As the taxi driver drew up to our hotel in the early evening light, I glanced out of my window and caught my breath, hard in my throat. The taxi darted into the secluded road that led to the hotel entrance, but I’d already caught sight of the pink tinged mosque rising up against the moody orange sky.
All around us was chaos. There were cars, and mopeds piled high with families and horns and a wall of noise. There was even a man walking a huge barrow alongside us filled with the juiciest, reddest strawberries I’d ever seen. It was everything and nothing that I had expected. It was hot, not with heat but with a tension I couldn’t describe. Everything smelt different, even behind the windows of the taxi. Excited tears pricked at my eyes.
And then, the call to prayer rang out from the towering mosque and I fell completely and utterly in love.
Getting around during a long weekend in Marrakech
Marrakech is an easy city to reach from most international destinations, and from the UK it takes around 4 hours (although our journey was extremely quick due to a favourable tailwind). We flew wth British Airways from London Gatwick, but from the UK at least there are options including Ryanair, Easyjet and TUI. Cost-wise, it’s certainly a more expensive option that much of central and eastern Europe, but you’ll find that balances out well once you arrive.
Once in Marrakech, within the medina walls we found it was extremely easy to walk to most destinations once you have your bearings. It’s well worth taking some time to get your bearings, starting in the main square of Jemaa el-Fnaa as I found mobile data to be patchy for using GPS maps. Added to this whenever I looked slightly lost I’d always be approached by someone wanting to “show me the way” if I crossed their palm with silver (although I was never pressured to do so).
If you are leaving the medina area (the old city, surrounded by walls), taxis are easy to come by but I would always suggest that you ask your hotel or restaurant to call one for you, and to agree the price upfront. Taxis were relatively inexpensive, and for a one way trip to the airport booked via our hotel it cost around £15.
Where to stay on a long weekend in Marrakech
There are so many accommodation options in Marrakech, but my first recommendation would be to ensure you stay within the medina walls. Of course, there are plenty of luxury resort hotels and brand names you’d recognise outside of the medina (such as Le Meridien and the Four Seasons), but I honestly think you get a much better sense of what Marrakech is about by staying closer in to the action. Added to this, you won’t be getting taxis to the main sites of Marrakech on the regular!
We stayed at the incredible Les Jardins de la Koutoubia, right in the shadow of the Koutoubia Mosque and within striking distance of the souks andJemaa el-Fnaa. To say it was a complete oasis away from the pandemonium of the city is an understatement. As you entered the lobby, the calmness descended and it was a fabulous place to get respite from the fantastic madness outside.
The hotel has two pools (including one on the rooftop which overlooks the mosque), three restaurants, a cosy bar and a spa and is everything you could possibly want from a 5 star luxury experience. We often spent the morning exploring and the afternoon relaxing by the pool, and it gave our city break something a little different from what we had experienced before.
I’ll be completely honest and say that we were upgraded for free upon arrival – something that happened to my Mum at the same time of year at this hotel. There is absolutely something to be said for travelling to Marrakech slightly out of season. We stayed in the mind blowing royal suite which had its own private courtyard, separate living areas, and a huge bath that could have fitted at least three people. We didn’t test this though!
Depending on your budget, there is a lot of choice in Marrakech, and as we dove down backstreets and pathways we came across many traditional riads (a large traditional house built around a central courtyard which has often now been converted into a hotel) that looked wonderful. In fact, on booking.com alone there are 1889 accommodation options, so you’ll find something that suits your taste and your budget.You don't just have to search Europe for your next awesome city break. On the hunt for something truly magical? Spend a long weekend in Marrakech.Click To Tweet
Things to do on a long weekend in Marrakech
There is so much to do in Marrakech – in fact, a really surprising amount which you could never adequately cover in a long weekend so there is no point in trying. However, the first thing I’d definitely recommend is a walking tour which can really help you get your bearings and understand a little more about the culture of the city. In fact, it’s a great way to help you feel more comfortable if like me, you were apprehensive about visiting due to the stories you’d heard about tourist traps, being hassled and even ripped off.
I selected the Marrakech by Locals tour with the wonderful Saeed which came highly recommended on Trip Advisor and was attractive due to is “no shopping” promise. This is important – many walking tours I’d read about would end up taking you to shops or market stalls where the guide would get a kick-back from taking tourists there and you’d feel pressured into buying. With Saeed, we had a much slower paced cultural and historical tour.
We were taken down backstreets I’d probably have been nervous to follow, and were told when it was appropriate to take pictures and when it wasn’t, all whilst Saeed slipped the locals some dirhams for their trouble. That gave me a sense of when I should get my camera out and gave me confidence in doing so.
The tour was all arranged via email, and cost 300 dirhams per person – for four hours this was a great deal. Saeed is a genuinely lovely man and a fantastic tour guide and I’d implore you to book with him if a walking tour is on your agenda.
Visit the Atlas Mountains
We took a full day out of our itinerary to visit the Atlas Mountains, and it didn’t disappoint. You’ll find the Atlas Mountains across northwestern Africa, spanning Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia and they are just 30 minutes from the medina walls. For what it is worth, I believe a proper tour here is necessary – not least because driving around the mountains is terrifying and you really need to be experienced to navigate the sheer drops into the abyss!
Not only that, a good driver and guide can give an excellent overview of life in the mountains, and about the Berber people – the indigenous people of North Africa who in many ways are completely different to the Marrakshis you’ll find in the city. After being picked up at about 8.30am, we made our way to the mountains via a local community pottery shop and the Ourika Valley where we could see first hand the Berber houses and villages carved out in the mountains.
As the clouds rose, so did we – stopping for breathtaking views of snowcapped mountains in the High Atlas, before stopping for mint tea and Berber biscuits at a traditional Berber house.
We booked our 4×4 tour via British Airways for around £67pp which included your driver and guide, a full day tour and lunch – just search for experiences on the linked page and you’ll find it!
Shop ’til you drop in the souks
If there is one thing that you already know about Marrakech, it’ll be the shopping – and the world famous souks. A maze of tiny covered streets filled with colourful market stalls selling everything from pottery, to leather, to scarves and to spices, there is pretty much nothing you won’t find here to take home as a memory from your trip.
The souks can be overwhelming and somewhat intimidating – but don’t let that put you off. I had a fantastic time exploring (and shopping), by following these tips:
- Stray off the beaten track – you’ll often find better quality and lower priced items if you head deeper into the souks, by taking one of the many branches off the main thoroughfare. I promise it is impossible to get lost!
- Seek out the specialist market areas – you can find collections of leather goods, carpets, spices and lanterns in branches off the main souk towards the back – these were much better to shop in.
- Be firm, but kind. The banter of negotiation is all part of the experience and whilst it can feel overwhelming the first time, you’ll soon get into the swing of it. Negotiate with a smile and a laugh, and remember you can always say no and walk away if the price isn’t right.
- Have a price in mind – sometimes stallholders will start the negotiations with an outrageous price. They do this as so many western tourists will pay it. But if you have a price in mind you know what you are doing. Get used to doing the exchange rate in your head, and stay strong! We picked up a pair of leather foot stalls which started as 2000 dirhams for 900.
- Stallholders will shout out at you as you go past to try and entice you in – again, you can ignore them or just say no thank you. Don’t be intimidated!
I never usually shop whilst on a city break, but I picked up a gorgeous hand stitched leather foot stall, some spices (including Saffron which is so cheap there it is criminal not to buy), a scarf and some pottery items. Leave some room in your case!
Wander around Jemaa el-Fnaa, Marrakech’s main square
If you visit the Jemaa el-Fnaa in the early afternoon, you’ll be met with a wall of noise. It’s everything you think it is going to be and so much more – a mic of snake charmers, drummers, fresh juice stands, acrobats, musicians and everything in between, the sounds are like nothing you’ll hear on a European city break. In fact, to check out the sounds for yourself, head to my Instagram and watch my saved story on Marrakech!
At night, the square changes again, as lots of food sellers arrive to entice you in with tagines and cous cous and more, and locals gather in tight circles to sing or drum or hear stories.
From here, it is easy to reach most of the other attractions and souks in central Marrakech but it is worth spending some time soaking up the atmosphere for moving on. We headed for coffee at Le Grand Balcon du Café Glacier, located on the southern corner of Jemaa al-
It’s worth noting that to take photos of the snake charmers, the monkeys (yes…monkeys. I wasn’t too pleased about this either) and acrobats you will be expected to pay, and they have people around them looking out for tourists doing this – just have 10-20 dirhams ready to hand over and make it clear that you don’t want for example a snake put on you. Because they will, and will expect much more money.
Get up close to the Saadian Tombs
The Saadian Tombs, near the Kasbah neighbourhood are well worth making time to explore. Sparing absolutely no expense, Saadian Sultan Ahmed Al Mansour Ed Dahbi built a mausoleum fit for Kings, his favourite Princes and advisors and others which remained hidden for 200 years. Brought back into the public eye in 1917, there are 200 tombs of members of the Saadian dynasty here which were long forgotten as Moulay Ismail took over, wanting to build his own legacy.
It’s an architectural delight, with tombs in both the gardens and two mausoleums containing carved Italian marble, and amazing zellij tiles (all protected by the watchful eye of the stray cats of the city).
Cost: 10 dirhams. Closed during lunch.
See the Koutoubia Mosque (and listen to the call to prayer)
One of the most prominent sites in Marrakech is the beautiful Koutoubia Mosque, and you can hear the regular call to prayer from its minaret almost everywhere. It’s the largest mosque in Marrakech (and I think the prettiest), with its pink stone and green trim. It’s great to see it during the day in all its glory, but it is worth bearing in mind that it is lit at night, and its beautiful to watch the sunset behind it’s impressive tower.
The mosque is also set within some gorgeous gardens, filled with orange trees and lots and lots of cats! As this was just down the road from our hotel, we saw (and heard it) very often, and it became the spectacular focal point of our whole trip.
You can visit inside for free, but do remember that this is a very religious building – so be respectful.
Get away from it all at the Majorelle Garden
The Jardin Majorelle is one of the most popular places in Marrakech, and it is easy to see why. It took painter Jacques Majorelle 40 years to create this enchanting oasis in the heart of the city, and it is unlike any garden you would have seen before. Filled with exotic plants and succulents (and cacti! Oh the cacti!) against the familiar pink-ochre walls, you’ll also be greeted with brilliant flashes of colour – especially an intense blue which lights up in the Moroccan sunshine.
It’s nicknamed the Yves Saint Laurent Garden because after many years of neglect he painstakingly restored it to its former glory in the 80s. The gardens include a fantastic museum about Berber history, as well as the newer Musee Yves Saint Laurent about his love affair with and impact on Marrakech.
Cost: 70 dirhams for the garden, 30 for the museum. Open everyday with shorter admission times during Ramadam.
See beautiful architecture in the Ben Youssef Madrasa
Originally an Islamic college, the Ben Youssef Madrasa is now an incredible example of Saadian architecture. Founded in the 14th century, you’ll find beautiful stucco work alongside breathtaking mosaics and tiling. The bronze gated entrance is truly impressive so don’t think that seeing just the outside will do – I promise you won’t find a place like this anywhere else in the world.
You’ll find the tranquil peace of the Madrasa through the souks, a ten-minute walk from Jemaa el-Fnaa. Although it won’t feel quite as busy as the souks, it is a popular location so I’d recommend arriving for when it opens if you want to explore in peace.
Cost: 40 dirhams. Open daily.
Explore moorish architecture at the Bahia Palace
The Bahia Palace is another beautiful location in Marrakech which takes you squarely out of the mayhem and into the calm. Translating to the “palace of the beautiful or brilliant”, it’s newer than some of the other grand buildings in Marrakech, having been built in the 19th Century. It was built bySi Moussa, grand vizier of the sultan and named after his favourite wife, set within a 2-acre garden with rooms opening onto tiled courtyards.
It’s a true example of Moroccan artisan talent, with every room and courtyard tiled with intricate mosaics and painted wooden ceilings. Blue, yellow and green colours bean out from every corner, and it is easy to see the moorish influence if you’ve visited places like Sintra.
Today, only a portion of the 150 rooms are on show, but its opulence and beauty is still very much present. You can imagine the lavish lives that would have been lives here amongst four wives and 24 concubines. A time and culture so different to ours.
Cost: 10 dirhams. Open daily.
Find some impressive ruins at the El Badi Palace
Another day, another palace. But this time it’s a palace in ruins which has a completely fascinating history. It was built by the Saadian sultan Ahmed al-Mansur Dhahbi in the 16th Century after the Battle of the Three Kings (funded mainly by a ransom paid by the Portuguese). Once a magnificent palace, it was destroyed by the following sultan Moulay Ismaïl, much like the Saadian Tombs above.
All that remains now are beautiful gardens and the ruined walls of the former palace. It won’t tae long to visit, but it’s absolutely worth your time on a sunny day to have a wander in its impressive shadow.
Cost: 10 dirhams. Open daily.
Where to eat + drink during your Marrakech weekend
Marrakech is truly a riot for the tastebuds. I personally have found it hard to find decent authentic Moroccan cuisine in London (hit me up with your recommendations though), so dining in Marrakech was a total dream.
I’m putting together a bigger guide to food and drink in Marrakech so you can tell your tagine from your tangia, but until then, here’s a quick guide to where I ate whilst there.
- The Piano Bar, Les Jardins de la Koutoubia Hotel. How lucky for us that one of the most recommended bars in Marrakech was right in our hotel! A cosy little place with a nightly live pianist accompanies some of your favourite cocktails and the local beer, Casablanca.
- Nomad Marrakech. Located in the ehart of the souks, this modern take on Moroccan cuisine is a total hidden gem. All your favourites like tagine and cous cous are on there alongside other North African dishes, and an experimental ice cream and sorbet menu will have you salivating.
- Pepe Nero. An Italian – Moroccan hybrid isn’t necessarily what you’d expect to find, but because of the mediterranean influences on Moroccan cuisine it really works. They’ve got a Moroccan and Italian menu, so you can mix and match from both!
- Kasbah Cafe. In the heart of Marrakech’s coolest neighbourhood lies the Kasbah Cafe, a busy bar but with a stunning rooftop terrace overlooking the Kasbah Mosque.
- Terasse Bakchich. A slightly more rustic affair located at the back of the souks you’ll find all types of traditional Moroccan cuisine, including the tangia which is very specific to Marrakech. It also has a rooftop terrace to escape the mayhem of the souks!
- Grand Balcon du Café Glacier. As mentioned above, this was a great place to watch the madness of the main square from whilst sipping on a traditional mint tea or coffee. An excellent spot for sunrise too!
Anxious about visiting Marrakech?
You are not alone – I was very anxious too! Hopefully this post has put to rest any fears you might have had about visiting Marrakech, but I wanted to add a few points specifically about the worries I had, and how I feel about them now I’ve returned.
- In terms of personal safety, I felt extremely safe here – more so than I do in some areas of my home city of London. It’s worth making sure that you keep your bags close by and your phone out of sight, but that is common sense in any busy city.
- It’s fair to say that as a blonde, white woman I stuck out – even at night. It was something I was particularly fearful about, because I had experienced being hassled in Egypt but in Marrakech the locals were very friendly. I did get “cat-called” – but in a far more respectful way than in the UK and it was done with affection and fun, if that makes sense. I got called Shakira plenty of times which is hilarious to me and had a few tongue in cheek marriage proposals but it was all part of the local patter.
- You can always say no, and this is generally very accepted. Whether that is in the souks or on the street you will be approached and if you are not interested you can give a firm, polite no and walk away.
- Some of the big hotels will have security outside which was unnerving, but again was nothing at all to worry about.
- If you do ask a local for help or directions, be prepared to pay. It’s worth keeping low denomination notes on you for this, as well as to pay people for taking their photograph. If you are asking for directions to a local attraction you are much better off going into a hotel or asking your own hotel. If you do approach someone on the street make sure you are very clear about where you want to go, so you don’t get taken to their uncle’s carpet shop for “the deal of the century”.
- In the main square, you’ll be approached a lot for henna and they will try and put henna on your hands to mark you so you have to pay. They are easy to spot, so keep your hands out of view and move on. If you are interested in henna, don’t get it done on the square – get it done in the Henna Cafe.
- Some restaurants will charge you to use the loo (especially around the main square), even if you’ve eaten there. They’ll have someone outside that will expect payment – keep some coins on you so you don’t get caught short!
Genuinely, tourism is the biggest part of the Marrakech economy, and much has been done over the last decade to make sure it is a safe and enjoyable place for travellers. If it feels like you are getting tricked or ripped off, you probably are – so trust your gut and politely walk away. A smile and an appreciation of their time goes a long way, but the whole time we were there, nothing when beyond a little cheeky banter – and it’s pretty fun to join in!
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