Founded in the 11th century and renowned for its treasure trove of mosques, palaces, and museums, Marrakesh is the most visited of Morocco’s four Imperial Cities. At its heart is the medina, the original walled settlement around which the rest of the city was built. A maze of narrow streets and magical souks, its cobblestone streets are traversed by pedestrians and donkey carts instead of cars, and have changed very little in the hundreds of years since they were first laid out. Discover where to shop and where to eat below, then read this article for our pick of the best riad hotels the medina has to offer.
History of the Medina
Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the medina was founded in 1070 as the capital of the Almoravid empire. It continued to serve as the imperial capital on and off for hundreds of years, occasionally losing the title to or regaining it from its rival imperial city, Fez. This competition only ended with the establishment of Rabat as the capital of a newly independent Morocco in 1955. The medina’s long and illustrious past is still clearly visible in its many landmarks. These include the Koutoubia Mosque, with its iconic 12th-century minaret; and the Saadian Tombs, built by Sultan Ahmed al-Mansour in the 16th century. The entire district is enclosed by dusky pink medieval ramparts, which stretch for approximately 12 miles and grant access through a series of monumental gates.
Where to Shop
For many visitors, the main attraction of the medina is its labyrinthine souks, or traditional traders’ markets. Dark, crowded, and filled with the exotic smells of spices and leather, they ring with the calls of rival vendors and sprawl like a living thing in every direction. Overwhelming at first, they soon transform into a place of magic that can be safely navigated on foot. Most tourists start their exploration on the main thoroughfare, Souk Semmarine. Here, tourist emporiums sell antiques, jewelry, and carpets and can be good places to shop for souvenirs if your time is limited. However, you’ll find better prices and a more authentic atmosphere in the themed souks that branch off in every direction.
These include Souk el Attarine, home to brightly colored towers of spices, rare perfumes, and shining metallic goods that range from silver teapots to fabulous copper-and-stained-glass lanterns. Souk Smata is your go-to for embroidered Moroccan slippers, Souk des Bijoutiers specializes in fine Moroccan jewelry, and Soul ek Kebir is famous for its hand-crafted leather products. Those with an interest in traditional Moroccan culture should make sure to visit Souk Chouari and Souk Haddadine, home to artisan carpenters and blacksmiths respectively. Here, you can watch master craftsmen using the same techniques their ancestors have employed for centuries.
For photographers, Souk des Teinturiers (the Dyer’s Souk) is the most photogenic, with bolts of freshly dyed wool and fabric festooning the stalls in shades of fuschia, cobalt, and saffron.
Where (and What) to Eat
The heart of the medina is Djemma el Fna, a triangular plaza and gathering place that acts as an open-air stage for henna artists, snake charmers, acrobats, and fortune-tellers by day. At night, hastily erected stalls transform the space into a huge al fresco restaurant. Visitors and locals sit side-by-side at communal tables, while food is prepared on open fires that send clouds of fragrant smoke billowing into the sky. Choose whichever looks busiest and prepare to feast on grilled meats, rich Moroccan tagines, and snail soup (a local delicacy). Permanent restaurants line Djemma el Fna as well. Many offer spectacular rooftop views of the action, with Zeitoun Café being a particular favorite for those in the know.
If you’d rather escape from the hustle and bustle of Djemma el Fna, there are plenty of other excellent restaurants located within the medina walls. For Moroccan fine dining, follow in the footsteps of Jackie Kennedy and Ernest Hemingway with dinner at La Maison Arabe. Terrasse des Epices serves Moroccan and international favorites in a rooftop setting above Souk Cherifa; while Nomad is the trendy choice for reinvented Moroccan cuisine with a health-conscious twist. Both restaurants also specialize in delicious Arabic desserts. Tired of tagine? Pepe Nero serves Italian fare and (unusually in Muslim Marrakesh), fine wines.
Weather and When to Go
Marrakesh has a semi-arid climate and follows the same seasonal patterns as the rest of the northern hemisphere. Summers are hot and dry with very little humidity, while winters are mild and relatively wet. July and August are the hottest months, with average highs of around 98 degrees Fahrenheit. Average lows dip to around 43 degrees Fahrenheit in December and January, Marrakesh’s coldest months. In terms of weather, the best time to travel is in the spring (April and May) or fall (September and November) when temperatures are pleasant and sunshine is abundant. These seasons also typically have fewer crowds and lower rates than the peak summer holidays.
Most visitors arrive via Marrakesh Menara Airport (RAK), which is serviced by the country’s national airline, Royal Air Maroc, as well as a host of other European and Arabic airlines. Trains and long-distance buses also connect Marrakesh with other key destinations across Morocco, inlacing Fez, Rabat, and Meknes. However you arrive, the best way to get to the medina is to ask your hotel or riad to organise a transfer. This way, you’ll know the price in advance and won’t have to haggle with insistent taxi drivers from the moment you arrive. Be prepared to walk with your luggage from the medina gate to your accommodation. Alternatively, porters and donkey carts can be arranged for a minimal extra fee.
Top Tips for Visitors
Exploring the medina is generally safe for tourists. However, keep the following tips in mind for a hassle-free experience:
- Pickpockets take advantage of the medina’s crowded conditions, so make sure to carry your valuables in a concealed money belt. Be discreet with expensive camera equipment and leave your flashier jewelry at home.
- Be aware of con artists, especially in Djemma el Fna. Some of the most common scams include attempting to exchange counterfeit currency, and giving you “gifts” that you will be expected to pay for later.
- It’s easy to get lost in the medina, and while this can be part of the fun, it’s a good idea to carry a map and/or the address of your riad with you. If you’re afraid of losing your way, consider hiring the services of a licensed tour guide.
- Haggling is expected in the medina and vendors can be quite vigorous. Only ask the cost of an item if you’re genuinely interested in buying it, then start by halving the initial asking price. When attempting to find an agreeable middle ground, make sure to be polite and fair but don’t feel that you have to purchase anything for a price you’re not happy with.
- Make sure to carry small bills, so that you can pay the agreed price without having to ask for change.
- If you enter a carpet shop and vendors spend a lot of time rolling out their wares for your perusal, don’t feel as though you have to make a purchase. It is customary to give the assistants a tip for their effort, however.
- Exploring the medina involves a lot of walking, so be sure to wear comfortable shoes and clothing.
- Modest dress is essential for women who want to explore the medina’s religious sites. It’s advisable anyway if you want to avoid uncomfortable stares and catcalls.
- If you take photographs of the street performers in Djemma el Fna, expect to tip the subjects. Be careful not to support irresponsible acts, including captive Barbary macaques. These rare primates are now endangered in the wild due to the demand for them as pets and performers.