Morocco – The Beauty (and the Bust)

We navigate through tightly packed market stalls that are peddling mile high piles of spices and brightly colored rugs in every hue. We squeeze out and enter into a sun soaked square with towering minarets projecting the distinct Adhan (the Islamic call to prayer). We pass dancing snake charmers and fruit merchants in a world that appears untouched in the last century. Welcome to the city of Marrakesh.

Marrakesh is one of those cities that draws in travel bloggers like a moth to a flame with it’s iconic culture and historically walled exterior. There are so many things to discover from it’s souks (markets), architecture, and flavor influenced foods. As traveler bloggers we want to be honest too – Morocco was one of our most difficult cultures to navigate. What you don’t see in beautiful photos is the intensity of some of the locals that hassle and hustle the visitors. With a bit of preplanning your trip to Morocco can be as dreamy as the photos – you just have to look after yourself and be strong minded.

Is Marrakech for you? Be wary of anyone approaching you on the street (including children). The city can be a confusing place to navigate and if you look lost, locals will likely try to help you and demand tips. Remember to keep your head high – confidence is key. A simple “no thank you” and continuing to walk should do the trick. If you can mentally handle people calling out at you (repeatedly), then there are many things that can be enjoyed in Marrakech. If this will bother you, we recommend skipping this city.

Here are the top things we recommend doing (and then things we recommend skipping)

Recommend doing:

1. Enjoying your Riad

A Riad is the Moroccan term for a guesthouse (often a restored traditional mansion) typically with two floors and a pool or fountain in the middle. These are a good base camp for your trip to Marrakesh – book one within the “Medina old town” so you’re close to everything.

In addition to finding one that looks nice (and with a/c if it’s the warm season), find a Riad that has the option of serving you breakfast or dinners. Here in the photo above we’re getting a served a dinner poolside, what a delight! After a long day in the sun – your quite Riad is a perfect retreat.

2. Visiting Ben Youssef Madrasa

This old Islamic college is now a cultural site where we found some of the most beautiful Moroccan architectural elements – bright tiles, tall curved archways, and unending chiseled detail. We recommend spending 1 hour slowing walking through the space and taking epic photos. (Tours are also available if you want a deeper dive.)

3. Take a Walking Tour

We took a walking tour with Marrakech by Locals and really enjoyed it. Our guide walked us through the labyrinthine of alleyways in the old town and the Bahia Palace. It was great to get some more historical context on these areas. We booked him in advance and would recommend doing the same so you don’t have to worry about finding someone in person (which can be stressful).

Other highlights on this tour was learning about the small neighborhoods that still cook bread in a large community oven room (drop off your dough and return later in the day), and also the irregular nesting stork population in the city.

4. Explore the Marche Epices Square

There are dozens of small squares in the old town, but our favorite was the Marche Epices. This square has several rooftop restaurants that look down onto a beautiful market draped with carpets for sale. We appreciated the cozy feel of all the shops here being so close together. Our top dinner spot in this square was called Nomad.

5. Tagine

Per usual, one of our favorite things about a country is trying their local cuisine. Morocco really impressed us and got a dish on our all time favorite list, the Tagine. Named after the dishware it’s cooked in (a flat base with tall cone lid that helps return steam back to the food), the Tagine is typically a meat dish that has absorbed the delicious flavors of the things it’s been cooked with.

Our favorite combo was chicken cooked with figs and oranges, with couscous on the side. The combination of salty and sweet in a meat dish is not super common in America and we loved it (we ended up ordering it daily for our whole visit)! Try different varieties when you’re there – our favorite place for Tagine was Limoni.

Note: Our 2nd favorite Moroccan dish was the Pastilla – a flaky pastry with chicken and cinnamon (surprisingly pairs very well together!)

Recommend skipping:

1. Jardin Majorelle (famous french gardens)

This is a landscaped garden created in the 1930s by a French artists. Can you take color rich photographs here? Yes. Is it worth the hassle of getting here from the old town, paying entry, and taking a half day of your vacation time? In our opinion, no. Make this stop if you’re really into the architecture or the artist, otherwise there are more interesting historical things to see.

2. Jemaa el-Fnaa Square

This is the largest square in the old town and attracts a majority of the tourists – therefore attracting a majority of the performers/peddlers. It’s worth a quick walk through (especially to see the tall Kasbah Mosque), but watch out for dancing snakes. If you stop to watch be prepared to tip and have a reptile or monkey potentially put on you.

3. Day Trip to Setti Fatima (seven waterfalls)

This was a humorous story looking back. We wanted to explore outside of Marrakesh and had heard about a day trip to Setti Fatima, a place with cascading natural waterfalls and hikes. We were directed to a small commuter van with a few people in it to make the 1.5 hour drive. As we traveled we slowly picked up more and more people to the point where there was close to 30 people in a standard size van (people were standing!). When we got there it was underwhelming. Our advice, day trip excursions likely won’t beat the city experience here, oh and avoid tightly packed vans.

Takeaway

Overall an enjoyable experience (for the Tagine alone!), but if you have limited time to travel and are wanting an authentic North African/Middle Eastern experience – we might recommend Istanbul, Turkey. There is more to do, and the city is overall more welcoming to visitors.