Morocco’s famous red city can seem like a daunting place on your first visit, with its labyrinthine streets, unfamiliar culture, and bustling markets. Yet if you go armed with a few handy tips you’ll soon be falling in love with this intoxicating place, and embracing all that it has to throw at you.
Marrakech sits on the plains leading to the foothills of the High Atlas Mountains, and you’ll never find a more stunning setting for a north African city. It’s the jumping off point for most travellers going in search of Saharan sun and gorge exploration, yet it’s well worth spending a few days here before continuing your adventures. There are dozens of architecturally significant sights to enjoy, as well as traditional cafes and lots of shopping opportunities.
Here’s some top tips for making sure your first trip to Marrakech runs smoothly:
Book your accommodation ahead
There are hundreds of riads and hotels in Marrakech to choose from, so selecting somewhere to stay can be a bit of a challenge. The first thing to do is decide which area of the city you fancy basing yourself in – read this post to help you narrow down your options. Whether you settle on a resort in the sunny Palmeraie outside the city walls, or prefer the romance of a riad in the heart of the ancient medina, it’s advisable to book ahead. This is to ensure you end up somewhere you know you’re going to love, and to stop you wasting valuable sightseeing time on arrival as you try to find somewhere with vacancies. Marrakech is a popular place and all the best spots do get booked up in advance, especially during the high season.
Another advantage of booking your accommodation ahead of your trip is that your hosts can arrange an airport pickup, with the driver knowing exactly where your hotel or riad is located. This saves a huge amount of hassle on your first day in what can be quite a confusing city to navigate. The best riads in Marrakech will offer an air-conditioned vehicle too, which is a blessing as you get used to the searing heat, especially in summer.
Take a guided tour of the Medina
There are several maps of the Marrakech medina, but none of them are 100% accurate, and it’s so easy to get lost when you’re setting out alone for the first time. There will be helpful locals pointing the way to the main square should you need to ‘reset’ your journey, but when your accommodation is down a quiet alley accessed through the maze of souks, losing your way is all part of the adventure.
If you want to break yourself in gently, consider hiring a registered tour guide who can show you around so you get your bearings. It’s best to arrange this through your accommodation, and never just pick one up on the streets! You’ll be hassled far less if you’re with a local too, letting you enjoy encounters without feeling the pressure to buy in the souks.
This is also a great way to help decide which sights you want to come back and visit later. There are lots so narrowing it down will make your stay a lot easier. We highly recommend swinging by the Bahia Palace, the Baadi Palace, and the Medersa Ben Youssef if you’re into spectacular architecture!
Eat dinner in your riad
The best food in town is always to be found in your riad or hotel, so for your first night or two we suggest booking your evening meal there. Hygiene is much better here than in some central cafes and restaurants, and you can relax in beautiful surroundings without having to worry about anything. There’s nothing quite like tucking into a tagine on the rooftop of your abode, enjoying the sultry evening heat and listening to the calls to prayer echoing each other across the city. Your hosts will be happy to cater for any special dietary requirements too, much more reliably than in a public restaurant.
When you do venture into the city in search of a meal out, either eat where you see the locals enjoying themselves, or opt for a top end restaurant so you can be confident standards will be high. There are plenty of amazing places to eat in Marrakech, just do a bit of online review searching before making a booking. Your hotel hosts will be happy to make any arrangements for you, including transportation if required.
Always carry some dirhams
Tipping is the norm here, so it’s always a good idea to have a few coins easily accessible in your pocket. People usually tip in restaurants and cafes, but it’s also standard practice to tip the cleaner who you will often find hovering outside toilets, even inside eating establishments. This means the toilets are kept clean, and also gives you access to toilet paper, which isn’t always available without paying!
You may also want to tip helpful youngsters who assist you with finding your way if you do get lost in the souks, or performers in the main square who put on impressive displays of acrobatics and dance to interested observers. Just, whatever you do, don’t give any money to the monkey handlers, who keep these poor creatures chained up and force them to perform.
If you want to watch the goings on in the square but feel intimidated by the constant demands for money, head up to one of the balcony cafes overlooking the square and watch safely from a distance, with a cold soda or pot of mint tea.
Watch out for scams
There are lots of scams going on in the city centre, and most visitors get conned at least once on their first visit. If this happens to you, don’t be ashamed. Just accept that it’s all part of the experience and remember your lesson for the next time someone attempts it. Common rackets include offering ‘free’ directions in return for practising English, which invariably means you’ll end up in someone’s shop feeling obliged to buy a carpet that you really don’t want. Another one is the small child asking you to exchange his Euro coin for dirhams. The Euro is a fake, so don’t do it!
The city is known for its wheeler dealers, and indeed that’s all part of it’s cheeky charm, so don’t stress about them too much. Just embrace the experience, have a bit of banter with the individual, and stand firm or walk away.