Marrakesh is a true city of contrasts. Visitors cannot fail to be stunned by the transition from the smart, stylish ‘new town’ into the bustle and throng of the ancient side of the city. Needless to say, the majority of the classic sights to see and enjoy tend to be in the livelier districts! It can be a real culture shock, even in a city which has a thoroughly modern tourist economy and hosts millions of visitors a year. The key to enjoying the best of Marrakesh is to leave any pretensions at the arrivals lounge and plunge in head first! Those who do so will likely enjoy a fascinating experience, just be sure to keep your wits about you.
Before we get into exploring the essential locations that make Marrakesh such a truly unique destination, let’s just discuss a few caveats. Chaotic and outlandish as it may seem to some, the truth is that for thousands of years Marrakesh has been a commercial and business hub. True, you will see a top of the range Mercedes stuck behind a donkey and carriage – that is what we mean by contrasts. But the amazing thing is that it works.
As a Muslim country, the usual rules ought to be followed especially when it comes to dressing appropriately. Throw in the fact that as with any bustling city, there are scammers and charlatans looking to separate you from your travel funds but serious street crime is exceptionally rare. By and large, Marrakesh is welcoming and safe for visitors who respect the culture and behave accordingly.
The Djemaa el-Fna
Most public transport or taxis will drop visitors off by this iconic plaza, which no matter the time of day is always a hive of activity. Arriving at night is one of the great travel experiences for the more adventurously inclined! Nowadays it is very geared to focusing on the tourist trade, with a vast array of food stalls offering delectable meals at pocket change prices. Spice stalls and juice stands abound, as do snake charmers, storytellers and freelance guides (agree on prices in advance).
These once had a reputation for being overly pushy, but as with any service offered in Marrakesh or indeed the whole of Morroco a simple yet firm ‘No’ is near universally respected. In recent years the police have significantly beefed up their discreet overwatch throughout the old town, and traders can be prosecuted for harassment. 99% of the time just go with the flow, smile and enjoy the interaction even if you have no intention of making a purchase. That is the Marrakesh style and earns immediate respect.
Chances are that after a little while exploring the Djeemaa el-Fna visitors may need a little tranquillity. One of the must-see locations in Marrakesh has to be the Jardin Majorelle, a sumptuous range of gardens that took French painter and long-term resident Jacques Majorelle over forty years to complete. Famed for its ranges of cacti, walking through these peaceful grounds offers not just an almost surrealist experience but an astonishing switch from the hustle and bustle of the souks.
This is one of the most compelling aspects of Marrakesh which every visitor will come to appreciate. Behind the seemingly chaotic buzz that permeates the major roads and markets, is a medina that somehow seems to offer a different world within just a few footsteps. A refreshing pot of mint tea (which, incidentally, accompanies every meal throughout the day) and you’ll be ready to get back into the action right away.
With the Atlas Mountains clearly present on the horizon it comes as no surprise to see many fossil and antiquarian stores throughout the maze of markets. Stores ought to be considered in context more often than not these are open-fronted rooms with a proprietor eager to make your acquaintance over mint tea. Really they are a maze – and it can be astonishingly easy to become thoroughly disoriented in the Bab Doukkala. Once again, the best way is just to go with the flow and check out some amazing produce and wares.
As may be expected, there is no such thing as a straightforward transaction! Only the larger western style stores tend to stock products with price tags – but even in these, everything is negotiable. The quoted price will be many times a reasonable sum, with the process of haggling and negotiating simply being a cultural norm. A good tip if you do find an item you like early during your stay is to drop by daily and ask if the price has changed. After three or four visits, and especially if you depart the next day, the price will be considerably lower!
Museum for Photography and Visual Arts
There is a huge amount to see and experience in Marrakesh, far more than we can cover to any purpose in this quick article. The best way is simply to explore (wear good footwear but also consider that shorts are frowned upon especially in restaurants or religious locations).
One recently opened new destination that must be seen is the David Chipperfield designed Museum for Photography and Visual Art. Marrakesh is an inspired choice for the location of this world-class attraction, as the city is such a visually stunning environment, full of colors, contrasts and decorative flair. Allow a full afternoon to enjoy this museum (air-conditioned respite from the midday heat) which handily displays its exhibits in a variety of languages.
Final Thoughts on Marrakesh
There is so much else to discuss about Marrakesh, but as stressed throughout this guide, the best way is simply to discover the real delights under your own steam. Consider the opportunity to take one of the official, licensed walking tours throughout the city. These tend to depart early (temperature providing) but offer a great way of seeing the sights in as efficient a way as possible.
Accommodation is available through both new and old districts. The riad’s (small half-board hotels) that are hidden in the old town can be mesmerizingly beautiful, offering rooftop gardens that provide a stunningly evocative view that becomes even more atmospheric at each call to prayer. Meals are typically classic Morrocan although if you look about there are all sorts of cuisines available, more commonly in the newer parts of the city.
Regardless of where you stay and what you do, Marrakesh is one of those destinations that will live forever in memory.
Photo Credits in order of appearance in article.
Featured Photo: By karel291 [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo 2: By Max221B [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
Photo 3: By Arnaud 25 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
Photo 4: By Jorge Láscar from Australia (Souk – Jemaa el-Fnaa) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons