The best things to do in Marrakech: a first timer’s guide
Want to experience Arabic culture, taste mind-blowing food and explore colourful, exotic cities all within a few hours’ reach of Europe? Then you’re going to love Morocco, especially its most popular and vibrant city, Marrakech. It’s a city of bustling markets, fragrant spices and incredible sunsets, not to mention being the starting point of some spectacular excursions. There are so many amazing things to do in Marrakech that you could easily spend a week here, getting lost in the souks and eating your body weight in cous cous.
One of the things that most surprised me at the beginning of my trip to Marrakech is that the city didn’t seem as cheap as I expected. The trick though, as always, is to move away from the most touristy areas and find local, authentic experiences.
I arrived in Marrakech with two friends and many preconceptions – that people will only help you when you pay them, that it would be dangerous to walk the streets alone, that we would have to cover our heads and shoulders. In the end, none of this proved true.
I’m Hostelworld Insider Mariona, and I want to tell you all about my first trip to Marrakech. Here’s the lowdown on the best things to do in Marrakech, the best places to eat in Marrakech and some of my favourite excursions you can take from the city.
Note from Hostelworld: We love Marrakech so much that we’ve decided to celebrate our birthday there (and in 19 other cities, because we’re just that extra!). Join us at the outstanding Rodamon Riad Marrakech Hostel on August 14th for a superhero-themed shindig, and find out more about our The World’s Biggest Hostel Party.
Free things to do in Marrakech (or almost free)
There are so many things to do in Marrakech! From paradisiacal gardens to shopping till you drop or passing through historical wonders like the Bahia Palace, here’s my list of 10 things you can’t miss:
Square of Jemaa el-Fnaa
The main (and most famous) square in Marrakech is a show of colours, flavours and culture that includes handicraft shops and magic shows (seriously). The fresh fruit juices at the market in the plaza cost between 4 and 7 dirhams, the perfect snack while you enjoy this chaotic theatre! On the edges of the square there are restaurants and cafes with terraces offering wonderful views of the area. They may be a little more expensive than the rest, but it’s worth going up for a drink.
Price: Free, although street artists will ask you for money to watch.
The souk of Marrakech
The labyrinthine streets of the medina surround the Jemaa el-Fnaa square on all sides except one. Marrakech’s hectic souk is full of shops selling all sorts of exotic souvenirs: carpets in every colour, lanterns and lamps, unique ceramics, argan oil, leather bags and backpacks, spices, jewellery… it’s impossible to leave the souk of Marrakech without buying anything, so don’t bother trying to resist. Just embrace your inner shopaholic!
Price: Free if you don’t buy anything, but that’s not going to happen, is it?
Note: haggling is essential, as most of the time you’ll be offered triple the real price or more of the item. It can be a little intimidating, as salespeople will stop you on the street and sometimes touch you to get your attention, but if you don’t show interest they do not insist.
Visible from the square, this magnificent mosque is the most popular in Marrakech. It’s only open to Muslims, but if you can’t enter you can still stroll through its beautiful gardens and have a juice or mint tea in the shade of its orange trees.
If you’ve ever been to Seville, you might notice the similarity between the
and the Giralda, since the latter was modelled after the former at the end of the 12th century.
Madrasa by Ben Youssef
This charming Islamic school from the 14th century is a must-visit on your trip to Marrakech. Its elegantly decorated walls and dreamy domes will make you feel like a prince or princess from the tales of the Arabian Nights. In the centre of Ali Ben Youssef’s Madrasa is a large, sunny patio with a small pool where you can relax and take some killer photos.
Aside from its impressive architecture, the Ben Youssef Madrasa is culturally significant as the most important Islamic school in North Africa.
The eye-catching patterns of tiles, engraved wood and colourful paint are the main attraction in this brilliant building. Built in the nineteenth century, the Bahia Palace of Marrakech and its gardens belonged to Sri Moussa, advisor to Sultan Hassan I, who dedicated it to one of his wives with a name that means ‘the beautiful, the bright’. Of the many rooms of the Bahia Palace the sunny interior patios stand out, decorated with plants, fountains, tiles and beautiful arches.
The Saadian Tombs
Close to the Bahia Palace you’ll find the Saadian Tombs, another of Marrakech’s most popular attractions with yet more incredible architecture dating from the late sixteenth century. In the gardens you’ll see the tombs of the servants and warriors of the Saadian dynasty, intricately decorated with opulent tiles. In the three rooms of marble and gold that form the main mausoleum lies the tomb of Sultan Ahman al-Mansur and his family, truly a sight not to be missed.
El Badi Palace
Today, the El Badi Palace (built in 1578) is a set of architectural ruins that will transport you through time to a legendary city. Thanks to the exhibition of photographs and the well-preserved remains, it’s easy to imagine how the palace once stood, and why it was known as ‘the incomparable’. The tranquillity of escaping the hustle and bustle of the medina for the peaceful terrace with beautiful views of the city was my favourite thing about visiting here.
The tanneries of Marrakech
Tanneries are the outdoor leather workshops where craftsmen ink the skin of the bags, backpacks and other accessories that fill the markets of Marrakech. They’re a typical picture of life in Morocco, full of colour from the rainbow pools of dye and alive with the sounds of people working and laughing. You’ll want to prepare your senses, as the smell they give off is very strong – you’ll usually be given a sprig of mint to counteract it, and it actually works!
Be aware that these areas are rife for scams on tourists – don’t believe anybody who tells you that a road is closed, and remember that anyone who ‘helps’ you will expect and demand payment.
Price: A tip for the guide
The Majorelle Garden is a perfect place to get lost for hours. This botanical garden and villa was built by the French painter Jacques Majorelle and renovated by Yves Saint-Laurent, so the entire place is a lesson in beauty and glamour. The artist’s studio was converted into the Islamic Art Museum of Marrakech and it’s definitely worth a visit. For me, the Majorelle Garden and its museum is one of the best things to do in Marrakech.
Price: Entrance to the garden costs €7 and the museum is €3.
The Mellah: Jewish Quarter and spice market
The old Jewish quarter of Marrakech is a poor neighbourhood, but it’s worth paying a visit to the covered spice market where you can buy all kinds of spices and home remedies. It’s full of energy, and the aromas in the air will set your tummy rumbling. If you’ve fallen in love with Moroccan cuisine, make sure you pick up a few spices to recreate some dishes back home!
Excursions from Marrakech
Marrakech is the perfect starting point to explore Morocco, be it an adventure to the Sahara or a road trip to nearby cities. You have the option of travelling independently and renting your own vehicle, or booking excursions with agencies or at your hostel (in my experience, there were always better deals at the hostel).
Explore the Sahara
Spending a night in the desert is an incredible experience. Being surrounded by miles of sand, watching the stars at dusk, dancing around the fire to the rhythm of drums and watching the sun rise behind the dunes creates an experience that’s impossible to forget.
That said, venturing to the Sahara from Marrakech can be a crazy journey, since it takes several hours in a van to reach the desert, leaving at dawn. The two most common desert trips from Marrakech are to Zagora and Merzouga, of 2 and 3 days respectively. Both tours include a night in the desert and several interesting stops along the way, such as Ait Ben Haddou, a town virtually in the middle of nowhere that has served as the setting of epic scenes from Game of Thrones and Gladiator.
I recommend doing this excursion in summer, as in winter the nights are extremely cold and the minimal infrastructure of the desert is not prepared for it.
Price: between €50-200
Note: The tour price does not include all activities. In addition, the guides ask for tips and take you to eat at previously agreed places that can be very expensive. If you have the opportunity, get away from the tour for a while and explore the area on your own.
Take a trip to Essaouira
The relaxed atmosphere, that sea breeze… are we sure we’re only two hours from Marrakech?
This small port city is the perfect escape from the hectic capital. If after a few days exploring its busy streets you feel like a break, this is the perfect trip for you. The medina, the markets and the port of Essaouira are beautiful, so if you have a few days in Marrakech and want to experience a different side to Morocco I’d highly recommend travelling here.
If you fall in love and one day just isn’t enough, don’t worry – we’ve got plenty of hostels in Essaouira to choose from!
Price: the journey costs between €15 and €25 per person, but there’s also the option to rent a vehicle and go on your own.
Day trip to the Ouzoud Waterfalls
The impressive waterfalls of Ouzoud have a height of 110 metres and are surrounded by breathtaking natural beauty. Just the walk to the falls is enough to make your jaw drop, and if you’re lucky you might even see the odd monkey!
If you want to save some pennies on your trip to the waterfalls of Ouzoud, you can load up a picnic with sandwiches from the hostel. If you feel like splashing out a bit though, there are lots of restaurants in the area offering out of this world views of the waterfalls.
As always, you can get to the waterfalls on your own by renting a car, hiring a taxi for the day or joining an organised tour.
Price: organised tours start from €10 per person
Where to eat in Marrakech
Eating cheap in Marrakech is simple, you just have to search a little! For starters, breakfast is almost always included in a stay at a Marrakech riad. Plus it’s delicious and filling, usually including yogurt, a kind of pancake made with wheat semolina called m’semmen, bread, cheese and jam.
There are also many cheap street food stalls where you can buy samosas and sandwiches. Snacks usually cost around a euro, although they can be more expensive in the centre. Oh, and on the street you can also find my favourite things: local cookies and sweets. You’ll find almond cookies that are a bit like French macarons, with prices starting from 10 cents. Never pay more than 30 cents per cookie!
At dusk, artists and snake charmers disappear from the Jemaa el-Fnaa square to make way for the largest concentration of street food stalls in Marrakech. There’s a huge variety of dishes to choose from, plus the food is delicious and the prices are very affordable.
If you feel like sitting down, there are plenty of cheap restaurant options in Marrakech. Cuisine de Terroir is an awesome spot about 5 minutes’ walk from the square. They have an adorable terrace on the roof, the food is amazing and the atmosphere is fun and lively.
Other budget options include Amal, where alongside cooking they also help women in need; Kech Burger for some calorific American comfort food and super rich milkshakes, Roti d’Or for big portions of Moroccan and Mexican food, and Fox Art Food, which doesn’t have many typical Moroccan dishes, but has a funky, eclectic design and great music.
Stay in a riad in Marrakech
For the full Moroccan experience you need to stay in a riad, which is a traditional Moroccan house with an interior garden, often with a pool to help you cool down from the sizzling heat. The outrageously gorgeous Rodamon Riad Marrakech has all of this and more. Its stunning courtyard/pool area is decorated with beautiful tiles, lanterns and leafy plants, while up on the roof terrace there’s a bar with unobstructed views of the Atlas Mountains – sunset goals! Their luxurious private rooms and fancy modern dorms offer peaceful sanctuary just moments away from the chaos of the medina.
Amazing news for anyone travelling Morocco this summer: we’ll be here on August 14th throwing a superhero soirée for The World’s Biggest Hostel Party. If caped crusaders and free drinks sounds like your kind of night, book a bed and party with us!
If you’re thinking of visiting Marrakech, please don’t hesitate – it’s awesome! Although it’s the largest city in Morocco and can be pretty chaotic, you’ll soon discover this is all part of its charm. Travelling in a group of three women, I felt very welcome and safe on the street. I fell in love with the friendliness of local people, the constant energy and the colourful sights, sounds and smells. Embrace Marrakech – you won’t regret it!
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