Our trip to Marrakech came about rather quickly. About two weeks before we learned that Dave had an extended long weekend and we knew we wanted to take advantage of it. A few Skyscanner searches and just over 24 hours later, and we’d booked our first foray into Africa with RyanAir.
Admittedly, we were both a bit nervous about our trip; it was out of our comfort bubble of traveling in Europe and North America, so we didn’t know what to expect. But, it was a place that intrigued us both and had long held a spot on our bucket lists, so we decided not to let a little fear or apprehension hold us back.
Before we knew it, our departure day had arrived. With our backpacks packed (you can read all about what I brought here: Packing Light: Two Days in Marrakech) we were off to the airport and on our way to Africa!
Arriving in Marrakech
As I mentioned above, we found a great deal with RyanAir that flew us directly from Madrid to Marrakech; it was fantastic! The flight was a quick two hours, and honestly, before we knew it we were preparing to landing. I barely had time to get into my book!
We disembarked the plane and marvelled at the heat and palm trees as we walked across the tarmac. I was also scanning the scene for snakes and was pleasantly surprised to see none.
And then we walked into the terminal and the chaos of customs, and this is where the pleasantness ended. After filling out our paperwork, we stood in line for nearly an hour, snaking our way towards the customs officers as other passengers tried (and succeeded) at pushing passed us and butting in line; we weren’t too impressed.
Finally, after having our passports stamped we were ready to go.
Our first stop was the money exchange booth in the airport. The Moroccan Dirham is a closed currency, which means it can only be traded within Morocco, so to ensure we got a good exchange rate, we waited until we were in the country to exchange our Euros. We were given our Dirhams and receipt (I’ll touch more on this later, but it’s incredibly important that you don’t throw away or lose the receipt), and we were off!
We didn’t actually know how we were getting to our Riad; we knew they provided an airport shuttle so we had hoped to find out more (or even have access to a phone) upon arriving in Marrakech, but this wasn’t the case.
With no way of contacting our Riad, we moved on to Plan B.
We were tired, hungry and on the verge of hangry, and we didn’t really now what to do. I knew that our Riad was in the vicinity of the square, so when we found out that the airport shuttle (bus #19) stopped near Djemaa El-Fna, I bought us two return tickets (good for a return trip anytime in the next two weeks) and hopped on.
Not half-an-hour later, we were at Djemaa El–Fna Square, the heart of Marrakech.
Marrakech is the third largest city in Morocco, after Casablanca and Rabat, and lies near the foothills of the Atlas Mountains and just a few hours from the Sahara Desert.
The city itself is divided into two very distinct parts: the Medina (historical city) and the modern district, known as Gueliz or Ville Nouvelle. The Medina is the heart of the city. It is full of narrow winding alleys and passageways, and is home to Djemaa El-Fna Square, the souks, and much more. It’s where we spent most of our time in Marrakech, and it’s where we got a true sense of Moroccan life.
Impressions of Marrakech
Marrakech is overwhelming to the senses. It’s a beautiful city full of chaos and life; full of exotic and intriguing smells; and full of vibrant colours and interesting details.
At first, to say we were overwhelmed with Marrakech was an understatement. The bus dropped us off at the edge of Djemaa El-Fna Square, a central meeting place filled with people, foot carts, snake charmers, horse drawn carriages, and more. It was crowded, we were tired and I was on high alert for snakes; we weren’t in the right mood to meet the city, but meet the city we did.
With an address and semi-functioning iPhone map we started to navigate our way to the Riad. We were doing great until we got to the end of the square and had to start navigating our way through the winding streets and alleys of the Medina. None are labeled, so we relied solely on the iPhone Map, which was little to no help at all. After a lot of wrong turns and backtracking, we found ourselves at the door of a different Riad—it was time to ask for help.
Somehow, in all of our twisting, turning and getting lost, we found ourselves right down the way from our Riad – success! I was so happy I could have run, if it weren’t for the cobblestone streets—one doesn’t want to break their ankle on the first day.
We found our Riad, checked in and took a break before heading back out to experience and take in the chaos. We only had two days in Marrakech, and we wanted to make the absolutely most of our time in Morocco.
What To See
Marrakech is the perfect city for those who like to wander. At every turn there’s something amazing, vibrant and new to see. It’s an easy place to get lost and enjoy the journey.
After a great meal and a good night’s sleep we were more than ready to experience Marrakech. Unlike the previous night, Marrakech in the morning was calm and peaceful; people were wandering throughout the Medina and square, but the chaos of the night before was gone. It was beautiful. Feeling rejuvenated, we were able to appreciate Marrakech, and set off for two days of exploring.
El Bahia Palace
El Bahia Palace is an ornate and stunning palace located in Marrakech. It’s incredibly popular with tourists and tour groups, so it’s quite easy to find. The palace gives visitors a sense of what it must have been like to a 19th century nobleman in Morocco. The palace is surrounded by beautiful gardens, tranquil courtyards, and is filled with brilliant details.
Admission to El Bahia Palace was MAD10 (approx. €1 or CAD$1.50), and it was well worth the price. We spent a couple of hours wandering throughout the many rooms, each decorated with colourful tiles and stained glass, and exploring the gardens. It was an oasis of calm centered in a city of dust and action.
El Badi Palace
The ruins of El Badi Palace date back to the 16th century, when it was constructed as a seat of power and luxury (source). For just MAD10 (approx. €1 or CAD$1.50), visitors can explore the ruins, wander the underground tunnels, and even climb up to the terrace and experience amazing views of the surrounding city with the Atlas Mountains in the backdrop.
Djemaa El-Fna is the heart of the Medina. One of the city’s main attractions, this bustling and vibrant square is home to a market of stalls selling fruits, vegetables, Moroccan fares, sweets, and more. It’s also home to performers, snake charmers and artists.
Djemaa El-Fna was our land marker throughout our trip; no matter where we went, we somehow always ended up back in the square. Both of our days started and ended there, and we spent our time checking out the stalls, avoiding the snakes, and getting a glimpse into Moroccan life.
Jardin Majorelle was one of the places I was most excited to see in Marrakech. Located in Gueliz, about a 45-minute walk from the Medina, Majorelle Gardens is the former oasis of artist Jacques Majorelle, as well as fashion designer Yves St. Laurent, who purchased the property following Majorelle’s death.
This majestic garden is filled with bamboo-lined paths, grand flora, and features the most amazing cobalt blue and yellow buildings. It’s a feast for the eyes and an oasis for the soul.
Admission to the jardin was MAD70 (approx. €7 or CAD$10.50). It was the most expensive site we visited in Marrakech, and to be honest, I’m not sure it was worth it. Yes, it was beautiful, but the jardin is quite modest in size and we had explored every nook and cranny in just 45 minutes.
There’s no more fun place to get lost in Marrakech than in the souks! Located adjacent to Djemaa El-Fna Square, the souks (or markets of Marrakech) wind throughout the Medina and offer anything you can imagine. From shoes to spices to teapots, almost anything you want can be found in the souks.
There is quite a lot of repetition amongst the stalls, but this just helps in the bargaining process, which isn’t only accepted but encouraged!
Located across the street from Djemaa El-Fna Square is the Koutoubia Mosque and Minaret. The largest mosque in Marrakech, the Minaret stands at over 250 feet tall and can be seen from almost any place in the city. Like most mosques it is closed to non-Muslims, so we unfortunately couldn’t go inside, but this didn’t stop us from marveling at this architectural wonder, and important Moroccan site.
What To Eat
As I mentioned in my Travel Bucket List: Marrakech, one of the things I was most looking forward to was eating.
And eat we did! Throughout our two days in the city, we sampled different tajines, sipped on mint teas, and indulged in the best of Moroccan cuisine.
For both of our dinners we ended up eating at Tiznit, a little restaurant located not far from our Riad and just a stones throw from Djemaa El-Fna. It had been recommended by one of Dave’s colleagues and we were so pleased that she had.
Not only was the food amazing but the price was unbeatable. Large tajines were just MAD80 (approx. €7.50 or CAD$10.95) and this included bread, lentils and a small dish of olives, in addition to the more than generous portion of tajine.
It was amazing! With each meal, we couldn’t believe how much we were getting.
We both had the chicken and the lamb, and each was absolutely delicious: the perfect balance of flavour and spice.
Tiznit definitely lived up to its reputation of serving the best tajine in the city!
In the afternoons, when we needed to take a break from the action and escape the sun, we would climb to one of the many terraces and sip mint tea. Overlooking the square, It was the perfect way to wile away the afternoon and welcome the evening while taking in all the action below.
Additional Wisdom to Share
In preparing for our trip to Marrakech, I did a lot of reading and came across a few nuggets that really helped make the most of our trip:
As I mentioned in my post yesterday (click here for a refresher), Dave and I were really lucky that we didn’t experience any harassment during our trip—or if we did, we were blissfully unaware that we were being harassed. We chatted about this on our trip home and attributed it to a couple of things:
- We wore sunglasses. No matter the time of day, or where we were, we had our sunglasses on. This gave us the freedom to look at whatever we wanted without having shopkeepers or stall vendors engage with us, or demand money. This can be a big problem in Marrakech, particularly in Djemaa El-Fna Square – should a snake charmer or performer notice that you’re watching them, they will sometimes demand money. As I said, by wearing sunglasses no one knew exactly where we were looking.
- We tried to blend in. This meant that we both dressed conservatively, I ensured my shoulders and knees were covered and I wore my hair up. It was easy to do all of these things, it didn’t take away from the experience, and it meant that we were free from comments, harassment, and being offered everything under the sun.
When traveling, Dave and I rely mostly on credit cards (we’re all about accumulating points!) but that wasn’t an option in Marrakech. It is most definitely a cash-based city—even the fast food restaurants didn’t take cards. As I mentioned above, we took money out at the airport and it was one of the best decisions we made, as finding ATMs and exchange places in the city proved a bit difficult. We exchanged €110 and had more than enough cash for our trip.
On our way home, we again exchanged our money at the airport. Remember that receipt I mentioned in the beginning, this is where it’s incredibly important that you kept it, as they won’t exchange your Dirhams without it.
Although we didn’t really get off on the right foot with the city, by the end of our trip we had really grown to appreciate and love the chaos that is Marrakech. It is a city that is overwhelming to the senses. But, after experiencing it bit by bit we were able to uncover the beauty of the city: in it’s architecture and décor; in it’s foods, spices and smells; in it’s history and tradition; and in all the things that make it a truly unique destination.
Morocco, we most certainly will be back.
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