Since we have all been under quarantine measures the last month or so, I thought it would be fun to take a trip down memory lane and finally write about one of my all time favorite trips. And no, it’s not Italy but don’t worry, I will be posting more in that series soon!
Back in May of 2017 I went to one of the most visually stunning locations in the world: Marrakech, Morocco. It was a *very* last minute trip and one of my absolute favorites to date. If you are thinking of heading to Morocco I can’t recommend it enough and I hope to return one day. This post is fairly detailed, so feel free to skip to the bottom for the ~lite~ version.
I normally plan bigger trips like this well in advance. However, my jet-setting friend Dana had a trip planned and when I jokingly suggested (three weeks out) I should tag along on her upcoming adventure, she invited me. The next thing I knew, a far fetched dream had become a reality and I bought a plane ticket to AFRICA!
Marrakech is an ancient city, in the foothills of the stunning Atlas Mountains. We stayed in the ‘medina’ area of Marrakech. This is the older, central section within the original city walls. Outside of the walls, there are modern looking buildings, boulevards, a McDonald’s 🤣, etc. like any larger city. Within the medina, you will find a maze of brick and straw houses, narrow unpaved alleyways, and motor bikes speeding around every corner. Most of the buildings here are crafted from red sandstone, giving the city a warm earthy appearance. Stalls line the roads, filled with fresh fruit, herbs, and pastries. It is bustling with people, day and night.
Because I didn’t do a lot of planning (zero tbh) for this trip, I didn’t really have any expectations. When I thought of Morocco before this journey, certain words came to mind: sandy, isolated, antiquated, and mirages in the desert (lol). Many of these words are very much applicable, but I left knowing that there is also so much more to Marrakech and the surrounding area! It is completely inspirational from an architectural and design perspective, and while there are European influences, it was entirely different than anywhere I’ve gone before.
I am going to go through some of my favorite experiences and hope that this will serve as a guide if you are looking to explore the area. Or, if you’re a daydreamer like me, maybe it will offer a little inspiration. Luckily, I made a huge note on my iPhone during this trip which served as a great reminder of everything I saw. Let’s get to it!
Some of my favorite things:
Take a few hours to walk around the medina and accept that you will probably get lost. The streets are like a maze and can be difficult to figure out at first. There are dozens of ‘riads,’ or guest houses (similar to bed and breakfasts in the US), throughout the medina, that serve tea, food or drinks. Go explore and see what you find! I saw some of the most incredible scenes all within the riads of the old city.
Make your way to the central square known as Jemaa el-Fnaa. The square is full of vendors selling their wares. It is very lively (a tad hectic) and full of locals and tourists alike. You don’t need to stay long but I definitely recommend visiting for the experience (and this is coming from someone who doesn’t love crowds).
After you’ve had your fill wandering through Jemaa el-Fnaa, head next door to the neighboring souk. I bought some exquisite traditional pottery here that I was able to pack and take home with me. I also picked up a lovely Jacques Majorelle print and had it framed back home. It’s one of my favorite souvenirs ☺️.
The stalls are filled with everything you could imagine. If you have been looking to redecorate your home in the very #ontrend Moroccan style – make sure you spend time exploring this area. Berber carpets and pillows, woven baskets, lanterns, leather poufs, stools, furniture, etc. at a fraction of the cost of items for sale in the US. They will ship items for you as well!
Once you’re done shopping, leave the souk and wander the nearby narrow streets, stopping for traditional Moroccan mint tea. There are a ton of cafes with rooftops in this area. Head upstairs and away from the crowds. The views over the city are beautiful and Moroccan mint tea is a daily ritual for many citizens. Served hot (or iced) with handfuls of fresh mint and home baked pastries, it is a celebrated activity, and not to be missed.
If you are up for a more *adventurous* activity, visit a traditional hamman. A hamman is similar to a turkish bath – a public type of steam room – and they are very popular in Morocco. My friend and I went to the hammam located within the exquisite La Sultana Hotel and it was incredible. Before you visit, I would definitely recommend researching what the experience entails as it may not be for everyone (hint: you get naked and your entire body gets exfoliated beyond belief.) There are separate areas for men and women, and at La Sultana, they offered private spa services as well. At the end of the “experience” I felt utterly relaxed. We were served mint tea and enjoyed their pool for several hours. I loved it and would do it again!
If you stay at or visit La Sultana, make sure to head next door to ‘Saadien’s Tombs,’ a beautiful necropolis dating back from the 1500s. Sultans, sheiks, and other royals have been buried here for centuries. The architecture and buildings within this space are breathtaking. Detailed tile, carved stone, and beautifully colored arches adorn the buildings. The Chamber of Twelve Columns is the stunning centerpiece of the tombs.
Another favorite stop on the trip was The Jardin Majorelle. French painter Jacques Majorelle planned and created this enchanting urban garden over several decades. Filled with the most striking colors and lucious plants from the world over, it was definitely one of the most visually stunning locations in all of Marrakech. I loved wandering around surrounded by fronds and palms. Most of the garden is well shaded and a welcome respite from the high temperatures.
From the official website: “We amble along shady lanes, in the midst of trees and exotic plants of dreamy origin; we walk past refreshing, burbling streams and pools filled with water lilies and lotus flowers; we hear wafting through the air, laden with sugared fragrance, the rustling of leaves and the chirping of numerous birds who come here to take refuge; we stop, and the path turns unexpectedly, revealing a building with Moorish charm, with a hint of Art Deco, painted in astonishingly vibrant primary colours, glowing with an intense blue the artist perceived in the Atlas Mountains.” I mean….. don’t think I can top that description.
It is a very popular spot with tourists and fairly #instafamous, so I would recommend arriving early to beat the crowds. We came here as part of a bike tour in the afternoon and as such, it was a little bit crowded. Make sure to check out the adjoining exhibits and gift shops.
Once you’ve had your share of exploring the medina, venture out of the city to the Atlas Mountains. There are tons of day trips or guided tours to choose from – hiking, camping, caravan-ing, etc.
We did an overnight trip to the Sahara Desert and it was truly one of the most magical and memorable experiences of my life. We rode camels into the sunset with Berber guides and arrived at a well setup camp on the outskirts of the Sahara.
The sky was a beautiful clear blue and the moon and stars twinkled above us. Our host, Youssef, poured the group tea while we learned about his life and experiences. The only downside in all of this were the giant scarab beetles scurrying through the sand. Gave me flashbacks to “The Mummy,” but hey, if I can get through it (and love it), I guarantee you can too.
Another day trip that is a must in my opinion is Ait Ben Haddou. This ancient ksar, or grouping of buildings, is a UNESCO world heritage site and “illustrates the traditional earthen habitat, representing the culture of southern Morocco.” Ait Ben Haddou is a well preserved former trading post that sits in the shadow of the Atlas mountains. It has recently become a more popular tourist destination, appearing in several films, including a personal favorite, “Gladiator.” I recommend getting a tour of this site if possible.
Throughout your stay, make sure to sample copious amounts of local foods. Moroccan food is a unique and mouthwatering blend of Middle Eastern, European and African cuisines filled with spices and flavor. A a typical dinner might include a tajine, which is a cone shaped pottery dish, used to cook herbed meats and vegetables, along with delicious fresh couscous. We also loved the homemade breakfast at our riad. Fresh squeezed orange juice (the best I’ve ever had, don’t skip it!), yogurt, and delicious pastries each morning.
Lastly, take time to relax! Many riads and hotels offer beautiful pools for a small fee. The temperatures are HOT (90s) so taking a dip in a pool is a welcome activity. Pick out a few places you’d like to visit and plan out a few hours of relaxation throughout your stay. Most of the hotels who have pools also have wonderful spas with a variety of affordable treatments.
Wrapping it up:
I hope you enjoyed this post about Marrakech. Going through these photos was such a joy, especially with our current state of affairs. Taking time to reflect and appreciate past trips is so important and often forgotten in this fast paced world. I loved this city and wished I had more time to see it all – and in the surrounding areas as well. The people, culture, food, etc. were all amazing. Marrakech is city of contrasts- both new and old, bold and subdued, coexisting in a beautifully symbiotic way. Have you been to Morocco? What was your favorite part? Where else would you recommend exploring? Check out my “quick hits,” section below for even more suggestions! Thanks for reading and following along.
Where to Stay: We stayed at a the cutest boutique hotel called Riad BE Marrakech. It was honestly perfect with some of the best service I have ever experienced anywhere. The co-owners were younger (one Swiss, one Moroccan) and very helpful and welcoming. I would stay here again in a heartbeat. Here are some other options for a variety of price ranges:
- Riad Yasmine – couldn’t find pricing but I remember researching this place and it looked amazing – great reviews and location!
- Riad Karmela (Budget & great reviews – $48 USD/night)
- Riad Saba (Budget – $60 USD/night)
- Riad Palais des Princesses (Budget -$70 USD/night)
- Riad & Spa Spirit of Morocco (Budget/Moderate – $94 USD/night) – we actually came in here and had drinks by their lovely pool!
- Riad Les Yeux Bleus (Moderate – $150 USD/night)
- 72 Riad Living (Moderate/higher end – $170 USD/night)
- La Sultana (Luxury – $380+/night)
- El Fenn (Luxury -$420+ USD/night)
- Royal Mansour Marrakech (Luxury – $500+ USD/night)
- La Mamounia (Luxury – didn’t look and don’t want to 🤣!)
There are also tons of places listed on AirBNB. A lot of boutique hotels list their rooms on this platform so I would be sure to check their inventory as well. The bottom line is you could easily stay in a nice, safe hotel for well under $100USD/ night. With breakfast included, I think its one of the more affordable trips I’ve been on!
Where to Eat:
Ugh. I didn’t do the best job of keeping track of where we ate when we visited, but I do remember everything being very good. I love Middle Eastern food in general so it wasn’t hard for me to find things I liked.
My two most memorable meals were very different. The first was the meal we had on our desert excursion trip. Fresh baked bread, and tajines full of savory chicken, lamb, onions, and vegetables. We ate communal style inside the yurts of our Berber hosts. It was so simple but so fresh and delicious. The other meal I still remember to this day is the lunch we had at El Fenn. The hotel itself is next-level beautiful. I *highly* recommend dining here as the food and service were both incredible. Fresh everything. We ate on their rooftop terrace and it was just perfection! If you visit El Fenn, make sure to check out the shop within the hotel. It is full of remarkable and unique handmade goods.
As I mentioned before, the breakfasts included in our stay were a delight. I suggest booking a hotel or AirBNB that includes breakfast. Fresh cappuccino, orange juice (not to be missed, even if you are not an OJ fan), tea, flatbread, yogurt and fruit each morning.
What to Do:
- Shop in the souks and look for spices, pottery, leather items, or home goods. Make sure you barter to get the best price!
- Explore the various riads throughout the city. We wandered around and walked into ones that caught our eyes for tea, coffee, a snack, or meal.
- Enjoy a refreshing mint tea and don’t forget a fresh squeezed orange juice as well
- Visit Jemaa el-Fnaa and let it all soak in!
- The Saadien Tombs – significant necropolis for Moroccan royalth
- Ben Youssef Madrasa – A historic Islamic college with beautiful Andalusian architecture
- Palacio da Bahia – A beautiful 19th Century Palace
- Jardin Majorelle – Stunning garden oasis
- Musee Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech – didn’t get a chance to make it here but this museum is entirely devoted to the iconic fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent
- Ait Ben Haddou – UNESCO heritage site outside of Marrakech
- Book a bike tour – We did a bike tour that was amazing! We had a guide for a few hours that took us to several amazing sites. The roads can be a little bit scary as there are people on motor bikes, cars, and even goats, but our guide was very patient with us.
- Book a spa or hamman experience – We loved La Sultana however there are a plethora of options to choose from in different price ranges. This was considered a luxury spa and the hammam which was at least an hour was $38USD. You could go to the public hammam or a much less expensive one as well, but this option felt like a treat.