Lately I’ve been grappling with the feeling that quarantine has taken a few of the prime travel years I have left. As most active travelers know in the back of our minds, these trips will someday be replaced with other things we want out of life: a family, a house, a more demanding career or a passion project. While I never plan to stop adventuring and traveling, I know that someday the other things I want out of life will take priority, and I will no longer be able to book a 3-week-backpacking-voluntourism-trip with no hesitations like I could pre-pandemic. Instead of letting this knowledge consume and depress me, I’m choosing to reflect and write about the amazing experiences I’ve had so far and what I’ve learned, and that brings me to today’s topic: Marrakech, Morocco!
I visited Marrakech a little over a year ago, when my friend Claire met me in Barcelona and we decided to hop on the 2 hour flight for a long weekend in Marrakech. As my first time visiting Africa let alone Morocco, I was excited and prepared for a culturally immersive experience. Marrakech did not disappoint!
We arrived late in the evening and spent a decent amount of time going through customs. As a country that is no stranger to terrorist threats, the security at the airport was extremely high, which made me feel both safe and nervous at the same time. Upon exiting the airport we were picked up by a shuttle Claire had organized to get us to the old city where we were staying.
About 20 minutes later we were dropped off at the edge of the city center, and were surprised by all of the energy and the countless people still out and about, despite it being well past midnight. We were met by Mohammed, a representative from the Riad (which is a Moroccan house or palace with a courtyard where visitors can stay) who was about our age. He quickly grabbed our bags and we followed him down the windy roads, pinning against the walls to let a motorcycle or street cart pass every now and then before arriving at our Riad doorstep.
Where to Stay
While the late-night walk through the Old City was extremely overwhelming at first, stepping into the Riad was like stepping into an Oasis. The four story building was decorated in Moroccan fashion with beautiful tiling and the peaceful sound of water running from an ornate fountain. A few tall palm trees stood in the center of the courtyard, rising well above the top of the building into the night sky.
Our gracious hosts prepared us tea as they checked us in, giving us information on how to get around the Old city on foot and making recommendations to get a taxi to visit the “New City”. We also opted to enjoy breakfasts and dinner at the Riad, which was fairly inexpensive and did not disappoint.
Medina (Old City) vs. Gueliz (New City)
When visiting Marrakech, you have two main options for locations to stay that are vastly different. The Medina, also known as the Old City, is quite unique, surrounded by towering medieval walls that encompass the area. The old city promises a more authentic, cultural experience with snake charmers, folk dancers, and street food vendors along the cobblestone roads that are lined with Souks, or small shops. If you opt for the Medina, chances are you’ll end up staying in a Riad, which ranges in price from $25 – $200 a night and you definitely get what you pay for.
Gueliz, better known to tourists as the New City, provides a much more Western feel for visitors, with large hotels and resorts available to stay along the spaced out roads. Attractions like Jardin Majorelle and Yves Saint Laurent Museum are popular for visiting tourists, and the streets nearby are lined with small shops and cafes for browsing and grabbing a beverage. If you’re looking for more of a quiet, relaxed vacation instead of staying in the middle of the hustle and bustle, staying in the New City is a better option for you.
Culture Do’s and Don’ts
While the native language of Morocco is Arabic, we found that the majority of locals we interacted with spoke English and French as well. Most of the people we met during our stay in Marrakech were wonderful, and respect and politeness are of the utmost importance in this culture.
Drink the Tea: When you arrive at your Riad or hotel, chances are you will be greeted with a pot of Moroccan tea, or green tea with mint and sugar. With temperatures into the hundreds, it’s sometimes difficult to stomach the idea of drinking a hot beverage, but it’s better to do so than to offend your hosts. Additionally, the heat of the Moroccan tea helps the body cool of by increasing sweating.
Dress Appropriately: As a predominantly Muslim culture, it is advised to dress conservatively when visiting Marrakech, Morocco. During my visit I mostly kept my shoulders and legs covered out of respect, and wore a scarf to cover my neck line at times as well. The few times we spotted Westerners dressed in shorts and tank tops, we noticed how much they stood out, receiving unwanted attention or looks. Dressing conservatively offers locals respect while also making you less of a target for scam artists.
Beware Pick-Pockets and Scam Artists: Speaking of scam artists – or rather I’ll call them ‘opportunists’, there is no shortage of individuals trying to make money off tourists. Of course there are Souk owners and street vendors making an honest living, but be cautious and firm when responding to the many individuals who will approach you with something to offer. Locals opportunists surround and overwhelm tourists who are trying to make purchases, sometimes pick-pocketing in the process. Others offer directions, then show you the wrong way and demand money to get you where you are trying to go. Shop owners will also make dishonest claims to get you in their doors.
Trust your gut and be firm and respectful in your responses, and they will typically move on.
Things to Do
Now the fun part – things to do while visiting Marrakech, Morocco!
Explore the Medina: I could have spent my entire trip to Marrakech walking through the Medina and still left feeling like there was more to see. Become engulfed in the culture and get a little lost walking through the narrow roads that wind through the city like an enormous maze. Enjoy the beautiful art and paintings on the walls, as well as the gorgeous mosque and Riad doors that are a spectacle in themselves.
You will find no shortage of Moroccan trinkets during your time in Marrakech. Barter with local Souk owners as you shop for gifts, spices, herbs, rugs, and more. Visit the famous tannery, watch the snake charmers and their Cobras, or take a walk to Le Jardin Secret or Bahia Palace for some solace and peace in the Old City.
Take a Day Trip or Excursion: During our visit, Claire and I decided we really wanted to ride camels in the desert. We asked our host for recommendations on day trips, and he strongly advised we go four-wheeling in the desert as well. As interesting as that sounded, Claire and I insisted on just riding camels. Low and behold, we hopped into a van with other tourists and showed up in the desert at a four-wheeling facility. And you know what? It was the highlight of our trip.
After four-wheeling, we were driven to a separate area where we rode camels in the desert and enjoyed a stunning sunset. While it’s important to stay vigilant, I’d recommend being open to ideas and recommendations from trusted sources. You might be pleasantly surprised like we were.
Visit the New City Attractions: One day we caught a taxi from the Medina to the new city, where we explored the beautiful botanical garden Jardin Marjorelle and the Yves Saint Laurent Museum before grabbing a beverage and walking the modern shops and art galleries along the road. On our last day in Marrakech we also decided to visit one of the beautiful resorts before heading to the airport, enjoying a few cocktails and the upscale feel at a pool-side bar before heading back to Barcelona.
Enjoy Moroccan Cuisine: When walking through the Medina, you will almost always smell the pungent scent of food and spices. Stop for Tagine, a dish comprised of a variety of vegetables and meats that are slow cooked in a clay pot and full of zest and flavor. I also thoroughly enjoyed the Couscous and fresh juices available for purchase. Lastly make sure to bring back some spices, my favorite being a Marrakesh mix of cumin, black pepper, paprika, and turmeric.
Be-friend the Locals and Other Travelers: One of the best parts of travel are the people we meet along the way, and Marrakesh did not disappoint. Riad’s offer community style living with shared common spaces, and we met some amazing people who gave us recommendations for things to do and places to eat. We also ended our evenings enjoying the company of our hosts and learning about life in Morocco over a roof-top glass of wine.
Currency and Money Saving Tips:
The currency in Morocco is Moroccan Dirham, which currently equates to about $0.10 USD. If you’re looking to save money I’d recommend staying in a Riad in the Old City; there are more options to fit your budget as well as more cost effective dining and shopping options, and you can get almost anywhere on foot. Giving yourself a daily budget is also helpful as it’s easy to spend money on trinkets and food while walking around.
While travel plans may be on hold for the unforeseen future, I’m definitely enjoying revisiting the amazing places I’ve been fortunate enough to go while writing this Destination on a Dime series. Everything has an upside if you look for it!
Are you itching to plan your next adventure or reflecting on one of your favorites from the past? Share in the comments below!