Monday, February 10, 2020

Travel Guide: Marrakech, Morocco

I had been dreaming of traveling to Marrakech for a few years before my best friend Sarah and I finally booked our plane tickets about a year ago.  Travel is expensive, and planning a vacation in a spot so far from home was initially a daunting task- but upon returning home and a few months of reflection, I honestly can't believe it took me so long to make this jaunt a priority. 

Sarah and I ultimately started our trip in Istanbul last November, then went to Cairo, Egypt, and finally ended in Morocco.  We were gone for 14 days total and both of us felt that gave us just enough time to see the highlights of these 3 locations.  Sarah is a realtor and I couldn't bear to use all my vacation days on one trip, so we weren't able to stay longer than that- but I'm dying to get back to each spot at some point to dig in and stay a bit longer.  While all three locations were wonderful and exotic in their own special ways, Marrakech was my ultimate favorite.  Today, I wanted to share a little recap of our experience with you and a few things we learned along the way.

We had 3 full days there (not counting travel), so opted to stay in Marrakech only, rather than venture out and take a day trip to Tangier or Fes.   Next time I go; however, I definitely want to visit both of those spots and also explore the nearby Atlas Mountains.  What captivated me about Marrakech was the exotic blend of influences, colors, and sounds.  It felt like stepping back in to time or in to a movie.  Well, not really stepping- more like throwing- the town is absolute pandamonium.  We experienced snake charmers, aggressive rug dealers, brazen men, and motorbikes weaving in and out of crowds at every turn.  None of it bothered me personally, though.  More than anything, I found it energizing and fascinating.  


We stayed in the old medina, which is the heart and soul of Marrakech.  It is a densely packed, walled medieval city with mazelike alleys where no cars are allowed.  The entire medina is packed with small stores ("souks") that sell traditional pottery, jewelry, textiles and lighting.  Our hotel was called Riad dar Justo and I can't recommend it enough.  It feels like the perfect oasis away from the hustle and bustle of the streets, just a few alleyways away.  Our porter met us at our taxi when we arrived outside the Medina, and rolled our bags in to the walled city and finally, to our hotel.

Small terrace with pool just off to the left of the hotel's reception/foyer:

When we arrived to our room, the staff brought us mint tea and biscotti, olives, and nuts.  The embroidered pouch is given to each guest at check in, and holds the key & lock to your room, as well as a cell phone with data to use while visiting.  The cell phone has google maps on it which came in handy when navigating the windy streets and alleyways of the medina.  It was also nice to use to call restaurants to make reservations, etc. so that we didn't have to use our own cell phone data:

Every morning our hotel had the most incredible breakfast buffet in their rooftop restaurant.    Fresh-squeezed juices, eggs with spices, and msemen (a traditional Moroccan flaky thin fried bread) with jamsAs you can see from the background of this photo, the space was beautifully decorated with rugs stacked on top of one another, books that could be borrowed during your stay, and several rattan lanterns:

This is a must-see.  Jardin Majorelle is only about a 5-10 minute taxi ride from the medina, or a 25 minute leisurely walk.  If you do decide to take a taxi, be ready to negotiate the fare upfront.  We paid 20 dirham each way (equivalent of ~$5)- although they tried to start us at 15 euro!

Jardin Majorelle is absolutely breathtaking.  It is a garden oasis in the middle of Marrakech, originally designed by Jacques Majorelle beginning in 1923.  It took him over 40 years to complete and he lived in the small house inside it's grounds. Jacques described the garden as:

 “ vast splendours whose harmony I have orchestrated… This garden is a momentous task, to which I give myself entirely. It will take my last years from me and I will fall, exhausted, under its branches, after having given it all my love.”

Go early to Jardin Majorelle- if possible, right when it opens.  If you arrive and see a very long line at the gates- don't panic.  It moves quickly and you'll be inside in no time.  We met a group of girls visiting from London and had a nice chat, so the twenty minute wait went by quickly.

Buy the joint ticket for the Berber museum and the YSL museum just down the street.  It is worth seeing all three, and you can do so in about 2 hours total.

When Yves St-Laurent and Pierre Bergé came across this hidden gem in 1966, they immediately were captivated.  They purchased the garden in 1980 when they discovered it was at risk of being sold and turned in to a hotel, and restored it from disarray.  Yves Saint-Laurent's ashes are actually scattered here:

There were numerous beautiful cacti on the grounds:


As mentioned above, the YSL Museum is directly next to the Jardin Majorelle, and you can purchase a combined ticket.  The museum features the designer's greatest works and his inspirations.  The bookstore inside is magical, as well.

You're actually NOT supposed to take pictures in this museum, I snapped this super fast and actually got caught doing it- so don't be like me!

I wish we had had time to grab a bite at the YSL cafe, "Cafe le studio"- it looked adorable.


Although you don't need a guide by any means, I wanted to hire someone local to show us highlights of the medina shops.  We ultimately hired Abdul from Marrakech Guided Tours for his "1/2 day Shopping Tour" and couldn't have been happier with our experience.  He asked us up front what our goals were, what we wanted to buy, and then gave us an insider's experience.  

{Don't you love the guy on his phone in the pic above?  Totally uninterested and bored by tourists taking pictures of his spices}

There is an entire olive souk area Abdul showed us.  Rows and rows of different kinds of olives for the locals to buy fresh each day:

And, there's an entire nut/seed area in the medina!  The shopkeepers let us sample different nuts and dried fruits:

One of the interesting things Abdul showed us was the breadmaking process for locals.  Most families take their bread to a stone-oven in the city where a breadmaker cooks it for them, because they don't have the proper type of oven or they don't want to deal with the smoke. They come back and pick up their freshly-baked bread a few hours later.  The breadmakers are masters at remembering which families have which pans, and keeping them all straight!  The smell was amazing.  

After viewing the food souks, we went on to explore tapestries, rugs, and lighting:


The Jemaa el Fnaa square is the main, open square in Marrakech's old medina that is chock full during the day with snake charmers, musicians, monkey trainers, and freshly-squeezed juice stalls (FYI: the orange juice was heavenly).  Just know that if you get sucked in to taking a few photos with the snakes, you will be expected to tip a few durham.

At dusk, as evening approaches, the Jemma El Fnaa's vibe transforms.

{photo above from Boris Macek, orinally found on wikipedia}


The Dar Si Said is a "not-to-be-missed" museum if you ask me, mainly because of the ornate palace it is housed inside.  Sarah and I wouldn't have made this visit a priority if our tour guide Adbul hadn't insisted we go and see it.   The museum showcases the ornate tapestries, clothing, jewelry and rugs crafted by the different tribes from the nearby Atlas Mountains.  The location is right near Bahia Palace, but as the Dar Si Said tends to be less crowded during the day, many travelers recommended we skip this palace and do this museum instead. 

The beauty of the building itself and the inner Islamic-style garden were breathtaking.


Hotel Mamounia is outside the medina and arguably the most famous hotel in Marrakech.  Winston Churchill once described it as, "the most lovely spot in the whole world."  It's insanely expensive to stay there, but I highly recommend splurging for a spa treatment/day pass so you can at least view the grounds and admire the splendor.  I believe the day pass was $165 and included a massage, lunch, and access to the hotel pool/spa jacuzzi for the day.  

Even though we went in November, it was nice enough to lay out during the middle of the day:

Rose selections on display at lunch:

After my massage, I explored the grounds of the hotel at dusk.



Admittedly, we didn't have it us to make our dinner reservation despite all the best intentions.  After walking all over the medina and surrounding areas to the sites during the day, we were ready to order from the hotel's restaurant/bar and get in bed.  However, I have heard nothing but amazing things about the dinner and belly-dancing show at Comptoir Darna.  Be sure you book a time where you'll get to experience both!


La Grand Cafe de la Poste - prefect for a coffee and pastry in the AM, and ample seating for excellent people watching.

Al Fassia - I've heard such great things about this spot and it consistently ranks in the top 5 or so "Best Moroccan restaurants".  I will definitely be visiting it when I return on my next trip in the not-too-distant-future.

I also plan to check out the decor stores Beldi and Mustafa Blaoudi next time I visit!


-Arrange transportation with your hotel or riad to collect you at the airport.  Note that the primary language is French and the secondary language is Arabic-  and don't count on the fact that many of the people you'll encounter will speak English.  

Also, if you stay in the city's medina (WHICH I HIGHLY RECOMMEND YOU DO, CONSIDERING ALL THE ADORABLE RIADS AVAILABLE INSIDE THE WALLS), note that there are no cars allowed within the gates. The windy, cobblestone roads make it a nightmare to lug your own bags through, so let your hotel porter assist you and lead you to your hotel when you arrive.  They have carts for your luggage and can make finding your riad the first time much, much easier.

-Note that it is customary in Marrakech to barter.   At first I felt awkward about it, but the guide we used help me understand to them it's just their way of life- and honestly, almost like a game.  If it feels difficult for you to do, I again would encourage you to get a local guide.  Ours was fabulous and helped me negotiate the pricing on a few rugs I wanted.  He had asked me before we ever went to the shop what I wanted to spend, so that he could help me barter them down to a price I was comfortable with.

-Dress conservatively.  As we went in November, we did a lot of long maxi dresses with sweaters over the shoulders and a scarf to wrap around our necks as additional coverage. I think if you travel with a group of women, you'll likely be cat-called by the locals, so it makes sense to show as little skin as possible.  Basically, I think it's the kind and respectful thing to do when visiting a foreign city.

-Pack as lightly as possible and bring an empty second suitcase if you can.  You'll likely come back with a folded down rug or two, woven handbag, clothing, lighting, etc- the shops people are very skilled at condensing your rugs in to tiny little squares for transit, and if all else fails they are able to just ship directly for you back home.

-Allow yourself to relax and get lost within the city's culture!  The attack on all your senses, the beauty at every turn.... If it wasn't obvious already I am just dying to get back as soon as possible.



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