Taking a trip to Marrakech provokes a barrage on the senses. Echoes of the adhān ring in your ears, mountains of vibrant rainbow colored spices delight your eyes and motorbikes zoom past you on the left in the medina. Old and new come together in a beautiful and tumultuous blend of sights, sounds, textures and tastes that cannot be ignored. Except that like any big city, the question of what to do in Marrakech can seem overwhelming especially when planning a short stay in this Moroccan city.
We had 72 hours in Marrakech. Ok, technically, we had four nights in Marrakech. But if you figure that our first night was a blur – transiting from the airport (where the customs line made lines at JFK look efficient) to our riad and our last morning was consumed with packing our treasures from shopping in the souks – our trip boiled down to three full days to explore Marrakech.
(The “we” by the way consisted of myself, my husband, my daughter and my mom. Quite a motley crew.)
Knowing that we only had a short time to explore, we (ok, I) came up with a plan to make the most of Marrakech – or at least try. (Luckily my family was game with the plan). We knew that there were historical landmarks to visit, but we also wanted to venture off the beaten path. My daughter would tell you that I was on a mission to get lost on purpose. That is probably true. I did want to wander without a map and see where the narrow streets would lead us. Except that we never did truly get lost. And with an eye on the time, I found myself referring to our map more often than not.
So…what did we do in Marrakech?
First off, we allocated one full day for a private guided experience with Kensington Tours. Not only was this a way to hit all the major “must see” sites like the Koutoubia Mosque, El Bahia Palace and Saadian Tombs, but it gave us a chance to get acclimated to streets that are impossible to tell apart for first timers. Also? Our fabulous local expert provide suggestions and tips of what to see, do and where to eat for the remainder of our time in Marrakech.
With two days left, we focused on shopping, eating and exploring neighborhoods of the medina (old city) as well as more modern areas like Gueliz. Oh and a hammam treatment – because there was no way I was leaving Marrakech without having this traditional wellness experience.
12 not to miss experiences in Marrakech
Whether you will have 3 days in Marrakech or a whole week, here are 12 not to miss experiences in Marrakech.
Stay in a riad
I knew the minute we started planning our trip that I wanted to stay in a riad (a traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden or courtyard) in the heart of the medina. Although some visitors with families like to stay in more of a resort like setting outside the old city walls to get a break from the noise and sensory stimulation, it was one of my non-negotiables for our first visit even if there are incredible luxury hotels like Four Seasons Marrakech, Royal Mansour and La Mamounia scattered around the city. I found Riad Camilia on-line and it was love at first sight from the moment we stepped through the door (actually, Nicolas – the manager – impressed me with his patience in answering questions even before we arrived and by meeting our taxi to lead us on foot to the riad). The Riad Camilia rooftop made me wish we had more time in Marrakech so that we could spend a day relaxing in the sun without the guilt. The rooms and public spaces were luxuriously appointed and the service from the entire staff was what you would find in a five-star hotel. One thing to pay attention to if you are staying in a riad is children. Many riads, like the Riad Camilia only take children that are 12 or over (unless you are booking the entire riad).
Visit the Majorelle Gardens
Confession time. I am not a naturalist. I do not “ooh and ah” over birds and plants. I probably only know the names of a few flower varieties. But the Jardin Majorelle (aka Majorelle Gardens) is a dream of bold colors and lush greenery. Deep blues, yellow and mint greens provide a contrast to the over 300 species of plants. The gardens, which were opened to the public in 1947 are the inspiration of painter Jacques Majorelle. Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé discovered the Jardin Majorelle in 1966, during their first stay in Marrakech and later purchased the gardens in 1980, to restore the park to a glorious and colorful space with a museum dedicated to Berber culture in the original painter’s studio. (The museum houses the personal Berber collection of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé.) Be warned though: the gardens are small which makes photography challenging when there are many visitors.
Shop in the souks
It is hard to resist shopping in the souks whose wares dangle like candy in a candy shop calling your name as you walk by. And with three days in Marrakech, there is plenty of time to get a great deal on that item you didn’t know you needed. Negotiation is par for the course when shopping in the souks of Marrakech, so be prepared to barter with your best “I am willing to walk away” face. The plethora of lamps, one more beautiful than the other, made me wish I could redecorate my home with one in every room. Worried about getting a lamp home? Don’t. Shopkeepers are happy to share the many destinations around the world where they have shipped parcels. (One tip: always be sure to ask to see the lamp with a lit bulb inside as the feeling of the lamp can be different when lit.) If you can tear yourself away from lamp shopping, consider shopping for carpets, babouche slippers, jewelry and scarves in the various souks.
Have lunch at Amal Women’s Training Center (or take a cooking class)
I am always a fan of businesses that believe in social responsibility, but at the Amal Women’s Training Center and Moroccan Restaurant – they go one step further. 15 women are accepted for six months of training at the restaurant as part of a program that fosters personal transformation, skill set development, job placement and long term stability and sustainability. After lunch, walk back towards the medina from the restaurant through the more modern neighborhood and wide streets of Gueliz.
Schedule a hammam treatment at the Royal Mansour spa
I had seen pictures of the spa at the Royal Mansour on Pinterest and knew that although it might not offer the most local of experiences, I had to visit for a luxurious hammam treatment. Before you even begin, the lace-like arches and natural light that make the spa so unique, slow your breathing. The spa makes you want to stay a while, leaving you dreaming of never ending wellness days fit for royalty. Once inside, my attendant – – led me by hand through a series of rituals including being doused in water, scrubbed with savon noir (black soap) and a Kessa glove and then covered in rhassoul clay. You will wish you could go back every day to get scrubbed clean in a tradition that is relaxing as much as detoxifying. And while you are at the Royal Mansour, stay for a formal afternoon tea in one of the lavish restaurants or bars. (One tip: Be sure to have an appetite. The sweet treats that are presented like crown jewels are quite filling.)
Eat fried seafood at #98 in Jemaa El Fna
Fried seafood does not rank high on my wellness lifestyle meal planning, but I had done enough reading prior to our trip to know I’d have to get up close and personal with fried food for dinner in Jemaa El Fna at least once. Although many articles sing the praises of stall #14 (each of the food vendors has a number), our local expert from Kensington Tours clued us into #98. Sitting with more locals than tourists we found ourselves elbow deep in fried everything before we knew what was coming, each bite offering the perfect crunch of batter with delicate tastes on the inside. Although I knew that my daughter would appreciate eating with her hands, my mom (who lets just say is a bit more “proper”) dug in with bread and eggplant to wipe her plate clean.
Looking for more local food favorites? Take a food tour with Marrakech Food Tours. Sadly we were unable to experience this food tour ourselves because of schedules, but if pictures can speak a thousand words, I would eat with Amanda any day based on her Instagram feed.
Savor lunch on the rooftop at Nomad
My tendency is to want to go local when it comes to traveling and food. I want to eat where and what the locals eat. Per the recommendation of Nicolas – the manager at Riad Camilia – one restaurant – Nomad, near the Spice Market – serving modern Moroccan plates to locals, expats and tourists made the top of my list of restaurants to try. Having seen the restaurant’s Instagram page, I knew that my foodie family would be happy with creative plays on traditional dishes. What I did not expect was the rooftop view that although our table did not offer much shade, provided tantalizing views of local terraces and rooftops.
Buy spices at the market in the Mellah
While you might be wowed by the mountains of rainbow colored spices in Spice Square, somehow I felt more like a local buying spices where residents went to buy ingredients for their homes. Be warned, a trip to the Mellah (Jewish quarter) market is not for the faint of heart (or vegetarians) with live chickens and rabbits coming out of cages to be prepared and sold for dinner.
Imagine what life was like as a student at the Medersa Ben Youssef
We visited the Medersa Ben Youssef during our one day guided tour, but of all the sites that day, this was my favorite. There was something inspiring about the mix of mosaics and calligraphy on the wall, coupled with wondering about the adventures that must have transpired in the small rooms that housed students. If the Medersa was not such a solemn institution, I would have imagined students seeing if they could throw things across the courtyard from one window to another.
Drink mint tea with a shopkeeper
First off, just drink mint tea. Tea in Morocco is more than just a beverage. It is a chance to stop, chat and regroup. You might be surprised when a shopkeeper in the souk offers you tea. Don’t be. Take the time to stop and enjoy the hospitality. Chat, smile and savor the experience.
Walk through the medina in the early morning or at night
During the day, the medina is boisterous. Motorbikes race past you causing you to stay to the right side of any street (with your arms tucked in just to be safe) at speeds that rival a James Bond scene. At night though, life gets quiet. Locals are inside enjoying dinner with their families and the medina has a mystical quality tempting you with new alleys to explore and “just one more” turn to follow out of curiosity.
Watch sunset fall over Jemaa El Fna from the roof of Cafe Glacier
The rooftops of Marrakech look posed against the backdrop of the High Atlas Mountains in the distance, making sunset a photographers’ dream in Marrakech. Add in the profile of the Koutoubia Mosque and the din of Jemaa El Fna, and Le Grand Balcon Cafe Glacier feels like a royal throne where you can simultaneously watch life and nature. One of the things I was most looking forward to during our trip was watching the transition from day to night at Jemaa El Fna, something perfectly observed from the Cafe Glacier. For the price of a soda, coffee or tea you can sit on the terrace or rooftop for as long as you would like, happily snapping photographs and taking in the activity below.