Marrakech has a reputation for overwhelming first-time visitors with its heady atmosphere and sensory overload.
We have put together tips on what to expect, what to avoid and what to do in Marrakech for first-time visitors to Morocco.
A city with its own chaotic rhythm, Marrakech also has a surprisingly good dose of razzle and dazzle. Unlike Fez where cultural authenticity is a concept held dearly by locals. Or, Casablanca, a city that surprises us with a refreshingly modern and cosmopolitan side of Morocco. Marrakech can feel more like a movie set. A Disney-esque version of its former self.
In places, Marrakech is what you would expect from an Arabian Nights or Indiana Jones movie, right down to the snake charmers and potentially menacing touts in the darkened tangle of lanes of the souks and markets.
The name Marrakech originates from Berber meaning “Land of God”. The third largest city in Morocco after Casablanca and Rabat, Marrakech has an enviable location with the contrasting landscapes of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains and the Sahara Desert within easy reach.
Thanks to its proximity of some of Morocco’s biggest tourist draw cards, it is one of the most popular places to visit in Morocco.
What to Do in Marrakech
Old and New Marrakech
Like Fez and Tangier; Marrakech is divided in two. The historical centre and the new European styled modern district – Gueliz or Ville Nouvelle. Experience the extremes of medieval life in Old town Marrakech and north African luxury and commercialism in Gueliz.
Marrakech Old City
Within the historical city, the Medina, a twisted maze of intertwining passageways is a whirlwind of modern trade in a medieval setting. A place where scents and stenches will entice and startle you at will.
The Old City is also where you will find Djemaa el Fna, the large square brimming with markets, hotels and cafe’s where tourists, locals and vendors congregate.
New Town – Guiliez; in stark contrast boasts clean, modern restaurants, fast food chains and big brand stores.
A legacy of the French protectorate of Morocco, areas outside the original city walls have a distinctly Parisian feel, with wide boulevards, beautiful gardens and booming cafe culture.
And much like Paris, Gueliz is not without its luxury hotels and high-fashion brand-name boutiques. As if to reinforce the reputation Marrakech has for luxury and designer shopping, a new museum dedicated to French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent has opened in the Gueliz district.
Witness the Exotic in Jemaa el Fna Square
Jemaa el-Fna is the pulse of Marrakech. The cities main square has been a hub of trade and entertainment since 1050 AD. The name Jemaa el-Fna has many translations, one being “gathering and congregation area”.
Other translations give credit to the ongoing mystique and theatre of the square throughout the ages including “assembly of the dead”, referring to public executions that took place on the plaza.
Each day, by mid-morning the is square abuzz with markets, food vendors and an array of exotic exhibitions. A carnival that dazzles late into the evening when the Jemaa el Fna night market is in full swing.
It is thanks to this nightly display of traditional storytellers, musicians and performers, UNESCO declared the square a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
Beware the Darker Side of Jemaa el Fna Square
However, there is a cruel irony that the preservation of the squares historic and cultural identity has given rise to a darker side of Marrakech. Monkeys kept in cages or led around on chains, and snake charmers with less than ethical practices are a common sight.
For approximately 20 Dh you can have your photo taken with a real-life vulture on your shoulder. Unsavoury characters will harangue you to buy while scammers and pickpockets work the crowds.
Enjoy the Sights From A Rooftop Cafe
Sadly, this is the side of Marrakech that tends to leave people with a love-hate relationship with the city. And for this reason, for many, one of the best ways to enjoy Jemaa el-Fna square is looking down on the madness, sipping mint tea on the terrace of a rooftop cafe.
Lose Yourself in the Marrakech Souks
A Moroccan souk is one of those “must see ” in Morocco experiences and the souks of Marrakech certainly don’t disappoint.
The souks run like tentacles from the central madness of Jemaa el-Fna Plaza. It is in these ancient marketplaces where you will find the business end of Marrakech.
Winding lane-ways clogged with people, donkeys and countless small businesses. Deep in the souk is the place to experience day to day life in Marrakech. Whether you’re shopping for clothes, shoes, handicrafts, or food, you’ll find a street or an alleyway for everything.
The Marrakech marketplace is the largest traditional market in Morrocco. Visitors can get lost for hours in the confusion of streets and lanes.
While this can be an intimidating prospect for first timers; you are best to give in to the knowledge you will invariably get lost. Getting lost is part and parcel of the Medina experience. Just relax and explore, you will eventually find your way out.
Beware of Scams in the Souks
Beware the helpful child that offers, for a fee, to help you back to your starting point. One of two things can happen here. They will either give you misleading directions for their amusement leading you further into the maze or, guide you in the wrong direction to purposely position you somewhere for a greater scam.
Shopping in Marrakech Souks
Shopping in Marrakech is more than just an exercise in retail therapy. It is a fun experience if you follow a few simple guidelines. If you are planning to buy something in the Marrakech souks, be prepared to haggle. Prices will usually start quite high. Sometimes they will be absurdly high to see what they might be able to get away with.
How to Haggle in Marrakech
Vendors are expecting you to haggle so don’t be scared to make an offer much lower than the starting price and take it from there.
No matter how high the starting price, try to keep the bargaining friendly. We always like to end a good bargaining session on a good note with laughter and hopefully a good deal.
Get A Starting Price From a Trusted Source
If you are looking to make a more substantial purchase, such as a quality rug or leather goods, it might pay to ask at your hotel or research in advance what a typical price range for that item may be. Then you know what your bargaining parameters might be.
Beware the Shopping Scams in Marrakech
For the most part, vendors in the souk will be friendly and polite, but you will encounter some who can be quite aggressive. They may follow you insisting you visit their store. They aim to wear you down. It is essential to be firm but still polite when you are not interested and keep moving. They should then leave you for the next possibility; time is money after all.
Vendors may offer you tea or to sample something for “free”. Only accept if you are interested in making a purchase. Otherwise, they will try to harass you into buying something for payment of their hospitality or, demand you pay for the tea.
What to Avoid in Marrakech – Don’t Get Scammed.
Aside from dodgy food, the biggest thing to avoid in Marrakech is getting scammed.
Marrakech is Morocco’s leading tourist destination. Unfortunately, this also makes it a place where many try to make their fortune ripping off tourists. It is such a problem now even Moroccans find themselves targets to the point they call the city Marrakech Arnakech – A rhyming nickname which translates to Marrakech Mafia. You need to be wary of some of the more prevalent scams in Marrakech and how to avoid them.
Most Common Scam in Marrakech – The Tannery Scam
Much like the helpful child, we warned about earlier; you will meet many charming men in the souks who will tell you not to go down that laneway; there is nothing there. He will then direct you to another on the promise of something more interesting. Soon another young man will appear, he too seems to know the way to something more interesting. Before long you will find yourself in the foul stench of the local tannery in the very very back blocks of the medina. It is at this point the demands for money will start.
The “tannery scam” is a common and well-orchestrated scam in Marrakech. It takes different forms but happens to dozens of tourists every day. By whatever means they get you to the tannery, once there you will be transferred to a guide from the tannery who will offer you a tour.
Beware the “Free” Tannery Tour
If you take the “free” tour, you will then be moved on to a leather shop where the pressure will be put on you to buy. If you refuse, you may be aggressively harassed to pay money for the guide, the tour, and the shop owner’s time.
The tannery scam is just one of many scams in Marrakech. Most take advantage of the visitor’s disorientation in the busy city or confusion of the Souks. You can read here about six of the more common scams in Marrakech and how to avoid them.
Be Wary of Pick Pockets
In addition to keeping your guard up for scams, you are always going to have to be wary of common pickpockets. Be mindful in crowded areas or in situations where people try to crowd you or distract your attention. A vendor may start waving silk scarves in your face while his assistant keeps bringing more colours for you to look at. There is a chance under that rainbow of flowing scarves and distraction; someone may be in your pocket or purse.
The same goes on the streets. Always have a good hold on your bag, a cross body strap is best and ensure all zippers are securely closed.
Visit the Tannery
While the tannery scam is something we recommend you avoid, you don’t have to avoid visiting the Tannery necessarily.
There are traditional tanneries in several cities in Morocco. Many think the 11th-century Chouara tanneries in Fez are a more worthwhile visit that the one in Marrakech. But if you aren’t heading to Fez, the Marrakech tannery still makes an interesting visit.
If you do visit the tanneries on your own; ask your hotel or some other trusted source for directions in advance or use a good city map of Marrakech. Be wary of any offers of help by “friendly” men on the streets and look like you know where you are going – even if you don’t.
If someone offers to guide you on a tannery tour; as with everything in Morocco, agree on a price beforehand.
Hire a Guide
You can hire a local guide for 2 – 6 hours for as little as $30 USD to show you the local side of Marrakech including the medina and tannery. Some people feel this takes the stress out of being hassled by touts and you get to see Marrakech from a locals perspective.
How Long to Spend in Marrakech
Marrakech itself is relatively small but still has a lot to offer. Ideally, you would need to plan for three days in Marrakech to take in all of the sights (and smells) without rushing.
If your interest lies in visiting the Marrakech museums, The Ben Youssef Madrasa Islamic college, Badi Palace and Bahia Palaces, El-Mansouria Mosque or the Saadian Tombs, you may want to consider hiring a guide or taking a walking tour.
There is little information available at many of the sites, or little in English. A guide will help to provide some context.
Day Trips from Marrakech
If you plan to see the highlights beyond Marrakech, you may want to plan for six to seven nights in Marrakech. There are some fabulous day tours from Marrakech. Whether you wish to head to the nearby Atlas Mountains, the desert or even the coast, there’s plenty to do around Marrakech.
Where to Stay in Marrakech
Anyone in the know will tell you the best place to stay in Marrakech is in a riad.
A Riad is a traditional Moroccan house, generally with two or more storeys around a central courtyard or garden containing a fountain. Riads are inwardly focused, to allow for privacy and protection from the weather.
Historically, Riads were the stately city homes of the wealthy such as merchants and courtiers. Today, however, as riads tend to be quite large, many have been renovated for use as guest houses, hotels, apartments, and restaurants.
Riads are available to suit all budgets ranging from homestay style, shared guest house to private rental with all the luxury amenities.
We rented a little three bedroom Riad in a laneway in the heart of the Medina, a short walking distance from Jemaa el-Fnaa square through Airbnb for $100/night.
If you want to have a serviced or hotel style riad with all the amenities, expect to pay anywhere as low as $50/night for something like Riad Luzia to upwards of $300/night for Palais Riad Lamrani. Whatever style you choose, you are always guaranteed that lovely opulence associated with a Moroccan Riad.
The beauty of a riad, their design makes it fell like someone turned the volume off when you enter. A quiet oasis amongst the madness. Other than the call to prayer that echoes through the city five times a day, it is so peaceful you can’t imagine the hustle and bustle going on outside.
You can search more riad options here.
Marrakech is testament each of the Moroccan cities has their own style and unique spin on Moroccan adventure.
Plan Your Trip to Marrakech
What to Pack for Marrakech
This is by no means an extensive packing list for Marrakech; merely are a few items you may want to remember pack to make your trip more enjoyable.
For the ladies especially, a lightweight scarf is perfect for visiting mosques to cover your head, shoulders or even legs if caught wearing shorts or short skirts. It is also handy for both men and women for sudden changes in weather, keeping the sun at bay. In Morocco especially, perfect for keeping the dust and sand from your face.
No doubt; you are going to do a fair amount of walking in Marrakech. Make sure you have sensible, comfortable shoes appropriate for the season and the situation. These are some of our favourite shoes for travel.
We all know the obvious reasons for travelling with earplugs. In Marrakech, however, there’s a reason for needing earplugs you may not consider. In a city with some of the biggest and most beautiful mosques in Morocco, the Call to Prayer will play over loudspeakers five times a day. While there are few sounds more evocative, it may not be so welcome at four in the morning. We love these reusable earplugs because they also reduce aeroplane pressure and are more hygienic than the disposable foam variety.
No matter where you travel in the world, you need to be careful of both yourself and your belongings. The markets and souks of Marrakech are an ideal environment for pickpockets. There are so many stylish antitheft travel bags on the market these days; you don’t have to stand out like a tourist while being safe.
In the same way, you would protect your bag or backpack; it doesn’t hurt to protect your camera. An anti-theft camera strap can prevent your camera being snatched or accidentally dropped or lost due to inferior clasps or latches.
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
How to Get to Marrakech
Flights to Marrakech
Marrakech has an international airport with flights from many major European centres, including flights operated by some low-cost carriers. Connections from other major ports may be via a connection in Casablanca.
The airport is approx 9 km from the city centre and approx 7 km from Jemaa el Fna square.
- The most efficient way to travel to and from Marrakech is on the airport express bus. Cost ~ 30 dirhams one way or 50 dirhams return if the returning within two weeks of purchase.
- The bus runs the airport every half an hour between 7.00 am and 9:30 pm. It has no set stops aside from Jeema El Fna but does service all the leading hotels and can stop anywhere along the route.
- The airport is approx a 15 min ride by petit taxi from the city. Prices from the airport are fixed but are expensive compared to a regular cab.
- If you hail a regular taxi from the airport, expect around 20 dirhams to the city centre. Again, either agree on a price or check for a meter before leaving.
- Private transfers with meet and greet from the airport to the city centre are available starting from $16.50 USD for up to four people. Check availability here.
Royal Air Maroc operates domestic flights from all major cities in Morocco. This can be an expensive and inefficient way to move between cities. The train is the most economical way to travel within Morocco.
The train is the most convenient way to travel around Morocco. Overall, they are comfortable and relatively inexpensive. First-class tickets are not that much more expensive than the standard fare but are recommended, especially for longer trips as they will be airconditioned, have more room and allocated seating. You may have to stand in Second-class compartments during peak hour until a seat becomes free.
- Trains between Marrakech and Rabat leave every two hours. Approx travel time four hours. Expect around 185 dirhams for a first class ticket (recommended) 120 dirhams for second class.
- There are eight trains between Marrakech and Fez daily via Casablanca. Approx travel time seven hours. Expect around 300 dirhams for a first class ticket (recommended) 200 dirhams for second class.
- Services from Casablanca to Marrakech run every two hours. Approx travel time 3.5 hours. Expect around 140 dirhams for a first class ticket (recommended) 90 dirhams for second class. You can read more about the train Casablanca to Marrakech train here.
- Seven services per day between Marrakech and Tangier. One of these services is an overnight train. You will need to change trains at either Sidi Kacem or Casa Voyageurs on the day services depending on the time. Approx travel time 10 hours. Expect around 195 dirhams for a first class ticket (recommended) 132 dirhams for second class.
Marrakech is approx six hours drive from Fez, four hours from Rabat, nearly three hours from Casablanca and six hours from Tangier. The roads are very good.
Private transfers between Casablanca and Marrakech start at around $183 USD for a group of four. Check availability here.