A one-size fits all approach to travel in general doesn’t work and it definitely doesn’t work in Marrakech. It can be a very challenging place to navigate for some people who have never experienced the culture before. Doing tons of research is very important before visiting Marrakech because not everyone has the same experience when they travel here. Some people have great experiences and some don’t. I felt the energy of the medina from the very first time that I visited and even though I hadn’t done a lot of research before coming, I travel with an open mind and open heart. Travel doesn’t scare me. Very often we, as women, travel afraid and it’s very unfortunate because there are so many good people in this world. We miss out on a lot of beautiful experiences when we travel afraid. You have to be a confident traveler no matter where you’re going, trust yourself and your abilities.
After spending a fair amount of time in Marrakech I have a much better understanding of how to navigate the city, in terms of knowing what to expect when walking around in the different areas of the Medina. Here are a few things you should know.
Jemaa el Fna Square and the Medina
Marrakech is an interesting city full of history, arts, crafts, food and of course, people. The people of Marrakech are from every part of the country and bring their own traditions, cultures and values with them. There are many expats in the city as well, bringing with them their own personal experiences. Marrakech is a melting pot and this is one of the reasons I love this city, the mixture of the old and the new.
If you’re spending any amount of time in Marrakech you’ll be visiting Jemma el Fna square, the souqs and exploring the derbs (small streets) of the medina. These places are normally very busy in general and extremely busy during peak travel season. They have a pulse, a heartbeat….they’re definitely alive with activity. It’s loud, busy and full of tourists…local and foreign alike. It’s an assault on the senses and if you’re not prepared it can be more than overwhelming because of the crowds, music, monkeys on chains, snake charmers, juice vendors, motorbikes, donkey carts, women trying to put “henna” on you and someone trying to sell you something with every step. The new part of the city, Gueliz, has all of the malls, bigger restaurants, clubs, etc. that some people look for. But the charm and history of the city lies within the Medina in the people, architecture, riads, palaces, museums, art galleries, souqs, gardens. It’s a good idea to see both if you have the time.
This is what’s so beautiful about the square and the medina, the chaos. There’s never a dull moment. The energy and life that you feel is magical. You have to take it all in, walk through the streets of the medina, listen to the sounds, watch as people weave in and out of among each other, tourists and locals alike. Or sit on the terrace of a cafe overlooking the square and just take it all in. Obviously, not everyone will feel this way, it can be very overwhelming for people who have not experienced anything like it before. It can feel very touristy, but you have to be willing to experience it.
Jemaa el Fna square is much calmer during the day than at night. At night the size of the crowds swell to bursting with locals and tourists alike. This is when you get to see the essence of why it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site for the intangible, a fact that is lost on most people. If you move away from the food stalls you can see people standing in circles around storytellers, performers, dancers and musicians. They’re likely to be speaking or singing in Darija so you won’t be able to understand them, but I’ve joined the crowd just to listen and watch the reactions from the crowd. It’s very interesting to see. During the day among the juice stalls in the square you’ll find vendors selling soaps, oils, incense, tiny tagines, and other souvenirs. Around the square there are numerous options for restaurants, cafes and the entrances into the souqs. The souqs have several entrances that radiate from Jemma el Fna into a labyrinth of twists and turn that will most certainly get you lost among the shops. Shoes, poufs, pillows, carpets, clothes, sweets, olives, soaps, wooden chess sets….the list goes on and on. Getting lost in the souks is guaranteed, but eventually you will find your way out if you follow the signs that lead back to the square.
The derbs of the Medina are also a maze of twists and turns that take you through out the old city. It’s filled with private homes, riads, spas, palaces, museums, shoe shops, hanuts (small neighborhood stores) and souvenir shops. Walking through the Medina will give you a glimpse into how life was in Marrakech a century ago. There are still remnants of traditions every where you look. Once you venture away from the main tourist areas and into other neighborhoods you can get a better idea of how people go about their daily lives, children playing or coming home from school, taking bread to the baker or just chatting with their neighbors. You will almost certainly get lost in the twists and turns, but it’s normal. Most of the maps apps on your phone are very helpful with helping you find your way back to the main square.
What to Wear
Morocco is a very tolerant, open, friendly, beautiful country with very kind people, but it is a Muslim country at the end of the day and it’s very disrespectful for people to wear short, revealing clothes. It contributes to the perception that some locals have about tourists, that tourists really don’t care about the locals or respect their culture/religion. I’ve seen women and girls walking around in some of the shortest shorts and skirts that they wear in their own country. It’s not ok. Period. Even if you know other people who have done it, you should respect the culture.
When walking around the medina, souqs and square you will be approached by someone with almost every step telling you to stop in their shop and buy something. If you’re not interested, just continue to walk by. If you are interested, be prepared to bargain. But don’t expect to buy beautiful handmade things for nothing. I’ve known people who have come to Marrakech expecting just that, to buy the best handmade pillows, for example, for 5 euros, when the lowest fair price is 15 euros.…it’s insulting. Take half off the price they give you and go up from there. Give a fair price for what you want to buy.
If someone tries to show you where something is, help you with your luggage, show you where you riad is, a museum or palace for instance, and you let them, expect them to ask you for a tip. You’re not obligated to do so, but they will try to intimidate you into giving it to them. To avoid this, just say no thanks or ignore them and keep walking. Guides in Morocco have to be licensed and it’s an arrestable offense for someone to guide you without a license. Likewise, if someone says that a particular exhibit or palace is closed it’s likely not closed, so don’t listen to them. The only major monument that is closed long term (as of the date of this post) is Ben Youssef Madrasa.
When walking through the square be on the look out for the Henna artists, they can be a bit aggressive and grab your arm to apply “henna” for free. They will then ask for a ridiculous amount of money as a “tip”. Also, the black liquid they are using isn’t real henna. Natural henna isn’t black, it’s brownish green and it stains dark orange after it’s applied. If you have sensitive skin or are allergic to chemicals in any way you might have an adverse reaction, so it’s best to avoid that.
Be mindful when taking pictures, don’t take pictures of someone’s face without their permission. It will be a problem for you if they see you taking pictures of them without asking, simply ask if you can take a picture. If they say yes, they may want money. If they say no, just say,”ok, thank you.” and keep walking. Respecting the local culture anywhere that you travel is important, but it’s especially sensitive in African and Arab cultures because privacy is vital to them.
The most important thing about traveling to Morocco in general and Marrakech specifically, is to visit because you want to experience the culture, not because it’s the trendy thing to do. People who travel here have very different experiences depending on how they do it. Enjoy the people, music, food and respect the culture…you’ll have a much better experience! If you’re looking to join a great tour, click here to see my options.