Morocco has been a destination that has piqued my interest for quite come time. It’s close in proximity to the United Kingdom, a cheap Ryanair flight from London Stansted (like $75 roundtrip if booked in advance) — but it’s AFRICA, a continent that I’ve never been to! We decided to go over Christmas holiday, because we had enough time off and it wouldn’t be ridiculously hot like summer. While we were in Morocco for 6 days, we used Marrakech as a springboard and spent 4 days traveling to other places in Morocco. It was an amazing experience, but I do wish I had seen more of Marrakech (it is easy to get caught up in the color and chaos of the Medina and spend a lot of time in the Souks). We didn’t hit all the tourist sites, but everything that we saw was incredible!
We arrived in Morocco around 10:00am in the morning. Getting through customs did not take as long as we thought; security is tight at the airport and your bags get scanned multiple times, even upon arrival. After getting through customs we hit up an ATM for Dirhams (the local currency) and hopped in a taxi to the center of the city, which dropped us off in the main square in the Medina (old city). When you get to Marrakech it can feel overwhelming, and chaotic. There are so many sights, people, vendors, and mopeds (literally plowing through the smallest spaces nearly running you over on an hourly basis). Suitcases make you a target; if your Riad (hotel) is near the Medina, make sure you get walking directions ahead of time (I wish we had!) because the maze of narrow footpaths is confusing and you will have people trying to help you, for a fee of course. Once we found our Riad (we stayed at Riad Lila, and while it wasn’t a 4 star experience, it was cozy and sufficient for our budget, and they serve traditional Moroccan mint tea upon arrival with breakfast included daily. We quickly learned the best path to the main square, Jemaa el-Fnaa and found the location to be convenient to the pick up sites for our tours as well as shopping in the Souks.
After enjoying mint tea, and checking into our room, we headed out for the Medina and the Souks for lunch and shopping. We spent most of the day wandering the maze of small streets, discovering all that the markets have to offer. The streets wind around and are seemingly endless, with each little alley eventually taking you to another larger square. If you get lost, you ultimately end up somewhere that leads to something familiar. There is something for everyone in Marrakech – purses, rugs, placemats, pottery, tagine pots, trinkets, tea sets, glass and silver, spices, leather, baskets, scarves, jewelry, etc. The stalls are never ending, with each as colorful as the next. Be prepared to bargain with the vendors. If I was truly interested in an item, I would offer half of what they were asking, and they usually accepted. If you are not interested, make sure you say “No, merci”. The official languages of Morocco are Arabic and Berber, but most Moroccans also speak French fluently. Many of the salespeople can be pushy and will try to put a scarf on you or pick something for you to wear. Stand your ground and you will be fine. That said, there were a lot of things in the Souks that I was genuinely interested in. We ended up buying some pillowcases, placements, and purses. I honestly would’ve bought more things and really wanted a tangine pot — BUT, that Ryanair carry on is small! If you love to shop and can’t resist a bargain (MOM), you will need extra bag going home.
Jemaa el-Fnaa is still the main market square used in the Medina, visited daily by tourists and locals. Many of the Souks pictured above are reached from taking alleys off of the main square. The Old Town was confusing at first, but after getting lost momentarily, we always found our way back to somewhere we recognized. The square was the meeting point for all of the day trips and tours we took. The vendors set up early in the morning, and it becomes more crowded as the day goes on. The square has endless stalls of fruit, juice, gifts, purses, pottery, etc. Definitely stop for some fresh squeezed juice – it is super inexpensive and so fresh! We had orange juice daily, and fresh squeezed pomegranate juice as well. Many restaurants surround the square; we enjoyed eating near here and the rooftop views were a plus. In the square you will find street performers, particularly in the evening. You will also find cobras, and barbary apes on leashes. It’s sad to see the exploitation of these animals, and I wondered about how they were treated. Having never seen a monkey outside of a zoo, it was quite a sight to see! Beware — snake charmers and monkey handlers are of course looking for money, so don’t stare too long. They will even try to hound you for money if they catch you taking a picture. The energy in the square is high, and it’s definitely an experience not to be missed! Hearing the Muslim call to prayer through the loudspeakers was such a unique experience. Jemaa el-Fnaa is most definitely a sensory overload in a good way!
When we weren’t taking a day trip, shoving our faces full of Moroccan cuisine (more on that below, of course!), or wandering around the Souks indecisive about what to purchase, we actually toured a Marrakech favorite – Bahia Palace. As the name suggests, it’s a beautiful palace and gardens set in Marrakech, walking distance from the Medina. The Palace was built in the 1860s and features impressive tilework, architecture and gardens. It is open daily at 9am, and definitely worth a visit!
One of things I was most excited for in Morocco is the food! Let’s be honest, that’s what I’m excited about everywhere we go, but traditional Moroccan cuisine is hard to find outside of Africa. Lucky for me, I got my fill of tagine and tasty food in Marrakech! If you love olives and almonds, you’re in for a treat. The markets and surrounding areas are packed with traditional Moroccan restaurants and cafes. In fact, you won’t find anything BUT Moroccan food, except for maybe a pizza place or two. Almost every restaurant and cafe we went to, has their own version of mint tea on the menu – and ALL of them are delicious! We were surprised how much we loved it; we’d order it with our meal and sometimes after. It’s traditional to pour the tea from the teapot high above the glass so that it bubbles when it hits the glass. The traditional dish is tagine, cooked with different meats. It’s very flavorful, and I think my favorite was a beef tagine at Cafe Kessabine, just off the main square. We even went here twice and found it to be great food for the money.
Another restaurant we enjoyed was La Table Du Palais. We went one night for dinner after discovering it online. It was a restaurant within a Lamrani Palace, where you could also stay. We dined outside in a beautiful garden. Another perk? It was a Moroccan/French restaurant and they served wine! Alcohol is rare in Moroccan restaurants as it isn’t a big drinking culture. The food was delicious and the menu changes based on ingredients.
We also stumbled upon a truly authentic and unique dining experience accidentally. While walking around the Souks one afternoon, I saw a beautiful door with stunning tile work down the stairs. We decided to explore and found it led to a restaurant that hosts a nightly dinner show with traditional Moroccan dancing. We were lucky to snag reservations for that evening where we had more delicious tagine in an ornate room with dancing and entertainment. Dar Es Salaam, tucked away in a Riad in the Old Town, offered a truly unique experience! Annnnnd, they also serve wine!
We also dined at Nomad, a popular restaurant in the Medina. It had great reviews online, and was completely packed when we arrived. We were able to get a table for two. The food was delicious, but the service wasn’t as great, and it was a little more expensive than we usually pay for lunch. The restaurant did have some great rooftop views though!
We loved our experience in Marrakech, and I’d highly recommend it if you are able to visit Morocco! We also did day trips to Essaouira and Ouzoud Falls, as well as an overnight trip through the Atlas Mountains to Zagora. If you travel to Marrakech, here are some things to remember:
- Dress appropriately – it was sunny and warm in the day, but the temperature dropped a lot in the evening. Women don’t have to cover their heads, but you should respect the culture and consider conservative clothing choices.
- A little French goes a long way. Moroccans are friendly people and they like when you try to attempt pleasantries in one of their languages.
- If you have allergies or asthma, bring your medicine. Along with the dry climate that I wasn’t used to, the streets kick up a lot of dust and dirt, and the exhaust from the mopeds bothered me.
- Bring lip balm — again, it is super dry there and I was applying chapstick regularly.
- Bring toilet paper — outside of Marrakech on day trips, it is almost non-existent in public restrooms and even some restaurants. Also be prepared for some “Standing” toilets which are essentially a hole in the ground.
- Never pay full price in the souks; you can always talk them down.
- Plan where you are going on wifi and take screenshots. Vodafone didn’t work even though it is supposed to work (for a fee) in Morocco.
I hope I’ve inspired you to visit Morocco. If you’ve already been, what was your favorite and when are you going back? P.S. – Check back later for posts about our side trips which will have a lot of cute monkey and camel pictures!