Marrakech, Morocco - Stein Travel

Marrakech

Destinations




    • 16+ years

    • 12-15 years

    • 2-11 years

    • 0-23 months


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Welcome to Marrakech

Traversing the alleyways and souks of Marrakech, particularly in the Medina (Old City), it is easy to believe you have been transported back in time or stumbled onto a movie set for a medieval 'Arabian nights' production. It is this enchanting, fairy-tale quality that brings thousands of sightseers to the most-visited of Morocco's three Imperial Cities, Marrakech. The heart of the Medina is Djemaa el-Fna, an irregular 'square' where everything seems to happen and the place to which tourists are drawn time and again to soak up the carnival-like environment. Tourism, though, has not spoilt the atmosphere: if anything, it has only added to it. The modern side of Marrakech (called Gueliz or Ville Nouvelle), with its luxury hotels, banks and streets bursting with motor scooters, blends well with the past in a metropolis made up of people from the Berber Atlas tribes, Mahgrebis from the plains, and Saharan nomads.

Marrakech was founded in 1062 by Youssef bin Tachfine of the Almoravid dynasty, and his son perfected the city by bringing in architects and craftsmen from Cordoba to build palaces, baths, mosques and a subterranean water system. The city walls were raised from the red mud of the plains, with the snow-covered peaks of the High Atlas Mountains forming a backdrop for the city, though they are often hidden by the heat haze.

One of the many ways to soak up the sights and sounds of Marrakech is in one of the hundreds of horse-drawn carriages (known as caleches) that are for hire, but it is also necessary to take in the Medina's souks on foot, plunging into the hurly-burly maelstrom of passages where tradesmen ply various crafts, from cloth dyeing, copper beating, and leather working to herbalists, perfumers and slipper makers; and where shopkeepers cajole passing tourists into taking a look at their glorious array of colourful crafts.


Climate

The weather in Marrakech is sunny nearly all year round, with pleasantly warm summers and mild winters. The hottest months of the year are July, August and September, but there is no humidity so temperatures are generally bearable. Winter can bring heavy downpours of rain, which leave the streets of the old town very muddy, and winter nights can be cold.

Eating Out

A melting pot of cultures, to say that the cuisine of Morocco is eclectic and exciting is an understatement and anyone eating out in Marrakech will learn this fairly quickly. An exotic mix of Arab, Moorish, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and African influences, dining in Marrakech is an unforgettable experience for all five senses. Spices are a major part of Moroccan cuisine with cumin, cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, pepper, coriander and saffron being the most commonly used. One cannot eat out in Marrakech without sampling a Tagine, a traditional lamb or chicken stew, which has been slowly braised in a clay pot resulting in delicately tender meat and an intensely aromatic flavour. Other popular dishes include harirasoup, couscous, jaouhara(fried phyllo pastry with a cream) and bastilla(phyllo-pastry pie with pigeon, egg and almonds). Visitors can sample street-side barbeques or dine out in style at upmarket restaurants throughout the city where palatial-style eateries can be found as well as top-class French, Asian and Italian restaurants. For a truly authentic experience, head to the Medina at sunset and watch as over 100 kitchens and stalls specialising in different dishes are set up in Djemaa el-Fna Square to become one of the world's largest open-air eateries.

Getting Around

Marrakech is easily explored on foot. The city consists of the Medina (old town) and the Ville Nouvelle (new city), approximately four kilometres apart. Beige-coloured petits taxisare cheap with metered fares and are a good form of transportation between the two destinations if it is too hot to walk. Taxis can be hailed on the streets. Public buses are a bit of a free-for-all, but they are cheap, frequent and cover the entire city. Driving in the city of Marrakech is difficult unless you know your way around and is not recommended, considering the narrow alleyways of the central urban medina area. The coach bus stations (CMS and Supratours) are situated in the new city and cover routes between cities and towns. Mercedes Benz sedans are called grands taxisand are another alternative for getting to neighbouring towns.

Kids Attractions

Marrakech may not be the first place that comes to mind when one thinks of ideal holiday destinations for children, but for travellers keen on taking the kids abroad, Marrakech offers a uniquely exotic and spicy experience that the little ones will never forget. Start with a hop-on hop-off bus tour to discover the sights, sounds and smells of this bustling Moroccan city, and tell the kids exotic stories about the sights along the way, including Theatre Royal, Palais des Congres and Les Jardins Majorelle. If they can't stand the heat, your children will love you forever if you take them to Oasiria Water Park to cool off in one of the children's lagoons, ride on the pirate ship, or splash around in the wave pool - just don't forget sunscreen! The Majorelle Botanical Gardens provide plenty of space for the kids to run around and make for an ideal picnic location for the whole family; while the Olive Grove of Mariah, about an hour from Marrakech, provides a gigantic swimming pool, gardens and even a restaurant - a fabulous attraction for the whole family to enjoy. During the winter months (late-November to March), when heavy downpours can occur, make use of the French Institute of Marrakech's cultural activities programme, which include everything from circus shows to films and storytelling fit for children of all ages.

Language
Arabic is the official language, but eight other languages are also spoken including Berber, French and Spanish. English is generally understood in the tourist areas, but French is the most widely spoken.
Money

The unit of currency is the Moroccan Dirham (MAD), which is divided into 100 centimes. ATMs are available in the larger towns, but can be unreliable; currency can be exchanged at banks or official bureaux de changes, which are also widespread in major towns. Dirhams cannot be obtained or exchanged outside Morocco and receipts must be retained as proof of legal currency exchange, as well as in order to re-exchange money when departing. Major credit cards are accepted in the larger shops, hotels and restaurants. Travellers cheques can be used in tourist areas, but are not prevalent; they are best taken in Euros or Pounds Stirling.

Nightlife

Nightlife in Marrakech is a unique combination of sophistication and tradition, offering everything from local storytellers and dancers to international festivals, lounge bars and the biggest club in Africa. Flyers and posters around town advertise upcoming events and venues. The best of 'old Morocco' can be experienced at Jemaa el Fna square with local musicians, storytellers and dancers entertaining visitors. In the medina, Café Arabe is a good place to start the evening and Kosybar, in Mellah, has a terrace with comfy lounges and a large wine selection. The Piano Bar often has Frank Sinatra renditions and in Guéliz, Le Grand Café de la Poste and Café du Livre are also good. Euro-Arabian dance music and exotic dancers can be enjoyed at Comptoir Darna, in Hivernage, and nearby Theatro is a popular club. Pacha Marrakech could be the biggest club in Africa and has a gigantic swimming pool, and Montecristo is the place to go for salsa dancing, though it can be seedy. For live music, Bo & Zin is great in summer when musicians entertain guests out in the garden. Afro-Brazilian music can be heard at Afric'n Chic, while classical music performances are hosted by the Institut Français in Guéliz.

Shopping

Shopping in Marrakech is a world-famous travel experience. From the bustling labyrinth of the souks (an area of market stalls) to hand-crafted pottery, contemporary art, couture kaftans and priceless antiques, Marrakech is a treasure-trove of exotic goods.

From the souks, shoppers can purchase anything from traditional belgha(leather slippers) to magical potions; while La Porte d'Or is home to some invaluable antiques. The biggest souk in Marrakech is adjacent to the Djemaa El-Fna, while in Gueliz, Intensite Nomade sells trendy kaftans and contemporary art is available from the Matisse Art Gallery. The Gueliz area also hosts some very upmarket, boutique-style outlets. Akkal, in Sidi Ghanem, is renowned for its beautiful, hand-crafted pottery. Other popular souvenirs from Marrakech include 'cactus silk', spices, camel leather goods, and cashmere shawls.

In the souks, bargaining is essential (asking prices may be 5 times what the salesman will eventually take), and the attention of shop owners or staff can be overwhelming. When shopping in the medina with a tourist guide, his commission will be added to the price of the goods purchased. Most small shops are closed on Friday afternoons and on Sundays; the big bazaars are open everyday. Many shops close in August. There is no provision for tourists to reclaim any sales tax or VAT from goods purchased in Morocco.

Sightseeing

With a rich and diverse cultural history and enough smells, tastes and colours to spark just about any traveller's interest, tourist attractions in Marrakech are second-to-none and it will take visitors a while to explore all that this enchanting city has to offer. With its ochre sandstone buildings, Marrakech (known as 'The Red City') is redolent of romance, exoticism and beauty.

Head to the Djemaa el-Fna Square where Berber merchants, travelling peddlers and entertainers such as snake charmers, musicians, fire-eaters and fortune-tellers can be found - a truly unforgettable cultural experience which can feel at times like a free carnival-show. History buffs will enjoy the countless monuments to be seen and should not miss out on the Saadien Tombs, Koutoubia Mosque, El Badii Palace and the breathtaking fountains of Echrab ou Chouf and Mouassine. The Majorelle Gardens are a botanical masterpiece, having been touched by the hands of Yves Saint-Laurent and Pierre Bergé, and are one of the Marrakech's top tourist sights. Hop-on hop-off bus tours around Marrakech are readily available, and travellers will not be disappointed by the incredible array of attractions available to them to explore.

Ait Benhaddou is an ancient fortified city (or ksar) situated along the former caravan route between the Sahara and Marrakech - and is certainly one tourist sight in Morocco that all travellers need to experience for themselves. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ait Benhaddou is not only an important historical area that stands as a record of Maghreb architectural practices - but aesthetically, is so immediately evocative of one's most romantic visions of medieval Arabian cities that visitors will likely be left pinching themselves to ensure that the vision before them is not merely a dream. The buildings, constructed against a mountain and surrounded by steep defensive walls, are all built from moulded earth and clay brick - and the sight of them, ornamented with decorative motifs and blood-red in the evening light, is so stirring that Ait Benhaddou has long been featured in Hollywood films (from Lawrence of Arabia to Gladiator). Providing some picture-perfect examples of kasbahs and medinas, no trip to Morocco would be complete without a stop in Ait Benhaddou. Whatever you do, don't forget to take a camera along.

Bab Agnaou is one of the 19 gates of Marrakech and was built in the 12th century, in the time of the Almohad dynasty. The function of the gate may have been nationally symbolic; the corner-pieces are decorated with floral decorations, framed by three panels with inscriptions from the Quran. Bab Agnaou forms the entrance to the royal kasbah in southern Marrakech. The kasbah, built by the Almohad sultan Yaqub al-Mansour, is home to the El Mansouria mosque, the El Badi Palace and the Saadian Tombs.

The Ben Youssef Madrassa was an Islamic college in Marrakech named after Sultan Ali ibn Yusuf (reigned 1106 to 1142), who expanded the city considerably. This madrassa was one of the largest theological colleges in North Africa and may have housed as many as 900 students. After being closed down in 1960, this Historical Site was refurbished and reopened in 1982, an interesting attraction for the value of its past and educational influence.

The Museum, housed in a palace on the Riad Ezzitoun El Jadid, depicts the arts, crafts and culture of the Berber people, including displays of some Moorish cedarwood furniture, and artefacts from every day life in the Sahara desert. There is also a collection of door and window frames, elaborately carved and ornamented, in the museum courtyard.

What it lacks in beauty, the large town square of Marrakech, Djemaa el-Fna (Square of the Dead) makes up for in pulsating liveliness that belies its name. Every day the square is a colourful circus of performing artists where snake charmers, musicians, storytellers and healers vie with each other to be noticed by the milling crowds; every evening food stalls take over and the competition is fierce among them for the passing trade, offering anything from boiled snails and sheep's heads to thick vegetable soup, kebabs or fresh salads. Freshly squeezed orange juice stalls stand side by side encircling the market and offer a refreshing drink both day and night. The square is a fascinating place to sit awhile at one of the surrounding cafes, watching the swirling parade. The square is also the gateway to the souks (bazaars) of Marrakech, tucked away in the surrounding labyrinth of narrow streets and alleys. It is easy to lose your way, but well worth exploring the plethora of craftsmen offering their wares. Bargain for anything from water mugs and dates to exotic Moroccan carpets. The souks are also well shaded from the searing Moroccan sun and therefore provide a respite from the heat.

El Badi Palace(the incomparable palace) consists of the remnants of a glorious palace built by the Saadian king Ahmad al-Mansur in 1578. The original building is thought to have had 360 rooms, a courtyard and a pool, decorated with Italian marbles and large amounts of Sudanese gold. It also has a small, underground jail where the king kept his prisoners. Unfortunately, the original palace was torn apart by the Alaouite Sultan Mawlay Ismail. The design of the palace is influenced by Granada's Alhambra.

Towering over the labyrinthine streets and markets of Marrakech is the city's principal landmark, the minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque, known as the 'mosque of the booksellers' because of the bazaar of the book traders that used to be nearby. The red stone mosque was first built in 1147, but demolished and rebuilt in 1199 because it was not correctly aligned with Mecca. The mosque, basically a massive prayer hall, has 17 aisles and 112 columns, and room for thousands to pray within it. The ornately carved minbar (pulpit) is believed to have been a gift from the Almoravid Sultan Ali ben Youssef. The landmark minaret is 221ft (69m) high and consists of six chambers one atop the other, ascended by a ramp through which the muezzin ascends to the top balcony. The mosque is closed to non-Muslims, but the area around is a favourite place for an evening stroll.

The Majorelle Garden is a botanical garden designed by the French artist Jacques Majorelle in 1924, during the colonial period when Morocco was a protectorate of France. Previous owners have included Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint-Laurent (whose ashes were scattered there when he died in 2008). The garden is also home to the Islamic Art Museum of Marrakech, whose collection includes North African textiles from Saint-Laurent's personal collection and paintings by Majorelle. The garden has more than 15 bird species endemic to North Africa.

The village of Ouirgane, in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains about 90 minutes drive from Marrakech, stands at the centre of a popular resort area, where summers are cooler and winters less harsh than those experienced in the city. The surrounding Berber countryside offers picturesque villages and hamlets to explore, set in forests full of wildlife and groves of fruit trees, alongside streams cascading down from the High Atlas Mountains and fields of wild flowers. The area is also known for its extraordinarily beautiful rose gardens.

A ski resort in the desert! Indeed, thick snow envelops the Jebal Oukaimeden mountain peak during the winter months (usually January and February), just a 46-mile (74km) drive from Marrakech. The town of Oukaimeden, which can be reached by taxi or self-drive car, is well equipped for the skiers that seek restaurants, ski equipment to rent, and comfortable hotels, set in lush greenery backed by blue mountains. Skiers can ascend the mountain by donkey or camel, but there are also modern ski lifts.

The beautiful necropolis was built by the Saadian Sultan Ahmed el Mansour in the late 16th century as a final resting place for himself and his successors. There are 66 indoor tombs, lavishly decorated with colourful, intricate mosaics. The central mausoleum, the Hall of the Twelve Columns, is exceptionally ornate with a high vaulted roof, furnished with stunning carved cedar panels and columns of grey Italian marble.

The Shrob ou shouf ( Chrob ou chouf) fountain is not far from the Ben Youssef Medrassa, built during Saadian sultan Ahmad al-Mansur's reign (1578-1603). Its wooden crown is carved to look like honeycomb and a green tiled roof shelters the structure. One of the fountain's inscriptions invites passers-by to drink and look ( shrob ou shouf). In 1985, UNESCO recognised this Saadian fountain as a cultural heritage site.

Marrakech is home to a labyrinth of bustling souks(workshops and markets) offering the city's most fascinating wares. Whether shopping or exploring, they are a must for any visitor. At the northern end of the souks, best accessed from the Ben Youssef Mosque, has blacksmiths making wrought-iron goods and the distinct odour of leather workshops. The stalls emerge further south and are met by the Rahba Kedima, a market famous for its bizarre offerings of animals and eccentric potions for spells.

The Museum of Marrakech is located in the Dar Menebhi Palace, built at the end of the 19th century by legendary Mehdi Menebhi, in the old centre of Marrakech. The palace was restored by the Omar Benjelloun Foundation and converted into a museum in 1997. The house itself is representative of classical Andalusian architecture, with fountains in the central courtyard, carvings and beautiful tiles. The museum holds exhibits of both modern and traditional Moroccan art, as well as historical books, coins and pottery.

The Todra Gorge - a canyon on the eastern side of the High Atlas Mountains - is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular natural attractions that Morocco has to offer. Nature lovers who feel starved in the choked streets of Morocco's cities simply must make the trip to the Todra Gorge (most easily accessed from the town of Tinerhir) - they will be rewarded by the experience of a lifetime. To put the grandeur of the gorge into perspective, consider that over its final 1,950 feet (600m), the canyon narrows to a rocky passage only 33 feet (10m) wide, while the sheer walls rise up 984 feet (300m) on either side. Sunlight only reaches the bottom of the Todra Gorge, where a viscous ice-cold river flows along, for a few hours each morning - and night-time temperatures regularly fall below freezing. Although a place of awesome ruggedness, tourists need not worry about being too far 'off the beaten track' - a well-maintained hiking path runs through the gorge, and there are restaurants and even a hotel situated about halfway along.


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