March 9-12, 2023
After learning about Andalusian culture and architecture during our trip to southern Spain last summer, we were particularly eager to experience the full impact of the Berber Muslim empires that ruled the ancient kingdom of Al-Andalus…and eat authentic Moroccan food, of course. Marrakech, the ancient city that functioned as the capital of the Almoravid and Almohad empires that reigned between the 11th and 13th centuries, was the natural starting point for our first trip to Morocco—and our first time visiting Africa.
We arrived in Marrakech on Thursday evening after a 3.5-hour flight from London and were met by a private driver that our accommodation recommended, which was absolutely essential for ensuring we arrived at our riad in the medina without any issues. The medina, Marrakech’s ancient city center, is surrounded by a 12-mile fortification system of connected walls and 200+ towers built by the Almoravids in the 12th century using a distinct mix of orange-red clay and chalk that gave Marrakech its nickname of the “red city”. The maze of ancient walls and roads was constructed to confuse and deter outsiders, an objective that is still being met in the modern era. I truly cannot comprehend how anyone could drive a car through the tiny, jam-packed street of the medina and I don’t know how we could have possibly found our way without a local driver who knew exactly where he was going.
The chaos of our drive was overwhelming, to say the least. However, we were immediately put at ease as soon as we crossed the threshold of Riad Dar Yasaman, which was the very definition of tranquility despite being in the midst of the bustling city center. Restored riads, traditional Moroccan houses that feature two or more stories surrounding a private courtyard, are popular options for city-center accommodation and I would 100% recommend the experience to anyone visiting Marrakech. Our room was beautifully decorated and very spacious, but the real charm of the riad was in its shared spaces—the rooftop was absolutely stunning and the tiny restaurant served fantastic meals exclusively prepared for its guests. After a wonderful night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast, we felt much more prepared to explore the city on Friday morning.
Marrakech was without a doubt the most crowded, chaotic, and overstimulating city we’ve ever visited and although it was definitely a huge culture shock at first, we got used to the dirt, crowds, and noise much faster than we thought we would. The city layout is intentionally confusing and despite pretty much always feeling unsure of the direction we were heading in, we actually didn’t end up getting lost at all. In terms of safety, I really didn’t feel unsafe at any point during our trip—it’s common for locals to harass tourists by offering to “show them where to go” (so that they can subsequently demand a small fee for the service), but were perfectly pleasant once we ignored them and the vast majority of Moroccans are extremely hospitable and welcoming to visitors aside from the feeble attempts at deception.
The relatively small city was absolutely packed with things to see and do, and we ended up prioritizing eating, relaxing, and shopping over spending our time trying to cram in visits to all of the major historic sites (e.g., El Badii Palace, Bahia Palace, Saadian Tombs). We spent a lot more time shopping than we typically do while traveling, but haggling with vendors at the souks is an intrinsic part of visiting the city. Marrakech has the largest traditional open-air market in Morocco, with nearly 20 separate souks (the Arabic term for bazaars) selling pretty much anything you could imagine. Historically, the various souks were distinguished by the particular goods for sale and the specialization of each souk is still more or less true today, although nearly all of them sell a wide variety of the exact same types of handmade crafts and souvenirs. A significant portion of the city’s population is employed in making or selling pottery, copperware, leather goods, baskets, and other crafts, which means that nearly everything for sale in either a souk or a boutique is “authentic” in the sense that it’s genuinely made by hand locally, but there are extreme differences in quality and price—and a higher price definitely doesn’t correlate with higher quality.
Everything we ate was simply incredible (although I would probably have gotten tired of tagine and couscous if we had stayed in Morocco too much longer) and I particularly enjoyed all of the traditional salads and dips served as starters before each meal. There was also a surprisingly good drinking culture for a predominantly Muslim city and alcohol was much more prevalent (and much more affordable) than I would have expected. Aside from the amazing cooking class we took and the morning we spent at a traditional hammam, one of the highlights of our absolutely wonderful trip was enjoying a few drinks on the private rooftop of our riad each night at sunset.
If you’re planning a trip to Marrakech, click here to access and download my Google Maps list of saved locations in Morocco.
Food & Drink
- Le Trou Au Mur: Owned and operated by the same English hotelier as the nearby Riad Farnatchi (widely regarded as one of Marrakech’s first boutique riads), Le Trou Au Mur is literally a hidden gem—the tiny door in the middle of a random side street would have been impossible for us to find without the friendly staff to guide us from the main road. The gorgeous rooftop was the perfect place to enjoy lunch on a hot and sunny day, especially with the surprisingly creative and uniquely crafted cocktail selection.
- Nomad: This four-story restaurant in the medina was recommended by pretty much every travel guide for Marrakech, as well as nearly everyone I know who has personally visited the city. We had a highly coveted rooftop table and the views of the medina and the Atlas Mountains in the distance were absolutely incredible. The contemporary Moroccan menu was interesting and all the dishes were very well executed, but the super trendy restaurant honestly wasn’t anything special compared to the other meals we had on our trip.
- Dar Zellij: Our final dinner in Morocco was at a beautifully restored 17th-century riad near the northern edge of the medina. The restaurant décor and the service were equally stellar, and the food was even better. Every dish we had was simply incredible, but we particularly enjoyed the seven-dish appetizer selection featuring a variety of traditional salads and hummus options. We also ordered a great bottle of Moroccan red wine, which was surprisingly delicious.
Activities & Attractions
- Moroccan Cooking Class: I booked a traditional Moroccan cooking class through Airbnb Experiences, which has never let me down, and it was absolutely the highlight of our entire trip. Our host, Najlae, met our group near El Badii Palace bright and early on Saturday morning and took us to local vendors to buy the ingredients for our meal, which she completely customized based on our interests and dietary preferences (warning: although Naljae definitely would have included options to suit any dietary habits if had anyone requested them, a visit to the open-air butcher would probably be a dealbreaker for any vegan). She then welcomed us into her family’s home, a beautiful and spacious riad that comfortably fit the 15+ people in our group, and served us tea and cookies as she explained traditional Moroccan tea culture. We spent the next few hours learning all about Moroccan herbs and ingredients as we prepared an absolutely incredible menu of traditional dishes, each of which was better than the last. Najlae also had lots of tips and suggestions for activities, restaurants, and shopping in Marrakech, including a phenomenal spice seller that we visited with some of the other participants in our class and bought enough turmeric, paprika, and nutmeg to last a lifetime, as well as plenty of ras el hanout (a local spice mix similar to garam masala) and saffron, which cost less than $6…total.
- Farnatchi Spa: The other highlight of our trip was definitely the relaxing morning we spent at Farnatchi Spa, a beautiful and tranquil hammam (traditional Muslim bathhouse) hidden away in one of the busiest areas in the medina. We had been to a hammam before (when we were in Granada last year), but the experience was very different in Marrakech—in Granada, we wore swimsuits and the hammam involved a series of cold, warm, and hot public pools and saunas that we visited at our leisure; in Marrakech, we stripped down to our underwear in a private marble steam room and an attendant literally bathed us from head to toe. Although it was a bit unexpected, the experience was just as enjoyable and I’ve probably never felt so relaxed in my life.
- Jemaa el-Fnaa: The medina’s main square, one of the most famous in Africa, has been the cultural heart of the city since at least the 12th century. It is one of the most crowded parts of Marrakech (which is really saying something), but the entertainment and vendor offerings are quite different depending on the time of day. We intentionally avoided the area during the daytime, which is when the snake charmers and chained monkey performers are out in full force. Instead, we walked through later at night when the area was still crowded with people and food vendors but still much less chaotic (and objectionable from an animal cruelty perspective) than it would have been during the day.
- Ben Youssef Madrasa: One of my favorite places we visited was the historic madrasa (Islamic school) associated with the Ben Youssef Mosque, one of the oldest and most important mosques in the city. The current building, which was the largest Islamic college in Morocco at its peak, was constructed in the 16th century using a style established during the earlier Marinid period that clustered student dormitory cells around the first and second levels of a central courtyard containing a shallow reflecting pool and a large prayer hall. Elaborately decorated with ornamentation elements derived from earlier Moroccan and Andalusian architectural styles, the beautifully restored building has been preserved as a historical site since the madrasa itself closed down in 1960. Andy and I both enjoyed exploring the beautiful building adorned with surfaces covered in traditional zellij (mosaic tilework) and intricately carved stucco and wood elements, which definitely reminded us of the Andalusian palaces we’ve toured in southern Spain.
- 33 Rue Majorelle: We walked over to the famous (and Instagram-popular) Jardins Majorelle on Friday afternoon, but unfortunately got there too late to buy entry tickets for the day. However, we made the best of our time outside the medina by checking out some of the excellent boutiques located on the same street as the garden entrance. 33 Rue Majorelle, the largest and most impressive boutique on the block, is a stunning and spacious concept store showcasing clothing, home goods, and décor from up-and-coming Moroccan designers. We bought so many random items here, including beautiful pottery and baskets, but could have easily spent a lot more time and money in the clothing sections.
- La Grand Galerie d’Art al Kasbah: We stumbled across this gigantic art and antiques gallery near El Badii Palace and could have spent all day exploring the new and vintage inventories of paintings, sculptures, furniture, light fixtures, textiles, and decorative goods, especially because the owner and his employees were incredibly kind and interesting (and spoke impeccable English). We ended up buying a beautiful Berber carpet runner that I can’t wait to display in our future home someday.