A sensory journey through Marrakech

Surviving hayfever in Morocco - Spices in the souks of Marrakech

Love it or hate it (we’re firmly in the first camp!), Marrakech is one of those places that never fails to evoke a reaction in everyone who visits. Personally it’s my favourite city in the world, and we’ve now been back 5 times in the last few years…just can’t get enough of it.

It’s the sort of place you need to go more than once to really understand what it’s all about. Our first trip saw us totally out of our comfort zones and we definitely came off worst in our first haggling experience. Yet we persevered and now both absolutely love strolling around the labyrinthine alleys, exchanging banter with the locals and feeling totally at home. It’s our favourite city in the world!

Our TOP 10 things to do in Marrakech

Marrakech is the most sensory place we’ve ever experienced, with dazzling sights, constant yet reassuring noise, and an array of tantalising smells all mingling to create one exotic North African atmosphere. Arriving in the medina through one of the many babs (gates) in the ancient walls is not only a step back in time, but also an explosion of the senses. There’s such a lot to take in that it can be a bit overwhelming at first, but just give it time. Settle into your riad, enjoy your mint tea, and once refreshed head out into the thick of it. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

1. PLACE DJEMMA EL FNA

Travelling local style in Djemaa el Fna, Marrakech

Travelling local style in Djemaa el Fna, Marrakech

This is the heartbeat of the medina, and pretty much all roads lead here. If you get lost in the old city (and you will) just find your way back to the main square and start again.

Dentist anyone? The tooth puller, Djemaa el Fna, Marrakech

Dentist anyone? The tooth puller, Djemaa el Fna, Marrakech

By Day…

Late morning is the best time to visit, after the stalls have set up, but before the afternoon heat kicks in. You don’t want to be out on the concrete for long in the blazing mid-day sun – if you are you won’t have to wait until nightfall to experience BBQ! The best way to tackle the square is to simply wander around, taking a look at all the little stalls and sellers under their big parasols for a bit of shade.

Beware the snake masters - they are not always charming! Djemaa el Fna, Marrakech

Beware the snake masters – they are not always charming! Djemaa el Fna, Marrakech

Listen to the eerie sound of the snake-charmers, then dodge their insistant ‘offers’ for photographs. See if you can count how many teeth the tooth-puller has on his table, and be thankful you don’t need a dentist. Have a refreshing cool drink courtesy of the orange juice vendors rather than the water sellers who these days are more for decoration than purpose. Then go and admire the acrobatic antics of the vividly festooned tumblers as they perform great feats at dizzying heights.

When you’ve had enough, climb the steps to the panoramic balcony at the Cafe Glacier and sip a cold drink on the roof terrace while taking in the sights below from the safety of your seat. From here you can take as many photos as you like without offending anyone or being asked for money.

The Koutoubia Mosque is here too, and although you can’t go in, it’s interesting to walk around the outside and admire the architecture. The mosque is the largest in Marrakech, and is a useful navigational beacon being the tallest building in the city.

The Koutoubia Mosque, standing guard like a sentinel of Djemma el Fna, Marrakech

The Koutoubia Mosque, standing guard like a sentinel of Djemma el Fna, Marrakech

Whilst I’m drawn back to the square time and time again, there are a few things I don’t agree with. Top of the list has to be the monkey handlers who make money from tourists having their photos with the poor little beasts which are chained up and paraded around. They are made to wear nappies so the tourists don’t get more than they bargained for when the monkeys sit on their shoulders, and the handlers treat them pretty roughly when they don’t do as they’re told. I’m not a great animal lover, but seeing this just makes me mad, and even more so all the tourists who encourage this by paying for their monkey photos. Please don’t. This is why I don’t have a picture of them for this blog!

The other thing that irritates me is the persistance of the henna tattooist ladies. I know a lot of people like henna and it’s near the top of their ‘to do’ list whilst in Marrakech. I get it, I really do. However personally I hate it. For some reason the patterns give me the creeps, and I’d rather eat a plate full of mushy peas (ugh!) than have it on my skin. Yet the ladies don’t take no for an answer. They follow you along, and eventually tell you they’ll tatoo a ‘free’ flower on you for good luck. By now you’re ignoring them, when suddenly you feel a firm hand grasp your wrist and if you’re not quick enough the tip of the syringe is already on your skin, leaving an unwanted brown trail.

Being pounced on by a henna tattooist, they just won't learn! Djemaa el Fna, Marrakech

Being pounced on by a henna tattooist, they just won’t learn! Djemaa el Fna, Marrakech

I only made that mistake once. So did they. Incensed I demanded she wipe if off immediately and what the hell was she thinking of…blah blah falling on uncomprehending ears. Still it made me feel better and amused hubbie.

By Night…

The square takes on a whole different ambience with the fall of night. The food market springs to life with smoke and sizzling aromas drifting across the square into the sky, enticing locals and tourists alike to emerge from the medina alleyways to savour a Marrakeshi institution. Whether it’s sheep heads, goat’s eyeballs or even just a simple brochette (kebab) they have it all. Each stall has it’s own gang of persuasive yet pleasant hawkers, each with their own unique sales patter, often rhyming ingeniously and playing on taking the piss out of your nation’s television food adverts. They are so charming it is almost impossible to resist.

My personal favourite sales pitches are:

Stall 107, will take you straight to heaven

Stall 35, is not just food, it’s like Marks & Spencers food

Stall 76, is twice as nice with Asda price

Night market at Djemaa el Fna, Marrakech

Night market at Djemaa el Fna, Marrakech

Dinner comes with a show here, so sit back and listen to musicians, story tellers and fortune readers whilst dancers wiggle by in frenzied whirlwinds and the henna tattooists try yet again to grab your hand. For once locals seem to outnumber tourists – the story and fortune telling is really just for them, but even as an outsider the spectacle is enchanting to watch, even if you don’t understand a word.

Perhaps finish the evening with an after dinner soft drink back at Cafe Glacier? The view is even more thrilling by night!

Cost: its free to observe, just remember you’ll be asked for money if you take obvious photos.

Hours: activity doesn’t really pick up until late morning, and dies down again in the mid afternoon heat before getting ready for the night market at sun down.

2. SOUKS

Hubbie named these the ‘Beastie’ after our first visit left us rather traumatised and a bit poorer. But we persevered, coming back again and again, and now it’s the highlight of any trip to Morocco.

Marrakech souks, Morocco

Marrakech souks, Morocco

Not just for the colourful array of goods that you didn’t realise existed but suddenly find you can’t do without; not just for the bustle and a glimpse into every day life of a local; but also for the cheeky banter and the experience of haggling, something that both tourist and vendor alike can appreciate if it’s done properly.

Check out here how to have the perfect bartering experience.

The souks are loosely divided into different sections such as ceramics, leather, metal, haberdashery, carpets, silver, glass, spices, soaps, tat (we’ve seen the babouches (slippers) with garish Manchester United slogans painted on!)…as a rule the further away from the square you venture the better bargains are to be had.

If you look beyond the surface layer of brightly coloured scarves and rolls of dusty rugs, you will come to appreciate every day souk life. The men sharing cups of mint tea and the latest gossip over a companionable game of chess; the women carrying freshly cooked tagines to their menfolk for lunch; the small children chasing cats and poking sticks at donkeys; and the blind (and some not so blind!) tapping their sticks and asking for alms.

Taking time out in the Marrakech souks

Taking time out in the Marrakech souks

Last time we were in the haberdashery souk a few jokers had tied a lenth of string to the wheel of their fellow vendor’s bike. When he came to leave he hopped on and tried to cycle off and they all fell about laughing when he took half the stall with him. A show put on completely for the locals!

The souks are open late into the night to catch the passing trade from people visiting the night market. If you’re staying north of the square, you pretty much have to walk through the souks to get back to your riad. A world of warning though, if you’re out really late, the souks will be all shut up and some of the little warrenous passages may be locked and bolted. The locals will soon tell you if you’re going wrong, and you can believe them since they’ve nothing to gain from turning you around!

Cost: depends on how well you haggle!

Hours: there is quite a leisurely start in the morning, with stall holders turning up anytime between 9am – 11am…then they’re open through to the evening and will close around 8 or 9pm. Some of the stalls by the Djemma el Fna may stay open longer depending on trade from the square.

3. BAADI PALACE & SAADIAN TOMBS

The only residents of the Baadi Palace today are the storks, Marrakech

The only residents of the Baadi Palace today are the storks, Marrakech

I’m cheating a bit here by lumping these two together…top 11 sights doesn’t sound quite as good…but they’re close to each other so it’s logical to see them both at the same time!

The Baadi Palace for us is the best ‘sight’ in the city, despite being virtually destroyed by Moulay Ismail and now just a crumbling ruin. I love crumbling ruins, places that haven’t been ‘improved’ or ‘preserved’ as they feel more real. You know that if you touch it, the last person to have touched that exact same spot may well have been someone from the 16th century, rather than some government worker a few years ago employed to concrete up the holes.

The view of the city skyline from the towers is pretty good, often with lots of storks nesting precariously on the ramparts. There are a few information boards but it’s useful to take a guidebook with you. You won’t be pestered by chaps asking if you want a guide here. There’s very little shade so it’s best to visit first thing in the morning or late afternoon, although you can always hop across the Place des Ferblantiers afterwards for a cool drink at Kozybar, our favourite watering hole in the city.

Cost: DH10

Hours: 8:30am-5:45pm (closed 12:45am-2:30pm)

Small but perfectly formed, stunning architecture at the Saadian Tombs, Marrakech

Small but perfectly formed, stunning architecture at the Saadian Tombs, Marrakech

The Saadian tombs are 5 minutes away from the palace, not the easiest to find but willing shop keepers are only too happy to point you in the right direction. Usually straight through their shop, where of course you’ll be expected to make appreciative murmurings about their wares, before politely declining and being shown through a small door into a back alley by the tombs. Some even have signs up pointing ‘Saadian tombs this way’. You’ve got to give it to them, ingenious!

The tombs are the resting place of several members of the 16th – 17th century Saadi Dynasty. They’re impressively well preserved, and subsequently appear a little sterile, although that could be more to do with the coach loads of tourists all trooping around the small enclosure. Or it could be because they were sealed off by Sultan Moulay Ismail, the bad boy of Moroccan history I’ve introduced in my blog about Meknes. Whilst having no qualms about trashing the Baadi Palace, the Sultan was clearly too superstitious to destroy the tombs of his predecessors, so decided to hide them instead. Top bloke. The tombs weren’t discovered again until 1917 and now provide for a pleasant, if busy, 20 minute experience for the interested visitor.

Cost: DH10

Hours: 8:30am-5:45pm (closed 11:45am-2:30pm)

4. BAHIA PALACE

This architectural gem has more of a ‘proper’ palace feeling. Of course it helps that it’s still in tact, well preserved and lavishly decorated.

You’ll find it in the Mellah area (Jewish Quarter) of the city, one of our favourite areas. It is believed to have been built in the 19th century so is younger than the Baadi Palace, and thus escaped the ravages of a certain Sultan with a penchant for trashing beautiful things for his own gain.

‘Bahia’ means ‘brilliance’, a fitting name for the palace with it’s stunning stucco plasterwork and the special zellij mosaic design found everywhere in Morocco.

Bahia Palace, Marrakech

Bahia Palace, Marrakech

The palace was built for the personal pleasures of the sultan and was where his harem was based. If you’ve got to be a concubine, there are surely worse places to live!

It’s a great place to visit in the afternoon where you can take advantage of the cooler inside rooms and shady orange tree gardens.

Cost: DH10

Hours: 8:30am-5:45pm (closed 11:45am-2:30pm)

5. BEN YOUSEFF MEDERSA

Ben Youseff Medersa, Marrakech

Ben Youseff Medersa, Marrakech

With it’s courtyard of carved zellij, stucco, marble and carved cedarwood, Ben Youseff Medersa has to be the most beautiful building in Marrakech. It’s a well preserved 16th century Koranic school, the largest in Morocco, and some say all of North Africa. It was founded in the 14th century but the intricate architecture is down to the Saadians who almost completely rebuilt it in the 1560′s. A mighy fine job they did of it too! The design is similar to that of the Alhambra in Spain, so it’s likely that Andalucian architects were brought over to work on the Medersa during that time.

The Islamic college at one time housed 900 students from Muslim countries from all over the world (I really don’t know how they all fitted it…it’s big, but not that big!) who lived in tiny dormitories called ‘cells’ (perhaps pennance was a large part of helping to understand and memorise the Qur’an?). It’s certainly more impressive than the school I went to!

It is no longer a school, which was closed in 1960, but the small attached mosque is still used and tourists bring in a bit of income to ensure it’s preservation for future generations. Well worth the small entry fee!

Cost: DH60 which includes entrance to the Marrakech Museum, and when it’s open, the Qoubba Almoravid.

Hours: 9am- 6pm

Just across the street the Marrakech Musee is worth a visit although it does feel a bit like a greenhouse with the yellow light coming in from the roof of the atrium. It was constructed at the end of the 19th century, so is a lot newer than many of the other buildings in the city.

Marrakech Museum

Marrakech Museum

The exhibits themselves aren’t particularly breath-taking or numerous but the building is further proof that these guys (the Andalucians again!) really knew a thing or two about architecture.

The Qoubba Almoravid is the small, uninspiring white building outside the Medersa. At first glance you’ll be forgiven for thinking that it’s nothing special, but in fact this is the oldest building in the entire city, constructed in the 12th century and dating back to the Almoravid Dynasty. Only excavated as recently as 1952, it is likely to have been an ablutions annexe to the Medersa.

Qoubba Almoravid, Marrakech

Qoubba Almoravid, Marrakech

6. HOT AIR BALLOONING

This has to be one of my favourite travel experiences EVER, second only to ballooning over Cappadocia in Turkey! It’s possibly not the first thing you’d think of when visiting Marrakech, but certainly a different way to see the area. We flew with Marrakech by Air and our Telly Savalas lookalike captain was right on the money with his relaxed, humorous but competent style.

We went in June on one of the last flights of the season before it got too hot, and were picked up from the medina at the ungodly hour of 4.30am (ouch!). It was kinda cool walking through the alleyways of the old city at this time in the morning, whilst the inhabitants were all asleep behind closed doors (or on park benches!), our only company being a few stray cats. Definitely worth missing out on my beauty sleep to catch the sunrise though…

After arriving in the middle of absolutely nowhere (half way between Marrakech and the Atlas Mountains) the lovely crew laid on some pastries and fruit juice whilst we waited for the balloon to be inflated. To be honest at 5am an iced Danish was the last thing my stomach wanted so I just enjoyed the spectacle of the burners noisily doing their job and disturbing the bemused on-looking goats.

We all clambered into the basket whilst it lay on it’s side (not an easy task for those who had to slide in the top sections!) and practised the crash landing positions. Great, what exactly had we signed up for? But before we knew it we were upright and already 10 metres off the ground. I didn’t even realise we’d taken off it was that smooth, until I looked over the edge.

It's a long way down!

It’s a long way down!

Looking down on the landscape patterns that weren’t visible on the ground was fascinating, but the thing that struck me most was the complete and utter silence. Apart from the roar of the burners every now and then to keep us afloat! The Captain even let the blokes have a go with the burner themselves (he obviously thought the females wouldn’t be able to ‘steer’ properly or something!). It was amazing gliding high above little berber villages, creeping past so quietly that the inhabitants went on with their washing and farming, unaware they were being observed.

The wind took us where it wanted for about an hour, and all too soon it was over. There was a slight (well concealed) concern from the captain as he directed the ground crew to where he thought we would land. Right in the only cactus field for miles. Not good. Our descent was quite rapid but controlled, and although we were told to take our crashing landing positions we managed to touch down a few feet away from the spikey forest of unfriendliness. Phew! That would’ve been one expensive sewing bill!

Ballooning over Marrakech

Ballooning over Marrakech

There was another group going up after ours so we got to bump through the landscape in the jeep with the crew, straight-lining it over ditches and through ‘fields’ as we raced to keep up with the balloon. Almost as much fun as the flight itself, but I was glad I’d given first breakfast a miss! When everyone was back on the ground we were treated to a second breakfast (this time with eggs, breads, pancakes, cakes, jams and honey – yum) in a traditional berber tent in on of the villages we’d flown over. We were shown around the family house (and got to meet the chickens) before continuing on our adventure to the palmerie for a camel ride.

Experiencing the palmerie by camel, Marrakech

Experiencing the palmerie by camel, Marrakech

For me (and definitely for hubbie) this was where the excitement ended. We knew it was going to be kinda cheesy sitting for half an hour on an uninterested camel, whilst being led through the dust by an equally uninterested camel guide. Ok, it was fine for our first experience on a ship of the desert, and clearly didn’t put us off since we later went for a trek into the Sahara at both Erg Chebbi and Erg Chigaga, but if there’s ever something to made you feel like a complete ‘tourist’ then this is it.

Camels aside, it was a brilliant experience, and all done in time to enjoy a THIRD breakfast back at the riad! Bliss.

Cost: DH1990pp (about £145) including transfers, flight, breakfast in Bedouin tent, village visit and camel ride in the palmerie.

Hours: early! And not operating during the height of summer.

7. MAISON DE LA PHOTOGRAPHIE

I love this place! And so will you if photography is your thing. Maison de la Photographie is a photography exhibition set up in a beautiful traditional riad, with images dating from as far back as the late 19th century featuring Marrakech, as well as daily life in the cities and countryside all over Morocco. From women washing clothes in the river to men going to market with their mules, these lives have been forever captured for us to enjoy. I can’t get over how the photographers managed to take such good pictures without all the high-tech equipment we can’t do without today. I expect they had infinite amounts of patience.

Maison de la Photographie, Marrakech

Maison de la Photographie, Marrakech

My favourite image is one by Nicolas Muller. It has a bi-plane flying low over a bedouin tent with two bedu men standing beside it, a poignant contrast if ever there was one. Some of the images are for sale, so of cousre we now have a few waiting at home to be framed despite not having any more wall space.

There’s a cute little cafe up on the roof terrace so you could easily spend an hour or two here.

Cost: DH40 (and you can return as many times as you like with the same ticket)

Hours: 9.30am – 7pm

8. MAISON TISKIWINE

Another quirky little place that deserves an hour of your time is the delightful Maison Tiskiwine (House of the ‘Horns’), a 20th century medina mansion belonging to Dutch anthropologist Bert Flint. Bert has travelled extensively all around Northern Africa and the Sahara, collecting objects from traditional cultures he encountered on his journey.

Maison Tiskiwine, Marrakech

Maison Tiskiwine, Marrakech

Bert still lives in the house and you can really feel his enthusiasm behind the collection, which he continues to add to through his travels today. From jewellery and clothing to musical instruments and really uncomfortable-looking camel saddles, there is plenty to see and objects are well displayed with good information packs available in English (and other languages). Probably the best museum we’ve seen in Morocco! It’s tucked away down an alley off Rue Riad Zitoun el Kedim, and is signed so is quite easy to find.

Cost: DH15

Hours: 9.30am – 6.30pm (closed 12.30 – 3pm)

9. JARDIN MAJORELLE

The New Town doesn’t really do it for me, and I’m the world’s most hopeless gardener so the famous Jardin Majorelle didn’t even feature on my to do list until at least the 3rd or 4th visit to Marrakech. But I’m glad we made the effort (it only takes about 20 minutes to walk from the medina) and it really is a cooling place to visit during…yep you guessed it…a hot afternoon. The gardens are pretty, with lots of colourful ceramic pots and brightly painted walls to give it quite an arty feeling. We wandered around with the camera, enjoying the pools and shady boughs of the towering bamboo and lofty palms.

Jardin Marjorelle, Marrakech

Jardin Marjorelle, Marrakech

There’s a gift shop and tea room where you might want a refreshing drink to get you ready for the hot walk back to the old town. It’s also the place where hubbie, for the FIRST time on our travels, actually took on some of the talking and ordered our tickets in his best school-boy French. I was so proud! He hasn’t done it since mind, so perhaps the heat had sent him slightly crazy that day.

Jardin Majorelle, Marrakech

Jardin Majorelle, Marrakech

Cost: DH50

Hours: 8am – 6pm (closed 5.30pm October – April)

10. TANNERIES

Whilst not quite as impressive as those in Fes, Marrakech’s tanneries are an interesting visit if you’re tiring of Djemma el Fna and want a change of scene from the palaces. They’re not the easiest to find (all Marrakech medina maps are useless) but you won’t manage to walk five minutes before one of the tannery guys befriends you. Usually it’s under the friendly pretence of wanting to practise their english, or showing you the way for free…always they emphasize there is no money required for their generous directions. You know full well you’ll be parting with some dirham at the end, and don’t really want them to walk with you, but equally realise you’re completely lost and this is all part of the true Marrakech experience anyway. Just go with it.

Marrakech Tanneries

Marrakech Tanneries

So the helpful guy leads you right to the door of the tanneries where he just happens to have a mate who can show you around, also ‘for free my friend’. Guy number one then leaves with a cheery wave without asking for a penny (or even a dirham!). You’ve walked all the way there so you may as well go on the free tour being given by guy number two, who offers you sprigs of mint to hold against your nose to ward off the stench of amonia which is used in the vats. To be honest it’s not that bad, though I can imagine little old ladies on coach tours would be glad of the sweet smelling herbs to prevent a swoon.

It’s early morning and the tanners are hard at work softening the leather hides before they’re taken to be dyed. After a few photos and appreciative noises you’re led out again and somehow find yourselves in a leather shop, with lots of lovely (but smelly) bags and what I for years thought were dog baskets but in fact are the covers for pouffes (or foot stools) ready to be filled. None of them are cheap, so you have no intention of purchasing anything. After what you feel is a polite interval has passed, you thank the disappointed shop keeper and stroll out into the sun, where guy number two now shows his true colours.

Working hard in the tanneries, Marrakech

Working hard in the tanneries, Marrakech

At first the price he demands is beyond ridiculous (even considering he’s going to have to give guy number one a cut of the profit too!) and tempers flare as figures are rebuffed and batted back and forth until you finally hand over the amount you feel is fair before walking off down the street. A tirade of insults follow you for a while, and it’s not until rounding the next corner that you breath a sigh of relief. Moments later another tourist couple are walking towards you, eagerly letting a lovely local chap they’ve just met practise his English on them.


Now if you’ve seen even a small fraction of all that, you’ll be hungry, and sleepy…so check out my posts where to eat and sleep in our favourite city…

Riads that put Scheherazade to shame

Eating Marrakech

2 Comments

  • Luke says:

    Some great suggestions. Jardin Marjorelle is particularly interesting and I wish I had gone to Maison de la Photographie. One of the best things to do in Marrakesh is grab a mint tea in the Djemaa el Fna. Exactly the same trick at the tanneries happened to us!

    • Glad it wasn’t just us who were suckers when it came to the tanneries! Hope you came away with something nice 🙂 And definitely go to the Maison Photographie, so amazing what they used to be able to do with cameras back then!

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