So, you have three days’ vacation, and you are not sure how to fill them. Think fabulous Marrakech, the red city in the center of mysterious Morocco! What could be better than spending time in the fabulous medieval city with exotic architecture and lots of adventures to pack into a fun-filled 72 hours? Actually, I am exaggerating a little, as contemporary Marrakech is also quite modern, with enough of the new to complement the old. Both the ancient and the modern continue to intrigue visitors from all over the world.
Traveling directly to Marrakech is relatively easy with a well-serviced international airport within a 30-minute drive from the city center. The express to Marrakech is a modern train, and there are regular buses directly from other Moroccan cities.
The center courtyard of a traditional riyad with a water fountain and relaxing space. These were originally homes for extended Moroccan families.
Accommodation is available from hostels through private riyads up to ritzy five-star hotels, so there is something for every budget and group size. If you are traveling with family, the age of your children may have some bearing on choice, but Moroccans generally love children and will make you all feel welcome. It may be more difficult with very young children in crowded areas, but you’ll see Moroccan families out and about at all times of day or night.
Stay in a Moroccan-Style Riyad
I personally would look for an authentic beautiful restored riyad (small hotel) in the old medina (city center) close to the world-famous market Jema el Fna. There are still many riyads and small hotels within a few minutes’ walking distance of the famous souq (market square). Prior booking means the staff can arrange for a taxi to meet you at the airport and take you as close to your accommodation as possible.
You may wonder where your guide is taking you as you are led a short distance through narrow back alleys only wide enough for pedestrians and bolshie scooter drivers. You will pass down passages with nothing to see but plastered, windowless walls and sturdy looking doors, crossing busy market lanes until you reach your destination.
Tea, anyone? Morocco is famous for delicious refreshing mint tea. It’s offered everywhere, even when you are shopping.
Depending on just how up-market your riyad is, there may be an ostentatious entrance door flanked by columns or only a small plaque with the name. Ring the bell to enter an oasis of calm as the door closes. Riyads were traditional extended family homes with an open central garden often full of orange trees, palms, and other fruit surrounded by rooms accessed by balconies. They may no longer have a garden, but sometimes, they have fountains and small pools. They are charming and tastefully decorated with Arabesque motif, ceramics, and detailed plaster work. A dar is a similar layout without the garden.
Experience the Sights and Sounds of Marrakech’s Jemaa el Fna
Once you have recovered from your journey, gather some information about the closest attractions and head on out. A map is always a good idea, so ask at reception, but if you do get “lost,” a friendly Moroccan will point the direction home or may even show you. In the latter case, offer to pay for the service. The large minaret of the Kotoubia Mosque is a good landmark to note, and also a great building to visit.
The old Kotoubia Mosque is not far from the Jemaa el Fna, which makes it a great landmark if you lose your bearings in the confusing streets.
The Jemaa el Fna is a place for locals and tourists alike. Late afternoon is a good time to venture into it; you get to see the area in daylight and enough time to see the craziness grow as night falls. You can just find a seat in a café and spend some time people-watching. It will seem like the whole world is passing you by.
The action on the Jemaa el Fna can be loud and rambunctious, especially around the busking snake charmers or Gnawa music groups. I am not personally enamored by the tied-up monkeys or snakes, but they are there. However, the entertainers are fascinating and clever, so if you stand around watching them, be prepared to drop money into their hats.
Food on the Jemaa el Fna is cheap and tasty, and locals and tourists eat side by side. For me, that is a good sign. The prepared meat and fish are cooked quickly on barbeques beside you. Just sit back and take in all the sights and sounds. For more adventurous gourmets, there are sheep heads ready to be picked over. You can even find bowls full of slithering snails ready to be doused in garlic butter.
Eat at the stalls on the Jemaa el Fna to get a taste for local life, literally. Tourists and local families rub shoulder to shoulder on the crowded benches.
Fruit juices in Marrakech are awesome – there are numerous stands in the market selling orange juice for four dinar, while other seasonal juices, such as grapefruit, pomegranate, and peach, sell for 10 dinar. They are squeezed while you wait, so drink them immediately to give the glass back rather than take the plastic takeaway cup.
Morocco is on the road to being a very eco friendly country. Plastic bags are banned, so if you go shopping take your own light carry bag, buy one, or sometimes you will be given a lightweight fabric bag. Everybody walks around with their own shopping bags, and there is far less rubbish to be thrown away. Morocco also has renewable energy resources with hydroelectric power stations and one of the largest solar power plants in the world.
A traditionally dressed Berber merchant in a turban and ghandoura selling Berber silverware and fabrics.
Wandering in the souq off the Jemaa el Fna is another memorable experience, even if you don’t want to buy much. Just meander through the covered arcades, taking in all the color and vibrancy in the wares offered – thousands of pairs of babouches (handmade slip-on shoes in bright colors), tea drinking sets, silver jewelry, Berber rugs, Moroccan clothes, herbs and spices, honey cakes (sometimes covered in bees trying to get their own back), olives of all colors and flavors, leather goods – the list goes on. All are beautiful and inexpensive compared to European or other “western” countries.
Take a Ride in a Horse Drawn Carriage
For a different view, take a leisurely ride in a horse carriage to see the streets and beautiful gardens. Be sure your equines are well looked after by checking for a colored band around their fetlocks. This band means the owner has been approved by the equine welfare charity, SPANA, which helps keep horses and donkeys in Morocco well cared for.
Some of the prickly characters of Le Jarden Marjorelle.
Taking a caleche ride, as the carriages are called, is a great way to get to other attractions such as Le Jardin Marjorelle, Yves Saint Laurent’s past Moroccan garden, studio, and home and one of the most popular places in Marrakech. It is full of huge cacti and succulents with bright painted walls and ceramic pots. There is also a well-kept Berber museum on the grounds, with displays explaining the intricacies of their jewelry, rugs, and clothes throughout the ages.
Take a Day Trip to the Ourika Gorge
If you think three days in a city is too much, organize a car and guide to make a journey up the Ourika Gorge for the day. It’s a popular place for Marrakech locals to go, especially in a summer weekend, but it won’t be too crowded during the week. En route, you can stop off and ride a camel, horse, or donkey for a fun experience. There are also ceramic shops selling all sorts of pots, urns, vases, and of course, the ubiquitous heavy ceramic tajines for cooking, which are found in every Moroccan kitchen.
The Ourika River running through the Ourika Gorge, where locals love to hang out in the summer, cooling their feet in the mountain waters. Hazelnuts are for sale in the foreground.
The road climbs and climbs gradually into the High Atlas Mountains following the rushing Ourika River that flows over rocks and boulders right beside the road. Quaint and colorful buildings also line the road. The gorge remains cool in summer, so locals drive for a day out to sit under the cool weeping willows that bath their roots in the river. You, too, can bathe – your toes, that is – as some of the seating is actually placed in shallow, sheltered parts of the river. You can literally cool your feet as you drink or eat delicious Moroccan food.
As you ascend, you enter the realms of the High Atlas Mountains and the local Berber people that populate the area. Further up the gorge, you will see local villagers going about their daily tasks, collecting food for animals and working in their fields. At the road’s end, the tracks in the high mountain villages begin, so you will have to save those for another Moroccan adventure.
Your three-day Marrakech adventure will be over too soon. There are so many more places to explore that it won’t be long before you are packing your bags to return to Marrakech. Even repeat visitors find something new every time in the Red City.