Malta, the island nation between Sicily and Northern Africa

hilly streets of Valletta

So here’s a funny story… I tend to put potential travel destinations in my phone’s weather app, so I can see what the weather is like, if I’m missing out, should I visit in fall, etc. When my husband saw a picture of Malta online, he said “We should go there sometime”. So I promptly typed “Malta” into my phone. It was late winter and I was curious if this was a destination I should wait until spring or summer to visit. Interestingly enough, Malta had the worst weather in the Mediterranean! I mean, EVERY time I checked my weather app, it was cold and usually snowing. WTH?! The snow continued, through spring. This just wasn’t right, and I told my husband we were never going to Malta. Fast forward a few months, and I figured out my mistake… Malta is the name of the island, not a specific city on the island. There is, however, a Malta in the United States, in a very cold (in the winter) state called ILLINOIS. Once I typed in Valletta, the weather improved! I’m here to tell you the COUNTRY of Malta is very hot and sunny, and probably doesn’t snow at all, ever. So crisis averted, and we booked a trip to Malta and had a great laugh at my expense.

Malta is a stunning island, with so much to offer. It is packed with breathtaking views, gorgeous architecture, natural sites, and a wealth of history full of change and conquest. Archaeologists have determined that the Maltese Islands were settled as early as 5200BC! Malta lies on a popular trade route, and has been colonized by many as a result. Malta has been ruled by the Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians, Arabs, Normans, French, and British, among others. In 1814, Malta became part of the British Empire, and it’s location played a role in both World War I and World War II. Malta remained a part of the British Empire until it gained it’s independence in 1964. However, many “signs” of it’s British past are evident on the island; in Malta you drive on the left side of the road, and there are still many red telephone booths and British chain stores on the island. Though it has British roots, the close proximity to Sicily influences the restaurant industry in Malta. It’s diverse past and unique history shapes the island and it’s inhabitants. Currently, Malta is part of the European Union and is largely Catholic, with a large amount of stunning Cathedrals and Churches. I was shocked to see how much religion influences life on the island. In the summer months, it is common to have a “feast” or celebration, for a saint, as often as every weekend. While the national language is Maltese, many people speak English and Italian as well, and communication was not a problem.

The view of Valletta from Sliema

The biggest mistake I made when booking our trip to Malta was not doing enough research BEFORE booking flights. I have a habit of finding good flight deals (helllllloooo Ryanair), buying them, and then researching the destination afterwards. Had I done my research first, I would’ve learned how MUCH there is to do on Malta and would have planned a longer stay. I assumed since it was a small island, there wouldn’t be much to do there, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. We spent four full days there, and it was not nearly enough time to see everything. The entire island is populated with cities, history, natural sites, ancient temples, cathedrals, etc. We barely scratched the surface on Malta and our four days was jam packed! We did spend two days exploring the nearby islands of Gozo and Comino; more on that in a future blog.

one of the “Three Cities”

We booked our flights on Ryanair, and flew from London Stansted to Luqa, Malta. I had been watching flights for quite some time and gather that flying to Malta is a little more expensive than flying into mainland Europe, but we were still able to get a decent deal on flights. (We arrived around 9pm and it was an easy taxi from Luqa to Sliema. The airport has a taxi stand where you prepay, making it easy to pay by credit card.) With flights out of the way, it was time to find a hotel. Since we were going in mid-July and it is such a hot and humid island, I limited my search to hotels with AC. There are so many options on where to stay in Malta depending on what you want to see and get out of your trip. You can stay in historic old cities, or beach areas. We choose to stay in Sliema, which is essentially an area populated with hotels and restaurants, that has easy access to Valletta (the capital) by ferry. We stayed at Labranda Rocco Nettuna Suites, and found it to be spacious and cool, while being convenient to our needs. We were in walking distance to restaurants, ferries, and public transportation. Part of the reason we chose this hotel was the rooftop pool, but ironically we never used it because we were so busy exploring. We were happy with this hotel, and would definitely stay here again. However, if you are looking for a beach hotel, this isn’t it. There is a public beach about a 15 minute walk away, but it is rocky. The Maltese make the best of what they have – which is a lot of limestone! They lay out on hard rock surfaces, instead of soft sand beaches. The Maltese definitely make the most of their island and appear to enjoy life to the fullest.

rocky Maltese beach in Sliema

Upon arrival, we checked in to our hotel, and immediately went out to explore even though it was late at night. We headed down to the main strip on Sliema, in search of some dinner. We quickly realized that Malta has a good nightlife scene as many people were out enjoying dinner or drinks. We had a meal at Portopalo that was delicious (especially my risotto) and we chatted over a carafe of Maltese red wine. (we even returned another night for wine and an appetizer). The next morning we hit the ground running! We walked to the Sliema Ferry to head to Valletta. The ferry system is fairly inexpensive and a time saving way to travel from Valletta to Sliema or vice versa. Valletta is a walled city, and the beautiful capital of the island. As you climb the hills of the city, you are rewarded with views down the street, and of the water. There are many shops and quaint alleys to explore in Valletta. We spent time exploring St. John’s Co-Cathedral, a beautiful Baroque cathedral. You have to pay to enter, but you receive an audio guide. They are very strict about having shoulders and knees covered, but will give you something to wrap around your shoulders or legs if needed. The Cathedral is stunning and lavishly decorated with gold, and we spent about an hour touring it. After St. John’s we walked past the Grandmaster’s Palace and headed to Upper Barrakka Gardens. From the gardens, we took an elevator down to the street below (Valletta is very hilly) and then took a ferry to visit “The Three Cities”.

St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta
Upper Barrakka Gardens has beautiful seaside views!

In Malta, you will hear the phrase “The Three Cities” to describe an area. It refers to the collection of three fortified cities: Birgu, Senglea, and Cospicua. It is easy to travel to “The Three Cities” by ferry from Valletta. I enjoyed this part of Malta because it was less crowded than Valletta and Sliema. While there aren’t quite as many shops and restaurants, and it appears to be more residential, it was still fun to walk around, and provided gorgeous waterfront views! I enjoyed marveling at (and envying) the grand sailboats and yachts docked in the harbor. After admiring the beautiful scenery in Birgu, we paused for a delicious lunch at D’Centre Vittoriosa, which has an adorable patio set up in the alley. I had a traditional Maltese salad which was filled with local cheeses, capers, sausage, and vegetables. It was phenomenal! After lunch, we wandered a bit more, enjoying the boats in the harbor and snapping more pics, before boarding the ferry back to Valletta (and then another ferry back to Sliema). It sounds overwhelming with the ferries, but in reality it is quick and easy.

Maltese Salad
Harbor near ferry drop off at the “Three Cities”

During our four days in Malta, we spent time on two of the “other” Maltese Islands, Gozo and Comino. We booked day trips for each one, and those will be their own blog post as I don’t want this one to be too lengthy. In addition to touring Sliema, Valletta, and “The Three Cities”, we also spent time in the city of Mdina and Rabat on mainland Malta. Mdina is a fortified city that is nicknamed “the Silent City”; it’s history dates back to the 8th century BC. Mdina is a popular place for tourists, and while it’s narrow streets are often crowded, cars are forbidden inside the gated walls. Our first stop in Mdina was St. Paul’s Cathedral. The Cathedral was beautiful and we also stopped at the museum as well. Afterwards, we wandered the shops and strolled the quaint streets. We also headed to Rabat, and enjoyed some lunch and more window shopping.

The gates of Mdina
Mdina is known for glass

During our stay in Malta, we dined on regional food and treated ourselves to several glasses of Maltese wine. One thing I love to do is try local beer and wine. Having enjoyed the red wine so much on our first night, we never did make it to sampling the beer — we ordered Maltese wine each night and loved it. Everything we tried was great for the price point. One night, we ate at a Sicilian restaurant in Sliema (and had more Maltese wine!) called Anciova Sicilian. We had a great meal and good service. One of our favorite culinary experiences to date, was a dinner we had in Valletta at a place named Legligin. The restaurant is slightly different; instead of ordering from a menu, the chef decides what to prepare, and you are served 7 courses. I really wish I had taken pictures with my camera, because the meal was amazing, but the setting was intimate and it didn’t seem appropriate at the time. We were served traditional Maltese dishes such as mussels, octopus, sea bream, and rabbit pate. It was slightly out of our comfort zone to allow the chef to decide for us, but we loved it and consider it a worthwhile and exciting experience. I hope your visit to Malta leaves your stomach full and happy!

Tips for Visiting Malta

  1. Do your research and decide what you want to see and how long you want to stay. There was so much more we wanted to do, if we had more time.
  2. Wear shoes with good traction. Many of the hilly streets (particularly in Valletta) have stone that is worn and extremely slippery. I almost fell at least 8 times.
  3. Remember, Malta was most recently under British rule. Your European adapters will do you know good; bring your British ones as they have the same outlets as in the UK.
  4. Drink the local wine; it’s a good value!
  5. Consider the season. We were told by guides, that many restaurants and places are closed in the winter.
  6. During the summer, book reservations at restaurants in advance to avoid disappointment.
Be prepared for lots of hills and stairs!

An overnight trip to Zagora from Marrakech

For me, there were two MUST DO things while I was planning our Morocco trip. I wanted to see the desert stars at night and wanted to ride a camel (ok three things, I also wanted to eat a lot of tangine). Lucky for me, this trip did all of them! We booked a two day tour to Zagora from Marrakech through Viator, and it was reasonably priced. They picked us up near our Riad and transported us by van (there were 7 of us in the tour) to Zagora. While it was an awesome experience, it is definitely a lot of driving!

We began by heading through the Atlas Mountains, taking the Tizi-n-Tichka pass. This windy road leads from Marrakech to Zagora, climbing through the mountains, and is considered the “gateway” to the Sahara Desert. While the drive was beautiful, many portions of the road were under construction and extremely bumpy. It made for a long, slow, ride at times. Our guide stopped at a restaurant in the mountains so we could enjoy coffee or tea with a view (I’m pretty sure if you’ve been following my blog you understand our obsession with Moroccan mint tea, so of course we had some). While the views of the Atlas Mountains were incredible, the temperature dropped significantly, so bring a warm jacket if you do this trip!

Driving through the Atlas Mountains
The drive from Marrakech to Zagora was beautiful

As the van motored on, we talked along the way, a diverse group made up of American, Japanese, and Australian. Our guide shared interesting information about Morocco and the sites along the way. Our second stop was at the Ksar of Ait Ben Haddou, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ait Ben Haddou is an old fortified village that was along the trade route from Marrakech to the Sahara. Made from clay, and surrounded by high walls for defense, the interior houses several kasbahs and dwelling places. While a few families still remain in the complex, it is mostly known as a filming location for movies, in particular, Gladiator, along with many others. After leaving, we headed to lunch before making the rest of the trip to Zagora. We passed through Ouarzazate, but didn’t visit until the way home from Zagora.

Ait Ben Haddou
Ait Ben Haddou

When we arrived in Zagora, we were greeted by camels and guides. Our trek to the traditional Berber camp, where we would spend the night, was a one hour trip by camel. Anyone who has ridden a camel before will tell you that 60 minutes on a camel, is about 45 minutes too long! It definitely was a challenge to stay stable and upright, and it used core and leg muscles to stay on correctly. However, it was an experience that I didn’t want to miss! My camel was quite friendly and let me pet him. I didn’t see any camels spit, which is supposedly their stereotype. We arrived at the campsite around sunset, and had beautiful views of the sun dipping behind the sand dunes. We were greeted at the campsite with Moroccan mint tea, and we sat around talking until dinner. Dinner was served family style, inside a large dining tent. After dinner, we gathered around a bonfire as our hosts entertained us with traditional Moroccan music. It was amazing to see the stars on a clear night in the desert. While we were with a large group of locals and tourists alike, it felt like we were so far from civilization, which was a nice departure from the crowds and tourists in Marrakech. We slept in our two person hut, in the complex. Each hut has a bed, but the bathrooms are in a communal area. It gets very cold in the desert at night in December, so I was bundled up and slept in a jacket.

our camel caravan that took us to camp
Berber camp where we spent the night

After a delicous breakfast, many of us set out to climb the highest sand dune to watch the sunrise over the desert. Climbing a steep hill in sand is quite difficult, but it was worth it to see endless views of more sand. I know that sounds crazy, but seeing sand where there is no beach is surreal. It wasn’t actually the beautifully windblown dunes of the Sahara that you see in the movies, it was a rockier sand as this place is basically the entrance to the desert. Our morning concluded with our one hour camel ride back to the van.

early morning in the desert
Camel caravan back to the vans

On the trip back we made two stops. The first stop was a town in South Central Morocco named Ouarzazate. Ouarzazate is nicked the “gateway to the Sahara” and was a fun stop on the trip. I wished we had more time to explore, but it was also nice to get back and enjoy the evening in Marrakesh. Ouarzazate has a large Kasbah and Palace, and is also used for filming movies. There are large studios and movie sets in the area because of it’s popularity for filming. After our stop in Ouarzazate, we made stop for lunch in a secluded area, where we welcomed the bright sunshine along with more traditional Moroccan food. We were back in Marrakech by early evening. This trip was great, and something to consider if you have extra time in Morocco.

Ouarzazate

Tips for Visiting Zagora from Marrakech or elsewhere in Morocco

  1. The temperature changes quickly as the altitude changes, plus the desert gets cold at night. Wear layers and bring warm clothes.
  2. The journey is LONG, you spend almost as much time in the car as you do at the camp, so be prepared for a long trip.
  3. The roads are not great, and there is a lot of twists and turns. I was glad I took bonine to prevent motion sickness.
  4. Bring tissues or toilet paper. As mentioned in a previous post, once you are outside of the tourist areas in Marrakech, many stops do not have toilet paper. Also be prepared to use a hole in the ground, not an actual toilet.

The charming seaside city of Essaouira, Morocco

It’s no secret I’m a beach lover, having lived by the ocean for 11 years. I’m a bit further from the beach than I’d like in England, despite it’s island status, and I’ve yet to explore some of the closer beaches. I guess the rain, weather, and rocky shores make it less exciting. However, I jumped at the opportunity to explore Essaouira, a coastal city in Morocco. A friend of mine lived in Rabat, Morocco and had the opportunity to travel the country. When she told me Essaouira was one of her favorite places in Morocco, the decision was made to book a day trip! Essaouira is an 18th century fortified city and it’s proximity to the ocean made it an important seaport.

fortified city of Essaouira

Our tour made a few stops on the way, the first being one of my favorite experiences — goats in trees! Yes, you read that right, goats that climb trees. It was obvious that this was “staged” in this particular location and the goats’ owner was charging people to take pictures (so worth it!). Oddly enough, these goats were not chillin in the trees on our way home at 6pm, nor was the farmer standing next to the tree. BUT, I’ve learned that goats in trees are a natural thing elsewhere. In parts of Morocco, the dry soil makes it difficult for the goats to find food. So, they climb the argan trees to eat the fruit on the trees. We learned that some argan oil factories use this to their advantage because after the goat digests the argan seeds they “release” them back to the ground, already broken down, thus doing part of the job! So if you are using Moroccan Argan Oil on your face or hair, there’s a chance a goat has pooped out the raw ingredients that go into your product…..

the famous goats in trees

Speaking of argan oil, our next stop was to visit an argan oil consortium where we learned about the process of marking argan oil, and good sample the products. Products were also for sale (and of course I purchased a bottle of argan oil for my hair even after learning the goat/poop fact). The great thing about this consortium is that it is 100% run and staffed by women. The women received a grant to start the business; the grant was part of a government program that seeks to create jobs for females. It was interesting watching the different steps of the process and learning how argan oil is produced.

women working at the argan oil consortium

When we arrived in Essaouira, we were greeted with the beautiful blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean, and children playing soccer in the sand on the beach. Our tour included a one hour guided tour, and then a few hours to explore the city on our own, before making the 2.5 hour drive back to Marrakech. Our guide met us outside the gate to the old city walls. He shared the history of Essaouira, and highlighted the fact that while Morocco is a predominantly Muslim country, people of many religions, including Christianity and Judiasm, have always peacefully coexisted in Essaouira. Differing from other parts of Morocco, Essaouira has European influence. During our tour, we headed to the port and learned about the local fisherman and the importance of the port. We also toured through some of the shops, many of which had artisan flare with unique gifts, ceramics, pottery, and crafts.

After we left our guide, we explored the city on our own. I was impressed with the market near the port. The fruits were so colorful and fresh, and smelled delicious! We ended up buying berries to eat as we walked. The food market is one long street, and worth the visit, although there is a strong fish smell in certain areas. We also headed to the souks, and explored the different shops with artisan goods. Before heading to the old fort to see the ramparts, we enjoyed a rooftop lunch at Restaurant Des Reves, where I had delicious monkfish skewers. It was a beautiful rooftop terrace with vibrant colors and overlooked the medina; I recommend checking it out if you’re in Essaouira.

lunch at Des Reves in Essaouira

After lunch we wandered around the Medina. We browsed the shops, visited the old fort, and went back to the sea port. We had an enjoyable day in Essaouira, and it was great to see the bright blues of the sky meet the colors of the Atlantic Ocean. It never gets old walking on the sand and listening to the waves crash! Essaouira is a beauitful city on the coast, and was a welcomed departure from the crowded streets of Marrakech. If you have time, it is well worth the visit. Our day was perfect, with one exception – our van waited around for a couple who showed up 40 minutes late to our departure point. Perhaps it was good customer service on their part, but it annoyed me, and I would’ve left their butts behind! What would you have done??

my favorite, the goats!
streets of Essaouira
fishing boats in the harbor

Ouzoud Falls, Morocco; the tallest water fall in Morocco

If you’ve been following my journeys, you know we used Marrakech, Morocco as a springboard to travel and soak in as much Moroccan culture, sights, and experiences as we possibly could in the short 6 days we were there. The country boasts so much to see and do, and I feel like we only scratched the surface! (Hmmmm, maybe a repeat trip?) We booked a day trip to Ouzoud Falls on Viator, and we were extremely pleased with it. The trip exceeded our expectations, mostly because of my face to face encounter with cutest little monkeys, but also the outstanding service and ease of the tour logistics. The tour operators even contacted me via WhatsApp to ensure I had seen the email about pickup location. We booked through Viator, though there were travel booths in Marrakech selling trips to the falls as well. I saw some negative reviews online, but I’m glad I didn’t let them deter us, as we had a fantastic day.

The trip began with our pickup in Jemaa El-Fnaa, outside of Cafe France. We rode in an air conditioned mini bus to the falls, about 3 hours since we stopped to pick up other passengers on the way. There was a bathroom/coffee stop on the way. As I mentioned in my previous post, I’d recommend bringing tissues or toilet paper, as it appears to be a luxury in Morocco and not often found in public restrooms. The ride to Ouzoud Falls is pretty, passing through smaller villages in Morocco, and heading through part of the Atlas Mountains.

Once we arrived at the waterfalls, we were greeted by our guide, Ibrahim. He was very interesting, and shared a plethora of information about the falls and the area. He noticed a group of us (ok, me) immediately distracted by a few of the Barbary apes that live near the falls, and he promised there would be more later — and he was right! The falls were supposed to be the main attraction (and they are beautiful) but my favorite part was the adorable monkeys. More on that later… Ouzoud Falls is comprised of several waterfalls in the El-Abid River Gorge. In the Berber language, “Ouzoud” means “act of grinding”; this is appropriate as there are many mills in the area. Ibrahim also shared that Ouzoud Falls are the highest falls in Africa. They are 110 meters tall, while Victoria Falls is actually 108 meters tall. Despite being 2 meters shorter, Victoria Falls is the largest waterfall in Africa due to sheer volume and size.

Ouzoud Falls

Our day at the falls began with a trek down the hills towards the base of the falls. The trail was a bit uneven and a dirt path. You certainly don’t need hiking shoes, but I wouldn’t wear sandals or flip flops either. We enjoyed seeing the monkeys up close on our journey down the falls. They are friendly, and will climb on your shoulders if you let them. While they will climb on you and appear comfortable around humans, our guide told us not to try and pick them up. Apparently, when tourists try to pick them up they can scratch and bite because they think they are being taken into captivity. These monkeys seem very familiar with humans and were expecting food. Our guide gave them some peanuts to keep them around us. I had brought raisins as a snack for the bus and the monkeys enjoyed eating them. The guide even got them to climb on our shoulders briefly. These Barbary apes are found in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco and Algeria, but sadly are considered endangered as their population is declining. There is a small population of Barbary apes found in Europe – in Gibraltar. Gibraltar is the closest point from Europe to Africa, so they were likely brought over by humans. We found these monkeys to be adorable and sweet, and perhaps even more exciting than the waterfall itself.

Macaque monkey with Ouzoud Falls in the background.
I loved these little guys!
This one was a little younger.

On our way to the base of the falls, we passed through greenery and olive trees. We walked through the olive trees and headed to a traditional Berber home. A traditional Berber home is enclosed but has an open area in the middle, where there is no roof. Our guide explained to us that Berber children are usually learning 5 different languages by the time they are young teenagers! At this home, they made argan oil, which is something Morocco is known for, and can be used in your hair, dry skin, and a variety of other purposes. Of course, they had a shop on site were they sold it.

traditional Berber home.
Argan seeds being pressed to make argan oil.

We arrived at the base of the falls to a stunning view of Ouzoud Falls, which comes together in a gorge. There’s a small river which must be crossed in order to get to the other side to walk back up the cliffs. You are taken across the river on a wooden boat, which pauses to get close up pictures of the falls. Once on the other side, you have a decent climb back up to the top, but it’s nothing too intense. There are a few options for souvenirs, and then the tour ends with a delicious Moroccan lunch (at your cost) before driving back to Marrakech. We enjoyed this beautiful day outside of the hustle and bustle of the Medina, and if you can’t tell, the monkeys were a huge hit! I’d recommend finding a tour such as this one that takes you out of Marrakech, so you can see more of the country.

Ouzoud Falls at the base


tagine with couscous
lots of veggies

Marrakech, Morocco

colorful Moroccan pottery from the Souks

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.

common area of our Riad

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.

shopping in the Souks

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!

View of Jemaa el-Fnaa at night from the rooftop of Cafe Kessabine, where we enjoyed delicious tagine.
snake charmers in the main square

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!

Bahia Palace, in Arabic means “brilliance”.

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.

Tagine from Cafe Kessabine

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.

La Table Du Palais

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!

The stairwell that resulted in discovering the restaurant, Dar Es Salaam.

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!

lunch at Nomad
View from the rooftop of Nomad

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Bring lip balm — again, it is super dry there and I was applying chapstick regularly.
  5. 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.
  6. Never pay full price in the souks; you can always talk them down.
  7. 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!

I love donkeys!