Marrakech is one of those cities that seems to captivate your senses before you even set foot on Moroccan soil. A paradise for photographers, foodies, culture hunters and sun-seekers alike, there is an absolute wealth of material – from blog posts to full-length documentaries – to get you drooling with anticipation and itching to board your flight. Despite all this, nothing – no amount of reading, or flicking through Instagram hashtags – can properly prepare a ‘first timer’ for what Marrakech has to offer.
We were heading to Morocco in early May, with 10 nights away which would include:
- A few nights to explore (and get thoroughly lost in) Marrakech itself – split into a part one and two
- 2 nights travelling down to Erg Chebbi, the spectacular edge of the Sahara Desert where we’d spent a night camping before returning to Marrakech
- A night train (we absolutely love a good night train!) from Marrakech to Tangier, on the very northern tip of Morocco overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar
- And, finally, a short ferry from Africa to Europe to spend 2 nights in Gibraltar before flying back to mainland UK
We had toyed with the idea of squeezing in a visit to Fes, or the wonderfully blue Chefchaoun, but the usual restrictions of annual leave meant those would have to wait for another trip. Looking back, there are no regrets – it was a perfect 10 night itinerary.
Arriving in Marrakech – Riads are the only way!
The approach into Marrakech airport teases you with a first glimpse of what’s to come. Framed by the majestic Atlas mountains peeking through the clouds, the city quickly flashes into view – an oasis of soft pink clay crammed inside ancient walls – before disappearing again just in time for touching down.
Marrakech airport is notorious for its immigration queues – both times I’ve been, it’s required an exercise in patience as you wait for the snaking ranks of travellers to pass through; certainly something to keep in mind if you’re arranging a trip or transfer directly from the terminal. After what seemed like an entire afternoon – but in reality was just over an hour – we were finally through and ready to begin our journey!
With a wealth of taxi propositions to choose from, we were quickly on our way to our first Riad – a traditional house centred around an open courtyard – of the trip. Staying in a Riad in Marrakech is surely the only way to truly experience this incredible city; think of it as a Moroccan B&B. There are hundreds of Riads to choose from – look out for the ones which appear to be independent and family run; not only will you be directly supporting the local economy, but you’ll be welcomed like an old friend, plied with all the mint tea you can drink, and be able to gather all the tips and tricks to make your stay unforgettable.
Our first night was spent at Riad Konouz – a stone’s throw from the entrance to one of the Souks and about 15 minutes walk (assuming you don’t get lost!) from Jemaa el-Fnaa square – the very heart of activity in Marrakech. It had everything you could want when booking a Riad stay; we sat down with Mohamed on colourful cushions in the courtyard for a good 20 minutes, sipping on mint tea and talking about our plans for the trip. After a quick tour around the beautiful Riad, we dropped our bags off in our room and headed out into the city – armed with some great recommendations for people to visit in the Souks and places to eat.
The Souks of Marrakech
When we head to a new place, we have a general idea of what we would like to see and do during our time there. The Souks – the bustling explosion of markets stretching out across the ancient Medina of Marrakech – were a natural ‘list topper’, and we couldn’t wait to get lost in the miles of alleyways which stretch out from Jemaa el-Fnaa. The square is a whole experience in itself – snake charmers, storytellers and street-food stalls jumbled together next to musicians, artists and drinks stands to create an enticing cocktail of sights and sounds. For the full effect, visit just after sundown. Simply incredible.
Safe to say, the experience of wandering the Souks themselves lived up to all expectations – and then some! Within minutes of walking through the entrance to our first Souk – full of miles and miles of leather goods – we were completely lost, which was the best thing that could have happened. You can grab a map or use phone GPS to get you out of a sticky situation if pressed for time, but the joy of wandering aimlessly for hours is that you can experience the sights, smells and chaos which draws locals and travellers to the Medina in their thousands.
On the subject of smells and chaos, it’s almost impossible to describe quite how overwhelmed the senses can be during even the shortest of wanders through the Souks. One minute, you could be walking past mountains of multi-coloured spices and herbs, each with their own distinct and powerful aromas, before turning a corner and finding yourself face to face with a row of sheep’s heads lined up just a few feet away from a rack of traditional rugs. Despite having so much to see and take in, you can’t stand still for too long before a procession of motorcycles will weave their way past you at impossibly close range – and it’s always worth keeping an eye out for the occasional donkey!
Haggling is an art form in Marrakech’s Souks, and something we certainly took some getting used to! By Day 4 or 5, we’d shaken off most of our British ‘politeness’ and were able to score some good prices for some beautiful pottery from a lovely chap called Omar – whose stall in the Berber market we visited several times during our stay. On Day 1, we’d probably have thrown our savings at someone for a tea cup! Practice makes perfect…
As well as plenty of practice, it’s amazing what a little conversation can do for your chances whilst haggling – especially if you can drop some French or Arabic in! Us Brits have a reputation for being generally pretty lazy when it comes to languages – our stereotypical modus operandi being to gesticulate wildly whilst raising your voice a few decibels in the vague hope that you will get your point across. This is always something I’m very conscious of, and learning even a few words or phrases (particularly in non-European languages where there’s little or no expectation of you) can really help break down barriers and show that you’ve put some effort in. Even something as simple as ‘La Shukran’ (‘No, thank you’ in Arabic) can bring a smile when turning something down!
From the Souks to the Rooftops…
Our first evening in Marrakech was spent unwinding with industrial amounts of mint tea and sizzling tagine on the rooftop cafes and restaurants which are dotted all over the Medina. These places are the absolute best antidote to the relative chaos of the stalls below – the very definition of an oasis of calm, and an amazing place to take in the sunset whilst Jemaa el-Fnaa slowly bursts into life.
There are far, far too many great rooftop restaurants in Marrakech to list them all – but here are a few of our favourites:
- Cafe chez Zaza: A stone’s throw from Jemaa el-Fnaa, this is an unassuming and great value spot to enjoy a lunchtime tagine and tuck in to some tea. I enjoyed a good two or three hours here happily sipping drinks and reading a book during the hottest part of the day.
- Cafe Guerrab: Similar to Zaza, this well-priced rooftop restaurant isn’t quite on the main square but is very much within earshot of the performers and general commotion. A good place at twilight as you start to see the smoke rising over the rooftops from the many street-food stalls below.
- Cafe Zeitoun: One of my absolute faves. A good direct view across one of the ‘sides’ of the square, meaning you’re very much at the heart of the action. Slightly more expensive for it, and worth booking ahead if you want a balcony spot for dinner, but a lovely place to relax during the afternoon with a fresh orange juice.
- Nomad: If you’re looking for somewhere a little bit special and ‘upmarket’, Nomad would have to be up there. Authentic Moroccan dishes with a ‘fine dining’ finesse, it’s well worth booking yourself a table and setting yourself up for a long evening of great food and a special atmosphere as the sun sets over the city.
- Cafe Argana: Firstly, a disclaimer that this is very much the definition of a tourist trap. A different scale to the others in the list in terms of its size and operation, but the big perk of Argana is its almost unrivalled views over the square. We can’t comment on the food, as we felt it was expensive compared to other options, but we did think that this is a great spot for an ice cream and mint tea during an afternoon break. Airport style security at the door gives a sombre reminder of past events – Argana was the target of the 2011 Marrakech bombing.
As a general rule, prices will decrease the further you go from the square – and a more expensive menu does not always reflect the quality of the food or service. As with anywhere else, it’s worth doing your research to make sure you can find somewhere that gives you exactly what you’re looking for – although there are some gems to be found by simply taking a chance! We would absolutely recommend that you do not leave Marrakech without enjoying a rooftop dinner – the combination of great food, golden lighting and hearing the Islamic call to prayer echoing across the city is simply unforgettable. This was how we spent our first night, and we would not have changed a thing.
Onwards to the desert!
After a first day and evening which was very much spent getting our bearings (in other words, getting repeatedly lost in the Souks), we collapsed into bed thoroughly exhausted. The exhaustion probably wasn’t helped by the fact that I thought my ‘inner compass’ had already got Marrakech nailed down – instead, it led us both in the completely opposite direction for a good twenty minutes. Oops.
Exhaustion and poor sense of direction aside, we were both excited for what was to come – a two day trip across the Atlas Mountains and into the Sahara down at Erg Chebbi! We’d be returning to Marrakech for a few more days afterwards, and had already started forming plans for what we’d be getting up to when we return – and that’ll be a whole new post in itself. Morocco was, and still is, like nothing else we’d ever experienced – a wonderful melting pot of colours, culture and incredible hospitality.