Few places on earth have the ability to conjure up exotic visions of old-world culture and charm quite like Morocco. And, of the country’s countless gems, none shine as brightly as Marrakech. Straddling the
towering, snow-capped Atlas Mountains, Marrakech is in every sense an outpost—the last major bastion of civilization before the creeping edges of the Western Sahara Desert.For nearly a thousand years, Marrakech has been a melting pot of civilizations—a vibrant mixture of Sufi, Muslim and French colonial influence—built upon a tribal foundation of the native Berber culture. And perhaps one of its most alluring qualities is that it has retained much of those ancient influences to this very day, despite an ever-encroaching Western culture. Wandering through the snakelike alleyways and passages in the old city of Marrakech, you could be forgiven for thinking you had suddenly been transported back in time to the bustling heart of an Aladdinesque medina—not much has changed here over the centuries.
aone of thousands of aladdinesque alleyways in the old city. wandering through them (and getting hopelessly lost) is one of the essential things to do in marrakech.
Marrakech has traditionally been—and still is—one of the most prominent cities in, not just Morocco, but the entire West African region; and this is clearly reflected in the city’s often-lavish architecture. Palm-lined palaces with sprawling gardens, towering mosaicked mosques, decadent riads and modern art-deco-á-la-Morocco-inspired hotels dot the desert city and are constant reminders of the power and wealth that have flowed through the region for nearly a thousand years.
“Marrakech is in every sense an outpost—the last major bastion of civilization before the creeping edges of the Western Sahara Desert.”
But don’t let me give you the wrong idea and make you think that Marrakech is by any means an expensive destination. For the most part, it’s quite cheap. (I had the best croissant of my life there for the princely sum of two cents.) However, the truth is, how expensive (or inexpensive) it becomes for you is largely a reflection of your haggling skills and what kind of experience you want to have. For about 50% of the things you’ll be purchasing or doing in Marrakech, you’ll enter into a dialogue with the seller and negotiate a fair price. Be warned that Moroccans are arguably the world’s best hagglers—they literally can talk money right out of your pocket! That being said, even a bad deal in Marrakech is usually far less than you’d pay for similar things in the West. And, after all, the general standard of living for locals is substantially lower than it is in the West; so, if you can afford it, it can be—shall we say—philanthropic.
la jardin des majorelle, a surreal sight if there ever was one. not to be missed if you are looking for things to do in marrakech. photo: viault
Even so, if you want to travel in style, there are plenty of places and things to do in Marrakech that can accommodate that too; you certainly can find ways to spend a lot of money quite easily, especially in the Ville Nouvelle, the newer, more modern part of the city. On the whole, the old city of Marrakech (which is the most vibrant and colorful—it’s what everyone thinks of when they think of Morocco) is substantially cheaper. We stayed at a cozy, ornate riad (an old grand house converted into an inn) in the heart of the souks with absolutely phenomenal, freshly made breakfast every morning for $20 per person per night.
And speaking of food, that’s one of the best parts about a trip to Marrakech. The surrounding countryside is basically all farmland and supplies the city with a never-ending supply of incredibly fresh, wholesome produce that is transformed at the hands of local chefs into an array of simple, hearty, spiced-but-not-hot dishes. Moroccan cuisine is reminiscent of traditional Middle Eastern fare but with a distinctly regional bent, with a focus on tajines—heavily spiced stews cooked in special clay pots that add some special je ne sais quoi to the dishes. Delicious mint tea is served nearly everywhere you go in Marrakech and Morocco in general, but be forewarned: it’s got quite a kick! It’s actually about 90% green tea, with a bit of sugar and a few mint leaves thrown in for good measure.
“Marrakech is one of those cities where wandering aimlessly and exploring whatever catches your fancy is a brilliantly good time.”
Marrakech is one of those cities where wandering aimlessly and exploring whatever catches your fancy is a brilliantly good time. There are street performers and acrobats and snake charmers and monkeys, and all kinds of unusual things far outside the norms of daily life in much of the world to keep you shocked and entertained. And beyond that, it’s easy to get lost (literally, hopelessly lost; there are no maps and very few named streets in this area of the city) in the endless stalls and alleyways of the souks, which are the vibrant ancient markets in the heart of the old city.
“If you can dream it, you can probably buy it somewhere in the souks.”
As great as those things are, a trip to Marrakech would be woefully incomplete without making time for the following essential experiences:
hazy, bustling, noir… all appropriate adjectives to describe the night market scene at djema el-fna square in the old city of marrakech, one of the ultimate things to do in the city. photo: mathias barbagallo