Marrakech is an exotic, beautiful, vibrant and chaotic city; full of snake charmers, monkey tamers, henna ladies, shoe shiners, and of course the wonderfully disorientating souks. It is definitely a destination to put on your bucket list!
I have travelled to many countries but in my eyes Marrakech is by far the most different city I have ever visited and one of my favourite destinations. Although I did think I was well prepared to visit Marrakech, I ended up being caught out on a number of occasions and making a few mistakes along the way – but what’s the fun in travel if you don’t find yourself in completely bizarre situations!
Hopefully through following some of these tips it will help you make the most out of your trip.
The confusing currency made less confusing
The currency that is used in Marrakech is Moroccan Dirham, which can be a bit confusing at first because it is allegedly illegal to buy Dirham outside of Morocco. However, the currency exchange booths at London Gatwick airport were selling Dirhams. I would recommend to wait until you arrive in Morocco, as it is easier to exchange your currency for Dirham, and has the added bonus of the exchange rate being better. Although do note down the exchange rate to ensure you are not getting ripped off! There are booths at Marrakech Meara airport, as well as hotels and Ryads offering a currency exchange service. I was quite surprised to find a lot of ATMS dotted around Marrakech, normally next to supermarkets, shopping malls and around the main square. So exchanging money really shouldn’t be a worry or a problem.
One handy tip is that it is always recommended to purchase Euros before you travel to Morocco, as many businesses and locals prefer to be paid in Euros. Do check the currency rates when visiting as it is sometimes cheaper to pay in Euros rather than Dirhams (and vice versa).
Taxis are the easiest way to get around the city relatively hassle free. Just agree on a set price and try not to let them take you to your destination via a place that they recommend. I had absolutely no problems with taxis and they were all relatively cheap. I took a taxi with my boyfriend from the main square to the beautiful Jardin Majorelle and it cost 50 Dirhams each way.
Djemaa El Fna Square
The square is one of the top attractions for anyone visiting Marrakech. It is in the heart of the city and is always bustling with locals and tourists alike – the word bustling may be a little tame for what you experience, but it is definitely not to be missed. The square really plays on your senses; it is noisy from the snake charmers, sales men and musicians; has overpowering smells, of spices, animals, leather and food; and also has so many things happening at once that catch your eye, like donkey carts, bonfires, group dances and locals dressed in traditional Berber clothing. It is quite nice to sit in a restaurant on the outskirts of the square and watch from a distance – you are rarely hassled! It is also great to ‘people watch’ from the balcony of one of the many panoramic restaurants as the sun goes down. The sunsetting on the Katoubia mosque is beautiful.
The snake charmers and the monkey charmers can sometimes be quite sneaky. When taking a picture be as discreet as possible otherwise they can become quite aggressive. I made the mistake of wanting to take a photo of the snake charmers and thinking they would accept the money that my boyfriend and I gave them. When I was taking photos of the snake charmers their assistants realised I was with my boyfriend (who was minding his own business away from the snakes) and they started aggressively hassling him and even chucked a snake over his neck. We paid them but they were extremely unhappy with the amount we gave. In the end we just had to ignore them and walk off. Everytime we walked past the snake charmers (at a distance!) we saw other couples being hassled in the same way, so it’s a regular occurrence.
The Souks were my favourite part of Marrakech. The tiny meandering lanes crowded with people, crammed with stalls and shops selling spices, lanterns, leather bags, rugs, slippers, tea pots – anything and everything! If you are planning to buy any souvenirs in Marrakech, the Souks is your best bet. But you’ve got to remember to barter hard otherwise you could come out of the Souks being thoroughly ripped off. Starting off with a considerably low price is your best bet for a good deal. If you are not planning to buy anything in the souks (to be honest at first it can be a bit daunting) then try not to visibly show an interest in the souvenirs. Be prepared to be called names like “ginger” and be told that you are either a Hollywood star or an English soap star (aka Kat Slater off of Eastenders).
If you want to avoid the Souks completely but still fancy buying a few souvenirs then there is a shopping centre called the Ensemble Artisanal, located near the main square. We only found this by chance because my boyfriend was fed up with being hassled in the Souks. The Artisanal is hassle free but has set prices so you can’t barter. I actually bought some pottery there that was much cheaper than in the souks and of a better quality, so it’s worth a visit.
Food – I hope you like Tajines!
Depending on where you are in the city the food in Marrakech is pretty cheap, especially around the Djemaa El Fna square, which has many market stalls selling fresh orange juice and all types of Moroccan delicacies. If you are looking to eat food from the market try not to be easily lured into the first stall you find. There are plenty options, especially at night, for you to choose from! Just be aware that you should not eat any “free samples” unless you’re willing to pay for them and bear in mind the hygiene of the stalls. Look for the busiest stalls and stalls which have moroccan families eating at them, otherwise you could have quite an unpleasant 24 hours!
If you don’t fancy persevering through the hassling of the market (or to be likened to Bruce Willis, Ali Baba or be asked if you speak cockney) then there are many cheap restaurants on the outskirts of the square. Be prepared to pay anything from 30 to 100 Dirham, for a meal and drink. The majority of the food on the menus contains couscous and tajines, occasionally omelettes and chips. I found that the best places to eat were away from the square tucked away above the souks, although they are slightly pricier (in the 150 – 200 Dirham region). These restaurants have a few more Western food options on their menus and are away from the craziness of the square.
TIP – It is not possible to pay via credit or debit card in many of the restaurants on the square, so make sure you have enough cash on you.
Avoid being conned!
On our first day when my boyfriend and I were walking along a souk, from the Bahia Palace up to Djemaa El Fna, a local man started talking to us. He told us that “just around the corner” there was a beautiful spice market which he highly recommended us to visit. We thought we may as well check it out because we had some time to kill before lunch. So he pointed us in the direction of this market down a tiny souk and we walked down it alone. Two minutes later, after the local walked off in the direction of the main square, he came to tell us that he would happily take us there because he is a “Moroccan gentleman”. Alarm bells started ringing….
An hour or so later we were still walking with him in the midday heat! We were so disorientated and had been taken down so many different souks that we had no idea where we were. Instead of arriving at the spice market we arrived at a tannery. Safe to say it did not match up to the beautiful market on the signpost – the smell was awful and there were animal skins everywhere! We were escorted through the tannery then taken to a small room in a shop that sold carpets. The shop owner and his assistants started to roll out carpets for us to buy and blocked the door so we couldn’t leave. He kept asking me whether I had a good price for the carpets, my boyfriend and I told him that we did not want to buy any and he became quite aggressive. After I jokingly said a price that he didn’t like he shouted at us to leave. However, we actually had to pay the man in Euros to leave his shop, but he complained that we didn’t pay him enough, so we had to give him more. After leaving our map was of no help to us because we had no idea where we were so we had to rely on locals for directions. Easier said than done! We eventually began to realise that many of the locals gave us the wrong directions on purpose. Over an hour later we were back on the main square completely dehydrated. Not a great start to our trip!
I was quite embarrassed because I had read about these types of scams – where locals take you on tours – but for some reason it didn’t click in my mind that this was happening to us. If you have your wits about you Marrakech is easy to master and really enjoyable, but just make sure that you are cautious.
To sum up: Marrakech is a mesmerising place to visit. Prepare to get lost (literally) in its beauties and traditions.
Blog post previously written for The Frugal Gypsy December 2015