Situated at the foot of the Atlas mountains, the imperial city of Marrakesh is large, noisy, polluted and smelly. But Marrakesh is also fascinating, full of history, the cultural center of Morocco and beautiful. If you enjoy a daily assault on all your senses then you'll have a lot of fun. When the most popular sights include numerous references to "tranquility" and "peace" like the Majorelle gardens or the gardens around the Saadian Tombs you know you're in for an interesting experience. If you find it a little overwhelming then get an official guide to take you around.
There are so many things to see, you should spend at least 3 days in Marrakesh. If you can afford it, treat yourself to a stay in a Riad so when you return from a hectic day amidst carpet salesman, fire jugglers and noisy souqs, you can relax and have a cup of mint tea in a nice quiet courtyard.
This guide to Marrakesh will help you figure out the best time to go; the best sights to see; how to get to Marrakesh and how to get around; and where to stay.
When to Go to Marrakesh
- Marrakesh Popular Arts Festival in July. This annual festival attracts folk singers, dancers, fortune-tellers, acting troupes, snake charmers, fire-swallowers and more, from all over Morocco. Since 2000 the festival has also attracted many artists and entertainers from Europe and Asia. The main events take place in the ruins of the 16 century Badi Palace and the Djemma el Fna (main town square - see below).
- Fantasia is a horse-riding spectacle that includes hundreds of charging horsemen (and women) wearing traditional clothing. It's part of the Popular Arts Festival so it takes place at the same time in July. You can experience the Fantasia in the evenings outside the city walls near the Bab Jdid. If you don't get to see it in July, there's a restaurant that offers the Fantasia as entertainment while you dine, the Chez Ali. Up-market and touristy but I'm sure you won't forget the experience in a hurry.
- Imilchil Marriage Feast is a Berber marriage festival where up to forty couples tie the knot. It takes place in Imilchil in the Middle-High Atlas Mountains near Marrakesh. The festival is a great way to experience Berber culture including music and dance. The event takes place after harvest every year so the dates vary, it's usually held late August or early September.
Winter in Marrakech
From mid-January to mid-February there is usually enough snowfall in the Atlas mountains to accommodate skiers. The Oukaimden ski resort is less than 50 miles away from Marrakech. There are several ski lifts and if they don't work you can always take a donkey up the slopes. If there's not enough snow the views are always spectacular and it's still worth the trip.
What to See in Marrakech
Djemma el Fna
The Djemma el Fna is really the heart of Marrakech. It is a large central square in the old city (Medina) and during the day it's a perfect place to grab a freshly-squeezed orange juice and a handful of dates. At the end of the afternoon, the Djemma el Fna transforms into an entertainers paradise -- if you're into snake charming, juggling, music and that sort of thing. Snack stalls are replaced with stalls offering more substantial fare and the square comes alive with entertainment that hasn't changed much since medieval times.
The Djemma el Fna is surrounded by cafe's overlooking the square so you can just relax and watch the world go by if you're tired of jostling the crowds below. Be prepared to be asked for money when you take photos of the performers and stop to watch the entertainment.
The souqs are basically undercover markets that sell everything from chickens to high-quality crafts. The souqs of Marrakech are considered to be among the best in Morocco, so if you like shopping and bargaining you'll enjoy yourself tremendously. Even if you don't like shopping, the souqs are a cultural experience you wouldn't want to miss. Souqs are divided into small areas that specialize in a certain good or trade. The metal workers all have their little shops clustered together, as do the tailors, butchers, jewelers, wool dyers, spice merchants, carpet salesmen and so on.
The souqs are situated north of the Djemma el Fna and finding your way around the narrow alleyways can be a bit tricky. Guides are plentiful in Marrakech, so you can always use those services, but getting lost in the chaos is also part of the fun. It's often more interesting to peek into souqs where local wares are being produced than to be taken to yet another carpet shop by your guide. If you get lost, just ask for directions back to the Djemma el Fna.
Majorelle Gardens and the Museum of Islamic Art
In the 1920's, French artists Jacques and Louis Majorelle created a stunning garden in the middle of Marrakech's new town. The Majorelle gardens are filled with color, plants of all shapes and sizes, flowers, fish ponds and perhaps the most pleasing aspect, tranquility. The designer Yves Saint Laurent now owns the gardens and has also built himself a house on the property. The building that gets most of the attention, however, is the bright blue and yellow building the Marjorelles used as their studio and which now houses the Museum of Islamic Art. This small museum includes some good examples of Moroccan tribal art, carpets, jeweler, and pottery. The gardens and museum are open daily with a 2-hour lunch break from 12-2pm.
The Saadian dynasty ruled much of southern Morocco during the 16th and 17th centuries. Sultan Ahmed al-Mansour created these tombs for himself and his family in the late 16th century, 66 of them are buried here. The tombs were sealed up rather than destroyed in the 17th century and were only re-discovered in 1917. Consequently, they are beautifully preserved and the intricate mosaic is stunning. Despite being situated in the heart of the somewhat hectic old town (medina) the tombs are surrounded by a nice peaceful garden. The tombs are open daily except for Tuesday. It's advisable to get there early and avoid the tour groups.
The Ramparts of Marrakech
The walls of the Medina have been standing since the 13th century and make for a wonderful early morning stroll. Each gate is a work of art in themselves and the walls run for twelve miles. The Bab ed-Debbagh gate is the entry point for the tanneries and provides an excellent photo opportunity full of vivid colors from the dyes used. It is a little smelly though.
Palais Dar Si Said (Museum of Moroccan Arts)
A palace and museum in one and well worth a visit. The palace is opulent and beautiful in itself with a lovely courtyard where you can relax and take some pictures. The museum's displays are well laid out and include jewelry, costumes, ceramics, daggers and other artifacts. The museum is open daily with a couple of hours break for lunch.
Ali ben Youssef Medersa and Mosque
The Medersa was built in the 16th century by the Saadians and could house up to 900 religious students. The architecture is beautifully preserved and you can explore the tiny rooms where the students used to live. The mosque is adjacent to the Medersa.
El Bahia Palace
This palace is a wonderful example of the best of Moroccan architecture. There's lots of detail, arches, light, engravings and what's more, it was built as a harem's residence, which makes it even more interesting. The palace is open daily with a break for lunch although it is closed when the royal family visits.
Getting to Marrakech
Marrakech has an international airport with direct scheduled flights coming in from London and Paris and many charter flights arriving from all over Europe. If you are flying from the US, Canada, Asia or elsewhere, you'll have to change planes in Casablanca. The airport is only about 4 miles (15 minutes) from the city and buses, as well as taxis, operate throughout the day. You should set the taxi fare before you get in. The major car rental companies are represented at the airport.
Trains run regularly between Marrakech and Casablanca. The trip takes about 3 hours. If you want to go to Fez, Tangier or Meknes then you can take the train through Rabat (4 hours from Marrakech). There is also an overnight train between Tangier and Marrakech. It's best to take a taxi to the train station in Marrakech since it's quite far from the old town (if that's where you're staying).
There are three national bus companies that operate between Marrakech and most major towns and cities in Morocco. They are Supratours, CTM and SATAS. According to recent traveller accounts on VirtualTourist.com SATAS doesn't have a very good reputation. Long-distance buses are comfortable and usually air-conditioned. You can buy your tickets at the bus depot. Supratours buses are handy if you are travelling onward by train since they stop at the Marrakech train station. The other bus companies arrive and depart from the long distance bus station near Bab Doukkala, a 20-minute walk from Jema el-Fna.
Getting Around Marrakech
The best way to see Marrakech is on foot especially in the Medina. But it's a sizable town and you'll probably want to make use of some of the following options:
- Taxis are readily available throughout town and probably the most efficient way of getting to the main sites. Grand taxis are old Mercedes cars that carry up to six people for a fixed fare. They usually keep to specific routes and you'll find them at the bus station, Djemaa el Fna and the main Post Office in Gueliz (new town). Petit taxis are a little more expensive but you get it to yourself and they'll take you anywhere you want to go. The meters aren't always used so either ask the driver to switch it on or bargain for your fare before you hop in. Ask your hotel staff what a reasonable fare is if you know where you're going. Petit taxis in Marrakech are usually beige and you can just flag them down.
- Caleche is a horse-drawn carriage and a popular way to get around Marrakech. There are set prices for the more common routes, around the ramparts for example, but for other routes, you'll have to bargain with the driver. Set the price before you hop in. You can catch a Caleche in the garden square between the Koutoubia Mosque and Djemaa el Fna, El Badi Palace and the more expensive hotels.
- Buses within the town are frequent and cheap but can get crowded. The central bus station, Place El Mouarabitene is just outside Bab Doukkala on the northwestern edge of the old city. You can pay the bus driver directly. The no 8 will take you to the train station; the no 10 to the central bus station and the no 1 travels between the Medina and Gueliz (new town). Most buses will stop at the Djemaa-el-Fna
- Moped or Bicycle is also a popular way to get around Marrakech and you can cycle within the medina which is handy. Check out Maroc deux Roues to get an idea about rates.
Where to Stay in Marrakech
One of the most sought-after accommodations in Marrakech is a Riad, a traditional Moroccan house situated in the Medina (old town). All riads have a central courtyard that will often have a fountain, restaurant or a pool. Some riads also have rooftop terraces where you can eat breakfast and look out over the city. A comprehensive list of riads in Marrakech including photos and prices can be found on the Riad Marrakech website. Riads are not all expensive, check out the Maison Mnabha, Dar Mouassine and the Hotel Sherazade where you can stay in style but pay less.
There are two Riads in Marrakech of note:
- La Maison Arabe; a luxury riad in the heart of the Marrakech Medina. Famous for its restaurant it also offers 13 rooms overlooking two courtyards and a beautiful hammam (traditional Moroccan sauna). You can catch hourly shuttles to the hotel's cooking school (20 minutes away) with swimming pool and gardens. Check rates and reviews.
- Riad Kniza; situated in the heart of Marrakech's Medina just a few minutes walk from the Djemma el Fna (the main square). This small, romantic, beautifully furnished traditional Riad has 7 rooms, two lounges, a courtyard and several patios. The owner is an antique dealer and extremely knowledgeable about Marrakech. The Riad Kniza comes very highly recommended with glowing reviews from all who stay here.
Marrakech has lots of luxury hotels available including the famous La Mamounia, featured in the Sex and the City 2 movie and which Winston Churchill described as "the most beautiful place in the world". There are also several popular chain hotels like the Le Meridien, and Sofitel. These hotels are often housed in historic buildings and retain the Moroccan character and style.
Budget hotels are also plentiful and Bootsnall has a decent listing of affordable options. Since many of the smaller budget hotels won't have websites or online booking facilities you should get a good guidebook, like the Lonely Planet and follow their recommendations. Most budget accommodation is situated south of the Djemaa el Fna.