Only a short hop from Europe, 48 Hours in Marrakech is one of the best options for an exotic city break.
Morocco is definitely a world away from Europe, but the flight isn’t. A 48 hour city break in Marrakech (also spelled Marrakesh) is a great way to get a bit of an exotic fix, some retail therapy and experience a radically different culture.
The city is compact and walkable, although transport is affordable. However with the sweltering summer months the most walking you’ll be doing is hopping from shop to shade to cafe to stay cool in the A/C.
The best time to visit is spring and autumn when the temperatures are a bit more bearable. Although this is a Muslim country the attitude is fairly relaxed. You will see women walking around in western clothing and visitors in skirts and dresses are a common sight – but er on the side of conservative to avoid falling foul of lecherous men or angry traditionalists.
No matter what time of year, bring comfy shoes and sunglasses and prepare for a sensory overload.
Although Moroccans are proud of their heritage and there is some great architecture, non-Muslims will not be able to enter any mosques. Taking photos is OK and you can normally enter the grounds without any problems. There are several places where you will be able to admire the Islamic architecture anyway.
Also be aware, the salesmen and touts can be very persistent. Keep your smile and be firm in your ‘No thank you’. The Arabic is ‘Laa (no), shukran (thank you)’ which you will no doubt be well versed in at the end of the day.
English is widely spoken and most Moroccans are very friendly and multi lingual (French is an official language so perhaps brush up a little).
We were based in the Es Saadi Resort in the Hivernage district of town. There are numerous luxury hotels in the area which is only 10 minutes by taxi from the airport and 15 minutes walk from the Old Town.
Your hotel will no doubt do a great breakfast, with most places laying on a decent continental or cooked breakfast. Traditional riads also normally have breakfast included.
However, if you want to find a cafe there are plenty – from the Old Town around Jmaa El Fna square to the newer Gueliz district.
The standard Moroccan breakfast is bread and butter with jam, sometimes a croissant in the more upmarket areas. A legacy of the French influence.
Head to Jma el-Fnaa which is the unmissable huge square in front of the main souk. It’s just across the road from the Koutobia Mosque, so if in doubt head for that (which you can see from all over town).
In the early morning the square is relatively sedate with a few market stalls and traditional story tellers who attract a small crowd of locals. If your Berber or Arabic is up to scratch you’ll be able to enjoy a good old fashioned tale, otherwise it’s a great spot for people watching.
There are fortune tellers, musicians, touts selling modern trinkets and even ‘witch’ dentists who can be spotted pulling teeth for a low fee. Maybe sort your dentistry out at home though…
You’ll also find men with monkeys in tow who will try and get you to take a photo of you with the monkey. Be warned, this will cost you money (no fixed rate either, the guy will make up a price) and the monkeys are invariably badly treated. If you want to see monkeys in the wild there are many places you can go, but please don’t take photos with them in Jma el Fnaa.
There are many cafes around the edge of the square which are perfect for sitting and getting your bearings. Grab a Moroccan mint tea (which are ubiquitous) and see what you can see. You can also sit on the roof terraces although you will be charged extra for the view. Avoid the food in the square though as most of it is overpriced and low quality.
When you’re feeling suitably brave (or it’s gotten too hot to be in the square) dive into the souks. Follow your nose and just get lost, it’s part of the fun.
The souks are a maze of markets linked by little alleys. There are a myriad of shops selling all kinds of delightful trinkets. From beautiful glassware, handmade leather items, rugs and carpets, piles of colourful spices and exotic smelling incense – it’s a sensory overload.
If you show an extended interest in buying something the salesman will do his best to finalise the sale. Asking ‘how much is this?’ can often result in either a very high price (they expect you to haggle them down) or a question, ‘How much you pay?’.
Try to avoid getting into a haggle match unless you are actually thinking of buying. A clever trick to take a closer look is, if the salesman is already haggling with someone, go in for a look while he’s distracted.
If you’re feeling the hunger from all the exploring then you’re in luck. Marrakech has no shortage of great eateries.
You’ll spot cafes and restaurants around the souks (wherever you exit – and even inside) where you can grab tajine or couscous.
We had an excellent vegetarian lunch at Earth Cafe which is a few minutes walk down the Riad Zitoun Lakdim (on the left hand side of the Jmaa el Fna as you exit the souk). The Henna Art Cafe is next door which is also supposed to be excellent for vegetarian food.
Meatatarians will be spoiled for choice. I found perfectly tender lamb kebabs in a side street near the Souk Semmarine, a smaller open aired souk on the east side of the main souk complex.
The streets south of Jma El Fnaa (near the banks) are also packed full of cheap eateries where you can grab a kebab/shawarma and chips with a drink for a decent price.
You’ll see leather goods all over the markets so if you want to see where they come from, that’ll mean a trip to the tanneries. Some people find it fascinating, others fairly repulsive. You’ll smell the strong odour before you see it – like guano, to give it the polite term.
As is the case all over Marrakesh, you’ll find various people ready to give you a tour (sometimes they’ll say for free. It won’t be, they’ll normally expect a few dirhams as a ‘tip’).
If you want to take a genuine tour from an accredited guide you’ll be able to find them easily around the entrance to the tanneries. A guide is recommended.
Cyber Park Arsat Moulay Abdeslam
If tanneries aren’t your thing then relax in the beautiful Cyber Park, a short walk from the chaos of Jma el-Fnaa. There’s plenty of shade under lush trees, flowers and fountains as well as free wi-fi.
Jma el-Fnaa Night Market
Coming back to Jma el-Fnaa as the sun sets is where you will find the busy factor amped up to 11. Food markets start to set up and the smell is incredible with the wafts of barbecuing meat and bubbling stews.
Find a perch at one of the terraces overlooking the square (which get busy about now) and enjoy watching the hustle bustle.
Having built up your appetite, get stuck in and wander the stalls. You’ll find everything from burger and chips to goats head stew and pigeon pie.
The cost of food in Marrakech varies but most street food dishes are around 20 or 30 dirham (which is about GB£2.50). A sit down meal in a restaurant will be nearer GB£10 per head (100-150 dirham).
Alcohol isn’t served in everywhere but there are bars where you can find a beer/wine. Although It is relatively expensive. You can also pick up alcohol in supermarkets for consumption in your hotel.
The second half of 48 hours in Marrakech takes in more cultural experiences away from the hubbub of the main plaza.
Kick off the day with a trip to the Saadian Tombs. The resting place of the old ruling family of Marrakech, it’s a great spot to check out the Islamic architecture and enjoy a bit of a respite from the hustle and bustle.
At 10 dirhams it is something of a bargain too.
El Baadi Palace
Just around the corner from the tombs, the ruins of the El Baadi Palace are another great spot to soak up the ancient grandeur of Marrakech. If it’s hot there are places to hide in the shade such as in the gardens, but bring sun cream and a hat.
Entry is also 10 dirhams.
There are various great eateries around here. We headed to Cafe Clock which is great spot with a roof garden and a mixture of Moroccan and Western food.
We also had food at The Kasbah Cafe opposite the Saadian Tombs, another great roof terrace with lots of shade.
Palais de la Bahiaa
If you’re not worried about too much architecture, drop one of the first two on the list and head here instead as this is a must visit.
This 19th century palace is still intact and is packed full of intricate detail and artwork and makes a fascinating place to pass a few hours. Marvel at the grand rooms, enjoy the sumptuous gardens and stroll through the courtyards at a leisurely pace.
Entry is 10 dirhams and an official guide can be hired for an additional fee to help get the most out of your visit.
Jardin de Majorelle
On the edge of Gueliz (the newer part of town) is le Jardin de Majorelle. If you’re coming from the lower end of town you’ll need to grab a taxi as it is quite a long walk.
Entry to the gardens is a bit steep at 70 dirhams, plus 30 dirhams for the museum on site. But the beautiful botanical gardens are a stunning oasis in this oasis town and worth a visit. Be warned, it can get very busy in peak season.
A trip to Morocco isn’t complete without a trip to a hammam, a traditional Moroccan spa. And it will help ease the knots and aches from a hard 48 hours in Marrakech sightseeing!
We used the spa/hammam at our hotel which was a more sanitized experience. However you still get the rough rub down, the oils and the massage.
There are more traditional hammams across the town. The nearest one to Jma el-Fnaa is Hammam Ziani, Splash out on a full massage and wash down for around 350 dirhams. Just a wash or massage will be betweem 50-150 dirhams.
Note there are always separate male and female hammams, often side by side.
If you have more than 48 hours in Marrakech, we recommend taking a day trip to either the nearby Atlas Mountains or the seaside town of Essauoira. There are many tour options which you can find around town, ask your hotel receptionist what they can offer.
We headed to sleepy Essaouira for an overnight trip, booking our own bus and hotel.
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