- How to prepare for the Marrakech Medina experience.
- The best area to stay in, restaurants, street food, and drinks.
- Things to do and see for an unforgettable trip.
Kim and I were dreading our visit to the Marrakech medina.
Friends told us it was one of their least favorite places in the world. They warned us of beggars and hagglers refusing to get out of your personal space, vendors trying to rip you off, and filthy streets and food making you physically and mentally ill.
But our experience turned out nothing like that.
Most Marrakshis were laid-back, good-natured, and friendly, our stomachs didn't suffer in the slightest, and getting lost was not only perfectly safe but encouraged.
We had a blast.
This Marrakech medina guide will help you do the same.
Marrakech Medina 101
The medina is Marrakech's old city. It's enclosed by 19-kilometers of pink walls built around 1122. Until just over 100 years ago, the whole city lived within these walls.
From above, the Marrakech medina resembles a human honeycomb. But instead of hexagonal honey cells, the medina is packed with square riads, traditional houses with peaceful inner courtyards. These riads are home to about 200,000 people, a fifth of the city's population. They also seem to host the same number of tourists.
The hive's epicenter is Jemaa el-Fnaa, the legendary square that buzzes at night with questionable food stalls and entertainers. Emanating from it are the souks, Morocco's largest, where handmade crafts, spices, and cheap souvenirs.
Beyond the souks, the streets settle down, and the medina starts to feel and smell not much different than it did centuries ago.
Set Yourself Up For Success
✓ Get picked up
First impressions matter, so having a friendly face welcome us at Marrakech Menara Airport and shuttle us in a comfortable van straight to our riad, where our host was waiting to welcome us with hot mint tea was easily worth the €15.
✓ Pick the right spot to stay
Stay in Bab Doukkala, a relaxed corner of the Marrakech medina within easy walking distance of busier souks, streets, and main sights. It's also close to attractions outside the medina like Gueliz and the Majorelle Gardens.
We picked our Airbnb with Yassine at Riad Tereza because of the great reviews and good value—both of which proved to be true.
✓ Consider a guide
If you're nervous or inexperienced at traveling in developing foreign countries, get a guide to show you the ropes, quell your doubts, and set the rest of your time in Marrakech off on the right foot.
To avoid scammy guides who'll lead you to hard-selling carpet stores, book a tour like this one through Airbnb experiences.
Prepare for the Marrakech Medina
✓ Practice the contented idiot
Here's my favorite technique for dealing with the occasional over-insistent haggler:
I looked at them with a dopey, happy, high-on-hash look, pretended not to understand any of the French/Spanish/English/German they tried on me, said nothing, and continued walking.
This left the souk sellers as confused as I looked. They quickly ignored me to focus on easier targets.
✓ Take a chill pill
Marrekchis are tough to faze. They wait patiently or lend a hand if a donkey cart is causing a traffic jam, they saunter instead of sprint even when jaywalking even the busiest streets, and they brush inadvertent shoulder bumps—a surprisingly rare occurrence—right off their other shoulder.
Take a chill pill and act the same way.
✓ Watch out for motorcycles
Our only real annoyance in the Marrakech medina was the motorcycles.
While they somehow avoid hitting anyone, they cause a lot of noise and consternation. We learned to stay right when walking to stay out of their way.
✓ Ditch the dictionary
We were impressed that everyone in the Marrakech medina speaks English as well as they do French. Well… not the French tourists, just the local Moroccans.
✓ Up in smoke
Prepare for cigarette smoking everywhere, including restaurants and most definitely, patios. And don't get your hopes up about smoking shisha/hooka because it's banned.
✓ Charge your pedometer
Get ready to walk. We did nearly 30,000 steps a day exploring the nooks and crannies of Marrakech's medina.
✓ Wear something reasonable
Quite a few young Marrakshi men wore t-shirts, shorts, and sandals, so I felt comfortable wearing the same. I refrained from wearing tank-tops, though, and wore a nicer shirt to the fancy hotels (see below).
Kim felt most comfortable covering her knees and shoulders at all times, which is how all but very few Marrakshi women dressed.
✓ Cash up
Withdraw dirhams from the ATM because credit cards won't help you much in the medina.
Or exchange. The best exchange rates we found, just 1% from the real rates, were at the Ali Hotel on Jemaa El Fnaa.
✓ Get a SIM
They only cost 30dh, then 10dh per gigabyte.
✓ Download digital maps
Download the Google map of the Marrakech medina for offline use (see our Google Maps guide).
Experience the Marrakech Medina
Our Favorite Things to Do
The evening we arrived, we chatted with an older American couple on our riad's rooftop. Despite their travel inexperience, they told us their favorite thing to do in the Marrakech medina was wander mapless for an hour or two until they were completely lost, then pull out their phones to find their way back.
It became our favorite thing to do, too.
We've never visited a more maze-like place than the Marrakech medina's tangle of tunnels, passageways, and hidden treasures down dead-end streets.
It's fun and safe for everyone.
Marrakech Medina Tip:
The best time to walk is during the twilight hours.
The streets are less busy, the colors are their deepest, and the mood is most movie-worthy. In less-touristy areas like Bab Doukkala, Kim described it as if we were on the set of Indiana Jones (or Team America?) and the director just yelled, "Action!" …But real.
Have a Hammam Experience
Rather than get a fancy, spa-like hammam, Kim and I went for a more authentic experience at historic Hammam Mouassine. We paid 150dh for a 45-minute hammam and scrub and 100dh for an extra 30-minute massage.
It was quite the experience…
While the guy we paid spoke English and French, the guy who scrubbed and rubbed me didn't. He was silent and diligent like an Unsullied from Game of Thrones. I had no clue what was going on.
First, he led me to a dark, hot room, lathered me up and motioned at me to lie on a yoga mat. After 15-minutes of wondering if he forgot about me, he rematerialized, scrubbed me everywhere except my privates, doused me, then guided me to another, not-as-hot room.
As I abided by his hand signals to lie down, sit up, and rollover, he gave me a massage, another scrub, and multiple more sporadic dousings of water.
Then he led me to a third room to dump extra-big buckets of hot then cold water on me before handing me a towel and returning me to reality, bewildered, soaked, and soft-skinned.
Kim's experience was similar, but a smoother. Figuratively smoother—her hammam lady was slightly more communicative. And literally smoother—hers somehow lasted 30 minutes longer, so she got even more scrubbed than me.
Marrakech Medina Hamman Tips:
- Hammam Mouassine's a good bet if you're traveling with people of the opposite sex because it has separate areas for males and females, so we could go at the same time. Most other hammams have different hours for females and males.
- Bring a swimsuit or change of underwear. I was fine in my underwear, but that meant I had to go commando the rest of the afternoon. The hammam provided sandals, a towel, and a bag for my wet undies.
- Consider a higher-end, spa-like hammam if you're put-off by the idea of lying face-down on a cement floor with just a well-worn mat for cushion as your neighbors' body hairs get splashed away beside you.
Even if you tried to avoid the Jemaa el-Fnaa vortex, it'll eventually suck you in.
Even Bill Clinton, who was visiting at the same time as us, passed through.
And even if there's a lot of shady business going on with the cobra charmers, storytellers, and monkey wranglers, the excitement and exoticness are worth experiencing.
House of Photography
They should call it the time travel museum.
Looking at the earliest photos captured by outsiders who'd ventured into Morocco starting around 1880 made us appreciate how exciting it must have felt to set foot in such a foreign land back then.
Then, once we were ready to return to the present, we appreciated being able to ease the transition by hanging out and drinking lemon-mint waters on the relaxing rooftop cafe.
Lap of Luxury
Two of the world's most prestigious hotels, La Mamounia and the Royal Mansour, are located inside the Marrakech medina's walls and are open to visitors.
La Mamounia's gardens are nicer for strolling and the cafe and ice cream make it better for snacking, but the inside's overpriced designer shops made it feel too much like an airport terminal.
The Royal Mansour's architecture impressed us more, as did the friendly and impeccable-English speaking staff, who didn't seem to mind our intrusion.
- La Mamounia only opens to "non-residents" Monday to Friday after 11 a.m.
- Wear reasonably nice clothes or else the guards may not let you in.
- Watch Amazing Hotels: Life Beyond the Lobby's episode on the Royal Mansour to fully appreciate how over-the-top everything at this Morocco-royalty-owned hotel is.
Beyond the Wall
We enjoyed a day getting a sense of what middle and upper-middle-class life in Marrakech is like by exploring Gueliz and Hivernage outside the medina and grabbing a meal at Amal (more below).
It was nice to not have motorcycles riding behind us for a few hours, too.
Other Popular Things to Do
Kim went early to beat the crowds. And she did! She got to the gardens ten minutes before they open at 8 a.m. and was third in line.
Then hundreds poured in behind her.
She tried to act fast to get some photos without people, but she wasn't fast enough. All she got was an impromptu photography lesson from a Chinese tourist who spoke no English and never ended up sending her the photos they took together.
Instead, she spent close to two hours wandering, enjoying the people-watching as much as the gardens themselves, and sipping on mediocre overpriced coffee at the café.
The Secret Garden (50dh), Cyber Park (free), and Koutoubia Gardens (free) offer a fresh green contrast to the Red City.
The Marrakech medina's souks are full of a lot of junk, but you can also find plenty of hand-crafted treasures like leather bags, woven baskets, and of course carpets.
If you too pack light but want an authentic souvenir, consider Anou.
Kim connected with them while researching a potential Marrakech retreat. They're a Moroccan owned and operated cooperative that bridges the gap between local artisans and foreign buyers. You can purchase online and see exactly where and by whom, your product is made.
Walking towards the entrance of Bahia Palace felt like we were in a salmon run of tourists, so we turned around before going in, even though this enjoyable post on what not to do in Marrakech said it's worth it.
We skipped the ruins of El Badi Palace for similar reasons (plus the 70dh entry fee seemed overpriced) and the Royal Palace isn't open to the public.
Ben Youssef Madrasa
Architecturally-interesting former Koranic school. Closed until sometime in 2020.
Food and Drink
The Moroccan cuisine in Marrakech we experienced was ok, but not outstanding.
Unless we went high-end, most restaurants offered the same dishes, so we ate a lot of basic tagines, couscous, and khobz bread. And the so-called "French" pastries were far from what you'd taste in France.
Fresh fruit juices and vegetarian food were readily available. Good coffee and alcohol were not.
Two quick tips:
- Tip 10% at any café or sit down restaurant.
- Tap water. Trust your gut on whether or not it can handle it. Kim and I drank it to no ill effect. Others had a shitty time from doing the same.
The breakfast version of Magic Bread. Ten dirhams for a flavorful and filling khobz bread stuffed with egg, potato, olive, cheese, and spice.
Rahba Kedima Bessara Soup
Kim learned the hard way not to expect much to be open in the mornings in the Marrakech medina for breakfast.
But everything worked out, in the end, thanks to a recommendation from a staffer at Café des Epices, which "ran out" of coffee, to get a breakfast bessara soup from the guy at the entrance to the Place des Epices.
The hearty 5dh soup made with fava beans, drizzled with olive oil, and served with traditional bread was enough to tide Kim over until she found coffee.
I was hungry, so when I saw a lineup similarly hungry-looking Marrakshis waiting by a guy frying various parts of various meats and spices then sliding them into round khobz bread I joined them.
The guy in front of me applauded my choice. Hs was a regular. I asked him what the food was called. He said, "Magic bread."
I paid 12dh for a deluxe version with cheese and a fried egg. It was magic.
And, magically, it didn't get me sick.
Speaking of magic, the backstreet walking route Google maps gives you between Jemaa El Fnaa to Ph Khoutoubia, which is en route to Magic Bread, was extra magical in the evening.
Coffee, Juice, and Snacks
This classic Moroccan drink is served from dawn 'till dusk. It's made with dried green tea leaves, and fresh mint is added upon serving (so yes, there's caffeine).
It's fun to watch how the locals pour and prepare theirs. They pour it from up high into their small glasses, often dump it back into the pot and repeat, then heap almost enough sugar on top to turn it to jam.
Why pour the tea from so high?
Apparently, the Berber people started this tradition in the desert because the thick foam layer floats up the sand and other particles you don't want to dink so you can scrape it off and drink the tea.
Now it's said to be a sign of respect. The higher the pour, the higher the respect. Supposedly, the king's servants pour his tea from the top of ladders.
Milk + avocado + dates or nuts if desired = the best!
Look for "jus d'avocat" on any menu. They cost anywhere from 5 to 20 dirham and are worth it every time.
An extravagantly decorated café inside of the extravagant Dar El Bacha Palace.
They serve extravagant coffee from something like eighty different countries (they even have the Indonesian civet poop coffee), at extravagant prices (minimum 40dh a cup).
Ice Cream at the Mamounia
By the gazebo in Marrakech's most prestigious hotel's gardens, you can get ice cream for a reasonable (relative to the prices of everything else there) 30dh.
Snack Grand Atlas
Run by really friendly staff from Essaouira and specializing in seafood dishes for pocket-friendly prices. It's one hundred meters south of Jamaa El Fnaa.
The Kasbah is one of Marrakech medina's most relaxing neighborhoods to stroll through and Café Clock is the most relaxing spot there.
Enjoy some coffee, avocado juice, or a camel burger (big enough to share if you're not too hungry) from their upstairs open-air eating area.
Amal Women's Training Center
A great excuse to get outside of the Marrakech medina.
Everything on the limited, daily-changing menu is carefully prepared (though hit and miss) and served with charm. If they happen to have beef with rice and dried fruit on the menu (60dh), get it.
Make a reservation before going because it gets busy, then take a taxi there for 20dh max. Fill up, then walk back through the Guéliz neighborhood for a look at a different, more modern Marrakech.
A higher-end Lebanese-Moroccan restaurant. The Fatet Batinjan, a Christmas log-like hunk of ground beef with tomato, "yogurt sauce," and fried pita pieces on top (99dh) was the best thing we ate in Marrakech.