beautiful, trendy, long, covering dresses that are lightweight for hot weather and protect you from the hot sun and are very unique. You can buy local clothes for only 2-5€. Please, if you visit Morocco, dress appropriately!!!
The people of Marrakech are incredible. I really can’t compliment them enough – every single person we met was absolutely wonderful and helpful! From the adorable hotel staff to the knowledgeable camel excursion staff to the delightful restaurant employees, the people of Marrakech are truly great.
The official languages of Marrakech are French and a local Moroccan dialect slightly different from Arabic, however they do study traditional Arabic in school and understand it perfectly (although certain words in Arabic are offensive in the Moroccan dialect, so if you’re not familiar with the local language, you might be better off speaking French). Most people in Marrakech speak English as well, although we came across a few who spoke Franglish (“Nous sommes here” and “Voudriez-vous sugar?”) I give them a lot of credit for speaking Moroccan, Arabic, French, English, and Spanish!
Things To See
Camel Ride: When you’re in Morocco so close to the biggest desert in the world, you have to ride a camel no matter how touristy it is. If you have a few days to spare, take a 3-day excursion to the Sahara and ride a camel through the desert, camping in a tent in the desert overnight. If you’re on a tight timeline (like I was), you can still take a wonderful camel ride through the outskirts of Marrakech. We learned that these camels are known as the gypsies of the Sahara and can last up to 20 days in the desert without a drink of water. There were some baby camels, some as young as 20 days old. Camels are ready to be ridden by 3 years of age, and they live to 25-30 years old. Madonna is 15 years old and Titi is 5 years old.
Jamaa Alfna Square: The biggest square and main market place in the medina of Marrakech. It is reminiscent of one huge flea market. You can find performers, hagglers, horse carriages, tarot card readers, henna artists, and anyone else you can think of in the square enticing tourists to spend money. You can visit any of the shops for souvenirs or Moroccan goods including spices, oils (Moroccan argan oil), local (and Western) attire, scarves, jewelry, leather, lamps, tea, coffee, and food. An interesting fact: Once there was an earthquake in Marrakech and the people started yelling “jamaa alfna! jamaa alfna!” which translates to “the mosque is falling down! the mosque is falling down!” And since that time, the square in front of the Kotobiya Mosque is known as “Jamaa Alfna.”
Kotobiya Mosque: Though you can’t visit the mosque if you’re not Muslim, you can see this impressive structure towering over the city just a stone’s throw away from the Jamaa Alfna square. Many speakers on the mosque call Muslims to prayer throughout the day, and at night it’s lit up impressively with glowing lights. You can find mosque towers all over the city (don’t use them as landmarks or you’ll get lost), but the Kotobiya Mosque is the largest mosque in Marrakech.
Majorelle Gardens: These 12-acre artistic gardens are a wonderful place for shade under the hot Moroccan sun. French expatriate Jacques Majorelle designed the gardens in the 1920s but Yves Saint Laurent acquired them in 1980. When Yves Saint Laurent died in 2008, the city erected a memorial to him and scattered his ashes throughout the gardens. Also inside the gardens you can find a museum of Islamic art and a café for lunch or afternoon tea.
Badi Palace: Badi Palace is the ruins of an old sultan’s palace dating back to the 1500s. In Arabic, El Badi Palace translates to “The Incomparable Palace.” You can enter the palace ruins and see the summer palace, guest houses, gardens, basins, and pavilions for 10 dirham (1€). Finally, if you are Muslim, you can enter the mosque inside the Badi Palace, however being a non-Muslim, I was not allowed to buy tickets to visit this section of the palace.
Bahia Palace: Our camel excursion guide, Ahmed, recommended we visit Bahia Palace, but unfortunately I thought he said Badi Palace and we didn’t make it to the Bahia Palace. The Bahia Palace was built for the grand vizier of the sultan and named for his wife and the series of gardens, courtyards, lounges, and apartments are a nice relaxing time-out from Marrakech. The best Moroccan workers and artisans built the palace in two stages and finally finished the project in 1900.
Gueliz (French Quarter): The Gueliz is the new section of town, less touristy and more of a working city. You will see more locals going about their daily business here and more authentic Moroccan restaurants. You will avoid the hagglers selling their wares and horse carriages by coming to this area. The French Quarter is outside the city walls, but not a far walk (or 20 dirham cab ride) from the medina. The Majorelle Gardens are located in the Gueliz.
Snake Charmers: This doesn’t only happen in movies! There are really snake charmers in the tourist squares of Marrakech. They play music and the cobras dance! It’s actually pretty interesting to see. Of course, they are hagglers trying to make a few dirhams so they will pull you in to take pictures and charge you, but like everything it is negotiable. They will try to get 300 dirham (30€) from you, but don’t let them intimidate you! Or, watch from afar and enjoy the dancing snakes without paying. Personally, I think it’s worth it to pay them for the experience and pictures. When in Africa…
Monkeys: So many of our zoo animals are native to Africa. It’s common to see locals with monkeys trying to make some money off the tourists. You can take pictures with the monkeys, pet the monkeys, or watch them play and dance. The monkeys are usually wearing clothing too! (This goes back to my plea above: if the monkeys can be covered up, so can you.)
Fast food on the street: There are plenty of little grills set up on the side of the street where locals are cooking kebabs. It’s mostly other locals who go here to buy the food, but if you want a true taste of Morocco, stop by one of these little fast food grills for a 2€ sandwich.
Morocco is famous for couscous, tajine (cooking in a clay pot over coals), tea, and coffee. Popular spices used in Moroccan foods are mint, cumin, cinnamon, paprika, oregano, cayenne pepper, and saffron. Spice markets sell these spices, oils, lemons, oranges, and olives that are common in Moroccan food and local to the area.
Another thing to note about restaurants/bars is that alcohol is only for the Western visitors. The Islam religion prohibits alcohol, so you won’t find any of the locals drinking. Therefore, while most of Marrakech is cheap, alcohol is very expensive because they know only tourists are drinking it. A small beer (33cl) will be about 4-6€ and a large beer will be anywhere from 6-8€. Even in a grocery store, beer cans will run about 1€ per can. The cheapest glass of wine I saw was 4€, the most expensive being 36€. Nowhere in the medina may serve alcohol because the medina is the religious center of the city.
La Perle du Sud: Though this restaurant is located in the heart of the medina/tourist area, I can’t recommend it enough! The dishes are very authentic Moroccan and delicious. James ordered lamb tajine and I ordered slow roasted beef with couscous (a Moroccan specialty according to the waitress) and we were astounded at the wonderful taste. With our drinks came bread and a black olive spread that was just spicy enough to give it a Moroccan taste. I don’t usually like black olives, but we had to order a second helping of this delicious spread.
The restaurant is a bit hard to find; it’s located on a rooftop terrace up three flights of stairs with only a small sign indicating which entrance to go into, but it’s worth finding. The Moroccan mint tea is amazing! There is also live music in the open air terrace restaurant, but not the live music you are probably thinking of. Three men playing Arab instruments made very relaxing, very local music, and it was wonderful! If there is only one restaurant you visit in Marrakech, I recommend this one.
Cafe Arabe: Another restaurant slightly hard to find because it’s located amidst the souks, this three-level restaurant is wonderful at sunset. The top and bottom floors are open-air while the second floor is a typical Arab lounge inside with pillows on the floor and drapes around the tables. The restaurant is just outside the medina so they can serve alcohol, but it is very expensive. It’s one of the few places in Europe that a martini is actually on the menu! Still, I chose to try the different Moroccan teas the café offered. The dishes were slightly more expensive than La Perle du Sud, but the food was delicious. James had the Moroccan beef with potatoes, which was a very big plate, and I tried the chicken tajine with lemons and olives, which left me still a bit hungry. But with a sunset view like Cafe Arabe offered, I’d recommend it!
Kosybar: You can find this gem just behind the spice markets and next to the Badi Palace. Kosybar is another open air terrace restaurant with two upstairs outside levels and an inside downstairs room. There are great views of Marrakech and the Kotobiya Mosque from a different angle from this section of town. The food options are plentiful with a menu of the day option, but both James and I went with the Oriental panini and were not disappointed. Being outside the medina, Kosybar does serve alcohol, but again, when in Morocco, try the tea! This is a great lunch spot between visiting the spice markets and the Badi and Bahia Palaces.
I learned the term riad means a building with a central open courtyard. Most of the hotels you will find in Marrakech are riads.
The Riad Lakhdar is owned by a Moroccan man who studied business at NYU and lived in New York City for 20 years. He is very familiar with American ways and speaks excellent English and offers many helpful tips when visiting Marrakech. There are three floors of rooms all surrounding the central open courtyard. The windows open out directly to the fresh air (but be careful, people can see right in!)
Breakfast was much more than a continental breakfast! Breakfast for two included 4 crepes with jam, hard-boiled or fried eggs, 2 pancakes, 2 corn breads, 3 Moroccan doughnuts, fresh squeezed orange juice, coffee, and tea. There is no way you could leave still feeling hungry! You could eat breakfast on the rooftop or under a tent on the third floor. The hotel also served lunch and dinner for an added price, but it’s better to go explore the rest of the city and try something new.
Our hotel was in an excellent location, only a 5 minute walk to the Jamaa Alfna square, right behind a popular street for restaurants or shops, and a straight shot to Cafe Arabe. It’s 4.6 km from the airport (about 7 minutes and 50 dirham/5€ by taxi). There was no front door key so each time we wanted to enter the hotel, we had to ring the doorbell. I have to admit, I felt very safe with this setup; there was always someone waiting to make sure you belonged there and to let you in. This is a great hotel and for the price, I would absolutely stay here again.
Developing countries get a bad reputation for being dangerous and dirty. Islam gets a bad reputation for raising terrorists. I was nervous to tell people (especially my mom) that I was visiting Morocco because I didn’t want to go into this trip worried. Of course I had my guard up, but I wanted to give the country a fair chance. If there’s one thing I’ve learned through my year of traveling Europe, it’s that the whole world isn’t as dangerous as we’re taught and for the most part, all the people of the world are the same. Everyone lives the same way: eating to stay alive, working to make a living, being friendly to make new friends; everyone’s just trying to live a happy life.
Of course there are the hagglers who try to sell you things you don’t need, maybe there are pickpockets and thieves (I didn’t come across any in Marrakech, but there could be), but aren’t there people like this in the closest city to you too? Marrakech was interesting, unique, ethnic, cultural, and different, but it was wonderful and beautiful. I had an amazing experience in my two days there and I can’t wait to go back for longer and see more of the country. I would absolutely recommend it to anyone who wants a different kind of experience; it’s worth a visit.
6 Travel Lessons They Won’t Teach You In School is a great article that further illustrates my point and is worth a look!