Photo Courtesy of Ismael Alonso
Marrakech has attracted visitors for nearly a millennium. The city first grew rich from camel caravans that brought gold and salt from the Sahara Desert, but today its lifeblood is tourism. Travelers come seeking the street performers in the historic Djemaa el-Fna square, the winding alleys of the c…enturies-old medina, and the endless array of handicrafts. In between cultural excursions, they recharge in a boutique riad and discover the rich spices of Moroccan cuisine. And the Berber carpet of your dreams is just a haggle and a glass of mint tea away.
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Marrakech beats to the rhythm of the Djemaa el-Fna, the square at the heart of the medina. Here, snake charmers, acrobats, and street food hawkers create a vibrant fusion of sounds, sights, and smells. Life in the old city unfolds before you. Walk in one direction, and you'll reach imperial palaces and the minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque; go another way, and you'll find ancient tombs. Surrounding you are alleys and souks selling almost anything your heart desires. When the sensory overload demands a break, head to the tranquil Jardin Majorelle or a hammam for a steam and a scrub. Finish your day with some fluffy couscous and drinks at a chic riad.
Tajines and couscous taste better in their native land, and Marrakech serves both Berber dishes with plenty of gusto. But there’s a lot more to sample, from roasted meats to fish from the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts. The medina offers a dizzying array of street food, while stalls in the souk practically overflow with sticky treats. You can always find a nearby café for a restorative glass of mint tea or a freshly squeezed orange juice. And for a libation that's a little stronger, Morocco has a thriving viticultural scene dominated by reds. Pair one with grilled lamb or a slice of pastilla, a sweet and savory meat pie.
Marrakech's culture plays out in a variety of ways. Listen to storytellers in the Djemaa el-Fna, and the call to prayer as it floats over the medina. Take in the ornate mosaics, carved stucco, and painted wood of the city's ancient palaces. These highlights date back centuries, but Marrakech has also made strides in recent years to bolster its modern cultural presence. The Marrakech International Film Festival attracts big Hollywood (and Bollywood) names. And an ever-expanding group of galleries showcase the next generation of Moroccan artists.
Marrakech's numerous souks will make you wish you had a larger luggage allowance. The city is a haven for artisans, and you'll find many open-air markets filled with stands and traders hawking all types of goods and souvenirs. Silver-tongued merchants unfurl a succession of rugs, each more beautiful than the last, and then debate the price down to the last dirham. If they're feeling cheeky, they may try to sell you the camel they claim transported your new carpet. You can also browse silver jewelry, intricately worked leather, argan oil cosmetics, and filigreed lamps. As you wander, you'll see both traditional designs and contemporary ones created by young Moroccan artists.
New Year and Easter are peak tourism periods. Spring and fall are best for their warm temperatures and long days. The heat in July and August can be oppressive so you'll want to know the location of a good pool or two. During Ramadan, the logistics can be awkward for visitors since many restaurants close during the day. Visas are not required for visits of up to 90 days. Menara Airport has buses and taxis to the city center. Insist that city taxi drivers use meters. The languages are Arabic and French. The currency is the dirham; ATMs are widespread. Tipping is expected: a dirham or two in a café and up to 10% in nice restaurants. Electricity is 220 volts, and sockets take round-pin European plugs.
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Afar Local Expert Tara Stevens is a food writer and cook based between Spain and Morocco. When she's not writing she's plundering the souks of the Fez Medina for her little cooking school—the Courtyard Kitchen Fez—where she loves experimenting with North Africa's spices and exotic ingredients. Follow Tara on Twitter.