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What to do and see when spending a few days in Marrakech.
We’ve been designing travel experiences around Morocco since 2008, from our offices in Marrakech. With the rise in numbers of online ‘ lifestyle travel designers’ with ‘expert advice’ on Marrakech, we needed to sift the wheat from the chaff and compile our own list of essential things to do and see in Marrakech. After all, your holidays don't last forever and you want to make the best out of them.
Some of the things to do in Marrakech below are rather popular and some of them just hidden gems. In general, you should try and spend at least 2 full days in Marrakech if on a private tour of Morocco. Some of the experiences below were not available a few years ago. Some of them have always been but presently, it’s more about the how than the what.
MEDINA'S FOOD CIRCUIT AND COOKING CLASS
If you wish to tour the medina of Marrakech in a different way than with a traditional local guide this one is worth considering. On one hand, you get your bearings as your guide will point out Jemaa El Fna square, the souks, the Place des Epices and other such landmarks of the medina. On the other hand, you will familiarize with the locals, fetching bread from the local farnatchi or bargaining for vegetables at the local market. Better still, cook a traditional Moroccan dish, whether it will be a tagine, rfifa, couscous or pastilla. The experience is personal as groups rarely exceed 10- 12 persons and everyone gets personal attention. Gemma, the organizer, has lived in Marrakech for 10 years, speaks Moroccan, English and French and is a well of information on such disparate topics as the social importance of couscous or permaculture in Morocco.
Start by meeting Gemma in front of Cafe de France at 10 AM. She will take you around the medina and uncover for you each component of the food circuit inside the old town: the mechoui lamb ovens, the preserved vegetables, the farnatchi stove, the herbs and spices shop, the local butcher and finally the souika market where you will bargain for matisha, bsla and btata. Your guide will also point out the different sites and monuments of Marrakech on the way. Then, in the shade of a traditional riad, you will be assisted by 2 dadas in cooking your tagine. If you're not crazy about cooking, you can sip a glass of wine, watch the others at work and have a tasty lunch. Later, enjoy the rest of the afternoon on your own, browsing the souks of Marrakech or relaxing back at your riad. More details to be found here. From 50 euros per person.
Best done on your first day in Marrakech, all year round except July, August, Ramadan and Aid El Kebir holidays.
Less than one hour drive from Marrakech lies the stony Agafay desert. Nothing grows here. There are no birds, no sign of animal life. Far away on the horizon lay the snows of the High Atlas range, but in between, there seems to be nothing but dead hills indescribably bleak, more frozen in their ashen yellow than if they had been covered in rime. Occasionally, a herd of goats and shepherd spatter the horizon, on their way from their hamlet to the next oasis. The occasional camel waiting by the dusty road. One or two camps have pitched their white canvas tents between the stone dunes. In places, the same solitude and majesty reigning over the Sahara. The open panoramas lined by the High Atlas ridges in the background make it a great alternative to the Sahara for those too short on time to make the 9 hour- drive trip each way.
You can navigate the Agafay desert by mountain
bike, camel, horseor 4x4 but our favorite has to be in the seat of a buggy car. The adrenaline rises while the landscape changes continously as you drive past isolated Berber dwellings, abandoned pens, Eucalyptus forests, lunar rock formations and inside dry river beds and oases. The team will collect you at your riad / hotel in Marrakech after breakfast and take you to Tamesloht, a village famous for its 15th century, 30 minute drive south of Marrakech. There, you will get introduced to the different vehicles and security measures before rolling off in a dust cloud.
The ride takes about two hours and throws at you all types of terrains, from making your way in and out of a trench to stretches where you can take full advantage of the powerful engine. The ride is sometimes windy, as you navigate sandy river beds or donkey tracks under the eucalyptus. The front vehicle will guide you and ensure safety at all times, while stopping regularly for photos at chosen vantage points. You will also be invited to visit a local family and have tea with them. Later, trod across the stony desert on the back of a camel. Finish the day with a tasty meal in one of the local farms and return to Marrakech in the afternoon. Click here for a video of the ride. From 200 euros per person.
Best done on your second or third day in Marrakech, all year round, except July and August.
HOT AIR BALLOON FLIGHT
Ideally, you’ll need perfectly clear sky to enjoy this Marrakech attraction, conditions which are more likely to happen outside the warm season. Then you can really take in all the majesty of the snowy peaks of the High Atlas range and the adobe hamlets scattered throughout the palm trees on the edge of the city.
The journey starts quite early as you are being collected by a 4x4 from your Riad/ hotel in Marrakech at around 5 AM. Once arrived at the flight area you will be served a coffee or tea and witness the rather spectacular setting up of the balloon. The pilot turns on the burners which heat up the air inside. A huge tongue of fire makes the beast slowly stand up... The last tests are being performed and then the passengers can come on board : the preparations are finished.
Finally, the order is given by the pilot: " RELEASE ALL ! " Everyone is holding their breath. The moment is magical as the journey begins. This delightful sensation of floating in the Moroccan sky, suspended inside a hot air balloon soon replaces the initial surprise of the vertical takeoff. The brown adobe villages below contrast with the lush green of the palm groves and other olive orchards, while in the distance the High Atlas culminating at 4200 meters high, glittering its snow mantles far away to the south. One hour later, it is time to think about the landing. The pilot chooses a flat area and starts the approach after having explained to the passengers what to do upon making contact with the ground. After being picked up in a 4x4, you are driven to a Berber tent where you’ll be served mint tea and breakfast while the pilot delivers you a flight certificate. You will be delivered back at your riad/ hotel by 11- 12. From 200 euros per person.
Tip: A Royal Flight would grant you an exclusive private flight for you and your dear one, if you’re looking to romantically surprise your other half, either on your honeymoon in Morocco or as a perfect setting to propose. This also entitles you to: roundtrip in a private and luxury 4x4 from your hotel to the taking- off area, welcome Moroccan tea, free Wi-Fi on board and gourmet breakfast prepared specially by a Pastry Chef composed of fresh champagne, pressed orange juice, fresh fruits selection, coffee and tea served by a steward or hostess sitting at table in the sky. From 550 euros per person.
Best done on your second or third day in Marrakech, all year round, except June, July, August and September. Check weather conditions the day before to be guaranteed clear skies.
TREK IN THE HIGH ATLAS MOUNTAINS
The base for the ascension to Mount Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa is the village of Imlil, at 1700 meters high, only one hour and a half drive from Marrakech. Now, perhaps you are not fit enough to climb all the way to its 4200 meters high ( the hike takes 3 days from Imlil and back) but worry not: there are some great alternative treks available from Imlil and your local English speaking guide will adapt to whatever your level of fitness may be. The surroundings of Imlil are a true earthly heaven and orchards of cashew nuts, cherries, raspberries, elderberries, apples and figue trees supply the local Berber market in Asni on Saturdays. The local waterfalls, half hour walk from the village, in the shade of the nut- trees, past Kasbah Toubkal, are also a highlight. After a good trek, treat yourself to a tasty lunch and incredible views at the local Douar Samra chalet or the more posh Kasbah Tamadot. Our favorite thing to do though is by far lunch inside a Berber home and seeing how the locals live.
HOW ABOUT WATERFALLS AT 2500 METERS ALTITUDE ?
For those fit enough and willing to go totally off the beaten track, the more strenuous trek to the Roulidane waterfalls is worth every stretch. Even in October, after the long hot summer, you will spot patches of snow on the plateau dominating the falls. The walk is long and you will need to stop and catch your breath plenty, but you are rewarded with breath- taking views, lost-in-time adobe villages, remote sheep folds and terraced gardens. The few locals you will cross on your way will invite you for tea. Then, have lunch in a Berber home: a steamy tagine and freshly baked tafernoute bread while overlooking the peaceful valley. On the way back, we can choose to return the same way or draw a loop to join the Asni- Imlil route and be picked up by your driver. Return to Marrakech in the evening. Tip: trekking equipment including ski sticks and boots can be rented locally. From 65 euros per person, excluding guide and lunch.
Best done on second or third day in Marrakech, all year round.
Marrakech is resplendent with gardens, resembling much its sister city on the other side of the Mediterranean, Seville. Menara and Agdal are two of the vastest ones, built by former dynasties around large basins of water, meant to drain the waters of the High Atlas mountains and distribute it to the medina. Yves Saint Laurent’s Majorelle Garden is perhaps the most popular, especially since 2017 has seen the addition of a museum dedicated to the fashion designer. However, Majorelle is rather tiny and thus gets hugely crowded most of the day ( try visiting them early in the morning, before the tourist crowds and buses take over).
Our favorite gardens in Marrakech though, belong to a hotel, La Mamounia. The story of the Mamounia begins in the 18th century with the Alaouite Sultan, who used to offer a domain as a wedding gift to each of his sons and thus Arsat Al Mamoun inspired the name of a hotel. Two centuries later, the hotel and its 8 hectars ( 20 acres) of magnificent gardens opens its doors and soon achieves international fame. Throughout the years, the hotel was never able to accommodate all the customers who desired to lodge here. Before the Second World War, Europeans and Americans were bringing their furniture for their long stays. Winston Churchill, a regular at the hotel, told Franklin Roosevelt about Marrakech in 1943: "This is one of the most beautiful places in the world". The Rolling Stones stayed in 1968. Other guests included Jean Paul Gaulthier, Nelson Mandela, the Kennedies, Tom Cruise or Elton John. Nowadays, tt goes a long way to imagine a more romantic site in Marrakech than these gardens when the afternoon turns to dusk, here, among the hundreds of well- manicured olive, lemon, pine and orange trees. In a way, being here, is like you have suddenly been sucked out from the white noise of the neighboring medina and its traffic madness and landed into an oasis without leaving the city. Even the nearby Jemaa El Fna and its permanent tumult seem but a far away memory.
Tip: Naturally, the gardens are not open to public, but you can ask at the entrance for the terrace and for a beverage ( a coffee would cost you a 70 dirhams / 7 euros) on the terrace, you are free to roam around its romantic gardens.
Important: please note the hotel has a strict dress code and sandals, flip- flops, shorts and mini skirts are not allowed.
Best time of year: all year round except high season ( Easter and New Year’s Holidays).
JEMAA EL FNA SQUARE
Perhaps the most popular thing to do in Marrakech, Jemaa El Fna open- air market is the heart of the city. Undoubtedly touristy and flooded during the day with international tourists on their way in and out of the neighboring souks, it is still... unmissable. After dark the lingering crowds in the square are mostly composed of Marrakech locals, who come looking for entertainment and eating out at one of the hundreds of food- stalls late into the night.
The Jemaa al-Fna is limited only by the streets and buildings that surround it and the market square has been used as a public gathering place since the twelfth century, when Marrakech became a lively international capital under the rule of the Almohad dynasty (1130-1269).The square provides the setting for a huge repertory of spectacles: telling tales, playing music, achieving trances, snake charming, showing monkeys, selling herbs, street preaching, performing acrobatics, magic, fortune telling or reading cards, to name a few.
Several possible explanations are given for the origin of the name of the square. The word jama', or djemma, is an Arabic term meaning "gathering" or "assembly," sometimes carrying the more religious connotation "mosque." The word fna means "nothing" or "end." The interpretation of Jama' al-Fna as "the mosque that came to nothing" refers to an unbuilt mosque that was planned for the site by Sa'di Sharif Ahmad al-Mansur (reg. 1578-1603) but was never erected. Jama' al-Fna was listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985 as a part of the "Medina of Marrakesh" site. It was almost terraced by the local authorities in 1990’s to make place for a building project and was later rescued by an appeal made by Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo, a local resident, to the UNESCO who then declared it Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Tip: The best time of day to capture the ambiance ( and the best photos) is at sunset. Get up on one of the roof terraces next to Cafe de France and have a mint tea while witnessing how the food stalls are set up and the whole square appears to wake up among the hawking of the sellers, the call to prayer and the fumes rising in the air above it. Then, get right in the middle of it and nibble on local street food from the stalls and stay on to watch the local entertainment.
Do you want to eat where locals eat and taste dishes you typically won’t enjoy in a riad ? Tuck in to a slow-cooked tanjia prepared with preserved lemons and spices and cooked underground. Slurp harira with a side of sweet treat chebakya at a locals-only soup stand. Don’t miss out on some of the best zaalouk in the square, best paired with fresh calamari while watching the world go by from one of the busiest food stalls. In between take in a belly dancing show, some storytelling and perhaps an astrological reading or test your patience alongside locals young and old fishing for a cola. Along the way, your hostess will share her tips to Marrakech including where to dine for a special occasion and of course, where to shop. At the end of the night with bellies full, guests are accompanied to their riad. From 80 euros per person.
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Recommended not only to those that are fond of cooking or exotic cuisine but also as one of the best introductions to Marrakech and its old city's way of life, in a city where local reliable guides are getting harder to come by. An excellent alternative to a day trip outside Marrakech, this is escaping the city while never leaving it. You will interact with the locals, get your bearings and learn to navigate the old city’s streets. Prepare a tasty tagine, take the dessert to the local farnatchi ( oven) and learn how to find the real saffron, among other things. The experience is personal as groups rarely exceed 10- 12 persons and everyone gets to ask all the questions he/she wants. Gemma, the organizer, has lived in Morocco for 8 years, speaks Moroccan, English and French and is a well of information on such different topics as how to get rid of the djinns ( spirits) in your kitchen, the social importance of couscous or ecological agriculture in Morocco.
|At 10 AM we were met by Gemma in front of Café de France, on Jemaa El Fna. Gemma is Dutch, has lived in the Medina for the last 8 years and speaks some Moroccan, apart from French, English and Dutch. The participants that day were: a Dutch couple, a Canadian lady, a teacher from England and her daughter and myself. We were then split into pairs and given each pair a shopping list, money and a shopping bag. And off we went, into the souks…|
|First stop was a little square just behind Jemaa El Fna. There, among food stalls and other sellers, the underground oven where the mechoui is stewed- it appears up to 40 lambs can be fitted inside the rather small looking oven. Shortly after we reached the olives and preserved vegetables section, where we purchased the tastiest black olives and preserved lemons. A few shops away, we got to see the different types of smmen (sort of local butter used mostly with preparing couscous but also preserving chicken). From|
|there we followed Gemma through the souks and down Semmarine to arrive on Place des Epices. Turned right and a crowded passage gave way to the old slave market where witchcraft accessories hang in front of shops, alongside skins of most exotic animals. After a few failed attempts at purchasing a kaftan (anyone sees the connection with the cooking here ?) , we got back to the spice market and into a herbalist shop. It took quite a while to be explained the virtues, names and |
|colors of most spices and herbs around the shop ( and the world). Some of us got to smell and in some cases, taste them. We also got to know the difference between authentic and fake saffron. We learnt that nigella can cure almost any cold and fenugreek gives appetite. That is if anyone could lack an appetite while in Morocco… We bought the necessary amount of cumin, ginger, curcuma, paprika and cinnamon for our lunch. And then some. Always lingering on the edge of the souks|
and past the carpet market, we made our way into the local fruit and vegetable market, a small square probably busier than the Jemaa El Fna itself. After some careful planning, we got our necessary of potatoes, tomatoes, courgettes, carrots and aubergines. Talk about farm- to- table...
Next stop, the local bread oven. ‘Bread’ doesn’t quite define it. Tangias make their way in quite regularly. Cookies, biscuits and other pastries as well. Most of the time though, the children drop the bread loafs of every family early in the morning on their way to school. Then they collect it at lunch time on their way home. At this time of day, the bread loafs were patiently waiting for their turn as the man in charge was adroitly handling a huge wood bread paddle. Once out of there, we still had the time to enjoy coffee and tea on a roof terrace before reaching the riad where the cooking class is being dispensed. Even up above the souks, one is prone to constant sensory overload, carpets hanging from the rooftops, the muezzin calling to prayer, the ocean of satellite dishes all pointing out in the same direction, the snow on top of the Atlas far in the distance. Down in the street again and a few derbs later, we were standing in front of the Riad’s main entrance.
|Watch your head as you go through the doorstep, then through a passage way and out into the bright courtyard where all the necessary tools and boards were into place. We were helped by the two Moroccan ladies of the house. Each team was given a station with cutting board, knives, blender and all else we may need. We initiated with the starters which consisted in a variety of Moroccan salads and zaalouk ( a sort of tapenade made out of fresh tomatoes, crushed garlic, fresh coriander,|
|a few spices and fried mashed aubergines- make sure you try this at least once while in Morocco). Other stations prepared courgette salad, sweet carrot and cinnamon or mixed salad. In the meantime, the chermoula (dressing for the ‘boulettes de sardines’) was being prepared. A few small plates were filled with olives and amlou ( a paste made out of almonds and argan oil) so we can get an appetite going. The filleted fresh sardines were then chopped in the blender and mixed|
|with the dressing and turned by our very expert hands into balls before being placed directly in the pot where the tomato and olive oil sauce was already cooking through. Next to it, the side dish was a vegetable tagine made of carrots, green peppers, courgettes, potatoes, pumpkin, cauliflower, green beans and green peas. Ve-ge-te-rian heaven. Having placed the two tagines on the fire we followed with semolina and coconut biscuits. How can we leave the dessert out ?|
|After rolling tablespoons of dough into small balls and placing them in the trays, the trays were then taken to the same local farnatchi we had visited in the morning. On returning to the Riad, we sat down at the table and started eating our salads, rose wine or water to quench our thirst. Gemma was always around helping with cooking, giving advice, organizing the ladies and helping with serving lunch. She eventually joined us for lunch after the starters. We ended up|
|congratulating each other on our work and how little it took to turn things bought at the local market into the tastiest of meals. By the time we had finished our starters, the tagines were ready and so we had the main course. The 'boulettes' were to die for. Eight people talking and having lunch tend to take their time so it was just perfect timing when everyone had finished their main course to step out and fetch our perfectly cooked coconut biscuits from the oven.|
We had them as desert together with the ubiquitous mint tea. The relaxed ambiance makes it very adequate for both those that are really interested in cooking and those that are just there to have fun. It was close to 4 PM when we left the Riad and that left us with still plenty of time to discover some of the other gems of Marrakech and roam around the souks. This time we had our bearing right…
A big thank you to Gemma and everyone else involved. A video snippet of the course can be watched here.