Marrakech, known as the red or pink city, is a jewel of North Africa. An increasingly popular destination; magical and exotic only a relatively short flight from the UK – ideal for winter sun or a long weekend.
The centre of this Moroccan city is a maze of ancient pedestrianised streets where you wander aimlessly, with the souks at its heart. Once you get to know the city and get beneath the surface chaos it is a charming, civilised and beguiling.
I’d been to Marrakech with Edward about 8 years ago, and when Kayak asked me to take a second, solo trip, I jumped at the chance.
Getting to Marrakech
Both Ryan Air and Easy Jet fly to Marrakech, so with some planning travel is cheap, it is just under 3 and a half hour flight from London. Unless you can travel exceptionally lightly with the minimum of stuff you will probably want to check in your bag on the way home so you can bring back fragile shopping in your hand luggage.
Prebook a transfer from the airport to your riad. The centre of the medina is car free and a rabbit warren of narrow twisting streets. The local petit taxi drivers will try and charge you too much for the journey, then drop you off and not direct you to your accommodation. It really is not worth it. Book the transfer and someone from your riad will meet you and escort you to the property.
Stay in a Riad
Riads are the old fashioned Marrakechi town houses, built in the centre of the maze of pedestrianised streets. Typically they will will be built with inward facing windows onto one or two inner courtyards, they offer an oasis of cool peaceful calm from the busy streets outside.
I stayed at the Riad Star, situated a stone’s throw from Medersa Ben Youssef. In former times the riad was Josephine Baker’s house and has been converted by English owners to a charming boutique hotel, complete with plunge pool, roof top garden and hamman. A centrally located riad is the perfect spot to go back to to refresh during the heat of the day between seeing sites.
Be back in time to sit on the roof terrace and listen to the hypnotic and melodious sound of the evening call to prayer ring out from the many minerets across the city.
Getting around Marrakech
The centre of the medina (ancient walled city) is pedestrianised and you will be doing lots of walking. Obviously wear sensible shoes – comfy flip flops are perfect in the summer months – carry water and make sure you have sun screen. There is a maze of narrow twisting streets and you will get lost. I recommend carrying a map and also downloading local maps to your phone or getting an app and using that to navigate.
I found google maps were not at all good, and I used the free app made by the British owners of my riad with 10 years experience of Marrakech (accessible to anyone regardless of where you are staying) invaluable. As well as offline maps it had a comprehensive guide to the main sites, restaurant recommendations, history notes, walking tours as well as numerous discounts. Get it for Apple or Android and read all the content on the plane.
Take a spare power pack for your phone, and have the address of your riad written down, the Marrkechi people are friendly, welcoming and helpful and will direct you, or the many children will take you back to your riad if you do get hopelessly lost. Be aware that everything looks completely different at night time, as all the myriad of small shops are closed and shuttered.
Be alert whilst walking, it is a busy city and the narrow streets are full of cycles and mopeds whizzing through at speed, with seemingly little regard for pedestrians.
Local convenience store. If you have to stay connected then buy a local SIM card here – about 350MAD for 5GB.
If you are taking local taxis accept that as a tourist you will pay over the odds, either get the driver to agree a price before (seek the advice of the staff at your riad, as to the proper price), or insist the meter is turned on; many drivers will refuse to do this so be prepared to argue, or get out of the taxi. Taxis are allowed to pick other passengers up so be prepared to share.
Wander and Shop in the Souks
The souks are the beating heart of the Medina, with main and smaller thoroughfares sprawling for miles, and probably the min attraction of Marrakech. Once you get orientated you will easily find your way around the different areas, and find the main North to South, and East to West routes. The souks are divided into distinct areas each specialising in a type of product, carpets, fine metal work lamps, slippers, leather goods, clothes etc.
Allow at least a day to explore, soak up the atmosphere, research and then finally shop.
Tips for snagging a bargain in the Souks of Marrakech
- Do your research – spend some time walking round the souks and get a feel for prices, the further away from the main square of Jemaa el-Fnaa you are the better the prices will be
- Ask the staff in your riad for some guidance on prices
- Know your top price and stick to it
- Remember that the stall holders are master negotiators and salesmen
- I always try and get them to name a starting price, rather than answering their question of “how much will you pay?” – if you have done some research then you wil have some idea of prices.
- >Haggling is a game, that is played to certain rules. The first price that the salesman will say is a vastly inflated price. Sometimes rich tourists agree, so of course they try it. I reckon the real price is about 20% of the first one mentioned.
- Offer a low price in return. They say 200MAD – you say 20MAD. Offer to buy more than one
- Be prepared to walk away – if they come after you then you know you are close to a price, but are still making money. This gives a good starting point for buying the same item from the next stall
- Be good humoured and charming, praise them for how lovely their wares are
- Show you are aware of what things are worth – I was offered a bowl for about 300MAD (about £23), I said I had bought a very similar one for EUR5 last year in Seville, which took the discussion to a new, and lower, level
- Enjoy the haggling. Of course the salesman is still going to make a good profit but remember you are still getting a bargain too
I was travelling by myself and had some lovely engaging conversations with the stall holders and sat and drank mint tea with a few (and bought a small item after), travel is about embracing and learning about other cultures. The Marrkechi are friendly people and are absolutely aware of the value of their tourist trade.
Like in any busy place take care of your valuables, I felt perfectly safe at all times, even when walking through the empty souks by myself after dinner one evening, a few lingering shop keepers still called me over and tried to sell me things even at the later hour.
As well the shops furthers corners of the souks are packed with workshops where the goods sold are made. It is a pleasure to wander around and watch the craftsmen at work.
Experience the constantly changing Jemaa el-Fnaa square
Jemaa el-Fnaa, is the main city square, the point at which the pedestrianised souks meet the roads and cars. It is noisy, busy and filled with tourists and local alike. In the day the square is filled with rows of stands selling deliciously cold fresh orange juice, street vendors, henna artists and street entertainers. The pipes of a dozen snake charmers ring out, and there are performing monkeys. It is busy, loud and energetic, there is a definite, but also discrete police presence.
Invariably when you are heading anywhere else in the city a helpful local will tell you you are going in the wrong direction – “main square that way” and try and get you to turn around.
If you want to photograph the snake charmers, or monkey tamers do so discretely, or give them the money they ask for, when they head towards you trying to drape a snake around your neck for photographs you need to be firm in your no. Walk round, take some photos, drink juice and enjoy the atmosphere.
At night the square is transformed with rows of pop up restaurants, which, by and large, serve the same fare of traditional soups and all manner of skewers and kebabs. Alongside the restaurants are stands selling bowls of snails for 4 or 5 MAD. All the owners will try and coax you in. I was by myself and had to endure the company of a young man, persistently but harmlessly, wanting to practice his English and wanting me to admire his camel hair shoes.
The dishes are typical street food, served from the hot grill and served at long plastic covered communal tables with benches.
After dinner it was time to say goodbye to my camel shod friend and wander back though the deserted souks, taking in the last of the entertainers and storytellers in the square.
The tagine is probably the most well known dish of Morocco, richly spiced and slowly cooked in the pot of the same name. The dish of Marrakech is the Tanjia, cooked in an urn shaped pot, which would have been traditionally been cooked in the embers of the wood fires under the many hammans and public baths in the city. After being slowly cooked for at least 5 hours the meat in the dish is meltingly tender with a rich, sweet and subtle spiced sauce. One you must seek out.
Stock up on spices in the souks – the Places des épices still has the concentration of the greatest number of spice sellers – so you can recreate some Marrakech flaours in your own kitchen. Buy a packet of ras el hanout, which literally means in the head of the store keeper, a complex blend of spices.
Take a day trip out of Marrakech
Getting out of Marrakech for the day is a real chance to see more of Morocco – I took a day trip to the Ouzoud Falls – a 2 and a half hour drive from the city. The falls are Morocco’s highest fall, with a drop of 110m. Don’t, as I did, go the day after heavy rain as the water will be an enticing reddish brown.
The excursion involves about 90 minutes of walking, up and down the sides of the river gorge, so wear sensible shoes – flip flops are just OK, but not ideal. Take plenty of change for coffee and loo stops en route, for paying the guide at the falls (50MAD), lunch (around 100MAD), the raft up to the base of the falls, and if you want a few dirham for buying some treats to feed the wild monkeys at the site.
All the tour operators will pick you up and drop you off at the closest point to your raid they can drive to.
Book and Organise Your Trip With Kayak
I booked and organised my trip through Kayak, a one stop web portal that will search hundreds of providers for flights, accommodation, excursions and car hire, quickly getting you the best deals. Once everything is booked all your bookings sync into the very useful app that keeps all of your itinerary in your pocket. One very useful feature is the way the app will display an address full screen to show to a taxi driver.
You can search for flights on destination and Kayak will scan the main providers such as Opodo, Expedia, Booking Buddy and Booking com and give you a list of options, filterable by price, dates, number of stops and airline. Pick the flights you want and you are taken through to the provider to confirm and pay, and the details appear in the Kayak app.
I love the explore function, pick your approximate dates or time of year, length of trip, flight time and budget and Kayak will pull up an impressive list of destinations, many of which would have never occurred to you.
The same smart tools cover hotel booking, and Kayak will search all the main hotel providers and again magically import the details into the app.
One of the most useful tools is the price alert where you can set your destination and either exact or approximate dates and receive a weekly email with prices for both flights and hotels which prompt you to book and also get the best price.
The Kayak magazine is packed with detailed itineraries and ideas close to home and further afield, which is fantastic for inspiration.
Trip to Marrakech and post commissioned by Kayak, all opinions our own.