The Red City, The daughter of the desert
Another of our winter, low season trips take us this time to one of the most historical cities in Morocco, ancient Marrakesh; and what is best, for such a great air fare deal. I keep recalling on this, honestly, if you are the kind of person who loves culture and sights rather than relax and beach only, consider visiting countries such as Morocco during the low season, this is, during the European winter months, when everything is way cheaper and you get to enjoy the cities without the hordes of tourists. Yet also, it’s a nice treat escape the cold January days for some 25 degrees and sun.
On this occasion I will be quite honest and direct to the point. Marrakesh was not a city that will leave some legacy in my list of great destinations. Instead, I was quite surprised to find quite a dirty place but worst of all, the annoying people everywhere trying to sell you anything, pushing you, grabbing and touching you to drive attention to what they have to offer. Noticeable in the main market square, and towards the evening, if you are looking around for a restaurant, you will not have a second of peace and silence. You will be surrounded by one after another “restaurant waiters” trying to get you on to what they claim “the best ever restaurant”.
Learn to send them away, say no, don’t worry even if this means no eye contact, and have your time to check the menus by yourself. Don’t hesitate in needing to say no rudely to whoever comes from the restaurant nearby. You must be really tough and direct. This people don’t listen until you really use a stronger vocabulary. As opposed, everywhere else we’ve been in Morocco is the antipodes; so polite, so nice and so easy to communicate and immerse into their culture.
Marrakesh, likewise anywhere in Morocco is not a dangerous place, and people is really nice and caring, but very annoying as explained before in the case of Marrakesh. In any case, being overall disappointed with the city in that way does not mean it is ugly, for sure it is not. Contrary, it does offer a great amount of historical sites, some of which UNESCO World Heritage listed such as its vast Medina, and lot’s of work and efforts are been done in the ongoing restoration and gentrification making it even a greater place.
The historic areas of the city are not too big so you can do all your sightseeing walking easily and consider there is no public transportation inside the Medina unless you take a taxi. You should make sure to have a good street map before you get on to the streets. And why is that? Well, I printed some area maps from Google only to find out not all the streets were represented! For instance, the street of our hotel was not there and that was fun to find it. So save yourself this little surprise. The best solution, Google maps on your phone and zoom, really, zoom more, the complex street maze of the Medina will show and at least you will know where you are at all times.
Aside from the city itself, there is a place you should consider in your visit; the Menara Gardens. But even you might think it’s near enough to walk, don’t attempt this, get instead a bus as it’s farther than you think. Ask anyone, most people speak English, well and Spanish, French and others. If you are lucky enough to have a very clear sky, you get to will see the magnificent Atlas Mountains in the distance. The best view is while on the pools of the Saadian Pavillion at the centre of the garden.
Some tips to bear in mind while in the main market square, Djeema El Fna. During the day you will see snake enchanters, people with monkeys and other animals, really anything just to draw your attention, and of course, for you to give them some money. Say no and sorted. Taking pictures of the snakes means paying some money, that’s the whole purpose of it, and if you are thinking in sneaking these from the distance without them noticing it, be careful as the people around might see you and alert the merchant then scream you to give money.
Where to eat in Marrakesh will never be a problem, the choice is so vast! You will actually have the opposite problem. So much choice in front of you hence making it hard to even decide. Ignore the hundreds of people who will approach you drawing your attention to whatever restaurant they work for. Take your time to read the menu and compare prices on your own. In general, it is not very competitive therefore prices do vary very little, if any. A Moroccan couscous salad and tagine will never disappoint you, simply delicious, even if this is at the very heart of the tourist area, the Djeema El Fna Square.
Lastly talking about the square, I strongly recommend you get on any of the many roof terraces overlooking it down below. Although it is mandatory to get a drink if you want to use the terrace, it is very well worth it to pay the premium and enjoy for example a great Moroccan tea while waiting for the stunning sunset view.
For more information about Marrakesh check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Morocco’s currency is the Dirham (MAD). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Marrakesh
- City walls and gates Built by the Almoravid in the 12th century from orange and red clay and chalk, these stretch for some 19 kilometres no less, and are in a great state of preservation. It is because of its color that Marrakesh takes the nickname of “Red City”. Along the perimeter you can find several magnificent gates.
-Bab Agnaou and Bab er Robb (Lord’s Gate) Both located near each others along the southern perimeter. The most famous in the city.
-Bab el Khemis Along the northeast, it is referred for being the most spectacular.
-Bab Doukkala Along the northwest, while the most bulky of them all, it is the less decorated.
- Old Medina One of the largest in Morocco, and one of the most beautiful. Listed in its full as a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO, together with several other palaces and gardens around the city. The main square is along the southwest, the famous bustling Djeema El Fna.
-Ben Youssef Mosque Located towards the northwest section of the Medina, it is the oldest in the city dating back from 1132 becoming the largest ever built by the Almoravid empire. It became the centre of the city where the rest of the Medina started to rise and expand. From the original buildings little remain, as a new one was built on top in the 16th century.
-Ben Youssef Madrassa Just east from the mosque of the same name, it is without doubt, one of the most celebrated architectural sight in the whole city. Built in the 16th century as the new mosque was also built, the current buildings are a later reconstruction from the 19th century. The exhaustive decoration resembles the Alhambra palaces of Granada in Spain.
-Museum of Marrakesh Next door a street south from the Madrassa, it is not just only worth it for its incredible collection of artifacts through the history of the city, but the imposing building itself, with great traditional courtyards and rooms.
-Riads and palaces Everywhere inside the maze of labyrinthine streets you’ll find these gorgeous traditional houses, most of which turned into hotels, restaurants and cafes. But one can take an image of how rich and powerful the city once was in order to have this large amount of constructions.
-Djeema El Fna Square The main square in the Medina, with souks (markets) on each possible street. Bustling during the day with merchants and tourists, thriving in the night with food stall vendors and the night market.
- Koutoubia Mosque Located southwest from the Djeema El Fna Square along the avenue of the same name where you can see one another at both ends. It is the biggest and most important in the city. Completed in 1199 in the Umayyad style, it did inspire other magnificent buildings such as the Giralda of Seville in Spain.
- Kasbah Mosque At the southernmost end of Rue Ibn Rochd that traverses the city from near the Djeema El Fna at the north is this 12th century work of art, built by the Almohad caliph Yaqub al-Mansour. It rivals with the Koutoubia Mosque in beautifulness and grandeour.
- Saadian Tombs Attached to the southern side of the Kasbah Mosque, were built in the 16th century as burial place for several Saadian sultans, it is one of the city’s jewels. Its architecture and quality of materials is one of the finest.
- El Badi Palace Just east from the Saadian Tombs along the narrow pedestrian Ksibet Nhas alley. It translates as the Palace of Wonders, and one can only image what here once stood and how it could have looked. Built in 1578 upon requests of sultan Ahmad al-Mansur of the Saadian dynasty, yet sadly fell into decline and disrepair after the fall of the Saadian, becoming the ruins you see today, although one of the major tourists attractions in the city. 10 MAD entrance fee.
- Place des Ferblantiers Square One of the major intersection points in the city where the major roads meet, with plenty of the greatest sights nearby. El Badi Palace is at its west, El Bahia Palace at the east and the Royal Palace at the south.
- El Bahia Palace Located towards the east of the city, just after Place des Ferblantiers Square. One of the many palaces around this part of the city and one of the best, largely preserved as it was built in the late 19th century. 10 MAD entrance fee, including the lavish gardens. A must do while in Marrakesh.
- Royal Palace Located next to the Badi Palace, immediately south of Place des Ferblantiers. It will be impossible to get a picture of it since it is heavily securely guarded and pictures are prohibited, but you can walk the perimeter and admire the walls and gates of various courtyards as you head south towards the Agdal Gardens right behind.
- Agdal Gardens Beyond the Royal Palace. Established in the 12th century by the Almohad Caliphate as an orchard, it nowadays contains several other plants and tress such as oranges, lemons, pomegranates or olives .This place is really huge and the most famous view of Marrakesh itself is the view from outside the walls of this garden and the palms inside. It is the same picture you will see in the postcards.
- Menara Gardens Located west of the city very near the airport. Although not the largest comparing to others along the same area, it is by far the most visited of them all, with the wonderful Saadian Pavillion at its centre, and the view of the Atlas Mountains far in the distance behind.
Menara International Airport is the main gateway of the city to the world, offering a great choice of destinations across various continents. Also considering it is the most visited city by tourist, the selection of airlines is great too. It is located 9 km west and directly linked with the city centre via the bus 19 Airport express. It has several stops along the way and passes next to Djeema El Fna square. It costs MAD 50 for a round trip.
Coming overland from other cities in Morocco is getting easier with the years, and way more comfortable. The investment in infrastructures is becoming more obvious, with very modernised railways and motorways, although distance are still long and time consuming.
Within the city you will not need any other transportation as almost all the sights are walking distance, except for the Menara Gardens, where you will need to take a bus.
While it can be hard to find a good deal in hotels, there is another more unique option, sleeping in a riad. Riads are basically old houses turned into hotels with really nice patios and typical Arab architecture everywhere. You cannot get more traditional than this to be honest, and certainly a better experience than a hotel. These can be found mostly around and inside the Medina, yet personally I would not recommend you stay inside Medina as it can be very noisy, crowded and not as clean as you imagine. The same way as finding a hotel, you can find a riad through any of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo or Ebookers.
We stayed at Riad Jonan, on 35 derb Bzou, rue de la Kasbah. Located minutes away from the Saadian Tombs, and therefore in the middle of the sightseeing area. Quiet, clean and friendly staff, also big rooms, but no TV.Beautiful and care decoration everywhere and a nice freshly cooked breakfast served just minutes after you sit in the table of the stunning patio. Strongly recommended.