We’ve already shared some of the beauty of the area and its surrounds in our photo diary from Morocco, but when a fashioniser finds themselves in Marrakech (alternatively known as Marrakesh – both spellings are correct), what should they do and where should they go? Away from the most common of tour guides, away from the polish of those guides focussed only on fabricated luxury spots, lies the true Marrakech. Yes, it’s a Marrakech for visitors to the city, but it’s one that bypasses the walled resorts and all that is generic. So grab a map and wander the city with a fashioniser’s guide to Marrakech.
Marrakech is a beautiful city in a beautiful country and it walks a very different pace of life to that which most of its tourists are used to. Soak in its beauty, be respectful of your surrounds and firm in what you want, and you’ll have a wonderful time.
Haggle. Bargain. Negotiate. Unless you’re in a hotel, a luxury boutique or an eatery, the price you’re told for any goods is seldom the actual price. Generally speaking, while shopping at any market stall, I paid no more than 25% of the original asking price – and that was probably still more than what I could have paid. If you want to get a feel for what you should pay, plenty of lists of ‘general costs’ for common goods exist online.
There are two types of taxi services in Marrakech: petit taxis and grand taxis. Petit taxis operate locally, while grand taxis (generally a Mercedes Benz) operate as inter-city services. It’s generally the petit taxis you’ll find outside Marrakech’s airport, and they’ll charge a fixed rate to get you to and from the airport to your riad or hotel. That fixed rate, however, just means they’re not using the meter. We’d recommend always having the concierge / staff at your riad book your airport transfer, but whether it’s through them or via a petit taxi don’t pay more than Dh 150; you’d generally pay no more than Dh 100 were the meter running. Like nearly everything else in Marrakech, the price of your transport is negotiable.
Everyone and their uncle is going to attempt to give you directions. All of them will expect money for this service (but oh how they’ll tell you that they’re not that kind of person before you start your journey) and half of them will lie about the directions. They’ll generally take you to “the market”, but it just so happens that it’s the market that gives them a cut of what you spend, not the market you had intended to visit. Walking up any street expect to be heckled with “nothing up that way, come this way.” Walking towards the souks? Expect at least 20 people to tell you you’re walking in the wrong direction – rather incredibly someone even stated to that I was going the wrong way to the souks while I was under their roof. “The souks are that way.” Buddy, I’m in them.
See or do this.
Ben Youssef Madrassa.
If you’re going to be happy that you saw one thing while in Marrakech, it’s Ben Youssef Madrassa. An ancient school besides a mosque to which you’re unlikely to gain entry, it’s likely to be the most beautiful example of Islamic architecture that you encounter on your trip. Explore its water-centred courtyard on a quiet day for some tranquility, then explore the cavernous rooms of the courtyard’s wings.
The French designed Majorelle Garden is the nicest of Marrakech’s gardens to have upon your ‘to visit’ list. It’s as eclectic and as it is vibrant. It was also owned by Yves Saint-Laurent, whose ashes were scattered there after his death, which is why you’ll find the garden at Rue Yves Saint Laurent in the city.
When all is said and done.
Get out of Marrakech. It’s a vibrant city but at some stage the hustle and the haggle is going to leave you desirous of escape. For where to go, read down to ‘and when you’re ready to escape’ below.
For quick and easily accessible food, you’ll find numerous cafes and restaurants around Jemaa el-Fna, the city’s main square. Expect plenty of traditional tagines and couscous dishes, at tourist prices. To avoid the repetitive menus move further from Jemaa el-Fna and into the backstreets, but do experience the hustle and bustle of a late night meal at the square’s night markets at least once. This area truly comes alive after dark.
For a break from the usual tagines, head to Un Dejeuner and grab a spot on the outdoor rooftop to enjoy some European fusion food, some air, and a great view of the city’s sprawling rooftops. The relaxed atmosphere and views mildly outshine the food, but make it well worth the visit. Un Dejeuner is also great for lunch – but if you don’t want to cut too much into your city exploration time, sit downstairs for faster and more attentive service. Find it at 2-4 Place Douar Graoua.
An impressive 16th century palace welcomes you down its tiled staircase and into an opulent salon of velvet drapings and intricate mosaics. When you’ve stopped gasping at the beauty of the interior, you might recognise this as being one of the settings from Hitchcock’s famous film The Man Who Knew Too Much. The food here is not cheap by local standards, but if you’re looking for a high end restaurant to dine in for the evening – especially if you happen to have a passion for film history or indeed for historical architecture – then book ahead and secure yourself a table.
Given the local religion, alcohol is in short supply in Marrakech. Along with soft drugs (I couldn’t begin to count the amount of times someone whispered “hashish” in my ear) you can find alcohol of course, but there are few typical drinking bars of note. One drink you can’t pass up, however, are the milkshakes. Sold across a smattering of eateries, but more typically from hole-in-the-wall shops, for 5 or 6 dirhams you’ll get stein sized milkshake with flavours that range from avocado to strawberry. A half-and-half serving of date and avocado is delicious but do be warned – they’re addictive.
While it’s not too hard to find a place serving them, the best milkshakes about half way along Derb Dabachi at a nameless corner store. You’ll know it by the fact that it sells nothing but milkshakes, and it’s always thronging with locals.
And should the milkshakes not be your thing, you can’t pass up the seemingly-limitless fresh orange juice sellers. You can expect to pay Dh 4 for glass of the fresh stuff from a street vendor.
If you are in need of a drop of alcohol, Cafe Arabe ranks high on most tourist lists for the city. Sumptuously decorated in an Arabic flavour, it is very much a tourist spot but certainly worth it for at least one night of your trip. You’ll find Cafe Arabe at Rue Mouassine Medina.
The souks of Marrakech, nearly 20 in total, need no introduction. The most famous of them starts at the Jemaa el Fna square, where snake charmers and shackled monkeys alike perform for tourists, and wind their way through through cavernous streets past manual labourers twisting leather and hammering metal. Amongst the souks you’ll find everything and more, the traditional goods largely made by the country’s Berber population. If you’re looking for only a light spot of shopping, there’s no harm done in simply wandering through the souks. If, however, you’re after something in particular – perhaps the best Berber carpet or Argan oil – definitely do your research in advance lest you find yourself buying something horrendously overpriced or, worse, not in the least bit traditional. For interior goods you’ll want to take in Mustapha Blaoui, an Aladdin’s cave of decorative pieces, at 144 Arset Aouzale. For spices and perfumes head to Herboriste Avicenne at Souk Laghzel 172-174. For the historically minded, always be sure to explore your surrounds – the carpet district, for instance, was home to the city’s slave auctions until the French put an end to the practice in 1912.
Here you’ll see the old way to doing things when it comes to leather, as local Berbers use old fashion skills to create leather from carcasses. Honestly, it stinks – but if you’re not smell averse you’ll have an interesting tour of how everything from salt to urine is use to create leathers for bags, belts and shoes. You’ll naturally be encouraged to purchase a few of the said leather goods, which sit beside the likes of carpets and the odd piece of jewellery. Forgo everything but the leather, you’ll find better jewellery and carpets amongst other souks.
For a less gritty shopping experience head to MAKTOUB By Max & Jan. Contrasting to the deja vu of traditional stall after traditional stall, it’s a contemporary label with youthful designs that’ll appeal to the adventurous and stylish traveller. Bold colours and prints reflect the exoticism of Morocco in modern cuts and high quality fabrics, while a showcase of jewellery and accessories from other designers rounds out the store’s offering. Find it at 128 Fontaine Mouassine in the Medina.
Sites such as Tripadvisor are filled with exhaustive lists of where to stay in Marrakech on any budget, so I’ll have only this to say: avoid the flash hotels and stay in a riad. A riad is a traditional Moroccan house (or palace, if your budget allows) with an interior courtyard garden. You can rent out entire riads for your stay, or stay at a hotel that has been established within them. If you’re going to travel to Marrakech, or any part of Morocco for that reason, don’t make the mistake of staying in a European-style hotel no more authentic than a Hollywood set. Live locally.
To remain portable.
Getting around the Marrakech is a breeze courtesy of the petit taxis that the city is laden with. You’ll encounter plenty of taxi ranks, but don’t expect the orderly line to mean much – you can pick whichever taxi you like from the queue.
There are a handful of telecom providers in Morocco and my preference leans towards Maroc Telecom. With the Maroc Telecom Menara 3G prépayé you’ll receive unlimited 3G data for a month for around Dh 200 on top of the SIM card’s cost. You can buy the SIM card at nearly every tourist shop or mini-market in the city (they’ll have a Macro Telecom sign at their entrance) though I’d recommend having your concierge either buy one for you, or give you a written note for the shopkeeper stating you want the SIM + a recharge pack for data. It’ll take about 24 hours to activate, and then you can update your status and Instagram your photos with liberal application.
The Menara Gardens
You’ll see the Menara Gardens featured on many a postcard. You’ll be told it’s beautiful, the gateway to the Atlas Mountains, an oasis in the desert. The latter it is most certainly not. While it makes for a picturesque photo in Winter courtesy of its 16th Century pavilion and mountain backdrop, it’s less of an oasis and more of a mucky stretch of water filled with more fish than seems natural.
And when you’re ready to escape.
It’ll happen – you’ll want to depart Marrakech and get outside the city. And should you venture to Marrakech and not feel the urge to see elsewhere, do it anyway. You’re best placed to do this with one of the local guides, though their language skills and the quality of their transport can naturally vary. While in Morocco I depended on the services of Abdul Tahiri who has had the pleasure of ferrying both myself and a chap called Brad Pitt around the country. You can reach Adbul via firstname.lastname@example.org or on +212 663 58 28 45.
Outside of Marrakech you won’t go astray by travelling through the Atlas Mountains. An entire range, a single day trip will allow you take to in the beauty of the mountains and the historic Aït Benhaddou fort. Cinema buffs will recognise Aït Benhaddou from the likes of The Living Daylights, Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven, along with TV’s Game of Thrones.
Further afield, you can take a multi-day trip to the Sahara, worth it for the view of the night sky alone, or to one of Marrakech’s neighbouring cities, the coastal Essaouira.
If you’re looking for only a few hour’s respite from the city, you don’t even have to leave. Try a hammam, the local take on a massage. Every hotel can set them up for you, and you’ll see plenty of parlours offering them as you walk Marrakech’s streets.