The Red City. The jewel in Africa’s North. Marrakech is hot, dusty, chaotic and overwhelming, but it’s amazing and all these things are what makes it an experience that can’t be missed. I recently visited Marrakech with my partner in search of a relaxing yet still exciting trip away. We found all of this and so much more on the streets of one Morocco’s most important ancient cities, from idyllic gardens, to hectic markets, to quad bikes in the desert and a trip high into the Atlas Mountains. There was an endless wave of things to do, sights to see, places to go and food to eat (and trust me, we ate a lot of food.)
As with all new and exciting places, in a country that differs so vastly from home, there were a few aspects of daily life in Marrakech that had me confused before visiting, while there and even now, as I sit typing at my desk in Liverpool, left me wondering ‘so… what was that all about?’. In this complete guide, I’m going to try and break down some etiquette for Marrakech, some things to do, things to avoid and how to make your trip there easier, safer and most importantly, make your trip as memorable and fantastic as we did.
Remember, for all my writings on how to be a Westerner in Marrakech, it pays to take everything with a pinch of salt. Getting involved in the way of life, and finding out things for yourself by talking to the locals and exploring the city your way can make your experience that much more unique to you, but if you’d like a helping hand, here’s how I made the most of Marrakech.
Before we start talking about how to survive in Marrakech and the do’s and don’ts of exploring the city and its surrounding areas, let’s talk about how Marrakech came to be the country’s cultural, religious and trading epicentre.
The city was established over 1000 years ago, around the turn of the first millennia, by an imperial dynasty call Almoravid, made up of the natives of Morocco, Berber people. Throughout it’s early history it served as an imperial city (cities built by Berber empires) of a unified Morocco and even today, stands as one of the most important imperials of the four remaining: Marrakech, Fes, Rabat and Meknes. the iconic red walls of the city were built by Ali ibn Yusuf, a Almoravid King about 100 years after the city was established. Today, they mark the boundaries of the historic old town and serve as a marker of Marrakech’s rich history.
Marrakech, and Morocco as a whole, is known in passing for it’s French influence, with many Moroccans adopting French ass their second language, over the traditionally universal English. This is thanks to France’s interest in Morocco as a colony in the early 1900s. While the French influence is obvious, the Spanish also had a foot in Morocco around the same time, a aspect which caused friction as the two European countries carved out their territories. France’s protectorate as established in 1912 by the Treaty of Fez, but the country regained it’s independence in 1956 after a number of rebellion uprisings and negotiations with Mohamed V, an exiled sultan who returned when his unpopular replacement abdicated. Following successful negotiations fr independence, Mohamed V took the title of King in 1957.
Are you sitting down native English speakers? You may struggle to communicate in Marrakech if you only speak English. *GASP* “But everyone speaks English! We are privileged and once ruled the world, how dare they not learn our language!”
Sure, people will kind of get your drift when you’re ordering food, getting a taxi etcetc, and don’t get me wrong there are definitely people who speak English in the country, some very well, but French is definitely the language of choice here. Menus are in French, you will be presumed French and you may get some eye rolls when you exclaim ‘je parle anglais! je parle anglais!’. I took French language classes in high school until I could give it up in Year 9, and I could sort of translate menus, maybe order food and say hello. Year 9 French does not get you far. Plus, they can tell you’re English anyway and will try and understand you anyway, but it is hard to find English menus, so maybe brush up on French words for foodstuffs.
Religion and Dress Code
I heard a lot of mixed reviews about what was and wasn’t acceptable to wear around the town, with Morocco being a predominantly Muslim country. TripAdvisor told me I couldn’t wear shorts or short skirts out in public. My friend who had visited previously told me you can have your legs and shoulders out but women would spit at you and men would leer.
With this in mind, and not really being any wiser when I stepped foot on the plane, I decided to play it safe – sort of.
Looking up at the Koutoubia Mosque, not dressed as conservatively as I thought…
I wore trousers the first day we walked around the city, I paired them with a tiny top though which kind of negated the plan to cover up. But it didn’t matter, a lot of women were covered up, with many wearing jeans or trousers or long dresses, but no-one batted an eye at my exposed midriff and shoulders, and as we approached the more touristy areas, plenty of western women were wearing shorts and skirts and skimpy tops and there didn’t seem to be an issue.
Of course, it all depends on how self conscious you would feel. Obviously, it is respectful to be mindful of a countries religions and customs, and maybe I would have felt different or more victimised if I hadn’t of been with my partner, a man of mixed heritage who definitely fit in with the aesthetic of the younger locals. I would say, cover up on the first day and gauge the atmosphere for yourself, but I certainly didn’t run into any issues wearing short dresses and shorts and crop tops.
I love a drink. I love alcohol a healthy amount (honest), as I’ve discussed earlier, Morocco has a definite Muslim influence. I have visited religious countries before, Turkey and Ghana in particular, and never struggled to find bars, shops that sold bottles, beer with dinner, so I thought Morocco would be much of the same. It was not. There are some licensed restaurants,but these tend to be on the more expensive side of things, we went to Azar on our ‘fancy’ night out and ended up spending 800Dh between us, which is about £62. Not crazy for two people, but considering the night before we had ordered a pizza, chips, a massive half chicken and chips and three soft drinks for about £8, it’s expensive by Moroccan standards.
There also are not liquor stores. Well, not legit looking ones. Alcohol isn’t sold in corner shops, petrol stations or any of the usual places. There is a Carrefour in Carre Eden Shopping Centre in Gueliz that sells a range of alcohol, but that was the only supermarket we found it in. What we did find was a couple of, ahem, alternative alcohol shops. These were basically garages that were through tiny doors and inhabited exclusively by men. I felt very uncomfortable in there and was frequently ignored when trying to buy as other men entered the shop. My partner was served straight away and had no issues whereas I was ignored, talked down to and just generally treated badly. I got my gin (for £10), but thoroughly hated the whole experience.
With regards to bars, they are out there. By the McDonald’s on Avenue Mohamed V, there is a number of modern shops and down one of the streets is a bar called The Queen Atlantic, which has a happy hour where you can get two drinks for 70Dh (about £6ish). It’s a pretty good atmosphere and the people are friendly, and this is the cheapest place you will drink if you are drinking out. Another bar we went to was Sky Bar on top of The Renaissance Hotel, I’d heard a lot about it and that it was cool, offered great views and had a trendy vibe. It was all those things, and was £10 a cocktail. You get both ends of the spectrum but The Queen Atlantic is definitely somewhere to go for a few affordable drinks.
Things To Do
Alright! So we’ve got the main confusing parts and the things that I really worried about out of the way, and now I’ll get to the fun part – what to do!
So, the old town is the original city and is encased by these incredible, tall red wash walls. They really are quite impressive and give a real taste of Marrakech of years gone by. Don’t worry, you won’t miss them, as you’ll have to go past them at some point to get into the old town. We always headed straight down Mohamed V avenue, which took us through a pretty nondescript entrance,but there are some beautiful gates (although, I wouldn’t say go out of your way to walk a mile just to see them, but that’s just me.)
In the old town you’ll find most of the riads, which unfortunately, I can’t give you much in the way of advice on, as we didn’t visit any. Which is terrible of me, I know, but I just didn’t sort of get the point. if you are staying in one, I bet they are fantastic, but to visit? Someone will have to fill in the blanks here.
There’s also a fab little market called the Artisan Market that doesn’t seem like much from the outside, but offers a calmer experience than the souks just off of Jemaa el-Fna. The cafe inside does incredible french fries (very authentic I know), and you can get questionable henna for 50dh. There’s little shops selling painting, jewellery, wood carvings and plenty of other little trinkets, and the entrance hallway has a beautiful mosaic pattern.
Within the old town walls is the Cyber Park, a surprisingly beautiful mix of old and new and with interactive electronic maps for when you don’t want to pay roaming fees! The future is awesome. There’s also some lovely fountains and a very college-campus type vibe. We wanted to picnic here, but just couldn’t find the time in the end.
One thing you’re going to notice for sure once you get to the city is the sheer amount of ‘motorbikes’ (read:scooters and pushbikes with engines taped on). The people of Marrakech seem to have found these in their favour and they are constantly weaving in and out of traffic making a ridiculous amount of noise and smoke.
I think it may have been because of this vehicle of choice that quad biking outside of the city is such a big thing (possibly, I may also be making this up), you are going to get hounded on the streets by people wanting you to book their quad biking excursion. We actually booked through our hotel on a quad bike/camel ride/hammam excursion (more on that later…). We had a fantastic time and, while the ‘garage’ was a little questionable, we had to drive single file, and couldn’t go too fast, there were rally dips, tight corners and chances for speed aplenty on the two hour trip. Do your research and try and find out what the trip includes, we had a great run AND got pancakes and mint tea at a local’s house.
Just outside of the city of Marrakech, between one and two hours drive, is the Atlas Mountain range. A true haven just a few miles from the bustling city, with rolling landscapes and authentic Moroccan way of life. I’m not gonna lie, I felt a bit uncomfortable at the whole ‘let’s bring the privileged white people to the poor locals’. It just felt a bit too like these people were on show to us, this is their life and not something to just be gawped at. I don’t know, that sort of thing sits a bit funny with me.#
But never the less, we had a great time walking high into the mountains, amongst goats and the native Berber people, stopping by waterfalls and our tour guide’s guest house for lunch.
Definitely try and find one that takes you as high as you can go, because the views are very much worth it.
Other places to visit but I’m well aware this post is getting crazy long because I didn’t realise how much I had to talk about
Le Jardin Majorelle – Massive, enclosed gardens which were brought back to life by Yves Saint Laurent.
Souks – Maybe, you’ll get pestered, there’s monkeys on chains which is just heartbreaking, and taken advantage of if your Western.
Saadian Tombs – They won’t take your breath away but its about 80p to get in, so will kill 20 minutes of your day for next to nothing
Camel rides – please, please, please find a reputable and responsible herder to take you on a walk if you must. The amount of mistreatment of camels in Morocco for tourist benefit is huge. Responsible tourism is the best tourism.