City Guide to Marrakech, Morocco: Part 1 | Travel Tips & Tourist Information
If it’s your first time to Marrakech, Morocco, or it’s been a while since you’ve visited, you may be wondering what you should know before visiting. Read on to learn the basics on where to stay, how to get around, what to wear, and many more tips!
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Marrakech is a beautiful and lively city, and if you’re a Westerner it may be an exotic place with a very different culture than what you may be accustom to. Depending on your personality, you may find that you immediately thrive here and are invigorated by the way of life in Marrakech, or you may find yourself feeling a bit uneasy and unsure about the entire situation.
If you’re the former, welcome to Marrakech, use our tips and recommendations to dive right in to this amazing city!
If you’re the later, we highly recommend spending the time to take in all the information and experiences we share in this article to become comfortable with the cultural differences you will encounter. And once you arrive, take it slow and remember that even if you find yourself not liking something, give it a second chance because you may find you adjust so well that you’ll fall in love with this beautiful and vibrant city!
Terms to Know
The Medina in Marrakech, Morocco is the old town, or the old non-European section of the city. In Marrakech, the Medina is enclosed by a wall and is where most of the tourist attractions are located. If you’ve come for traditional Moroccan culture, this is the part of the city you’ll definitely want to explore.
As the title implies, New Town (also known as Nouvelle Ville) in Marrakech, Morocco is the newer, more modern part of the city. New Town Marrakech is outside the boundaries of the Medina and was developed during the time when the city was a French Colony. If you’re looking for a Parisian influence and modern bars, restaurants and cafes, this is the area to be.
Souks are an Arab market place or bazaar. The souks in Marrakech are the largest in Morocco and are one of the main sights on tourists’ itineraries. In tradition, they’re organized by type of products and commodities sold, but do be prepared for a bit of chaos, bargaining, and narrow winding paths that are easy to get lost in.
Riads are traditional Moroccan residences that are built around the focal point of a central courtyard. If you’re looking for a traditional Moroccan experience in Marrakech, down to where you wake up in the morning, be sure to book a Riad!
What to Pack: Be Prepared with the Basics
The last thing we want to do when we arrive to a city is have to hunt down something vital that we forgot to pack. We travel with just a carry-on size backpack, so what we have on us is limited and naturally at some point we have to find a store to re-stock our supplies.
With that being said, the most important things and the stuff we can’t do without for very long, we’re sure to always have in our bags. As you can imagine, this list changes depending on which part of the world we’re visiting, but in the case of Marrakech, these were the things we were most glad to have packed:
The weather in Marrakech is almost always sunny, and depending on the time of year it’s going to be warm, hot, or hotter. So, be sure to have plenty of sunblock and lather it on! We prefer chemical free sunblock that uses Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide for both UVA and UVB protection.
The consensus is that tap water in Marrakech is safe to drink because it’s chlorinated. However, it’s recommended that you ease yourself into drinking local tap water, so that your body can acclimate to any new microbes that might be present.
Whether you opt to only drink filtered water or to acclimate yourself gradually, to save money we recommend purchasing bottled water in the supermarkets rather than on the street, in small shops, or from your hotel/Riad. We found that a five-liter bottle of water was about 9 Moroccan Dirham and a one-and-a-half-litter bottle was about 4 Moroccan Dirham at the Menara Mall Carrefour.
Alternatively, a great way to get clean water without spending money on bottled water, reducing the use of plastic, and having water ‘on demand’ instead of being forced to find a store, is the SteriPEN. It uses ultraviolet light to sterilize the water, which ensures bacteria isn’t able to multiply, making tap water safe to drink. Here’s a great comparison chart that you can use to pick the best SteriPEN product for your needs.
Alternatively, you can use a LifeStraw which also purifiers water. It’s great for hikers because it’s rugged, lightweight, and requires no electricity or batteries. Just don’t forget to also pack a water bottle!
Although Morocco is a country in Northern Africa, you’ll still need a European adapter for plugging in and charging your electronics.
Between using GPS to navigate the city and Geo-tag our photos, we run through battery on our cell phones like crazy! So, an external battery back is an absolute must, but even those eventually need to be charged too!
Since it’s a gamble if your hotel will have a universal adapter, be sure to keep at least one in your bag. We have a universal travel adapter that’s compact, lightweight, and goes everywhere with us. And if you’re like us with multiple items to charge, also consider a small power strip that includes high amperage USB charging ports.
Calling and Data
When it comes to having data and calling on your phone, you have a few options. The simplest option is to add international data and calling to your US plan, so that once you land your phone will be ready to go.
Unsurprisingly, depending on your carrier, an international plan can be extremely expensive and limiting. Plus, even if you have a carrier that offers free or inexpensive international calling and data, you need to be sure and read the fine print. Your data speed will almost certainly be throttled!
The second option is to purchase a SIM card when you land, which you can usually find in the airport or at a convenience store once in town. Just be sure that your phone is unlocked (factory or carrier unlocked) and that you get the correct size SIM card.
Buying your SIM in-country is usually pretty inexpensive but can be challenging if you’re unfamiliar with the language, need data immediately after landing, or land really late or really early and shops are still closed. Also, keep in mind that depending on the country you’re visiting, you may have to fill out a form, provide a copy of your passport, or be outright turned down when you attempt to buy a SIM card.
The third option is our recommended option; Project FI, Google’s answer to cell phone service. After almost a year of traveling abroad (mainly Europe), we have yet to need to purchase a SIM, as we’ve always had data in every new country we visit. The best part is that with Project Fi we pay for what we use, no more, no less.
And yes, if all we cared about was price and nothing more we could certainly save a few dollars if we were willing to find a SIM in-country instead of using Project Fi. However, the countless hours we’ve saved by simply being able to walk off the plane and use data on our phones in the 22 countries we’ve been to is well worth it to us!
Local Currency – Have Cash on Hand
Morocco’s national currency is the Moroccan Dirham (MAD or .د.م in Arabic).
Marrakech is largely a cash based society, so you’re going to want to have cash on you for most purchases. The only places we were able to use a credit card during our visit was the hotel and the larger supermarkets (Carrefour and Acima). Also, keep in mind that a store may accept credit cards but there may be a minimum spend.
Local Currency: Exchanging to/from Moroccan Dirham
It’s not a problem to find an exchange place willing to exchange your US dollars, Euros, or Great British Pounds to Moroccan Dirham, however from our experience it’s next to impossible to find a place (other than the airport) that will change your extra Moroccan Dirham back to your home currency.
We had a few extra Moroccan Dirham at the end of our trip and were able to exchange it for Euros (the currency of our next destination) at the airport, but only after we showed our boarding pass and passport (they made a copy of it). Also, they were unable to give us coins in Euro, so we were left with 22 Moroccan Dirham, which we used to buy a pack of gum within the terminal.
Tip: When we need local currency, we prefer not to deal with currency exchange desks and instead use our Charles Schwab High Yield Investor Checking Account that has zero international ATM fees and reimburses any fees other banks charge at the ATM. The exchange rate utilized on the account is near ‘bankers rate’, meaning it’s going to be better than anything you find locally.
The national language of Morocco is Arabic, so be prepared for not only a foreign language, but also a foreign alphabet. However, since Marrakech was once a French colony, French is the unofficial language and is used for business and government purposes. In other words, many people in Marrakech know both Arabic and French, and some know English.
We highly recommend learning a few phrases in one or both languages, since a simple greeting or thank you goes a long way. This particularly holds true when haggling with a shop owner!
Hotels in Marrakech
If you have the option, we recommend staying in or as close to the Medina as possible, since most places you’ll visit as a tourist will be within or very close to it.
There are two options for types of accommodations in Marrakech, a hotel/resort or a traditional Moroccan Riad.
Moroccan Riads are traditional multi-level homes with rooms centered around a courtyard. Riads, just like a hotel, vary in cost and amenities, some are luxurious with rooftop terraces overlooking the city and others cover only basic lodging needs.
For the most traditional and unique lodging experience book a Riad for your visit!
There are many hotel and resort options in Marrakech, Morocco and you’ll have the option of modest budget accommodations all the way up to luxury lodging.
Our Inexpensive Hotel Option!
We’re always on the lookout to save money on accommodations and since Starwood (now Marriott) has a category 1 property in Marrakech, we decided to use our SPG Reward Points to stay at the Le Méridien N'Fis. By using the points and cash option, we saved on hotel costs and had a fabulous CPM (cost per point) return, of nearly 4 cents (not including the upgrade value of our suite)!
Plus, earlier in the year we completed an SPG Status Match Challenge, and therefore as a Platinum Preferred Guest we received free WiFi, free breakfast, and a suite upgrade.
The grounds of the hotel were beautiful and the location was great, as there’s a mall and supermarket across the street and the Medina was within walking distance (about 30 minutes).
Even though we stayed at a hotel, we didn’t want to miss out seeing a Moroccan Riad, so we visited the Museum of Photography - House of Photography in Marrakech, which is housed in a beautiful Riad, with a café and rooftop terrace with great views of the city.
Tip: Want to learn how to travel inexpensively by scoring low cost and free hotels? It’s one of the major ways we were able to travel abroad for a year (23 countries and 60 cities) for $16,000 total! We’ve shared some of our secrets…
Transportation in Marrakech
Marrakech Menara Airport (MAK)
When visiting Marrakech, Morocco, you’ll want to fly into the Marrakech Menara Airport (MAK).
Arriving at the Marrakech Menara Airport (MAK)
The first task at hand when landing in Marrakech is getting from the Airport (MAK) to city center or your hotel/Riad. Luckily, the airport is relatively close to the city, so while most people take a taxi, you can walk if you’re up to it.
A taxi from the airport to the Medina (Old Town and city center) should run you about 40-70 Moroccan Dirham, however being a tourist you’ll usually be quoted around 350 Moroccan Dirham. So, if you plan on taking a taxi, brush up on your negotiation skills and keep in mind that there are plenty of taxis to choose from.
We decided to walk and stretch our legs since our hotel was only three miles from the airport, and it was a modest 85 degrees Fahrenheit (29.5 Celsius). If you opt to do the same, you’ll be pleased to know that there’s sidewalk from the airport to the main street. In fact, we had wide sidewalks for the entirety of our walk!
Departing the Marrakech Menara Airport (MAK)
At the end of our time in Marrakech we had to be at the airport quite early because Royal Air Maroc doesn’t allow for online check-in when departing from the Marrakech Menara Airport (MAK). They also advise passengers to be at the airport three hours in advance for all flights.
Rather than our normal M.O. of walking, we opted to take a taxi since it was well before sunrise when we needed to depart from the hotel. We’d been advised by our hotel that the range would be 50 to 70 Moroccan Dirham, so we were quite happy to pay the 40 Moroccan Dirham our driver quoted us.
From our experience, once at the airport we recommend you keep your boarding pass and passport handy as there are several checkpoints you’ll need to pass through. Also, just as you filled out a border control form to enter Morocco, you’ll need to fill one out before proceeding through customs and passport control when departing.
Transportation within Marrakech, Morocco and the Medina
There are plenty of options for getting around Marrakech, including taxis, horse carriages, and tours. But we think exploring Marrakech by foot is an absolute must! It's an opportunity to see an uncurated Marrakech and to take in the sights, sounds, and smells of an exotic city.
However, be careful! There are donkey carts, horse carriages, scooters, bicycles, and cars rushing down streets with little regard for pedestrians. They'll not only take the right of way, ignoring green pedestrian crossing signs and red traffic lights, but scooters will even go on sidewalks to pass slower traffic! Be especially careful when you're on narrow streets or in the souks, as bikes and scooters are constantly passing through the crowds. These words of caution come from experience as there were a few times we had some close calls with scooters!
Exploring the Medina
Expect to get 'lost' in the souks and along narrow streets of the Medina, since maps don't show all the pathways and streets accurately, or in the case of the souks they don't show up at all. When we were exploring, we always had a sense of the direction we wanted to go, like a particular souk, so we simply kept heading in that direction until we came upon it. (For reference, we were using Google Maps, both with data and an ‘offline’ map as a backup.)
If you pay close attention, which can be challenging in the busyness and chaos of the souks, you can see small, discreet signs near and above entryways that indicate the upcoming souk or directions to nearby ones.
We probably didn't always take the most direct path to where we wanted to go, but that was possibly the best part, as we experienced different souks along the way and ‘wandering’ through the different alleyways and shops is a great Marrakech Souk experience that everyone should have!
As a word of caution, we recommend that you don't accept unsolicited directions from a ‘charitable’ person, since their motives may not always be genuine. It’s probably wise to assume they'll expect a large tip, even if they say it's free and out of the kindness of their heart. Moreover, they're likely to lead you to a friend’s or family member’s shop and try to get you to purchase something. You’re best off using an offline map that you downloaded ahead of time or asking someone on your own for directions, like a shop owner.
Taxis are relatively inexpensive in Marrakech making it an agreeable way to move around the city. There are plenty of taxis, in fact you'll find them honking at you to see if you want a ride when they spot you either walking down the street or standing on the sidewalk. As we said earlier, don't hesitate to negotiate the fare, it’s all but a guarantee they’ll start with a high ‘tourist’ price and while you’ll probably never get to a locals fare, you can easily cut the price they offer dramatically.
Here are a few tips to getting the best fare and most pleasant ride:
Agree on the price before entering the cab.
Make sure you clarify ahead of time if you’re negotiating in Euros or Moroccan Dirhams.
Have the exact fare on you, so there's no possibility of over paying because the driver doesn't have ‘change’.
Have the address to where you want to go written down, in Arabic if possible. Taxi drivers will know common places, like the Saadian Tombs, Bahia Palace, Majorelle Garden, or the airport, but they may not know where your hotel or riad is.
It’s always handy to have a smart phone with a digital map and GPS location enabled, however be sure to keep the phone discreet to draw less attention. Also, when you’re on WiFi, be sure to download an offline map ahead of time so you don’t burn through data unnecessarily.
We use Google Maps and unfortunately, the application doesn’t offer walking directions if you don’t have internet access, however it’ll still display GPS location, making it possible to navigate the city.
What to Wear in Marrakech
There are two aspects you should consider when it comes to how you should dress while visiting Marrakech. First, take into account the location and climate. It’s safe to assume that for most of the year it’s going to be dry and hot during the days, however the nights do cool down a bit. In addition, because it’s a dry dessert climate, you’re going to want to protect your skin, so even if it’s hot, consider a protective hat and even iarm sleeves.
Second, you’ll want to be aware of cultural and religious differences in Marrakech for acceptable dress. It's an Islamic country, so women and men usually dress conservatively. It's respectful to dress with sleeves (and certainly nothing strapless or with 'spaghetti' straps) and keep the hem line, for both women and men, at or below the knee. Furthermore, consider leaving the skintight clothing at home or only for when you’re at your riad or hotel.
During your visit, you'll probably see tourists dressed more scantily than this, and while we never saw anyone getting overt and unwanted attention, we believe it's more a matter of respect to local culture. To be honest, we only travel with a carryon bag, therefore Shannon only had an option of pants or a skort.
Since it was hot she opted to wear her skort (as low on her hips as she could and with a conservative shirt) and while she did receive some looks, mainly from local women, she didn’t get any comments or leering. Oddly enough, most looks seemed to be directed to her blue shoes… we’re not sure why. If we’d packed for just this trip, we’d have definitely opted to bring a knee length skirt.
Shopping and Bargaining in Marrakech
Just about anywhere you shop in Marrakech, especially the souks, it’s expected that you’ll bargain. It’s more the rule than the exception that starting prices on goods will be high, especially if you’re a tourist.
There’s one exception though, the Artistic Ensemble Marrakech. It’s a government sponsored complex of artisan workshops that are set up to not only teach their respective trade but also to sell their goods. Prices here are fixed and a bit higher than what you can bargain down to at the souks, but if you’re not one for haggling, this is a great option. Also, it’s a good starting place before venturing into the souks, because you can get a feel for pricing and high quality.
As an idea of what to expect to pay, here’s what we found when we went on the hunt for scarfs. We found scarfs in three basic materials: cotton, silk, and cashmere (pashmina), and got all prices in Moroccan Dirham.
We started first at the Artistic Ensemble Marrakech and got a fixed price:
Cotton: 50 MAD
Silk: 100 MAD
Cashmere: 200 MAD
We then made our way to the hectic and lively souks and inquired in a dozen or so shops about their scarfs. The starting prices varied widely, here’s the range of what we were quoted:
Cotton: 50 – 100 MAD
Silk: 320 – 600 MAD
Cashmere: 150 – 400 MAD
We quickly learned that when shops were starting out on the extremely high end, bargaining to what we thought was a reasonable price (based on the prices at Artistic Ensemble Marrakech) was pointless.
You can walk into the souk and find several vendors selling scarfs for only 10 Moroccan Dirham, but they were lower quality and felt very scratchy. We went in knowing ahead of time what we were willing to pay, and weren’t willing to compromise on look or feel. And since there were plenty of vendors selling scarves (or just about anything else you’re looking for), we weren’t afraid to walk away when the deal wasn’t mutually beneficial.
Here are a few additional tips for shopping and bargaining in Marrakech:
Have small bank notes and coins. This allows you to pay the exact amount, or close to it, therefore avoiding a merchant who may claim they don’t have change.
Knowing a few phrases, like hello and thank you will go a long way when haggling.
Hello in French is ‘bonjour’ and ‘as salam alaykom’ is the standard greeting in Arabic.
Thank you very much in French is ‘merci beaucoup’ and ‘shukraan jazilaan’ in Arabic.
Don’t be afraid to leave a negotiation and don’t compromise on what you’re looking for just because it seems like a good price.
When haggling, confirm that you’re haggling in Moroccan Dirham. It’s not unheard of for a price to be agreed upon and the vendor then tell you they were negotiating in Euro.
Pictures and Tipping in Marrakech
There are so many amazing things to see in Marrakech, and if you’re like us, the city will capture your imagination and you’ll want to take pictures of everything!
However, before you take pictures of a shop or a person, know that you’ll most likely be expected to give a tip for the privilege. And if you don’t you may possibly be yelled at.
We were in Jemaa el-Fna, the famous central square in the Medina and one of the main entrances to the souks, when we took a picture of the entire square, not focused on anyone in particular. Unfortunately, a man dressed in costume had the impression that we’d taken a picture of him specifically, so he chased after us for money and had some very unkind words to say when we didn’t pay him.
On another occasion, we walked down a street in the Medina and encountered a man singing very happily on the sidewalk. We decided we wanted a picture of him, so we offered a tip (showed the amount to him) and took a picture. And even though he knew how much we’d given him ahead of time and he allowed us to take the picture, he insisted on more afterwards. We later learned that asking for a larger tip isn’t uncommon, so be aware of it and try not to let it dampen your experience.
You may find that public restrooms are somewhat of a challenge to find in Marrakech and will often be at a cost. A few of the sights we visited had restrooms, but the conditions were mixed, and of those we found only one had toilet paper (the Museum of Photography). So, it’s a good idea to use the restroom before leaving your hotel and when exploring the city bring toilet paper with you.
Sightseeing in Marrakech, Morocco
We always try to see the most popular places first thing in the morning so we can avoid the crowds and can take better pictures. Because Majorelle Garden is one of the most popular destinations in Marrakech we’d recommend going there early in the morning. The grounds are wonderfully serene without the crowds and tour groups.
During our visit the gardens opened at 8 am.
We’d also recommend visiting Bahia Palace first thing in the morning, because the morning light beautifully accentuates the courtyards, stained-glass, and garden within the palace. It’s also a very popular tourist destination and draws many tour groups.
During our visit Bahia Palace opened at 9 am.
Much of visiting Marrakech is the experience of exploring the city, so we highly recommend walking different parts, from the Medina to New Town. Check out our City Guide to Marrakech, Morocco: Part 2 | Must See Attractions for the best places to put on your itinerary! (Coming Soon!)
Marrakech is a great destination and we hope you enjoy all of the exotic sights, sounds, and smells of such a wonderful city. It’s always helpful to be prepared ahead of time, but no matter how much you prepare it’s inevitable that you’ll learn things along the way. After all isn’t that part of the adventure?!