In 2014, B and I made our first foray into Africa. We took a tour of Morocco called ‘Kasbahs and Deserts,’ which included several days in the city of Marrakech. Even though it was about 20 degrees warmer than usual (it was in the hundred-teens, ~115!), we enjoyed our time there. If you are lucky enough to visit this strange, hot and enchanting place, make sure to make time for these five experiences in Marrakech.
This one is first on the list because after five years, it is the thing that I remember the most vividly from the trip. A hammam is essentially a steam room. There are many different variations. We researched a little online and found a place that seemed like a good fit for us. (Read: allowed our little modest hearts to have a private room.) We visited Les Bains de Marrakech and after throwing modesty out the window, we sweated our brains out in an oven built for two. See this post for the dirty details.
The hammam is a traditional part of the Moroccan culture and shouldn’t be missed. Our place was definitely more upscale and catered to tourists like us, but if you wanted a more authentic experience you could find it. I remember how sad I was leaving Budapest without having taken a Turkish bath. Don’t let this happen to you! A hammam is a must-do experience in Marrakech.
A souk is an Arabic market. There are lots of these all around Marrakech and if you were refined (I’m not) I’m sure you’d be able to distinguish them from one another. As it was, it felt like everywhere we turned we ended up in another souk. Merchants sold a wide variety of things, some mundane, but some things we’d never see back in Idaho, like colorful exotic flowers and piles of aromatic spices.
Now, I am a terrible haggler and get super uncomfortable in places when people are trying to sell me something. In another part of Morocco, I’m pretty sure I bartered the price up! The gentleman told me he wanted me to meet his family, so I probably paid for groceries for a month with my purchases. Shrug. The souks in Marrakech were pretty overwhelming to me and I found myself power walking through without making eye contact with anyone. I did really enjoy finding a spot to just stop and look at all the activity and hustle and bustle.
If you are into shopping, the souks are the place for you. You can find all sorts of treasures and interact with the locals. But even if you are introverted like me, you should still add a souk to your to do list in Marrakech. It is worth it to see/smell/feel the excitement and activity.
A tagine is essentially a Moroccon crock pot. It is made of two pieces: a circular bottom that is like a pie dish and a cone that goes on top. To cook something, you put it in the tagine and put the tagine on a heating source. Moisture evaporates, but because of the cone shape it stays inside the tagine so food stays juicy.
Like you, we had heard Morrocan food is tasty. We knew we had to add a tagine-cooked meal to our list of experiences in Marrakech.
Online, we found a place in the medina (the old town equivalent of Marrakech) that had good recommendations. Then, we miraculously found the place in the medina. It is miraculous because there are so many little alleyways and narrow roads that it was a challenge not to get lost. Anyway, we were so happy when we climbed the stairs of this little restaurant and found ourselves on a roof-top terrace. There were even little water misters–remember the 115 degree heat? We ordered tagine meals and ate overlooking all the brown adobe-like buildings. It was lovely.
And speaking of the little alleyways…wandering through this area was really cool. On our first day we left our hotel and just started walking towards the Medina. We eventually came upon a walled area with a dark opening where you can walk from a busy main road into a different world. This area turned out to be the Medina and the gate turned out to be the famous Bab Agnaou. This gate is black in color and has intricate designs and carvings. The area inside the Medina reminds me of what the city in Aladdin looked like. Yep, I know this is the wrong part of the world (and a cartoon), but that’s what it felt like.
One of the main squares in Marrakech, Jemaa el-Fna, was a lot to take in. We got there right at dusk, when the people came out to party. The square is quite large and while we walked around we saw lots of little clusters of locals watching different things, like some boys boxing, a contortionist and dancers. Interspersed through all of this were women fortune tellers and henna artists and men charming cobras and other snakes. B had a snake thrust into her hands and we were yelled at when they didn’t think we paid enough money for taking a picture.
After a few days of wandering this area of Marrakech, we would still get just as lost as we did on the first day. It is super disconcerting as the walkways are narrow and all the buildings look the same (brown). We would eventually wind our way down to some landmark that we recognized and could point ourselves in the general direction we wanted to go. Come to think of it, if I ever get back to Marrakech I’m going to use the compass app on my phone. That would have really saved us some time!
During one afternoon, our tour group took a tour of the Medina to look at the famous sites. I loved this! Our tour guide, Rashid, was an absolute gem and was very knowledgeable about the history of the city. I have mixed feelings about tours, but I’m very glad we took one in Morocco because I would have missed out on a lot of the history and culture if Rashid hadn’t been there to explain it. Here are three of our stops along the tour.
These tombs were from around the 1600s. The Saadians were the ruling family and they buried their dead in the ground but instead of dirt or grass covering the area, there are intricate and colorful mosaics. There are also some nice architectural features, like carved wood and marble monuments. But the blues and greens of the little tiles really caught my attention.
The Koutobia mosque is the largest in Marrakech. (And a very handy landmark you can see from far away.) It was built in the 1100s and is super pretty at night time as they have big floodlights to show it off. Rashid pointed out certain flags that helped people remember that the Sabbath was coming soon and they needed to get ready. I often forget what day of the week it is, so this practice made sense to me.
In the 1800s the grand vizier of the Sultan built this palace. It is laid out in four squares, one square for each of his wives. I could really appreciate the craftsmanship of this place. The walls were super thick, which was an effective way of battling the crazy heat in Morocco. It felt a good 30 degrees cooler as we walked through the palace, even though it was open air and had no air conditioning.
Marrakech was a vivid, crazy introduction to Morocco. There is so much to see, smell, buy and try that you could spend weeks here and not scratch the surface. If you don’t have weeks, you need to at least make sure to try out the five experiences in Marrakech listed above.