First, let’s get the spelling of this city out of the way. You’ll see it spelled either Marrakech (the French spelling) or Marrakesh (the English spelling) and both are correct. Marrakesh, an UNESCO heritage site, is known as the Red City. With a ten mile red wall surrounding the main center of the city, buildings plastered in red clay, and sunsets that seem to make the red city even more red, it’s easy to understand why.
Marrakesh is vibrant and exotic and a walk through the city square will have your head spinning as you take it all in. Here are 9 things to know about Marrakesh Morocco.
Things to know about Marrakesh Morocco: Jemaa el Fna
We had just spent 2 days in Fes and left early in the morning headed for Marrakesh. Fes had an old world feel. Very laid back and calm. Marrakesh was the total opposite. Although nearly 1000 years old, about 200 years younger than Fes, it has a more modern feel. The hotels are bigger, the streets are wider, and it’s main square of Jemaa el Fna is insane. In a good way. Do you want snake charmers? Check. Musicians and Dancers? Check. Henna Tattoo artists? They have them all. There is so much going on that you don’t know what to explore first.
The best time to arrive at Jemaa el Fna is right before it gets dark. Once the sun goes down, it gets really crazy. The place fills with vendors and food stalls. It’s wall to wall people and very loud with music coming from all directions. Walk around the food stalls and find an empty spot at a picnic table to eat with strangers, locals and other travelers. Do not forget to try a fresh fruit smoothie. They are the best.
Number two on our list of 9 things to know about Marrakesh Morocco is the street performers. As you walk through the marketplaces in Marrakesh, particularly the main square of Jemaa el Fna, you can expect to be lured in by snake charmers and dancers. The performers are everywhere. You can’t help but watch. It’s mesmerizing.
However, when you do stop to watch what’s happening around you, expect to be approached for money. Nothing is free. If your attention has been captured then surely you can hand over a few dirham for your entertainment. If you feel like giving some money, it’s perfectly fine. But you can also just wave your hand, say no thank you, and keep walking.
Shopping in the Medina
The best place to find Moroccan goods is in the medina, or souk. This is the marketplace in the older area of town behind Jemaa el Fna where the streets are narrow and the marjority of shops are. You can only walk this area. No cars allowed. You might see some donkeys but they are for transporting goods. So put your most comfortable shoes on and explore. Get lost in the alleys and stumble upon the unexpected.
Things to know about Marrakesh Morocco: Haggling
One of the most important things to know about Marrakesh Morocco is haggling. Haggling in Morocco is expected. It’s part of the game. You show interest in something and ask the price, they give you one. Usually the first price is high. They hope that you will actually pay that price. Now it’s time to haggle.
Offer less, maybe 1/3 of the initial price and go from there. This is the tradition. You’re not friends yet. You’re just getting to know each other. The seller will come back with a little bit of a lower price than they initially stated and you’ll go back and forth haggling until you agree on an acceptable price that you’re both happy with. Now you’re friends. You’re both happy and you get a priceless souvenir from Morocco.
Things to know about Marrakesh Morocco: Scams
Halfway through our list of 9 things to know about Marrakesh Morocco, and this is a big one: scams. Like most cities there will always be scammers. People prey on tourists because it’s so easy to for them to fall for the scam and the local makes off with a quick buck.
In Jemaa el Fna there are henna tattoo artists who walk around looking for people interested in getting a henna tattoo. These henna tattoos are temporary so if you decide to get one, it’ll come off in a few weeks. Our friend that we were with was walking through the square looking around at everything and a henna tattoo artist tried to mark her hand with ink. What’s the scam? Well, now they want money. You didn’t ask or want the tattoo but you got one. Thankfully she pulled her hand away before the tattoo artist could mark her hand.
Another scam is people who offer to show you how to get somewhere. You ask for directions to a shop or restaurant and the person you ask offers to take you there so you don’t get lost. Once there, they ask for money. Afterall, they provided a service and they expect to be paid for that service. So if someone offers to show you the way, just say no thank you unless you don’t mind paying. And even then, agree on a price beforehand.
Things to know about Marrakesh Morocco: Taxis
The taxi scam seems to be a very common in many cities, not just Marrakesh. You need to get somewhere, you hail a taxi, and when you arrive the price is really high. ALWAYS make sure the meter in the taxi is actually running. It’s common for drivers to not start the meter or to tell you it’s broke and then charge you a lot when you arrive. If the meter isn’t working or running then find another taxi.
Things to know about Marrakesh Morocco: Money
Always carry small bills and change in dirham. It’s common for a vendor or taxi driver to tell you they don’t have change when you go to pay. Of course this is so they make extra money. Even if it’s not much to you it all adds up for them if they do this dozens of times per day. Have small bills and change so you don’t lose money in your transactions. It all adds up. Also, some shops only accept cash so if you want to make a purchase, carry cash.
Things to know about Marrakesh Morocco: What to buy
Morocco is known for it’s handmade goods. Anything you could possibly want can be found in the medina. From leather bags, poufs, and jewelry to pottery, lamps, and baskets. And everything is organized by the type of goods. All the shops selling lamps will usually be grouped in the same area of the medina. Leather goods will be sold in one area, spices, in another.
Just keep walking (and get lost) down the alleys until you find what you’re looking for. And yes, haggle. Don’t show how much you love something or they will stick to their price. Be willing to walk away because it will probably get you a better deal. And if you didn’t get the price you want, you might find it somewhere else or you can always go back if it’s still on your mind.
Things to know about Marrakesh Morocco: Carpets
And finally, number nine on our list of 9 things to know about Marrakesh Morocco is about Moroccan Rugs. Moroccan rugs are one of the most coveted items for a visitor going to Morocco. Almost everyone visiting has their heart set on finding “the one”. And there’s no shortage of them. It’s sort of overwhelming. From really large to really small, there is a lot to chose from. Some shops are massive and there are thousands to choose from in just one shop. Once inside, you’ll be invited to sit down and you’ll be offered some mint tea. Mint tea is the unofficial national drink of Morocco. Take it. It’s really good!
Then they start laying rugs out in front of you, one on top of another until you find something you like. You find one that might be the one but you’re not sure so they go get more. Now that they have an idea of what you’re looking for they’ll bring more that are similar to that one until you find one you really like. Then the haggle starts. The price will start high but you need to come in low and you’ll eventually come to an agreement. They’ll wrap it up and if it’s really large they’ll offer to take it to your hotel for you so you don’t have to carry it around. Congratulations! You bought a rug.
Things to know about Marrakesh Morocco: Bonus Tips
Morocco is a conservative country so dress conservatively. Cover up. It’s okay to wear shorts or show your arms, but don’t wear short shorts or have really low cut shirts on.
Don’t expect to be able to buy alcohol everywhere. The hotels and some restaurants have it but you won’t find it at smaller cafes or at the food stalls in the square. So, if you do find a place that offers drinks, show some restraint and don’t get intoxicated. It’s not how they do things there and you don’t want to stand out. Not in that way.
Part of traveling is taking a lot of photos. However, do not just start taking photos of people. It’s fine if people are in your photos, like if you’re taking a photo of a building, but close-ups of people will be frowned upon by them unless they’ve given you permission. And even then, they will likely want payment. Be prepared to pay up. See the man in the photo below holding his hand out? I was pretty far away, zoomed in on the scene in front of me. I really didn’t even notice him. But he held his hand out wanting me to pay up for taking a photo. I didn’t pay.
Final thoughts on 9 things to know about Marrakesh Morocco
Marrakesh is a sensory overload. The sights, smells, and sounds will have you wondering which direction to go first. You can’t help but want to take it all in. At some point you’ll just want a break. When that time comes, just look up above Jemaa el Fna square. You’ll see cafes everywhere. Pick one to get away from the chaos and enjoy a glass of hot mint tea while you watch the action below you. And when you’re ready, jump back in.