Marrakech is a major city in Morocco, the most important of the four imperial cities, and as a major tourist centre is likely to be your first taste of Morocco. Now a far cry from the hippy mecca of the 1960’s, Marrakech remains fascinating and offers some of the best travel experiences in Morocco. The tourism trade is quite mature and well managed and is available to any budget. Known as Morocco’s Red City due to its pink and ochre fortified walls, Marrakech is equally beguiling, vibrant, colourful and overwhelming. Here is a list of things to do in Marrakech, Morocco.
Things to do in Marrakech, Morocco
In order to enjoy Marrakech and do it justice, I recommend spending three or four days minimum, before discovering its surroundings. Marrakech has a dry and sunny climate, close to the desert and the Atlas Mountains. Also, Marrakech is very easy to get to from European capitals and has a brand new airport. Several motorways link Marrakech to Casablanca, Fès and Essaouira, making it an easy destination to reach.
Jamaa El Fna
Jamaa El Fna is a large square on the edge of the medina, and the cultural heart of Marrakech. As you emerge from the narrow covered laneways, Jamaa El Fna reveals itself as a grand and manically busy central square. Around AD1050, the site hosted public executions and the name means “Assembly of the Dead”. Since then, everything happens in Jamaa El Fna: street theatre, Gnawa musicians, snake charmers and food sellers will entertain and perhaps overwhelm you. Up to the 1980s, Jamaa El Fna was also the site of a bus station, with travellers arriving or departing at all hours of the day… Since its removal, the square is quieter and more organised, believe it or not.
In 2001, Jamaa El Fna was named a Masterpiece of World Heritage by the UNESCO. It paints an energetic picture of Moroccan life and culture: you can observe street theatre and Gnawa musicians in their colourful costumes. Water sellers in fringed hats will draw attention with their colourful clothing and brassware. These days, they are more there for photo opportunities and will ask for a small fee, but if you can snap a good photo, they are a quintessential sight of Moroccan life. The Gnawa musicians and snake charmers will do the same, quite insistently.
Jamaa El Fna is a must do in Marrakech but it’s also the prime location for all sorts of scams and pickpockets, so you need to be very cautious when walking around. Having said that, I’ve never had any issues on the square. A more relaxing way of enjoying the activity on Jamaa El Fna is from above. There are many rooftop restaurants offering great views, and I recommend having a drink or dinner while watching the night slowly fall on the square when the square is most alive.
Also known as “souk”, the medina is the maze of narrow streets and small squares full of stalls and shops selling all sorts of wares. I have trouble with the word “souk”, it seems very prevalent in everything I read about Marrakech but I never hear it in Morocco, so I prefer to use “medina”. Either way, it’s one of my very favourite things to do in Marrakech.
The medina is also listed on the UNESCO Heritage List and rightly so. In my opinion, Marrakech has the most vibrant, colourful and rich markets. The sheer size and amount of goods are incredible, the market is a fantastic showcase of everything Morocco in terms of craftsmanship. The choice of souvenirs and wares is overwhelming and I have a comprehensive shopping guide and haggling tips to help you plan your retail adventure.
Even though the Marrakech medina is very touristy, it is also a place of work and real life. Amongst the bright colours of touristy wares, the medina is full of locals going about their lives, shopping for food, carting goods and trading. Indeed, the medina is a major centre of activity and that’s what I love about it.
Entering the medina and treading the narrow lanes can be daunting and you should expect to get lost at some point… Don’t worry, it’s part of the experience and you may discover some lovely spots on your walk. If you use a local SIM card, Google maps and a town map may help you. However, if you need a local to give you good directions, the best thing to do is to walk into a shop and ask someone. I wouldn’t rely on people on the street too much, they may want to act as a guide for a while and may send you in the wrong direction. If you stay several days in Marrakech, staying within the medina might be a great way to get your bearings.
The Majorelle garden is one of the most visited sites in Morocco and a major drawcard for Marrakech. Located in the “ville nouvelle” or “new city” and created by French Orientalist painter Jacques Majorelle, this is an enchanting garden in the heart of Marrakech. Jacques Majorelle lived there from 1923 to the 1950s and developed a beautiful botanical garden full of trees, exotic plants, burbling streams and pools filled with water lilies and lotus flowers.
At the request of Majorelle, French architect Paul Sinoir built a cubist villa in the 1930s. In the 1980s, the villa and garden were bought by fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé. The place had fallen into disrepair and was lovingly restored.
Saint Laurent had discovered Marrakech in the 1960s when it became a “hippy mecca”. It became a major place of work and inspiration for Saint Laurent and, after his death in 2008, his ashes were scattered in the garden. Today, the Majorelle garden is an unmissable sight of Marrakech. The garden is a haven for birds and the combination of colours decorating the buildings make for stunning pictures.
The garden also hosts has a cafe, the Berber Museum and the Yves Saint Laurent Memorial. The museum bookshop has some very good books and the Boutique Majorelle has some beautiful (and expensive) wares, with a strong Saint Laurent inspiration…
The Majorelle Garden is beautiful and inspiring but it’s also a victim of its success. Unfortunately, I found it completely overrun by tour buses and taking an uninterrupted photo is quite difficult. At 70Dh per adult, the entry fee is not cheap and it can get quite crowded. So I’m really in two minds about recommending it…
Yves Saint Laurent Museum
I missed the Yves Saint Laurent Museum by merely a few days… It opened only a few days after I left Marrakech. It is definitely on my bucket list for my next trip to Marrakech. Morocco very much inspired Saint Laurent’s fashion. Let me know if you have any insights into the museum! I will certainly put it on my list of things to do when I’m next in Marrakech.
Ben Youssef Madrasa
Located in the heart of the medina, the Ben Youssef Madrasa is an Islamic college founded in the 14th century. It is the largest madrasa in Morocco and was for a time one of the largest theological colleges in North Africa. The madrasa is a beautiful example of Islamic architecture and there are so many beautiful design details such as zellij, stucco, mosaic and cedar carvings…
Opened as a museum in 1960, the madrasa has been carefully renovated in 1999 and is full of incredibly fine details.
Additional Things to do in Marrakech, Morocco
The Koutoubia Mosque
The Koutoubia is the largest Mosque in Marrakech and one of its icons. Built in the 12th Century in red stone and brick, it stands at 80m. Non-muslims are not allowed in mosques in Morocco, but you shouldn’t miss admiring the Koutoubia at dusk… Interestingly, the Koutoubia is the subject of a quirky phenomenon: as you drive towards it on one of the avenues, it becomes smaller…
The Bahia Palace is a 19th Century, Islamic style palace, with beautiful architecture. Decorated by the best artisans of the time, the palace includes a mosque, a Koranic school, a harem, a hammam, stables, various gardens and orchards. Under the French Protectorate, General Lyautey set up his headquarters and introduced electricity and running water. The Bahia Palace is now a museum and another fine example of Islamic architecture.
The Menara Gardens
The Menara Gardens are a botanical garden west of Marrakech, built in the 12th Century. The pavilion overlooking the basin was built in the 16th Century, during the Saadi Dynasty, and is in a direct line with the Koutoubia Mosque. An old hydraulic system brings the water from the mountains and the gardens are full of olive groves and orchards. These days, the place is a little run-down, however, the pavilion makes for a beautiful sight when the Atlas Mountains are visible in the background. This sight is more likely to occur in winter when the air is clear.
While visiting the Menara is a little less popular nowadays, I would still recommend it as a thing to do in Marrakech, especially on a clear day!
The Saadian Tombs
This is a 16th Century mausoleum to the Saadian sultans. It was lost for many years and rediscovered by the French in 1917 thanks to some aerial photography. Islamic architecture is plentiful: floral motifs, calligraphy, zellij in Carrara marble and cedar wood carvings.
Food & Drink
No trip to Morocco would be complete without experiencing the food. Moroccan food has been part of my life since I was a child, and I always marvel at the freshness and taste of its ingredients. Moroccan food is a subtle mix of sweet and savoury, always made with care and an appreciation of time. When thinking of Morocco, the flavours that come to my mind are mint, cumin, orange blossom, rose, cinnamon… in no particular order… To me, Moroccan food is both homely and elegant.
However, like anywhere else, there are different levels. In small towns, or even tourist towns less imposing than Marrakech, the fare you find tends to be fairly standard. Lemon chicken tajine and vegetable couscous dominate the menu and the delivery can be sometimes be hit and miss…
I read some disappointed reviews food reviews in Marrakech, but its status as a major tourist centre makes it vulnerable to negligence. Thankfully, there is plenty to choose from in Marrakech, ranging from street food to fine dining. For your first time in Marrakech, the dishes to look for are tajine (stew), couscous, pastilla, harira soup, mezze, briouats… and the ubiquitous pastries and cakes…
There are plenty of restaurants in Marrakech, at street level or on rooftops. The rooftops are especially good for a relaxing drink admiring the skyline and Atlas Mountains…
Guéliz is the colonial district in the “Ville Nouvelle”. Built by the French, Guéliz has this 1930s feel with a few Art Deco buildings and some leafy streets. This neighbourhood is a quieter option for accommodation. I especially like Guéliz for its fine stores. In terms of fashion wares, what you find in the medina can be of average quality. The finest garments and leathers are in Guéliz and I especially love the stores around the Rue de la Liberté, such as Intensité Nomade, Place Vendome and Galerie Birkemeyer.
I will be writing in more detail about my favourite stores in Marrakech, and I also recommend visiting the Patisserie Al Jawda and a relaxing lunch at the Grand Café de la Poste.
Safety & Annoyances
As a major tourist destination, Marrakech logically attracts all sorts of touts, fake guides and con artists. Therefore, you have to be careful and avoid scams and unpleasant situations. The most overwhelming thing for your first time in Marrakech will be the constant solicitations… People will approach you to act as a guide or to sell you something… Taxis have meters but will prefer to charge a flat (and sometimes exorbitant) fee. Sellers can be pushy, insisting that you buy in larger quantities.
Finally, photography is often merchandised… willing models will ask for a fee, sometimes firmly… It can be annoying at times and you need to keep your sense of humour. It’s the best way to deal with it. But overall, Marrakech is quite safe for tourists, even solo women. Moroccans do understand the word no and it’s a matter of being firm but always polite. I will be writing more about how to deal with unwanted solicitations and how to haggle when shopping.
The Best Time to Go
Marrakech benefits from a hot and semi-arid climate, and it gets very hot in summer. I recommend you avoid July and August because of the heat and the large crowds of tourists. Winter can be cold, especially at night. However, when the air is clear, the Atlas Mountains are much more visible. Autumn can be wet, especially October and November. The very best of time would be spring, from March to May, before it gets too hot. However, I have been to Marrakech in all seasons and always had a great time. You just need to adapt to the conditions.
This is Just the Beginning
Marrakech is a must-do in Morocco and is likely to be your point of entry, but it’s also a great gateway to many other places, such as Tangier or Chefchaouen. I will be writing more about my travels around Morocco soon. If you are looking to explore more of this beautiful country, there are plenty of tours available, but I have a preference for self-drive and I have some great tips on driving in Morocco. Some roads are dangerous but also incredibly beautiful. If you are travelling through the North of Morocco, I also recommend visiting Tetouan and the Spanish Enclaves and learning about the Controversial Spanish Islands.
To get you started, I have a list of 20 excellent reasons why you should visit Morocco. A successful trip to Morocco takes some preparation, and I have a list of 20 things you to know before travelling.
For more inspiration on travelling to Morocco, check out my Pinterest board.
How was your first time in Marrakech? Please tell me about your highlights in the comments below.