Of all the cities in the world, few inspire more exotic and vibrant images than Marrakech. The name conjures images of spice markets, bustling and overwhelming souks, beautiful rugs and colorful textiles, gold lamps, leather tanneries, tea, and so much more. People like to talk about these fascinating aspects of Marrakech, but rarely mention (at least on social media) how difficult it can be to visit. Some of the most well-travelled people I know say Marrakech caught them off guard and they were surprised by how hard it was to be a tourist there. Here are some helpful tips to survive Marrakech and avoid getting scammed.
Where to Stay in Marrakech
Marrakech consists of the old city (medina) surrounded by ancient walls and a new, more modern city outside of those walls. Marrakech has the largest souk (traditional market) in the country and you’ll find all the shopping and food you can handle. For the quintessential Marrakech experience, you’ll want to stay in a traditional riad in the medina. To read a description of my pick, the beautiful Le Riad Yasmine, click HERE. However venturing out to the new city, especially for a rooftop bar at a hotel is a fun way to spend an evening as well. You’ll want to take a taxi and not go alone.
Get a Guide for Marrakech
In any context, I suggest visiting Morocco for your first time as part of a small tour. Not because I necessarily think it is too difficult to travel there on your own, but I think there is just so much history and things to learn from a guide. Some of my favorite moments were visiting tiny villages and watching children jump rope or play soccer then being welcomed into a local widow’s home for tea and pancakes. I’m constantly making plugs for Intrepid, but I can’t help it. They have provided me with some incredible experiences. And even if you aren’t part of a tour, I still suggest hiring a reputable guide (not a stranger on the street) for a few hours in Marrakech to get your wits about you and be able to ask questions. Whatever you do, do not follow a stranger anywhere.
Our guide gave us some great advice about how to survive Marrakech and got us acquainted with the medina on the first day. As a small group of 10-12, it was enjoyable, educational, and helpful to get oriented. The next day was free to explore on our own to our hearts’ desires, and then I personally opted to get a little more out of Marrakech and stay a bit longer at Le Riad Yasmine, an Instagram hot spot, that is worthy of it’s reputation.
Look at a map of the medina ahead of time so you have a concept of the layout. I suggest downloading a Google offline map of Marrakech when you have wifi. Carrying around a paper map is just asking for attention. At least if you’re staring at your phone, you kind of look normal. But hold onto that phone good, and when you’re in big crowds, you may want to put it away in a secure location. Your back pocket is NOT a secure location.
Theft in Marrakech
Pick pocketing and theft is a thing in all big cities of Morocco so when you walk around in crowds, keep your bags zipped and in front of you. Put backpacks on the front, regardless of how dorky you look. Don’t get your wallet out and flash your cash around (duh). Don’t set your bag down somewhere and wander away from it. Try not to be too distracted by all the chaos around you. Be aware of your surroundings and your belongings. When you shop, don’t pull out your wallet until you’ve found an agreed upon price, and be discreet about how much cash you’re carrying.
Shopping the Souks of Marrakech
As a woman wandering Marrakech alone, it was obvious I was going to have a slightly different experience when I wasn’t with the group and local guide. I immediately noticed it when I stepped out onto the streets and didn’t have strength in numbers or at least one other person to talk to. And I don’t doubt that men could have a similar experience to me, but I think women attract a bit more unwanted attention, particularly if you have lighter colored hair.
So I plastered fake confidence on my face and walked briskly. Walking too slow is just asking for people to approach you. You also can’t look at the shops too much; keep looking straight ahead, just glance out of your peripheral vision. When the shop owners yell to you, and you don’t want to shop, continue on at your pace. Be friendly but uninterested. A little smile and “no thank you” or “la shukran” in Arabic is perfect. They may yell silly phrases or call you ridiculous names like “Shakira” or “Spice Girl” as you go by. It’s ok, just laugh it off.
What about when you actually want to shop? On my last day in Marrakech, I set out with the sole objective of buying a bunch of cool shit to take home. You’re going to to be vulnerable to “attack” because you’ll be looking and browsing. Now you’ll have to exercise your ability to say no and walk away. It’s tough; you don’t want to offend anyone, but you can’t be weak. Don’t start negotiating prices on something until you see something you actually want. Find the area of the souks that have your product, because you’ll have way more choices. I went to the metal lamp area and it was quite overwhelming. All the shops looked the same. I honestly just chose to buy from a shop where the owner wasn’t obnoxious. He wasn’t pushy or loud, just kind and willing to negotiate. Then I found a shoe shop in the leather area and found a shop where the store owner didn’t even try to get me to come in. I just made friends with him while trying on some shoes, and he genuinely wanted to get me a good deal. Bargaining is like poker. You are both going to be bluffing and playing the game. Don’t show how much you want something and maintain an indifferent attitude. When negotiating, a rough guideline is to counter at roughly a third to 40% of the offered price. They’ll make you feel bad like you are insulting him, but this is normal. It will go back and forth like this for a while and you’ll meet somewhere. They may have to run and ask their supervisor if they can accept an offer from you. Don’t feel like you have to agree to anything. You can always walk away and think about it, at which point they may chase you with a new, lower offer. Go in with the mentality of, “I will not spend more than ___ on this item” if you are trying to be frugal. Try to learn some Arabic. Even just a few key words. The shop owners will appreciate the effort and you may score a better deal.
To bring your treasures home, you can buy a cheap suitcase, duffle bag, or canvas bag as a carry on, or pay a bit to ship things. I have a friend who shipped a rug home, and although it wasn’t cheap, it was cheaper than buying that rug at home would’ve been. I bought a canvas bag for like $2 and all my goods were wrapped well, and I just carried it on and put it in the overhead compartment. It was just barely under the size limit. It was no big deal and nothing broke.
Marrakech Main Square
Walking through the main square, Jemaa el-Fna, can be overwhelming too. People will ask you where you are going, they’ll offer to take you places, try to get you to buy stupid trinkets. Its a circus. And all you really want to do is look around without being bothered. Just so you know, the snake charmers are assholes. If you so much as glance in their direction, the will pounce. Don’t even attempt to take a photo unless you’re ready to pay up. They’ll demand payment (sometimes twice) and if you try to walk away they’ll loudly berate you in front of the crowds. My advice, watch a Youtube video online instead if you’re so curious, then when you are there in person just keep walking. Don’t contribute to the practice of capturing snakes in the desert and selling them to snake charmers. Same with the poor monkeys. They have chains around their neck and look miserable. In my opinion it’s a disgusting practice and should be illegal. Don’t give them the satisfaction and motivation to continue this inhumane practice.
Eating in Marrakech
There are so many great Moroccan and international restaurants throughout the city. Use Trip Advisor when you have wifi to get some recommendations of things close to your hotel/riad before setting out. There are some touristy restaurants all around the square that are good too, but perhaps with inflated prices and slower service because they’re busier. Ask your riad for recommendations that past guests really liked. Many restaurants won’t be obvious from the outside. But once you pass through the modest, almost disguised exterior door, you’ll enter into a beautiful courtyard restaurant with stunning aesthetics. So research ahead, use your Google map to get there, and enjoy some hidden gems. At night in the Jemaa el-Fna square, the scene changes and rows and rows of tables are set out for an array of street food. From my experience, and what I heard, it is safe to partake. Tipping 10-15% is customary.
Hit the Highlights
There are some tourist attractions in Marrakech that are worth a visit. As previously mentioned, the Jemaa el-Fna square is one of them. It has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985. Koutoubia Mosque is the largest in the city, and stands out above all the other rooftops. It makes for a great sunset shot from another rooftop. Popular sites to visit are the Ben Youssef Madrasa, Bahia Palace, and the Marjorelle Gardens, which were bought and restored by famed designer Yves Saint Laurent and has been open to the public since 1947. To be honest, for me, these sights paled in comparison to just walking around in the souks. But some people (myself included) hate to feel like we missed any of the highlights or main attractions in a city.
I had one negative experience in Marrakech. I was walking down the narrow alley in the medina and noticed a guy about my age pushing a bike right next to me. If I sped up, he did too. When I slowed down, he slowed down. I ducked into a shop, and he was waiting for me when I came out. Finally he started asking me questions about where I was going, what my name was, where I was from, etc. He told me he had a friend with a tannery and I needed to come with him. I was uncomfortable and told him no thank you and said I was busy trying to get somewhere. I may have even told him to stop following me. He started asking me why I was being so rude, told me to go back to America, and eventually hopped on his bike and yelled, “Go fuck yourself, bitch,” as he rode off. It was shocking and kind of hard to handle. Then, go figure, I ran into him AGAIN like an hour later while I was shopping. He came up to me in a more mild manner to tell me I needed to learn to be more polite. He said I had “blown my chances with him,” but in the future, I should be friendlier if I want to make friends. The speech was laughable, but I humbly apologized if I’d been rude and explained that as a woman walking around alone, I have to be defensive and wary of people who approach me. Then he called me a “Trump Sister” (whatever that is) and walked off. That was the most offensive thing he’d said yet. So I suppose my suggestion is to be friendlier than I was, but that doesn’t mean you have to get taken for a ride.
Wind Down with a Hammam
After the constant bombardment and demands of your attention, you may be feeling the need to decompress. A day in Marrakech is overwhelming. It’s overstimulating, can even be hard on your emotions, and all that walking may be hard on your body. Treat yourself to a traditional hammam experience. There are so many options in all different price ranges. Again, utilize Trip Advisor to read reviews. HERE is a list of spas and hammams. I also wrote a separate post all about the Hammam experience and what to expect. Read it HERE.
Marrakech is an assault of your senses. I’ve never seen so many colors in my life. The smells, the experiences, the tastes, the sounds, and the strange interactions are unlike anywhere else in the world. It is not the easiest city to relax in when you want to be a tourist. But it helps to be prepared and follow these tips if you want to survive Marrakech. If you’ve visited Marrakech and have some other suggestions or personal experiences, I’d love for you to share in the comments!