The Moroccan city of Marrakesh, the country's former imperial capital, is a destination of magic and mayhem. Once it’s found a place in your heart, there’s nothing in the world that will stop you from returning. Here are ten top things to do on your first visit.
Marrakesh is a place unlike anywhere else on the planet, but one thing’s for certain: when you’ve been there, you sure know you’ve been there!
While it’s the gateway to the surrounding deserts and the High Atlas Mountains, it’s also a destination in and of itself and, from the moment you enter the ancient medina (market quarter), you’ll need to be prepared for an all-out unrelenting and sustained assault on your senses.
To say this exotic Moroccan city is an extraordinary contradiction is to under-rate its diversity. From the European designer chic of Gueliz (the new town), to the delicate aroma of orange blossom and spices that pervades the air, and the hectic, seething mass of colour and character that is Djemaa El Fna in the medina, Marrakesh is all at once inspiring, confusing, chaotic and utterly enchanting.
There are ten thousand things you could do here, but here are just ten things you really should do. After all, there’s no harm in leaving something for next time.
These traditional Moroccan homes are usually built over several levels around a central courtyard, quite often with a private roof terrace. They range from the fairly simple to the absolute last word in luxury, but even the cheapest options sometimes come with a housekeeper included. Depending on the size and style of the riad, you can share with other guests or rent the entire place. There’s nothing quite as atmospheric as stepping back into the cool, tranquil embrace of your riad after a hard day’s haggling in the souks.
2. Get lost in the souks
Speaking of which, the souks of the medina are everything you’ve imagined and much, much more. With literally every step you take, you’ll be stopped by vendors looking to tempt you into their shops with the promise of bargain prices and top quality goods. The twisting, labyrinthine alleys are overflowing with a confusion of stalls selling pottery, textiles, leather, argan oil, spices, homewares, carpets, shoes, jewellery, aromatic food and, of course, the obligatory tourist ‘tatt’. Ah, but even the cheap silver bookmarks, keyrings and fridge magnets seem inexplicably exotic in this setting. Surrender to the souks and they’ll always lead you to another beautiful bargain…
Djemaa El Fna is the sprawling main square of Marrakesh and the heart and soul of the medina. The only time you’ll see it empty is if you’re up with the sun (tip: do it!). By mid-morning it’s packed out with food, hats, clothing, argan oil and souvenir stalls, and overflowing with tourists and locals making their way into the souks. It’s a very special kind of madness and you’ll find yourself dodging motorbikes as veiled women approach you to tattoo henna on your hands, and fast-talking young vendors follow you with their offers of iPhones, watches, t-shirts and cigarettes.
The stories you’ve heard about the snake charmers and their dancing cobras are true, but expect to pay if you try to sneak a photograph.
4. Make mine a mint tea
When is a cuppa not a cuppa? When you have it in Marrakesh! Even if you’re not a fan of the noble bevvy, capitulate to the local practice of taking a mint tea at any time of the day or night. Wherever you go the presentation will be a little different, but you can guarantee there are no cheap tea bags hiding under the counters here. Bulging handfuls of fresh mint are stuffed into silver pots (or directly into the glass) and stewed with boiling water and copious amounts of sugar to create a drink so refreshing and more-ish, you’ll find yourself craving your new habit after just one day.
The more traditional waiters will pour it at your table: going from teapot to glass, back to the pot and then back into the glass before it’s deemed ready to drink.
5. Meander through the Jardin Majorelle
Fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent fell in love with Marrakesh, and it’s thanks to him that the magnificently restored and preserved Jardin Majorelle is still open to the public. There are more than 300 species of plants throughout the 2.5-acre botanical garden, and the stunning villa centrepiece with its inimitable ‘Majorelle Blue’ exteriors (an intense colour created by and named after the villa’s original owner, artist Jacques Majorelle) makes this one of the most striking and celebrated must-sees in the city. It’s also an Instagram mecca, so go early and beat the crowds. #nofilterrequired
6. Heat up in a hammam
You really can’t leave Marrakesh without experiencing a hammam. If you want a truly authentic experience, you can head to a public facility and go the full monty amongst new friends, but you might feel more relaxed in a private one. This traditional bathing ritual involves having your entire body steamed then scrubbed, rubbed, exfoliated and oiled to within an inch of its life. When you emerge after a couple of hours, you might feel like you’ve gone a couple of rounds with Mike Tyson. But you’ll be undeniably blissful and your skin will be smooth, scented and unbelievably silky.
7. Marvel at the Koutoubia Mosque
The most iconic construction on the Marrakesh skyline is the 12th century Koutoubia Mosque, the largest and most impressive mosque in the city. Its soaring 70-metre minaret casts an impossibly long shadow over the surrounding square and beyond. The delicate rose-coloured mosque has a rich Moorish influence, with decorative stonework and elegant arches, and local building laws forbid any other structure to exceed the height of the minaret.
Although it’s only open to Muslim worshippers, everyone can enjoy the atmospheric sound of the muezzin as he calls the faithful to prayer five times a day.
8. Take in the beauty of the Bahia Palace
Another of the Instagram fraternity’s favourite haunts in Marrakesh, the 19th century Bahia Palace (the residence of a former sultan) is an embarrassingly beautiful mix of cultural, historical and creative riches, with its intricate mosaics, vibrantly coloured tiles, wrought iron details and exquisitely painted ceilings. Along with a few twirls around the magnificent central marble courtyard (blindingly white under the Moroccan sun), a stroll through the lovely internal tropical garden is a must. Selfie time!
9. Discover a secret garden
While it’s not strictly a secret, Le Jardin Secret’s claim to the name could be attributed to its completely unexpected location — right in the middle of the mayhem of the souks. With a history dating back to the 16th century, an unobtrusive entry opens into this genuine oasis of tranquillity.
The garden is split into two sections — the Exotic Garden and the Islamic Garden. The brilliant green tiled paths will lead you past gently moving water features, lush florals and hardy desert plants in one glorious profusion. Take a mint tea on the terrace overlooking the garden and your rejuvenation is complete.
10. Relax at a rooftop bar
One of the simplest pleasures in Marrakesh is to relax at the end of the day with (yet another) mint tea and watch the sun go down from a rooftop bar overlooking the madness of Djemaa El Fna. The low-rise nature of the city means that even from a few floors up you can watch the dazzling sun cast its last rays over the medina before sinking beyond the surrounding desert.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of top things to do in Marrakesh? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Julietta Henderson is a Melbourne-based travel writer and author. Originally planning to visit London for six months, she ended up staying for ten years and now divides her time between her home in Australia and several months of the year in the UK, Italy and France. Julietta has travelled extensively through Europe, North America, Indonesia, New Zealand, Australia and Russia, and believes the keys to a great travel experience are an open heart, an open mind and an open-ended ticket. Her first novel — The Funny Thing About Norman Foreman — is now available in bookstores.