Marrakech can be a challenging city. We got things right but also made mistakes. Learn from our experiences to make the most of your first time in Marrakech.
‘Cristiano Ronaldo stays in your hotel’. No way, we thought as we followed the kind man from our hotel who had offered to guide us through the medina on his way home from work. Our eyes were as wide with wonder as our 1-year old’s as we pushed her buggy through the confused, narrow backstreets. The sights, smells and sounds combining in a sensory overload. It was our first time in Marrakech and we were grateful to have a guide. It wasn’t until the following day that we realised we’d been scammed!
They say that first impressions last, but what if your first impression is wrong? This is the question we kept asking ourselves after leaving Marrakech. We’ll be honest with you, we’ve got a sneaking suspicion that we didn’t make the most of our first time in Marrakech. We’ve written this post so that you can learn from our mistakes and have a brilliant time in Morocco’s popular tourist destination.
Be cautious, but not over-cautious
Before arriving in Marrakech we’d read a lot of excellent blog posts* that got us writing lists of ‘must do’ things. In particular, we knew we wanted to visit the medina, hear the call to prayer from the Koutoubia Mosque, and visit the Bahia Palace (see below) and some of the many gardens in Marrakech, the Jardin Majorelle in particular (otherwise known as the Yves Saint Laurent garden).
Whilst doing our Marrakech research we came across common themes: be careful of pickpockets, be careful of scammers, be careful of a whole load of craziness in Jemaa el-Fnaa (the market square in Marrakech’s medina). As this was our first time in Marrakech (in fact, it was our first time in Morocco), and because we read this same advice over and over again, we sensibly decided to take it. However, we probably took it too far. Whether it was because we were travelling with our 1-year old, or because our day jobs in the criminal justice system have skewed our perspective, or because we’re getting older and less adventurous (please don’t let it be that!), we ended up being over-cautious rather than just cautious.
Whilst we stayed safe and didn’t fall foul of any pickpockets, we didn’t have any of the experiences you’re supposed to have in Marrakech. We didn’t barter for a bargain in the souks of Jemaa el-Fnaa (we didn’t buy anything at all), we didn’t have a hamman with the locals, and we didn’t haggle with a taxi driver.
The irony is that despite our caution we nevertheless ended up being scammed! That Cristiano Ronaldo story we mentioned at the beginning of this post – as we were leaving our hotel on our first day we were approached by a man. He said that he worked in the hotel and had just finished his shift. He was on his way home and offered to be our guide through the medina. The clinching reason why we followed him? He said that he didn’t want any money. It was this that made us think that he must be genuine.
The man was true to his word. He took us into the medina and he offered to take photographs of the three of us by the Koutoubia Mosque. He told us that the main market square (Jemaa el-Fnaa) didn’t get lively until a bit later on and so instead led us through the backstreets to a carpet seller and a couple of others. They all tried to sell us things but we didn’t think anything of it until the following day when, as we were leaving the hotel…yep, you guessed it…another man approached us and said that he’d just finished his shift at the hotel and offered to show us the medina on his way home from work!
To be honest, it actually worked out pretty well. We got to see parts of the medina that we wouldn’t have otherwise ventured in to and we didn’t part with any cash. But even so!
*Our favourite blog posts about Marrakech are:
- Samantha at My Flying Leap has wonderful Morocco content. Her Reasons Why You Should Visit Marrakech post is an excellent guide to things to do in the city. We love how she has interwoven really interesting facts with the practical tips. Her post is definitely making us want to return to catch up with what we missed the first time round.
- Samantha at SOS Travel has visited the Red City over 20 times and so she knows a thing or two about making the most of your time there. Her Marrakech posts are brilliant resources for the first time traveller.
- Barry from Travel The World Club has a great Marrakech post highlighting ‘must see’ sights and lots of useful information about the city. Another fantastic resource, whether or not it’s your first time in the city.
Check the weather to find the best time to visit for your first time in Marrakech
Whilst rainfall in Marrakech throughout the year is low, temperatures vary significantly. The city can be pleasantly warm or stifling hot. For your first time in Marrakech, we advise going at a time of year when you will feel most comfortable (and this will vary from person to person). Marrakech is a full on assault on your senses (in a good way!), you don’t need to be dealing with unfavourable weather on top.
As you can see from the graph above, the period from May to September is when Marrakech is at its hottest. June to August are the hottest months with temperatures almost in the 40s (degrees Celsius). They are also the most popular months to visit. If you like the heat then go at this time, but be prepared for brutal heat, lots and lots of people, and high hotel rates.
Although this article is about learning from our mistakes, we feel we actually got it right when it came to the time of year for our first time in Marrakech. We visited in February. We had nothing but blue sunny skies and the temperatures were around 25 to 27°C during the day. That was hot enough for us, especially with a 1-year old. Although it was cooler at night, it certainly wasn’t cold. We loved making the most of lower hotel rates and it not being crazy busy.
One of the great things about the Marrakech is that it is genuinely a year-round destination. This is all-important when your opportunities to go on holiday are subject to maximising your annual leave. In our opinion, this makes it an ideal city to visit!
Don’t feel you have to stay in a riad
One of the most popular pieces of advice you’ll encounter when researching a city break in Marrakech is this: stay in a riad. Riads are townhouses with rooms built around a central courtyard. Although, actually, whilst that description is associated with riads it is technically for a dar. True riads have a garden, ideally divided into quarters, with a central fountain.
The reason there are so many recommendations to stay in a riad is because they are atmospheric, beautiful, and very Moroccan. A quintessential experience for your first time in Marrakech. However, (there is always a however), staying in a riad may turn out not to be the best thing for you. We spent hours and hours trying to find the perfect riad for what we needed. We were reluctant to stay somewhere else because of all the advice we’d read about staying a riad. We ultimately found, however, that it wasn’t right for us and we decided to stop worrying about missing out if we didn’t stay in a riad. We ended up booking The Pearl Marrakech, situated just outside of the medina in the HIvernage area. It was absolutely incredible! Here are the reasons why we ended up booking a hotel instead of a riad:
- We knew we’d want to retreat from the medina – the riads are found in the medina, often behind doors that belie the beauty within. Whilst riads provide a haven from the chaos of the medina, the moment you step outside the door you’re right back in it again. We wanted a retreat that allowed us to actually retreat from it all.
- We wanted extra space – at the time of booking our daughter had only just started sleeping through the night. After 11 months of broken sleep every single night we were desperate to protect our new found nighttime peace, for her sake as well as ours. This meant booking somewhere that either had two bedrooms or one room large enough for her cot to be well away from us. Her bed time is hours earlier than ours and we didn’t want to disturb her once she was asleep. We found many lovely looking riads but none that were quite right. On the other hand, the gorgeous rooms in The Pearl were perfect! We had a Junior Suite and it was huge.
- We wanted additional facilities like a gym, swimming pool & spa – for us, time in Marrakech was time to rejuvenate. Whether you’re at home or on holiday, having ‘wellness time’ is essential. But if you’ve got a busy work life you’ll know that finding the balance is often easier said than done. Add a child (or children) into the mix and it becomes even more difficult. Riads with gyms, spas and swimming pools are not easy to find but the wellness facilities at the Pearl Marrakech are outstanding. There’s a full-service spa, three swimming pools and an excellent gym. If you deserve the pampering time (and who doesn’t), this is the place for you.
We loved The Pearl Marrakech so much that it’s made it into our post covering the best places we’ve ever stayed in around the world.
Book transfers in advance
Marrakech is a place for haggling. Whether you’re buying something in the medina or wanting to ride in a taxi, you never pay the asking price. Whilst this can be fun, it can sometimes be a hassle. And it’s most likely to feel like a hassle when you’ve just got off a plane and you want to get to your accommodation. But then you realise you’ve got to have an argument with a taxi driver first and you’ll probably end up paying more than you should anyway. Add in the complications of ensuring your taxi driver understands your destination, ensuring he complies with the law and turns the counter on, and the potential for picking up additional passengers (this is allowed in Morocco), and your journey from the airport has suddenly become a very stressful experience.
Pre-booking transfers will make things much easier. You can do this through your hotel/riad or via an independent company. When first impressions count, something as small as an easy, hassle-free transfer can make a big difference.
Forget using a map in the medina
Visiting Marrakech is almost synonymous with visiting the medina. Without a doubt it’s the most popular thing to do in Marrakech.
It’s pretty much got to the point where if you go to Marrakech and you don’t go the medina, especially if it’s your first time in the city, can you really say you’ve been to Marrakech? It’s a fantastic experience, but it can sometimes be a scary experience too. There is a wonderfully evocative description of the medina on the South China Morning Post website.
Look at a map of the medina and it looks reasonably easy to navigate. Some major looking roads with lots of streets snaking away from them. How hard can it be? However, try using it in the medina and you’ll realise that a map is about as much use as a chocolate teapot. In fact, less so because the medina is the sort of place where there’d be a market for chocolate teapots.
Holding a map is a beacon signalling that you’re lost. People will try to help. A lot of the time they will insistingly try to help. Some are helpful, others less so, and most will want something from you. And if you think Google maps (or something similar) will help you, think again!
Getting lost in the medina is inevitable and part of its charm. It’s best to go with it, but it can feel uncomfortable and sometimes threatening. And if, like us, you’re travelling with a baby or young child, you’ll undoubtedly end up feeling extremely anxious.
We found navigating to a main road was the best way to work out where we were. Traffic is largely confined to the main roads (mopeds annoyingly and dangerously zip down the narrow alleys) and they will lead you to the gates so you can exit, if that’s what you want to do. There are limited signposts in the medina but those that exist are usually for Jemaa el-Fnaa. Knowing where you want to get to and from there will definitely help you. The Koutoubia Mosque is also a good landmark to navigate by. However, whilst it’s the tallest building in Marrakech (by law, no other building is allowed to be taller), once you’re within the medina’s narrow and confused streets it’s not visible.
Book a tour of the major sites for your first time in Marrakech if you’re short on time
As we said above, we’d made a list of the things we really wanted to see and do in Marrakech. We thought we’d make the most of the glorious weather and walk between places. We could have got taxis but chose not to because we wanted to limit the time in the car with a young child when there wouldn’t have been suitable car seats.
We had a plan in place and we set off. However, we weren’t counting on getting hopelessly lost in the medina for hours. Nor were we counting on it being a bit difficult to get around the city with a buggy because of the very high pavements – lots of lifting the buggy on and off the pavements really slowed us down.
We ended up not seeing even a quarter of what was on our list, which was a real shame. If we’d had more time there (say 3 or 4 full days) it wouldn’t have been an issue, but as our time was limited we ended up missing out on quite a bit.
We encountered people having guided tours and we wished we’d booked one. Not only were they getting to see the places we’d planned to, they were learning lots of really interesting things about Marrakech. When we return to Marrakech we will definitely book a tour. We wish we’d thought of it before. In a place that’s a little challenging to get around with limited time available, a tour is the perfect thing to arrange.
Have dirhams available in low denominations for tipping
‘10 dirhams, that’s nothing‘, the 8-year old boy shouted indignantly at us. We didn’t feel guilty. Firstly, other than 200 dirham notes (approximately $20/€20) it was all we had on us; secondly, he’d mischievously led us away from where we wanted to go, by some distance, so we weren’t overly inclined to tip; thirdly, at the time 10 dirhams was roughly the equivalent of $1/€1. We thought that was a fair price for being led a merry dance.
There is a tipping culture in Marrakech, but it goes beyond the norm of tipping for good service in restaurants etc. You will find that there are so many people willing to help you. Whether that be helping you find your way, taking photographs, or welcoming you into their shop with mint tea, tipping is expected. It’s understandable. Every one of us needs to find a way to make a living. But it can be very awkward if you aren’t carrying the right cash.
The difficulty with Moroccan dirhams is that it’s a closed currency. This means that it cannot be obtained outside of Morocco and most people (us included) exchange currency at the airport. The problem is that you’ll be given the currency in high denominations and this will be no good for tipping. The chances are that tipping situations will arise quickly (your driver, the hotel porter etc) and, unless you buy something pretty much immediately, you’ll either have to give an extremely generous tip or not tip at all.
The lesson we learned: make sure you carry cash in low denominations so you can suitably acknowledge someone’s helpfulness and hospitality. The second lesson, don’t follow a young boy who has all of the chat!
Visit the Bahia Palace
Although it is located in the medina, the Bahia Palace could not be more different from the hustle and bustle of the old city. Its stillness and beauty are a calm oasis to retreat to after the hurly burly of the medina.
The Palace was built in the 19th century by Si Moussa, Grand Vizier of Sultan Hassa I of Morocco. It was subsequently expanded by his son, Ahmed ben Moussa (also known as Ba Ahmed), and spreads over 20 acres in total. There are gardens, courtyards and 150 rooms, although not all of it is open to the public. Although the rooms are now empty (they were looted after Ba Ahmed’s death in 1900), the beauty of the architecture is mesmerising. If you’ve visited the Real Alcazar in Seville or the Alhambra Palace in Granada you’ll recognise some of the Andalusian and Moorish decoration. The intricate and colourful mosaics are stunning.
The Bahia Palace is named after the wife of Si Moussa. Although, actually, it is more accurate to say one of his wives. We guess naming it after one of them is, y’know, thoughtful.
When the palace was expanded by Ba Ahmed he created additional rooms to house his 4 wives and 24 concubines. Again, thoughtful. One of the highlights of the Palace is the Grand Courtyard, which was converted into a harem by him.
The Bahia Palace is close to the Mellah (the Jewish quarter) in the southeast of the medina. It is usually open daily from 9am to 5pm and costs 10 dirhams to enter. If you go by what that 8-year old boy said to us, 10 dirhams is nothing!
Make a note of café/restaurant recommendations for your first time in Marrakech
One of the delights of dining out is finding a fantastic place where the food is so good you want to eat there again and again. When you’re on holiday discovering places as you wander is a real pleasure. We tend to prefer finding places for ourselves rather than going to places recommended online and in guidebooks. However, on our first time in Marrakech we learned that that’s easier said than done in the Red City.
There are some incredible places to eat in Marrakech, especially in the medina. They tend to be hidden behind secret doors or are rooftop places that aren’t obvious from the streets below. This is all part of the fun of eating out in Marrakech! We found, however, that this made it difficult to identify the great places just by wandering the streets. The number of times we said to each other ‘we wished we’d read recommendations for the best places to eat’.
One place we highly recommend for a bit more of a special meal is Namazake, a Japanese rooftop restaurant at The Pearl Marrakech. Classic dishes are on the menu, as well as Asian fusion concept plates. There is an extensive drinks menu and cocktail list. Best of all are the 360° views of Marrakech. On a clear day you can see the Atlas Mountains.
Namazake at The Pearl Marrakech: Av. Echouhada et Rue du Temple, Hivernage، Marrakesh 40000
Be prepared to be confronted with animal welfare issues
The main square in the medina, Jemaa el-Fnaa, is a chaotic, hectic, mess of a place where anything goes. It’s exciting and riotous and discombobulating and astonishing. But there’s one reason why visiting once was enough for us, the animal welfare issues.
Each to their own but we genuinely cannot understand why any tourist would want their photo taken with a monkey in shackles kept in a cage. We found it devastating. Devastating. And yet there were people handing over money and posing for photos. They looked like they were finding it difficult to hold the monkeys. Perhaps it was the weight of the chains.
We were in Seville a few days before Marrakech and, like Seville, there are horse and carriage rides for tourists. However, unlike Seville, the horses in Marrakech were not in a good way. They were painfully thin, skeletal in some cases.
We weren’t prepared to encounter such sights. Being prepared wouldn’t necessarily have made seeing the state of the poor animals any easier, but it may not have been so much of a shock.
We found Marrakech to be an incredibly interesting city and somewhere that pushed us out of our comfort zone. We’d love to go back and learn from our own mistakes to see and experience more of the city. We hope the errors we made (and the things we got right) will help you get the best from your first time in Marrakech.
Have you been to Marrakech? We’d love to hear about your experiences and what you thought of the city. If you’re planning a trip, let us know what you’re doing to prepare for it. Drop us a note in the comments box below or get in touch via one of the methods on our Contact Us page.