Marrakech is an African destination on many people’s travel bucket list. And for good reason. From wandering through the old walled city, world class shopping, to exploring the exotic food, to seaside side trips, Marrakech has something to offer everyone. We recently spent a month in “The Red City” and compiled our list of things you must do when visiting Marrakech, Morocco.
Go shopping (and bargaining) in the Medina
The Medina is Marrakech’s old walled city, filled with narrow passageways that seem to have been forgotten by time. There are miles and miles of souks (shops) selling everything you can imagine. From clothing, to spices, to pottery and every type of souvenir imaginable. With all this competition, the shopkeepers will go the extra mile to get you to browse in their shop. Often they’ll try to guess your nationality or pretend to know you to engage you in conversation (and then guide you into their shop). If you’re not interested, just smile and keep walking.
If you do decide to make a purchase, bargaining is expected! Usually, the initial quoted price is as much as 50% over the price the shopkeeper expects to get. Your bargaining power, of course, is dependent on a lot of factors: how many other shoppers there are, the time of day, how well the merchant has done in sales already during the day.
When bargaining, be polite and friendly – most shopkeepers actually seem to enjoy the bargaining process.When countering a quoted price, you can mention that you saw a similar object for cheaper at another place. Of course, if you decide to walk away, you will inevitably get to a last chance pitch, and this is often the best price you’ll get.
Take a food tour
We try to take a food tour with a local in every destination we visit. We find we learn so much more about a culture and their history through their cuisine. During our visit, we took an evening tour in the Souk with Marrakech Food Tours. During the walk with Youseff, one of the owners of the company, we sampled an amazing array of options at tiny local places that we wouldn’t have found on our own. Some of the exotic options included traditional couscous, sardine meatball sandwiches, pit roasted sheep, and avocado smoothies. Read our post Marrakech Food Tour – A Taste of the Red City for the full experience!
Visit the Marrakech Photographic Museum
The Photography Museum (La Maison de la Photographie) of Marrakech is located in a renovated travelers inn deep in the Medina. It gives a great historical view of the Medina and Morocco in general through photographs. Many date back over one hundred years. The museum includes pictures and lithographs from a series of well-known early photographic artists and explorers. The museum also has little rooftop cafe with great views of the old city.
What stood out to us was not the way the pictures captured life from a hundred years ago, but more how they highlighted how little had changed in the souk. Today there are mopeds and motorcycles, and electric lights and mobile phones, but so many of the old ways are much the same as they always were.
Enjoy a mint tea
You’ll find tea everywhere in Morocco, and will often be offered a welcome tea when entering a shop. Take some time to sip on a hot tea made with fresh mint, and watch the wandering crowds in the old city. The process for making tea properly in Morocco is quite complex, involving a number of steps. It’s far different than dropping a teabag in a mug of hot water.
Take a side trip to Essouria
Ok, obviously Essouria this isn’t in Marrakech. But, if you are staying more than a couple of days, this seaside city is only a short (2.5 hour) trip from the city. A nice break from the frenetic pace of Marrakech, Essouria has a laid-back vibe. You can explore the UNESCO registered old walled city, and since this is a seaside town, wander along the water. If you do go, a must-do is eating the fresh seafood on the Essouria quayside.
Experience the old city (Jemaa el-fna) at night
The Medina is busy any time of day, but takes on a different feel in the evening.The old buildings and shops are lit up and and the cooler nighttime temperatures make wandering around a little more comfortable. Food stalls open up in Marrakesh’s main square, Jemaa el-Fna, and are filled with locals enjoying meals with families. Don’t miss the snail vendors serving up one of the local favorites: snails in a spicy broth.
Visit the spice market in the Jewish Quarter
The Jewish Quarter, or Mellah, was one the central area for Jewish life in Morocco, which at one point had a Jewish population of 250,000. Today, most of the Jews long since have moved out, and the old quarter is crumbling with ruins. The city recently began a rehabilitation project to restore many of the old buildings, including the synagogue, to encourage tourism.
The markets in the Mellah specialize in spices, herbs, and oils, and the shopkeepers will happily encourage you into their stalls and insist that you sample almost everything. Of course, the presentation is all a sales pitch, encouraging you to make a purchase, but it’s an entertaining experience. We spent fifteen minutes with the first vendor we met, as opened up jar after jar of exotic spices for us to sniff.
Get lost among the souks
To be honest, this is really less a recommendation, more of an eventuality. Despite maps showing every street and alley in the Medina, the endless twists and turns of the labyrinth will eventually get you turned around.
Try the tagine
A tagine is the distinctive Moroccan cooking dish with a funnel shaped lid. It’s also the name of the slow-cooked meal cooked within the clay pot. Tagines come in many varieties, including chicken, lamb, beef, and vegetarian, and with many varieties of flavors. One traditional recipe mixes lemons preserved in salt, chicken and olives to result in delicious citrus flavored dish. Another recipe is made from lamb and dried figs.
You can find tagines throughout Morocco, and most restaurants that prepare traditional food will have many to choose from. Check out our tagine recipes if you want to take a shot at making your own (tagine pot preferred, but not required!).
Be the chef at a cooking class
Curious how all those delicious flavors come together in the tagines and other Moroccan dishes? Take a class from a professional chef and learn for yourself. One of the benefits of cooking classes, of course, is that you finish out your visit by eating all the food you’ve made. We attended a class at La Maison Arabe, a Marrakech hotel, which included a visit to the neighborhood baker.
Take pictures, but surreptitiously
More than most places we’ve visited, the locals in Morocco shied away from being photographed. It’s always best to ask before taking a picture of someone, of course. And, plenty of shop owners are happy to pose for a picture, particularly if you are making a purchase. But some of our best shots were of people just going about their daily business. And many of these where made with the camera hidden.
Enjoy a meal/drink on a rooftop bar
After hours of wandering the crowded Medina, it’s time to take a break. And, don’t forget to look up. With the ground floors of many of the old buildings crammed with shops, many restaurants are located on the roofs. Keep in mind that most of the restaurants surrounding the main square do not serve any alcohol.
But, there are plenty of other spots a little further into the Medina that will offer you an adult beverage. So enjoy another taste of tagine, raise your glass, and enjoy the view of the old city and the square from above.
A visit to Marrakech can certainly take you outside of your comfort zone. It can be loud, chaotic and crowded. And then in another moment you can find a secluded side street and a catch a glimpse of a traditional way of life that spans centuries. If you’re going to Morocco, embrace the scents, tastes, sights and sounds of Marrakech and you’ll be sure to leave with memories (and maybe a few colorful trinkets) that are more than enough reward.
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