This one has been a long time coming. I’ve felt like the only person that hasn’t visited Marrakech for years now, never mind the fact that I’d never set foot in Morocco, my Dad’s home country, before. Embarrassing. Since the trip, I realised a lot of people I’ve spoken to have put Morocco on the long finger for some reason or another. Turns out I wasn’t the only one who kept meaning to go, but never really got around to it. I had no doubt in my mind I’d love the place and immediately want to return, there’s a lot more of the country, people and culture I want to see. For now though, here’s my Marrakech city guide, in association with kayak.ie the world’s leading travel search engine.
Where to stay
A riad of course! For me, it was always a given that when I finally made it to Morocco, I’d stay in a riad that had a tiny turquoise pool in the centre and was elaborately decorated with pretty tiles and lush greenery with a roof top terrace. I found so many when searching on the Kayak app, it was dizzying, even after ticking the riad-only box under accommodation type. But after adjusting my filters for budget and distance (plus picking things like free breakfast and airport shuttles), I whittled it down to a couple before settling on Riad Esprit du Maroc.
I booked the private airport transfer (more on that later) direct with the hotel and arrived to a guided tour of the riad including the spa (which I wouldn’t really rate). The immediate vibe I got was that this is what trendy boutique hotels are trying to achieve, but in a much more authentic way. The riads are a higgledy piggledy mismatch of buildings, old and new, tiny winding stairwells and hidden courtyards.
This particular one was originally a family home over 300 years ago, that’s a lot of history for around €120 a night.
The riad was inside of the old city walls, the ‘medina’. It’s the Marrakech I’d always pictured, a labyrinth of winding lanes, street food, souks, doorways and of course the main square, Jemaa el-Fna.
I ventured out to the famous La Mamounia hotel, just past the red walls (and via some I suspect not very well looked after camels in a car park) and while there’s no denying the hotel is stunning. The sprawling gardens and lavish interiors could be anywhere in the world. I didn’t feel like I was in Morocco at all, despite sipping on €7 mint tea! Rooms here start from around €400 a night.
Where to eat & drink
Let’s talk about the food shall we? I already knew I love Moroccan and North African cuisine, more flavourful tasty spices than tongue tingling heat spicy. Think cumin, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, coriander and paprika. I’m not mad about sweet and savoury together, so apricots and sultanas in my main wouldn’t really interest me. I was glad to discover that you can usaully choose salty (with olives) or sweet (with dried fruit) when ordering tagines. I’d heard a lot about the food scene in Marrakech and had loads of recommendations. Since Morocco is a majority Muslim country, you won’t find alcohol that readily available. That said, it’s actually the largest producer of wine in the Muslim world, and I think I’ve found the best place to enjoy a bottle in Marrakech.
Most hotels will have a bar, but prices can be a bit ridic (I figured this out after ordering G&Ts without looking at the menu first). I suppose I could have used the weekend as an opportunity to detox, but what are a bowl of olives without a cold crisp glass of white?
Restaurants & Cafes
- Café Arabe – this is where you’ll find that bottle of Meknes wine (I think it was Sauvignon Blanc), for only €16 and it’s quaffable to say the least. Their couscous is a must, order a couple of tagines to share (I tried the merquez sausage and chicken) or they have some good veggie options too. Hearty and reasonable, the rooftop gets busy around sunset. Make a reservation if you’re picky about where you want to sit and at what time, or if there’s a large group.
- Nomad – “modern Moroccan”, they say. It’s the slightly LA hipster option in the medina. Another rooftop that is busy at lunch and sunset. The food is great here (try the lamb and aubergine couscous) but the view is better at sister restaurant…
- Café des Épices – opposite from Nomad, it’s more casual and probably more authentic. Although they asked if I wanted to eat my kofta sandwich ‘Moroccan style’, meaning with your hands or with cutlery. Who the hell eats a sambo with a knife and fork though? Anyway, really affordable and good iced coffee too.
- Café Guerrab – a nice choice for a quiet breakfast overlooking the medina before everything comes to life. Try Berber eggs with orange juice and coffee
- Night street food market – not for the faint hearted. Jamaa el-Fna, the main square comes alive after dark with a huge row of street food vendors, all selling pretty much the same stuff. I opted for the very last stall, so I was on the outskirts looking in at ‘Hassan 55’. Also, Hassan was the least aggressive, some of them will literally try to pull you in to their place. I ordered everything, because Moroccan food, but the standouts were the merquez sausages (again), the pastilla (because you have to try this sweet and savoury local delicacy – it may or may not contain pigeon) and the couscous royale. If you still have room for something sweet, you can stop one of the pastry carts rolling by and fill up a box for a couple of euro
- Juice stalls in Jamaa el-Fna – the freshest, tastiest and probably cheapest orange juice you’ll ever taste. About 40c for a big glass, plus they’ll let you try any other fruit you like
- Café Glacier – a quiet oasis to escape to and cool off with an ice cream, the pistachio and hazelnut were excellent. It’s the rooftop of the BIG Cafe Glacier you’re looking for, some smaller places have similar names but this one is the biggest and best with views over the square. If you want a dusk photo of the night market coming to life, or a sneaky zoom of the snake charmers, this is the spot.
- Beldi Country Club – make it your mission to visit this place before you leave Marrakech. It’s only about ten minutes from the airport and the perfect place to chill after the madness of the medina before catching your flight home. They do a three course lunch and pool access package deal for less than €40 and it’s worth every penny. Make sure you explore the grounds though, unbelievable gardens, rows and rows of roses, cacti, the greenhouse, the bar for sundowners – 100% going back here as soon as I get a chance!
What to do
- Shopping – top of the list for me. I’ve actually gone off shopping in the last few years, in shops though. Markets are a different kettle of fish altogether! The souks of the Marrakech medina are something else and you need to visit at different times of the day to get the full experience. In the morning while it’s still cool outside and the sun hasn’t crept over the walls, vendors are quietly setting up, buying their own fruit, veg and bread from the less fancy local part of the market towards the north of the medina. It’s the calm before the storm.
Lunch time brings the sounds and smells of sizzling meat on grills and tagines slowly cooking away, street sellers calling bright eyed tourists into their Aladdin’s caves and the hustle and bustle of mopeds speeding around corners, beeping, people haggling and kids running through the alleys (while cats everywhere snooze through the whole thing!). You’ll also want to be under the shade of the souks at the hottest part of the day.
Evening time is when you’ll get the best deals, the sellers are slightly more desperate to make sales at the end of the day and get rid of stock before shutting up shop.
What to buy & haggling
- Textiles – Berber rugs, one of the most famous exports from Morocco, these cost serious dough at home, but you can get them for a few hundred in the souk and they’ll even ship to you. If they’re too expensive/heavy/you don’t have the space, pick up a couple of cushion covers instead – you can stuff them when you get home.
- Scarves – you’ll find cotton scarves from as little as 10 Dirham (€1!), handy for shading from the sun and covering your shoulders to help you dress respectfully while in Morocco
- Food – stock up on spices (I bought cinnamon sticks and Ras el Hanout, a kind of Moroccan version of Chinese five spice), preserved lemons, argan oil and as many olives as you can fit in your luggage – they’re ridiculously cheap and tasty!
- Kitchenware – tagines, tea sets, plates/bowls etc. All the terracotta, painted blue pottery, ornate glass and embellished metal you could ever desire
- Basket bags – what’s more instagrammable this year than a straw basket bag, eh? Forget the Zara and Mango versions, these are the real deal, you can even have them personalised while you wait
Haggling – it’s customary to negotiate prices in the souk. The first number you’ll be told is a massively inflated amount you’re supposed to laugh at, nobody expects anyone to pay this, even naive tourists. Decide on the maximum price you’d be willing to pay before you get into a bidding war. Have that exact amount ready in cash, it’s very difficult to turn down cash money that’s being waved in your face and gets a bit awks when you’ve negotiated then hand over a large bill and expect change.
Your haggling exchange should go something like mine;
Me: peruses straw bags
Seller: “Nice price! See! Hold it! You like? Best price!”
Me: “How much?”
Seller: 380 (€38)
Me: “Ha! You’re funny.”
Seller: “Ok, how much you want to pay?”
Me: “No more than 100 (€10)”
Seller: “No, no, I can’t. 250.”
Me: “That’s all I have” *produces 100 dirham note*
Seller: “Ok, 200!?”
Me: starts to walk away
Seller: (shouting after me) “150! 125?! 110!”
Me: keeps walking
Seller: snatches 100 in return for straw bag
Other stuff to do
Walking around the souks, eating and drinking, talking photos and interacting with the locals was all the experience I really needed in Marrakech. But if you want to see more you can visit the Jardin Majorelle; the gardens previously owned by Yves Saint Laurent. Entry is €7 (or more if you want to see the museum too) and you might find a queue to enter. I thought it was fine, not mind blowing, but ok. A nice oasis, if it wasn’t full or tourists queuing for photos (me included). Bahia Palace – I was warned that it’s also slightly underwhelming, so I didn’t bother. I met up with bloggers Harry and Carrie from harrysding.ch who were starting their Kayak Hacks Marrakech trip as I was leaving and about to take a Moroccan cookery class. Keep an eye on their website for details on how that went!
Avoid the ladies who are offering henna services (one grabbed my hand and drew ink on my finger despite my “NO!” exclamation. There have been many reports on illegal and potentially dangerous black henna (it should be brown/red in colour). If you want henna, ask your hotel for a reputable source.
Also, please don’t pay the men with monkeys on chains in the main square – no explanation necessary.
- From the airport – I mentioned earlier I booked a private transfer via my riad from the airport. While it’s slightly more expensive than a taxi (mine was €22), there’s no price negotiating involved and the driver will know the exact location of your accommodation. Like I said, the medina is a maze and cars can only drive to certain parts. The driver will part up and walk you the rest of the way on foot, helping with your luggage. For me, this was priceless – you don’t want to get lost before you even get there!
- Around Marrakech – if you need to go further than walking distance, you can jump in a taxi just past the main square, but decide on a price before getting in
- Calèches – horse & carriage, also near Jemaa el-Fna. Smelly.
- Public bikes – if you dare, not I.
I used the Kayak iPhone app and their website to plan my trip. First, I decided on dates and set up a fare alert, so I’d be notified of price changes. If you’re travelling in a group, their chat extension for Facebook Messenger makes planning a group itinerary much less of a headache. See how here.
There aren’t currently any direct flights from Dublin to Marrakech, but you can easily connect in London or Barcelona/Madrid. Use the layover as a reason to spend some time in another city, that’s what I did!
Once I’d decided on flights and hotel, all of my confirmations were stored in the itinerary section of the app. In fact, this feature even pulled info from my email about other flights which I hadn’t booked via the app, to keep everything in one place. I love how it kept me up to date when a flight time changed and with helpful notifications such as which baggage reclaim belt my luggage would arrive at.
Kayak’s Travel Hacker blog regularly posts travel hacks on how to find cheap flights, trending destinations and the best times to book. I found this article on simplifying the over-complicated world of airfare particularly helpful.
Finally, some of my favourite faces. Because, Moroccans 😉
This post is in association with Kayak.ie. All view are, as always, my own. All images my own.