25 Tips for your First Trip to Marrakech, Morocco
Few cities capture the imagination quite like Marrakech. A blend of Berber, Arabic and French influences give this UNESCO World Heritage site a timeless appeal. With the beautiful frenzy of the Medina, ornate Arabic architecture and one of the world’s greatest cuisines it’s no surprise that more people are traveling to Marrakech now more than ever. Whether you spell it Marrakech or Marrakesh (both are acceptable), a visit to Morocco’s Red City is surely an experience you will never forget. Marrakech can be overwhelming to say the least, with a dizzying array of sights, smells and tastes providing a sensory overload; but armed with these tips you can make your first trip to Marrakech one to remember.
Flights to Marrakech arrive at Menara Airport (RAK). A valid passport is required for entry into Morocco, currently for Americans visas are not required for visits less than 90 days (check the State Department website for the latest requirements).
Taxis are available but best to arrange transportation with your hotel. If you are staying in the Medina be aware that cars can’t make it through the narrow streets to drop you off directly at your accommodation. Your riad or hotel can arrange for staff to meet you at a drop off point and walk with you to your destination.
Cash is king in Marrakech as only resorts, riads, some restaurants and a handful of shops accept credit cards. ATMs can be hard to find in the Medina (much easier in the new city) so your best bet is to exchange money at the airport (this can be done for no fee). Some riads and resorts will also exchange money for you. The official currency is the Moroccan Dirham(MAD) and currently the exchange rate is approximately 9 MAD/1USD. Of note, it is also illegal to take dirham out of Morocco so make sure you spend or exchange your dirham before leaving the country.
Morocco has a big tipping culture and it is expected that you tip anyone you assists you (whether that help was wanted or not). Be sure to carry plenty of coins and small bills.
4. Dress for Women
I did not once feel unsafe as a woman travelling in Marrakech and while many women visit and have a great experience it is not uncommon to hear from women who have received unwanted attention or catcalls. Marrakech tends to be more accepting of Western attire but as Morocco is a Muslim country women are advised to dress conservatively. This means making sure your knees and shoulders are covered (save the halter top for Ibiza ladies). I wore loose t shirts and lightweight pants or long skirts most days, with a wrap or scarf to cover up if I got chilly at night. Close toed shoes are also a good idea as donkeys and other animals (and what they leave behind) are a common sight in the Medina.
5. Stay in a Riad
For a more authentic Marrakech experience a stay in a riad is your best bet. Riads are traditional Moroccan homes centered around a courtyard located within the Medina, most are 10 rooms or less and offer up a more intimate experience. Most riads are decorated with handmade items from the local souks and many feature beautiful courtyard pools and gardens as well as rooftop terraces. There are beautiful riads throughout Marrakech for every budget, for less than $100 per night you can enjoy the boutique hospitality of Riad Al Loune or if you’re looking to splash out check in at the luxurious El Fenn. I loved my stay at Riad Farnatchi, a beautifully restored guesthouse in the heart of the Medina (read my review of Riad Farnatchi here).
6. Luxury Resorts
Marrakech’s modern and fashionable Ville Nouvelle (new city) is home to some some of the world’s most glamorous resorts. For five star luxury with a decidedly Moroccan flair check out the Royal Mansour and La Mamounia.
Marrakech is a popular destination with nearly year round sunshine. Summers (June-September) can get quite hot with temperature near 100 degrees F while the winter months can get chilly with night time temps dipping into the 30 degree F range. March-May and September-October are generally pleasant with highs in the 70s and 80s.
8.Shop the Souks in Marrakech
I’m typically not a big shopper when I travel but Marrakech is one of the few places where I wish I had shopped more. Morocco has a rich heritage of crafts and instead of the typical “made in China” souvenirs I found the souks filled with leather goods ( I got a pair of handmade leather shoes for $18 ), beautiful metal work, colorful ceramics and handmade rugs.
I had zero intention of buying a rug went I visited Marrakech.
I now own a Moroccan rug.
Our tour guide brought us into the cooperative and I fully expected to enjoy the demonstration while sipping my mint tea and go on my way. I’m not sure if it was the intricate Berber patterns, or the softness of the camel wool but I soon found myself the proud owner of a Moroccan rug and I absolutely love it. The quality of this handmade Berber rug far surpasses any commercial rug I’ve owned before. You will find rugs of varying size and quality throughout the souks, be prepared to haggle or buy your rug from a cooperative that ensures a fair wage for the craftswomen.
The official languages in Morocco are Modern Standard Arabic and Amazigh (Berber) and additionally many Moroccans speak French. While most people I interacted with spoke English it’s always a good idea to learn a few words of the local language wherever you travel, here are a few common words in Arabic: Hello-Al Salam Alaikum, Thank You-Shukran, Yes-naäam, No– Laa
Scams are an unfortunate part of life in the Medina, often in the form of unsolicited help with directions, telling tourists that the street they are on is closed or “tannery tours” , all of which will then demand a payment for their services. My friend Amanda of Marocmama has excellent advice on various scams in Marrakech.
12.Consider Hiring a Guide
The winding streets of the Medina can be overwhelming for a first time visitor, I recommend hiring a guide for your first afternoon or morning out to get a feel for the city as well learn about the history and culture of Marrakech. Have your hotel or riad arrange a guide for you or if you hire one on your own make sure they are licensed( licensed guides will have a badge).
13. You Will Get Lost
With the narrow winding streets of the Medina and little signage the chances of you getting lost at some point is fairly high. Paper maps provided by your hotel immediately mark you as a tourist, a better option is to download an offline map via Google maps. Beware of unsolicited advice for directions (see Scams above), if you must ask for directions your best bet is asking a shopkeeper or restaurant staff.
Food in Marrakech is a feast for all the senses. The souks are lined with rows of sweet oranges, plump dates and countless varieties of olives while the air is heavy with the scent of intensely fragrant spices from the spice market. Gently spiced shakshuka (eggs cooked in a gently spiced tomato sauce) and spongy Moroccan pancakes are a must for breakfast. You can’t leave Marrakech without having a tagine; a stew, usually with chicken, lamb, beef or vegetables cooked and served in a clay pot of the same name. Eating is one of the best ways to experience Marrakech and a few of my personal favorites were sfenj ( a fried doughnut drizzled with intensely floral honey), msemen (fried bread either served plain or stuffed with spices, meat or cheese), and tanjia (succulent lamb slow roasted in clay pots for hours in underground ovens). To see where the locals eat join one of several tours offered by Marrakech Food Tours.
15. Mint Tea
Whether served as a sign of welcome, sipped during a business transaction or enjoyed as a way to unwind in the afternoon mint tea is central to life in Marrakech. A blend of green tea and fresh mint it is traditionally served very sweet.
Being a Muslim country alcohol is not prevelant though you can increasingly find wine, beer and cocktails in restaurants and hotels catering to tourists (often at exhorbitant prices). Surprisingly there are even a handful of Moroccan vineyards producing Spanish style wines. Drinking to the point of intoxication (especially in public) is highly frowned upon.
Islam is the official state religion of Morocco, you will hear the call to prayer ring throughout the city 5 times per days and in general non-Muslims are not allowed inside mosques. Friday is the Muslim day of prayer and you may find some businesses and restaurants closed.
18. Jamma el fna
When night falls Marrakech’s main square comes alive in what’s some call the greatest show on Earth. One of North Africa’s oldest and busiest market squares it is home to a dizzying array of dancers, magicians and storytellers vying for your attention (and dirham) as well as food vendors hawking a variety of Moroccan specialties. Of note, the animals you see with the snake charmers and dancing monkey acts are usually poorly treated and it’s best not to patronize these acts.
19.Be Prepared to Bargain
Haggling is an essential part of the shopping experience in Morocco. Don’t be afraid to walk away if the vendor does not agree to a final price you are comfortable with.
20. Argan Oil and Traditional Medicine
Argan oil is arguably one of Morocco’s best known exports, usually used for hair and skin care in the US. Many shops in the souks sell pure argan oil both for cosmetic and culinary uses. Morocco has a long tradition of using herbs as traditional medicine and I recommend a stop at an herbalist for everything from natural remedies to fragrant cooking spices.
21. Bottled Water
To avoid any tummy issues it is advised that you use bottled water for drinking and brushing your teeth.
Toilet paper in public restrooms is not a given in Marrakech so it’s best to carry your own. In places where there is a restroom attendant make sure you leave a small tip.
A visit to a hammam, a traditional Moroccan bathhouse, is a must for any visit to Marrakech. A typical hammam experience starts with a steam room, a thorough scrubbing with a traditional kessa mitt and an olive based black soap and several rinses alternately with warm and cool water. For a traditional experience you can visit one of Marrakech’s community hammams ( be aware that community hammams are separated by gender, either with separate spaces or differing times for men and women) or treat yourself to an elevated hammam experience at one of Marrakech’s luxury spas. Whatever hammam experience you choose know you will be naked (or nearly naked) in front of others.
24. Top Marrakech Attractions
Ben Youssef Madersa-one of the most popular sites in Marrakech, the Ben Youssef Madersa previously served as a center for Islamic learning for over 400 years. Today visitors marvel at the intricately carved Moorish walls and stunning tile mosaics.
Majorelle Gardens-once a private retreat for famed French designer Yves Saint Laurent the Majorelle Gardens are a beautiful mix of Berber and French cultures and provide a calming respite from the hustle of Marrakech.
Le Jardin Secret- An oasis from the chaos of the Medina, this beautifully restored courtyard features stunning tile work and lush gardens.
Bahia Palace-Considered one of the most lavish palaces in Marrakech, Bahia Palace features expansive courtyards, lush gardens and ornate architecture.
The sights and colors of Marrakech can be irresistible to photographers but before you start snapping away nonstop be aware that many people in Marrakech are not open to having their picture, or pictures of their products, taken. In fact, I saw several signs in the souks requesting no photography. The main thing is to ask permission to take pictures and be respectful if the answer is no.
Do you have any other tips for Marrakech? Please share in the comments!