Marrakech. The Red City. The Daughter of the Desert.
Chances are that if you know anything about traveling to Morocco, you’ve heard of Marrakech. While it’s not the capital of Morocco today (that designation goes to Rabat), Marrakech is one of the most popular Moroccan cities for tourists to visit; in 2017 alone, the Red City saw more than 2 million visitors.
Marrakech is both like and unlike what you’d probably expect. It’s both ancient and modern; desert-like and almost tropical. It’s loud and chaotic and exotic, but also far more tourist-friendly than you might think.
Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakech
I arrived in Marrakech after having spent time in the Sahara Desert and the High Atlas Mountains – meaning the buzzing motorbikes and honking horns and frenetic squares of Marrakech were an absolute assault on my senses.
But as I got to know Marrakech over the next few days, I came to accept it for what it is: a unique city that’s equal parts maddening and lovable.
Things to know about Marrakech
Marrakech is popular for city breaks from Europe, since several low-cost airlines fly direct to the Marrakesh Menara Airport. It’s also a city that will surely feature on most longer Morocco tour itineraries.
If it’s your first visit to Marrakech, here are some things worth knowing:
- Even though it feels like a very large city, the population of Marrakech is only 930,000. (It’s the 4th-largest city in Morocco.)
- The oldest parts of Marrakech date back to when the city was founded in 1062. Its medina has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985.
- Marrakech is called the “Red City” because of its red sandstone walls, which were built in the 1100s.
- The sprawling Djemaa el-Fna square is said to be the busiest square in Africa.
- The architecture of Marrakech is unique; Andalusian influence from cities like Cordoba and Spain have melded with designs from the Sahara and West Africa.
Marrakech isn’t a huge city, meaning you can definitely hit up all the highlights over a long weekend, or with just a couple of days.
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3 days in Marrakech itinerary
I think 3 days is just about the perfect length of time to get to know Marrakech, and so here are my suggestions for what to do on your first trip there.
Start out your first morning in Marrakech’s ancient medina. This walled part of the city (the “old town,” if you will) is nearly 1000 years old, and is a mix of maze-like streets and crowded souks. Be prepared to make way for motorbikes and donkey carts and everything in between – listen out for the shouts of “Balek! Balek!” warning you to move over.
Within Marrakech’s medina, you’ll find souks selling everything from Berber carpets to spices to leather goods sticky Moroccan pastries. Don’t be afraid to step into a shop – but do be prepared to haggle if you want to buy anything!
Pro tip: Don’t take any photos of people OR goods without asking permission first.
To escape the chaos of the medina, there are a few spots you can duck into for a bit of peace. One is Le Jardin Secret, an elegant palace complex in the middle of the medina with some relaxing Islamic gardens. Pop in here for a tea break at the cafe.
Another popular spot to visit within the medina is the Ben Youssef Madrasa. A madrasa is an Islamic college, and this one was once the largest Islamic college in Morocco. It’s known for its incredible architecture (if you’ve visited the Alhambra in Spain, it kind of looks like that) and ornamental details. (Please note: Ben Youssef Madrasa is currently closed for renovations until at least 2020.)
Where to go for lunch in the medina
For lunch, there are several great spots to grab a bite inside the medina. Places like Naranj, Le Trou au Mur, Corner Cafe, and Le Jardin all come highly recommended.
I had a meal at Nomad, a hip restaurant with a rooftop terrace in the heart of the medina. It serves up modern versions of Moroccan dishes, and is very cozy and Instagrammable (they even provide sunhats to anyone dining on the rooftop). The food was good, but the prices are on the higher end.
The view from Nomad
The Marrakech medina can be a bit exhausting (learn the phrase “la, shukran,” which means “no, thank you” – you’ll use it often!), so you may want to return to your hotel or riad in the afternoon for a little break before heading out for the second part of your day.
Evening food tour
Moroccan food is incredible, and a great way to be introduced properly to it is by taking a food tour. Food tours are a great way to get to know any city better, and that’s true in Marrakech, too.
Instead of going out to dinner tonight, why not join an evening food tour?
My first choice would be an Evening Street Food Tour with Marrakech Food Tours. These tours generally book up in advance, though, so if you’re not able to get a spot, you could try this Taste of Marrakech tour by Urban Adventures, or even have dinner with a local family!
Most Marrakech food tours will end in Djemma el Fna square, which is even more lively (okay, chaotic is probably a better word) at night than it is during the daylight hours.
Start off your second morning in Marrakech at Jardin Majorelle, a beautiful botanical garden. The garden was first created in 1923 by French artist Jacques Majorelle, who expanded upon it throughout the next 40 years. After Majorelle’s death, the garden fell into disrepair. It was bought in the 1980s by fashion designers Yves Saint-Laurent and Pierre Bergé, who lovingly restored it and called it home.
The garden has been open to the public on and off since the 1940s, and today is one of the most popular spots to visit in all of Morocco.
Highlights of Jardin Majorelle include, of course, the gardens filled with 300 different species of plants. But you’ll also find fountains, ponds, and splashes of the famous “Majorelle blue,” along with a cafe, book shop, and museum.
The former painter’s studio (the blue building at the heart of the garden) has been transformed into the Berber Museum, displaying the personal art collection of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé. Since Yves Saint Laurent’s passing, a memorial has also been erected to him within the garden grounds.
Next to the garden, be sure to also wander through the grounds of Villa Oasis, the former private home and gardens of Yves St. Laurent and Peter Bergé. The gardens here are equally as stunning.
Before you leave, you can also visit the Musee Yves Saint Laurent, which was opened adjacent to Jardin Majorelle in 2017.
Pro tip: I’m suggesting you visit Jardin Majorelle in the morning because it gets BUSY, even just an hour after opening. The gardens open at 8 a.m. or 9 a.m. depending on the time of year, and getting up early to go is worth it! Don’t be surprised if you have to queue outside to buy a ticket, no matter what time of day you visit.
Afternoon tea at the Royal Mansour
Inside the Royal Mansour
This afternoon, I recommend getting a taste of Moroccan opulence at one of Marrakech’s top 5-star hotels. The Royal Mansour was opened in 2010 and is owned by King Mohammed VI – meaning the “royal” part of its name is literal.
You might not be able to afford to stay at the Royal Mansour (here, there are no rooms to book – you rent out full private riads), but you certainly CAN afford an afternoon tea.
The Royal Mansour offers an afternoon tea service in several of its indoor spaces for just 350 MAD (roughly $36 USD) per person. You can choose from a Moroccan Tea (served with mint tea, Moroccan pastries, and Moroccan pancakes), a French Tea, or a more traditional English Tea.
English and French teas
I’m a big fan of indulging in afternoon teas when I travel, especially when they’re offered at luxury hotels that would be out of my price range to actually stay at. In this case, having afternoon tea at the Royal Mansour was an excellent way to spend an afternoon in Marrakech.
The Royal Mansour offers afternoon tea service every day from 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. You definitely do want to book a table ahead of time.
Pro tip: While the Royal Mansour doesn’t have a specific dress code noted on its website, this IS a very high-end hotel, and you should dress accordingly. No shorts or tennis shoes!
Afterwards, it’s worth walking back towards the medina (the Royal Mansour is very close) and past the Koutoubia Mosque, which is an 800+-year-old mosque that has become the symbol of Marrakech.
This mosque is beautiful (especially in the late afternoon), but note that non-Muslims are not permitted to go inside.
Koutoubia Mosque before sunset
Djemma el Fna for sunset
Yes, it’s touristy. Yes, it can get crowded. Yes, you’ll probably have to buy something overpriced. But I still feel like watching a sunset from one of the rooftop terraces around Djemaa el-Fna square is a must-do in Marrakech.
Marrakech’s main square is busy day and night. During the day, the square is filled with juice vendors and snake charmers and “henna ladies” (which you mostly want to avoid, but more on this later). At night, though, the square transforms into a street market, with tents and dining tables being put up and taken down each and every night.
Djemaa el-Fna at sunset
You can watch all of this happen from above at one of the many rooftop terraces/cafes that surround the square.
Most of these cafes require you to purchase something in order to enter the rooftop terrace, and you won’t be guaranteed a table to sit at. But I enjoyed it anyway! (I went to Le Grand Balcon Cafe Glacier.)
Sunset from Le Grand Balcon Cafe Glacier
Pro tip: I would *not* recommend planning to have your dinner at any of these cafes. But I do recommend going up before sunset, ordering a drink (I got a soft drink, but it would also be a good excuse for a mint tea), and sticking around for the sunset show.
I’ve never seen tiled grave markers like this before!
It’s time to visit some of Marrakech’s historical highlights this morning, starting with the Saadian Tombs. This site consists of a series of mausoleums and sepulchers that hold the remains of important figures from the Saadi Dynasty, which ruled Morocco from 1549 to 1659.
The tombs were largely “lost” after the dynasty ended, and were only rediscovered in 1917.
The highlight here is the Hall of Twelve Columns, the mausoleum built for Sultan Ahmed el-Mansour. It’s built from Italian Carrara marble and has delicately detailed ornamentation – and of course plenty of gold. You’ll likely have to wait in line to peer into this particular mausoleum, but it’s worth the wait.
Details in the Hall of Twelve Columns
The Hall of Twelve Columns
If you want to see the ruins of the Saadian rulers’ royal home, you can also visit the nearby El Badii Palace. The palace was largely destroyed by Moulay Ismail ibn Sharif, the ruler that followed the Saadi Dynasty, so keep in mind that you can only visit the ruins now.
After spending some time at the Saadian Tombs (allow at least an hour for the tombs), you can walk over to Bahia Palace. This palace – with a name that literally means “brilliant” or “beautiful” – is understandably very popular in Marrakech.
It definitely is beautiful!
Bahia Palace is interesting because of its history. Usually, a palace would only be built for royalty. But this one was built by Si Moussa, the chamberlain/grand vizier of Sultan Hassan I in the second half of the 19th century. Si Moussa’s son, Ahmed ben Moussa, took over his father’s job (and palace), and gained power acting as regent for the young Sultan Abd al-Aziz. He’s the one who named the palace – most say after his favorite mistress.
Bahia Palace sprawls across 150 different rooms, and has beautiful features like carved cedarwood doorways, intricate stucco designs, tiled fireplaces, and stained glass windows.
After Bahia Palace, you could also visit the nearby Dar Si Said (the Museum of Moroccan Arts), or wander back into the Marrakech medina.
Relax at a riad or rooftop
I’m going to be honest with you: after 2.5 days in Marrakech, you might be craving some relaxation time by now! My recommendation for the rest of the afternoon is to return to your hotel pool or your riad rooftop, or maybe enjoy a hammam or other spa treatment.
Rooftop relaxation at Riad BE
If your riad offers dinner service, this would be an excellent night to book it.
I’m by no means an expert on dining out in Marrakech, but my friend Amanda is. She has a whole guide to dining in Marrakech that you might want to check out!
Or, if you’re feeling adventurous and don’t have more time to spend in Morocco, tick off a bucket list item tonight with a sunset camel ride just outside of Marrakech.
Have one more day?
With one more day in Marrakech, you might want to consider taking a day trip out of the city. Popular places to visit include the Atlas Mountains, Ouzoud Falls, the Agafay Desert, or the seaside town of Essaouira.
Here are some tours to check out:
- Atlas Mountains and 4 Valleys Day Tour (including Lunch in a Berber House)
- Ouzoud Waterfalls Full-Day Tour from Marrakech
- Day Trip to Essaouira from Marrakech
- Marrakech Palmeraie: Camel Ride & Quad Bike Experience
And if you have MORE than one more day in Morocco, definitely consider booking a multi-day trip to the Sahara Desert!
Where to stay in Marrakech
Riad BE The Essence
There are SO many riads (somewhere between small boutique hotels and guest houses) and hotels to choose from in Marrakech, so don’t be surprised if choosing a place to stay feels like a daunting task!
There are two main parts of the city to stay in: the area in and around the medina, and Guéliz, the Ville Nouvelle or New Town. I stayed mostly in the older part of Marrakech, but also traveled into the New Town.
Here are some options to consider, depending on what you’re looking for:
Luxury hotels: Book a private riad at the Royal Mansour, or indulge at La Mamounia (famous for its pool and spa). There’s also a Four Seasons Resort in Marrakech, as well as a Mandarin Oriental.
Another glimpse of the Royal Mansour
Moderate hotels: La Maison Arabe is famous for its cooking classes, the Radisson Blu is a nice option in Gueliz, and the Iberostar Club Palmeraie is a very affordable hotel in the north of the city. For a spot that’s part boutique hotel and part riad, check out Les Borjs de la Kasbah.
Pro tip: If you’re going to stay inside the medina, note that taxis and other vehicles aren’t able to directly access every street. If your riad or hotel offers airport transfers, it’s worth paying for them – someone will be able to meet you and walk you directly to your accommodation.
Luxury riads: Riad Kniza is exquisite, L’Hotel Marrakech has excellent reviews, and La Sultana Marrakech actually stretches across 5 different riads.
Moderate riads: Riad Kheirredine is a top-rated Marrakech riad on TripAdvisor, you can often find good deals at Riad 72 (another very highly-rated riad), and Riad Adore exudes modern luxury at an affordable price. (There are seriously SO many riads to choose from though, guys!)
For those looking for super Instagrammable riads, Riad Yasmine and Riad BE are both very popular. I stayed at Riad BE, which is actually two picture-perfect riads side-by-side. I loved their rooftop terrace and had my favorite breakfast in Morocco here!
Riad BE The Oasis
Riad BE breakfast
How to stay safe in Marrakech
In the grand scheme of things, I would not classify Marrakech as a “dangerous” city. There’s very little violent crime in Morocco to worry about. What you need to worry about is petty crime and scams – and there are a lot of scammers just waiting to take advantage of unsuspecting tourists in Marrakech!
Avoiding scams in Marrakech
Common scams in Marrakech include:
The faux guide scam
Tour guides are regulated in Morocco; guides have to have professional qualifications, and the “real” ones will have badges or some sort of official identification. If someone approaches you in the medina or square offering to give you a “tour,” be very wary.
Also be wary of people offering to show you the way to a riad or shop or cafe – most likely they will ask you for money, and may not even take you where you want to go. If you’re lost and need directions, pop into a shop or cafe and ask someone who can’t leave their post to point you in the right direction.
The henna scam
In Djemaa el-Fna square, you’ll find women offering henna, a traditional form of hand painting. I do NOT recommend getting henna done here – in fact, try to avoid these women if you can (I’ve heard horror stories of really bad skin reactions and just overall poor quality).
Don’t let them grab your hand, and definitely don’t let them give you a sample design “for free” – it most definitely will not be for free. I always walked past these women with my hands in my pockets, or firmly crossed over my chest.
Lots of scammers lurking in this square
In fact, just avoid all the touts in Djemaa el-Fna square. Don’t let anyone put a monkey on your shoulder (these poor creatures are captured from the forest and abused), and don’t take photos of the snake charmers (many of those snakes have their mouths sewn shut).
And note that if you take a photo of anyone – even if you think you’re being sneaky about it! – you’ll likely be expected to pay for it.
Taxi scams are also common in Marrakech, especially if it’s clear you’re a tourist. The most common scam is for a taxi driver to tell you his meter is broken, and then quote you a price that’s double what you should be paying.
Sometimes you just have to cough up and pay an inflated price, but it helps to ask someone (at your hotel, at a cafe, a tour guide) how much a specific taxi ride should cost so you know roughly how much you should be paying. Read more about Marrakech taxi scams here.
The good news is that, because of Marrakech’s growing popularity with European tourists, the city is trying to crack down on some of these scams. For example, there are now undercover police officers in the medina to look out those faux guide scammers.
Exploring Marrakech as a solo female traveler
I visited the rest of Morocco on a tour, but spent the majority of my time in Marrakech either on my own or with 1 or 2 other female travelers. People were understandably curious about my experience.
As a female walking down the street in Marrakech, you should not be surprised to get comments from local men – especially if you’re walking alone. But I found the vast majority of comments to be non-threatening (think lots of “hello, beautiful,” and “give me a smile”), and never felt in danger while walking around on my own.
Walking through the medina solo? Sometimes annoying, but overall fine.
Of course, there are some safety tips to keep in mind! Like:
- Dress respectfully – You’ll get far less negative attention if your shoulders, knees, and breasts are covered. There’s no need to cover your hair, though I’ve heard other female travelers say that they felt more comfortable walking around alone with a head scarf on.
- Don’t look lost – It’s tough to NOT get lost in the Marrakech medina, but try not to let on that you’re lost, even if you are. Instead of stopping in the middle of a walkway to pull out a map or your phone, duck into a cafe or shop to get your bearings (or ask for directions). Act confident, even if you don’t feel it!
- Embrace dark sunglasses – It’s natural for me as a Midwestern girl to make eye contact with strangers when I’m out exploring. This can be misconstrued as an invitation in Morocco, though. So to avoid inadvertently sending any mixed signals, I kept my reflective sunglasses on whenever I was walking through the medina. It worked pretty well!
- Keep an eye on your valuables – I mentioned above that petty crime is the only thing you really need to worry about in Marrakech. I’ll be honest with you: I was walking around with my professional camera slung over my shoulder, and my iPhone often in one hand. This was perhaps not the smartest, but I felt quite safe. I DID, however, have a cross-body slash-proof camera strap, and a theft-proof Pacsafe purse holding all my other belongings.
One of the outfits I wore in Marrakech
Marrakech isn’t an *easy* place to travel solo as a woman (and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it if you haven’t ever traveled on your own before), but it’s certainly do-able!
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So there you have it – everything you need to know about spending 3 days in Marrakech. Is this someplace you’d like to visit?
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