The red city of Morocco, found below the foothills of the Atlas mountains is, for many, the first taste they will have of the African continent. Just a few hours from Europe, you’ll discover a world of strange bazaars set around twisting alleyways, behind ancient city walls where mosques, riads, souks and snake charmers all entrance.
Marrakech’s magical qualities are intoxicating; it’s central square, the Djemma El-Fna is like a circus performance venue, home to fortune tellers and fire eaters where if you stand still long enough someone is quite likely to wrap a snake around your shoulders and expect you to pay them a few dirhams for the privilege of having your picture taken with the snake.
Fringed by endless stalls selling carpets, lamps, spices, tanjine pots and all manner of different potions, it’s a microcosm of the bustle and vibrancy of the city itself and an ideal shopping hotspot.
Getting there/getting around Marrakech
Scheduled carriers and low-cost airlines including easyJet operate between London and Marrakech. The Marrakech-Menara Airport is about four miles southwest of the city.
Local bus services operate from el Mouarabitene, the central bus station in the north of the city but petit taxis can be found everywhere around the city. They are relatively cheap, less so at night, but aim to agree prices with the driver before you set off.
A horse-drawn carriage (caleche) ride is another fun way to move around the city, although expect to haggle a bit for a reasonable price.
Sightseeing in Marrakech
The Koutoubia Mosque and minaret is close to the main square and is a landmark sight, dating back to the 12th century. It is located along Avenue Mohammed V and can be viewed from the surrounding gardens.
The Sa’adian Tombs with more than 100 mosiac decorated graves, mostly for members of the Sa’adian royal family and dating back 500 years are worth a visit in Rue de la Kasbah. They have been opened to the public only since 1917 and their ornate decoration and surrounding mausoleums are beautiful.
The old city, surrounded by 13th century ramparts is great to wander around, although with such narrow streets and alleys be careful of the many motorbikes and mopeds which come zooming fast around corners. Getting lost in the backstreets can be part of the charm of Marrakech but there is always usually someone willing to guide you back to where you started from for a few dirhams.
Djemma El-Fna, which was once where the heads of criminals of the city were hung on stakes, is today much more lively and less macabre. Ideal to explore in the early evening it’s the place to be entertained by endless street performers, story tellers, musicians and other enterprising individuals. Ubiquitous orange juice stands and snack stalls abound in the evening when the air is thick with smoke and smells of whatever exotic dish is being cooked up.
The Palais Dar Si Said (Museum of Moroccan Arts) is a palatial, fascinating building and contains many items of interesting jewellery and costumes worth seeing, while the Ali ben Youssef Medersa and Mosque – a religious studies school – is another building worth exploring, rich in history with endless small student rooms, situated north of the bazaar district.
Family attractions in Marrakech
To escape the city heat and for a bit of fun try an aquatic park called Oasiria along Route de Barrage. Here wave pools, a pirate ship, water toboggan runs and slides will cool the family down. A free shuttle service runs to and from Oasiria, from Djemma El-Fna.
Specialist tour operators like the Adventure Company can organise trips designed specifically for families to enjoy both Marrakech and the surrounding Atlas mountains.
In the mountains the opportunities to go mule trekking along parts of the Ourika Valley and visit remote Berber villages, like Anamer, will prove both exciting and educational. The presence of a guide will put your mind at ease that you and your family are in safe hands and getting the most out of your visit.
Day trips around Marrakech
Head out to Setti Fatma and cool off in the waterfalls above the red clay village here which lies at the end of the Ourika Valley. The 40 mile journey there and back from the city can be covered at a reasonable price by a grande taxi – but make sure you negotiate the price in advance. A guide can then take you around the waterfalls but make sure you have good footwear and a head for heights.
Essaouira is about 102 miles away from Marrakech but situated on the coast, this once strongly fortified town and fishing harbour is a real joy to wander around in, not least to escape the city heat and enjoy a more relaxed environment. It’s a place for windsurfers and for long camel treks across the sandy beach.
Eating out in Marrakech
Tangines are commonplace – the choice of a meat or vegetarian type casserole dish in a tangine pot is a staple of most restaurants. Couscous, endless varieties of spices, humous, sweet mint tea and fresh orange juice are typical favourites to be found on stalls and restaurants throughout the city.
In the evening, Djemma El-Fna square comes alive with numbered food stalls selling everything from sheep heads to French Fries. Eating here is a seriously cheap alternative to the restaurants but just be careful with some of the salads and meat on offer.
Among the restaurants worth noting is the Dar-Es-Salaam close to the main square.This is one of the city’s oldest restaurants and has been described as looking like something out of the Arabian Night Tales. It’s where Hitchcock also filmed scenes for The Man Who Knew Too Much.
Dar Moha, along Rue Dar El Bacha is highly recommended. This riad style restaurant offers great Moroccan food in a perfect setting – just make sure you are seated outside beneath the shade of the banana palms next to the pool, and expect to get sernaded by musical lutists as you eat.
Le Yacout in Sidi Ahmed Soussi offers dinner in different settings including being beside a pool, in a cushion filled saloon or an upstairs room near the rooftop where pre dinner drinks are usually served. The food portions are vast and vegetarians are well catered for.
Cafe Argana overlooking Djemma El-Fna offers one of the best views of the city and restaurant Le Jardin along Rue Oum Rabia is also recommended.
Nightlife in Marrakech
Folk music and belly dancing are popular in many restaurants and other venues around the city. Fantasia, Chez Ali on the Safi road, just a few miles outside of the city centre is one such place where you can dine in royal tents and watch dancers and horse riding displays.
As an Islamic country, alcohol is frowned on in certain areas but for the most part, especially in many of the western style hotels it is easy to get a drink and find a dancefloor.
In terms of big name clubs, Pacha Marrakech offers decadence from its cocktails, and swimming pool to top name DJs. If casino is more of your thing, head to Es Saadi Hotel in Avenue El Qadissa where there are a number of games and other live entertainment shows on from 4pm to 4am daily.
Shopping in Marrakech
Hire a guide to take you through the many labyrinthine alleys, as each one tends to specialise in different products such as spices, carpets, jewellery, furniture or brasswork.
The main souks are located through the north sector of Jeema-el-Fna square, staring with Souk Smarine. They’ll prove fascinating and colourful even if they can be a little claustrophobic at times. But among the many items here worth buying are wooden boxes and trays, belgha leather slippers, lanterns and tangine pots, spices, carpets and rugs.
Haggling is all part of the fun but try not to feel too pressured into buying items you don’t really want and expect obligatory mint tea to be served as part of the charm offensive by many sellers who want you to see their products.
For craft gifts head also towards avenue Mohammed V where a small shopping centre offering goods at fixed prices indicates roughly what you should be expecting to pay back in the souks.