“It’s not easy to find.”
Reviews for every attraction in Marrakech’s old city, known as the medina, usually begin with a similar warning. Maps and navigation apps are fairly useless here, which is an indelible part of the Red City’s charm.
From the desert a vast earthen city emerged nearly a thousand years ago as the central spoke of a trading empire. The strategic location ensured threat of invaders at every turn, so architectural ingenuity provided the key to defense. A dense tangle of narrow alleys was designed to snake through foreboding, indistinguishable sandstone structures rising above to shield the sun’s orientation.
Today the effect is the same on travelers as would-be invaders: dizzying disorientation. Fear of navigating the city’s maze and cultural customs often sends first-time visitors seeking package-tour comfort. For independent travelers, Marrakech’s greatest delights can be found by giving up control and embracing the beguiling bewilderment.
From colorful markets to snake-handlers in action, every exotic inch is a photographic dream. Be mindful of respecting culture and customs by asking permission before taking photos of people. After all, as exotic as the city is for visitors, for the people of Marrakech, this is home.
While many sights await visitors in the new city, ville nouvelle, first-time visitors should seek immersion in the medina’s confounding core.
In Marrakech, a market excursion equates to time travel. Walking under canopies through a labyrinth of tightly-clustered shops, known as Souks (pictured above), you become part of a centuries-old market tradition.
View the first foray as scouting, with no pressure to purchase. Soak in the light of lanterns illuminating dark passageways through hanging carpet galleries. Breath in the tanneries’ pungency as craftsman form leather goods. Sooth your nostrils in the spice market where the exotic scent of cardamom mingles with mint.
Make small talk with vendors—Moroccans love to joke and laugh. You will get pressured, that’s part of the experience. A friendly, “No, thanks,” does the trick.
Armed with Moroccan dirham and a sense of going rates, visit No. 2 is for scoring. Bargaining is key; start with a third of the price, then let the haggling begin.
No visit to Marrakech is complete without taking a hammam. This traditional steam bath is an important ritual, and highly social event, for men and women, young and old. Spaces range from luxurious marble sanctuaries to intimate cave-like chambers. Some welcome men and women together, while most offer different days or times for each sex.
Regardless of the style, don’t expect passive relaxation. Once the steam softens your skin, loofah-armed attendants scrub off layers of epidermis you didn’t know were there, leaving you glowing like a newborn. Le Bain Bleu pampers travelers and locals alike with relaxing massages following scrubs. Friends and couples can request private rooms. Be sure to check out the housemade beauty products along with clever artwork throughout poking fun at the bathing tradition.
The city’s largest hammam, Dar el-Bacha, designates prime hours as “ladies only,” making it a favorite for generations of Marrakech women. Heat rises from marble slabs to sooth your aching muscles, as you gaze up at stars housed within the domed ceiling. The experience is no less than divine.
3. Jardin Majorelle
Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty
French painter Jacques Majorelle’s greatest masterpiece is the ethereal gardens he created at Jardin Majorelle. Stroll along shaded lanes lined with lily ponds and you’ll understand why famed fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent heralded the gardens as his primary muse.
4. Museum of Photography and Visual Arts
From multimedia works by noted Moroccan artist Mounir Fatmi to graffiti installations, the Museum of Photography and Visual Arts showcases North Africa’s most innovative art. With a striking new space designed by starchitect Sir David Chipperfield in the works, visitors should hurry to see the museum roots in current home, Badi Palace.
5. Maison de la Photographie
For a sense of Morocco’s colorful history in black and white, visit Maison de la Photographie. The small museum features vintage Moroccan photos from 1870 through 1950. Enjoy a jolt of Arabic coffee from the museum’s rooftop cafe, one of the city’s best lunch spots.
6. La Maison Arabe
No experience allows visitors to grasp the subtle flavors comprising Moroccan cuisine better than a hands-on role in the kitchen. The half-day cooking class offered by the prestigious La Maison Arabe allows you to play chef while learning about the origins and importance of turmeric, cinnamon, and other colorful spices. Eating what you learn is a bonus!
Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty
7. Jemaa El-Fna
Include a visit to Jemaa El-Fna (pictured above), the beating heart of Marrakech. Jetlag subsides as senses saturate in this UNESCO world heritage site. A balcony seat at venerable Café de France is ideal for the time-honored ritual of sipping mint tea while watching the main square’s action unfurl below like live theatre. Peddlers selling freshly squeezed orange juice and henna tattoo artists vie for spotlight alongside scene-stealing snake charmers. As the set transitions to evening, foods stalls make grand entrances and circles form around storytellers spinning ancient lore.
The action takes place in the shadow of Koutoubia Mosque’s 250-foot minaret, a symbol of the city and ally in navigation.
8. Café Arabe
Hidden away from prying eyes, rooftop dining and lounge areas burst with colorful textiles illuminated by the sexy glow of lantern light. Sultan-worthy loungers tucked into multilevel terraces at Café Arabe are the ideal spot for sipping a Moroccan mint mojito. Traditional favorites like Mediterranean couscous and lamb tagine await for dinner.
9. Jad Mahal
From traditional Berber rhythms born in surrounding mountain villages to more contemporary chabbi pop, music is part of the mystique and draw of Marrakech. Several restaurants offer over-the-top kitschy reviews featuring belly-dancers and snake charmers. For a slightly more authentic, while still entertaining experience, check out local hot spot, Jad Mahal.
10. The Sahara
An overnight trip from Marrakech into the Sahara’s golden sands is a must. From camels to kasbahs, Arabian night fantasies come to life here. Outfitter Camel Trekking runs three-day tours to the far reaches of Erg Chebbi, the highest dunes in Morocco.
Headed up by the charismatic Omar, the small group trips feature camel trekking through dunes and glamping in a desert tent. From witnessing the sunrise over the desert to listening to Berber drumming under a blanket of stars, the Sahara offers visitors a magical experience.
11. Hotel Sherazade
Riads are a symbol of the city. The traditional Moroccan-style home exudes humble conformity on the outside, veiling lushly ornate interiors within. An exotic air permeates a characteristic central courtyard, open to the sky above, often designed with a soothing water feature or cool dipping pool.
Travelers can experience the Moorish splendor in one of many riads serving as guest houses. Most are tucked within the deepest interior, making returning home a feat or treat, depending on your mood, but you can avoid late-night wandering by booking a room at Hotel Sherazade, a rare entity within the medina, it’s easy to find.
Jess is a writer chasing a dream of slow travel through a fast world. Her work has appeared in Paste, Mental Floss, Bustle, aGypsyGene, and Birmingham magazine.