I spent a week in Marrakech in the run up to Christmas. We’d got a great deal on return flights from London with Royal Air Morocco (£60 each!) and found an affordable hotel in the new part of town via lastminute.com. Here’s my list of the best things to do in Marrakech.
Get lost in the souks
This one’s easy! No matter how far you got with your Duke of Edinburgh Award, no map will help you find your way in the souks. Your best bet is to wander aimlessly and, by chance, you will eventually re-emerge in the square. From certain points you can see the minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque, which helps you find your way. Note that as a tourist you’re not permitted to enter the mosque. The souks themselves sell a huge variety of goods: jewellery, scarves, shoes, pottery, rugs, lanterns, spices and kaftans, to name a few. We must’ve had luck on our side as we passed though customs loaded down with barbecue skewers, cushion covers, a massive blanket and enough crockery to serve a three course meal to a family of 10. Be prepared to bargain like an Apprentice contestant and try not to be offended when the stall owner points at you and your friend and shouts ‘Ah, the cheeky girls!’
Get a henna tattoo at the Djemaa el Fna
This wasn’t on my itinerary. I was walking through the square with a friend and she decided to get one. I sat on a spare stool while I waited and, as soon as the sweet old lady had finished my friend’s, she grabbed my leg and started on me! I protested, but she’d taken me completely by surprise and the only thing worse than having a tattoo that matched my friend’s for the rest of the trip was having one that was messed up as I jerked my leg away. If you’re one of the minority of people whose skin bubbles and blisters in reaction to henna, stay well clear of the tattoo ladies! I did grow to like it though – they only last a couple of weeks and there’s something satisfying about picking off the dried ink!
Visit the Djemaa el Fna again at night
The main square in Marrakesh is a completely different place after the sun has set. Food vendors pile in and set up covered stalls selling tajines, brochette, couscous dishes and a variety of soups. The sound of drums, car horns and chatter creates an exciting, busy atmosphere, while storytellers and snake charmers attract crowds of engaged tourists. You will need to keep your wits about you. In such busy places, there is always a risk of being pick pocketed. We had little trouble though, aside from the occasional overly persuasive stall owner or typically leery local man!
Visit the El Badi and El Bahia Palaces
El Badi is largely in ruins, but you can get a feel for how majestic the palace once was. It’s fun to explore the remaining passages and to admire the view from the terrace. El Bahia is still standing in all its ornate beauty. Spend a couple of hours wandering through its courtyards and photographing the many mosaics and colourful geometric patterns that embellish the walls, ceilings and floors.
Treat your senses to the tanneries
Be prepared for the intense smell of the chemicals that are used to treat the animal hides. They may have moved on from using pigeon excrement, but the chemicals don’t assault the senses any less! It’s interesting to see the centuries-old processes used to create the goods that are sold on the stalls in the souks. If this doesn’t appeal, search the souks for the area where the pre-prepared dyes are used to colour wools. A man invited us ‘for free’ into the building where the work was being done. He demonstrated how some dyes that appeared one colour would turn the wool a completely different hue and allowed us to take photos of the wools hanging in a courtyard. As we tried to leave though, he tied a small piece of wool around each of our wrists and asked us for money!
Book a day trip to the Atlas mountains
If you wander about the main streets of the old town, you’re sure to be accosted by people selling trips to the surrounding tourist spots. Among them are the Atlas mountains, which are definitely worth a look. You’ll need a pair of sturdy shoes as most of the hikes are along rocky mountain paths and at one point we almost ventured into rock climbing territory as our guide gave each of us a leg up beside a waterfall! You’ll also navigate stepping stones over rivers and tiptoe over hanging bridges. The views of the Ourika Valley are stunning, with its scattered Berber hamlets. There are also loads of desert tours in Morocco, enabling you to explore dunes, kasbahs, oases. and gorges while trekking on a camel.
Pig out on tajine dishes
Who doesn’t love a tajine? Thankfully, you won’t have to look very far to find one in Marrakech. There are plenty of great restaurants in both the old and new parts of town. Chez Chegrouni in the main square is popular with tourists and locals. It’s a good option for vegetarians and has great views of the square. If you’re partial to an alcoholic beverage with dinner, be aware that it may take some research to find a place that serves it, and you will probably pay over the odds for everything as a result.
Admire the Majorelle gardens
Located to the west of the city in the new town, the Majorelle gardens are a tranquil respite from the surrounding busy main roads. They’re much smaller than you might expect, given their popularity, but the exotic plants from cacti to palms provide cool shade and a relaxing atmosphere in stark contrast to the bustling medina. There are some pretty buildings with characteristic bold yellows, blues and reds and a museum showcasing Islamic art. Don’t miss the memorial to Yves Saint Laurent, who owned the gardens before his death in 2008 and whose ashes were scattered there.