Maybe you’ve been dreaming of visiting the Red City for years, or perhaps you just decided to go on a whim, but you’ll certainly never forget your first trip to Marrakech. The whole city is a
n assault feast for every sense- carpets and lamps more beautiful than you’ve ever seen, pungent leather bags and poufs, the constant noise from sellers yelling at potential customers to the beep of little scooter horns as they swerve around you in the narrow streets of the souks.
I recently took my first trip to Marrakech after wanting to visit for ages, since it’s only a three hour flight from Paris! While I wouldn’t call this a guide- I don’t think you can stay in a city for 3.5 days and know it well enough to write a guide- we did find several places that we loved (in French they’re called bonnes adresses) and wanted to share with you!
What to Do
Which tourist attractions in Marrakech are worth visiting? Our favorites were the Musée de Marrakech, the Ben Youssef Madrasa, the Palais El-Badi, and the Jardin Majorelle.
The Musée de Marrakech (Marrakesh Museum) is housed in the Dar Mnebhi Palace, built by the former defense minister Medhi Mnebhi in the late 1800s and given to his son-in-law Thami El Glaoui, Pacha of Marrakech, after falling out of favor with the sultan and leaving Marrakech. It’s now used to display historical artifacts as well as exhibitions by modern artists- you can even buy the paintings! I think if our suitcases (and apartment) were bigger, Didier might have taken one home.
Ben Youssef Madrasa was an Islamic theological college tied to the neighboring mosque of the same name, built in the 1500s. While the tiling and ornate stonework are most impressive in the courtyard (seen below), it was fascinating walking through the dormitories and imagining what life must have been like for the students who lived there.
The El-Badi Palace was built by the ruler of the Saadi dynasty and finished in the late 16th century. Sadly, the family wouldn’t be in power to enjoy it for very long- they were overthrown by the Alaouites, the current reigning royal family, in the mid-17th century, and the massive palace fell into ruin.
The Jardin Majorelle was designed by French artist Jacques Majorelle. His story is beautiful and very sad- you can read it here– and the garden of his legacy was almost turned into a hotel before legendary designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé saved it in 1980 and restored it according to Majorelle’s vision. When Saint Laurent died in 2008, his ashes were scattered in the garden and a memorial was constructed in his honor. The street upon which sits the entrance to the garden was also renamed after the designer in 2010. If you’re visiting Marrakech after mid-October 2017, you’ll be able to visit the new Yves Saint Laurent museum located on his namesake street, near the garden from which he drew so much inspiration.
Sadly we didn’t get a chance to visit the Bahia Palace or the Tombeaux Saadiens together, so that will be on my list for a future visit to Marrakech!
Bonus: What NOT to Do
Avoid the English-speaking teenage boys trying to direct you towards anything where they claim it’s the “last day”. No matter how cool it sounds, it will be significantly less cool when you have to pay them off to get them to leave you alone.
For anyone following me on Instagram, you probably saw my post talking about how much of a culture shock we experienced in Marrakech, and may have seen my Instagram Stories explaining more in depth about what happened. Basically, as we were walking through the streets, a teenaged boy came up and started talking to us. Normally my reaction is to either say no or ignore people who speak to me in the streets (ladies, you know what I mean), but Didier spoke back to him and he began animatedly directing us towards the tanneries, claiming it was the “last day!”. He flagged down another boy who said he was “heading in that direction” and that he would take us. Initially intrigued, our concern mounted the further away we got from the city center and the fewer other tourists we saw (my insanely pale skin makes it extremely clear that I’m an outsider). When we finally arrived at the tanneries, we were marginally relieved to see that they were real and that the kid hadn’t been leading us somewhere random. We were handed off to an old man (Didier gave the kid 50 dirhams before he left, kind soul that he is) who pressed sprigs of mint into our hands to hold in front of our noses so we wouldn’t have to smell the disgusting odor of the tanneries. The stenches of pigeon poop, ammonia and dead animal skins mixed in the heat of the sun- not unbearable, but certainly gross. The old man explained to us all the things the leather is soaked in before it goes to be dyed; the process was actually fascinating. What was less fascinating was being led afterwards to a “government-run” shop where a very, very pushy salesman tried to make us pay 160€ for the first bag I expressed a slight interest in. Fortunately we managed to get out of there without it escalating past our control, but Didier was then semi-forced to pay our tanneries tour guide 300 dirhams. As we walked away, I asked him why he hadn’t left it at 200, and he told me he wanted to make sure we weren’t followed. Sure enough, as we speed-walked back towards the city center, holding each others’ hands in a death grip, we say the first boy who had spoken to us in English circling around on a scooter. We’d been had, and it left a sour taste in our mouths for the rest of the afternoon. We high-tailed it back to our riad to collect our things and move to our new one, where we collapsed on the bed and slept until evening.
Don’t feel like you need to go “off the beaten path” to experience the “real” Marrakech if you’re not comfortable doing so. This experience was very overwhelming for both of us, especially having had it on the first day, but it made us both more wary and in the end, more street-smart. On my next trip to Marrakech, I think I’d feel more comfortable venturing away from the tourist areas and to somewhere more local, but on my own terms this time, not because we were coerced.
What & Where to Eat
For Moroccan or Italian: I Limoni
Located in a beautiful, tranquil courtyard just steps from the business of the souks, you’ll be eating under lemon trees and will have the options of either Moroccan or Italian cuisine (the above photos were both taken during our lunch here). I highly recommend both the chicken tagine with rosemary, honey and lemon (poulet au romarin, miel et citron) and the pastilla! Both are light enough to eat on even a hot day of wandering around the city. Note: This restaurant does serve alcohol
For great views: Nomad
The rooftop terrace and stellar food at Nomad have made it a favorite of foodies, locals and Instagrammers alike. The indoor space would be great for hiding out with a laptop and a fresh glass of juice, but the place to be is upstairs, overlooking the lively Place des Epices. After sharing the lentil salad as a starter, Didier opted for the couscous, which was delicious but quite spicy, while I had the calamari; both portions were filling enough that we didn’t have any more room for dessert! Note: this restaurant doesn’t serve alcohol.
For fresh fare: Kafe Merstan
This was our spot for our last lunch of the trip together (and we were happily joined by a friend who I hadn’t seen in five years!), on the recommendation of the owner of Dar Lalla F’dila. We had had a huge breakfast just before so I wasn’t very hungry, so I chose the shrimp avocado salad appetizer and it was absolutely fantastic. This restaurant is located between the Musée de Marrakech/Ben Youssef Madrasa and the souks, making it an ideal place to stop for a well-priced, delicious lunch between culture and shopping.
Where to Stay
We were lucky enough to collaborate with 3 amazing riads during our stay, and I would recommend staying in any one of them!
Though we received these stays complimentary from the riads, all opinions are, as always, my own.
If you’re looking to stay in a calm little oasis just steps from the souks, Riad Dar Ten is your place. We arrived after midnight, but Soufiane, the night manager, came out to get us from our taxi, walked us to the riad, and made us some fresh mint tea before showing us to our gorgeous room, the Safran Suite.
Riad Star by Marrakech Riad
This place is an Instagrammer’s dream. White walls, a beautiful rooftop, and views over the city that include the Atlas Mountains in the distance on a clear day. The staff were all incredibly accommodating, even making us breakfast around 11:30am after we decided to sleep in. One of the best amenities this hotel group (they have 4 riads around Marrakech) offers is an app with city guides, maps and a whole host of resources to help you find your way around the city.
Thanks to the hospitality of owner Véronique and her lovely staff, Dar Lalla F’dila became our home away from home for our last two days in Marrakech. We had breakfast on the rooftop every morning, and the freelance masseuses who the riad works with came and gave us the most amazing massages right in our room. Full blog post to come on this little oasis in a calm part of the medina!
Our first trip to Marrakech was certainly an adventure, and one I’m personally eager to repeat! Have you been to Marrakech, or to any of these places? What would you add to this list?