Uncommon advice for visiting Marrakech

My wife and I went to Marrakech this August, where we spent six nights. Despite not knowing what to expect (neither of us had ever been to a Muslim country, let alone during Ramadan) we had a fantastic time, and would recommend it to anybody looking to holiday somewhere a little different. Most information available online about Marrakech tends to be repeated in several places (“dress modestly”, “don’t get the black henna”, “haggle in the souks” etc) so I thought I’d share some less well-worn insights for the prospective visitor.

A souk in Marrakech

Get your Moroccan money in Morocco

Banknote 20 Moroccan Dirham Obverse 300x150

The bureau de change at London Gatwick sold Dirhams for 11 DH per pound and bought them back for 15 DH per pound. At Marrakech airport’s bureau de change, you got 13 DH per pound whether buying or selling. I wish I’d known about this before I spent £170 on dirhams at Gatwick. Also, there are ATMs all over Marrakech where your UK bankcard will work fine. Just because you can buy Dirhams before you land in Morocco doesn’t mean you should.

44C/110F isn’t as bad as it sounds

Marrakech is extremely hot, but it’s a dry heat, so it’s not as awful as you might think. I much preferred Marrakech’s weather over Erie’s humid summer, even if northwest Pennsylvania is a lot cooler than northwest Africa. My wife completely disagrees though oh well.

Bring a compass

This sounds weird, but it’s extremely easy to get lost on the narrow streets of the Medina, and a compass would be very useful. The souks are particularly bad, as there are very few landmarks, the signs are no help, and no shopkeeper will give you directions unless you buy something. If you have a compass you can at least be assured that you’re going in the general direction of your destination.

Pedestrians beware

Maroc03

In the Medina, there are very few sidewalks - you’ll be sharing the street with bicycles, cars, mopeds, and even the occasional donkey. This would be fine if they were coming past you at a gentle pace, but as it turns out, they’ll be whizzing at breakneck speed (well, maybe not the donkeys) through whatever space they can find. There are barely any traffic lights or pedestrian crossings, so by the usual European standards, just walking around can be somewhat of an ordeal. It’s a little scary, but if you stick to the side of the street, and diligently peer around corners if you think cars might be approaching, you’ll probably be fine.

Don’t be a sucker

We lost track of how many times we were offered completely wrong directions we never asked for - on one occasion, somebody told us the souk was behind us even though it was clearly right in front of us. Such absurd attempts at misdirection are extremely common in Marrakech and the best thing to do is simply to ignore anybody who approaches you uninvited. Likewise, while you should pay for photos with people in the Djemaa El Fna square, be sure to arrange a price beforehand to avoid any misunderstandings later. We got our pictures taken with a snake charmer, who then very aggressively tried to shake us down for 100 DH. Even though we got some cool photos, and even though I only ended up giving him 35 DH, the experience was pretty uncomfortable and I’d rather have avoided it.

Eating and drinking

It turns out Jamie Oliver has been to Marrakech recently, so I thought I’d follow a little of the advice on his website and “start with a lovely orange juice from stall 40” in Djemaa El Fna - this proved to be a terrible idea, they tried to sell me a non-fresh glass of juice for £4! Thanks for nothing, Jamie. The hot meals from Djema El Fna’s food stalls aren’t the most flavourful, but they are very cheap, so don’t be afraid to try them out. Don’t restrict yourself to eating there, though at restaurants the tajines are cooked in the eponymous clay pots and are much tastier than at the stalls, so definitely have at least one real tajine before you go. For me, the highlight of Djemaa El Fna was stall 172, where alongside various sweets they sell a spicy cinnamon/ginger tea concoction called “galanga”. It’s strong, but seriously delicious - I hope the Moroccan deli on my street sells it.

Be careful buying leather goods

Terri bought a leather purse from a shop in the souks, and has had nothing but trouble with it since. The colour rubs off easily, and it smells terrible - like a rotten carcass. Before buying leather goods, make sure it doesn’t smell (this is very difficult to do in the shop) and bring tissues to see if the colour comes off.

Finally, if you only see one thing

Jardin Majorelle

… go to the Jardin Majorelle - it’s a stunning sanctuary from the mayhem on the streets.

Thanks for reading! Marrakech is a lot of fun - I hope you have a great time.