Morocco was once the country of choice for “experimental” writers like William Burroughs. Tangiers played its part in the creation of Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and, as a result, Paul Bowes wrote, “There’s nothing left to spoil” in the port city.
But there’s another hidden gem on the Moroccan travel circuit: the city of Marrakech.
Try Marrakech on for size and you’ll be continuously surprised. Here you will find a city, and a people, that is characterized by authenticity. If your bucket list features Morocco, this list of things to do in Marrakech will help you make some sweet North African memories.
Start Your Stay at a Riad
A riad is sort of like an oasis for travelers and is somewhere between a resort and a quiet, tranquil room that vaguely resembles a hammam. While the outside world is hectic, the world inside is light, cleansed, serene and ridiculously beautiful.
Riads are shared accommodations and the homes once belonged to notable Moroccan families.
These days, they’re decorated with palm trees and their long and quiet corridors and rooms are resplendent with mosaic tiles, white-washed walls, intricate carvings on doors and lanterns, and beautiful archways. Riads also have shared dining spaces and a beautiful, airy, sunlit courtyard at their center.
Take a Day Trip to the Atlas Mountains
A day trip to the Atlas Mountains needs a full day. You’ve been warned. It’s also best to go on a weekday because the weekend can get pretty packed.
But, once you’ve booked yourself a tour to get out of Marrakech, this day trip will start you off on the right foot — er, that is, hoof. Depending on what kind of tour company you book with, your trip will include a camel ride.
The exact route varies but expect a visit to Imlil, a little village.
This is the starting point (and viewpoint) for Mount Toukbal, the highest peak in North Africa. From here, head to the spectacular Ouzoud Falls and then to the quaint Berber hamlets of Ait Mizan, Targa and Imoula. This is one of the best things to do in Marrakech.
Book Yourself a Hammam
If you’ve managed to plan ahead, you’ll be able to retire for an afternoon of voluntary perspiring, aggressive exfoliation and a traditional massage at any of the popular local hammam spots.
See, it’s not just a public bathhouse. Hammams are in fact an important part of the Moroccan culture, giving locals a way to reconnect with friends and with one’s self. It also helps them adhere to the Islamic edict of cleanliness at all times.
It’s a weekly ritual for the locals so expect some form of socializing while the attendants rub you down with soap made from olive oil (savon noir).
Set Your Alarm for a Hot Air Balloon Ride at Sunrise
There’s little that can prepare you for the sheer expanse of landscape that is about to hit your eyes.
Better that you see it for yourself, in fact. To do that, you’ll have to head to bed early so you can catch the morning sunrise.
The early wake-up call is well worth the extra effort to view the countryside from above in a hot air balloon. From the vast, green-speckled countryside to the rising amphitheater of the Atlas Mountains, everything is aglow in morning dew and sunlight.
Snap a picture quick, as that charming morning light doesn’t last.
Wind Your Way Through the Maze that Is Jemaa el-Fnaa, Morocco’s Largest Souk
First, a word to the wise: Morocco’s largest souk is not for the faint of heart. It’s certainly not an experience for everyone.
But if you don’t mind getting lost, haggling, and threading your way through crowds, roaming around Jemaa el-Fnaa might be the perfect way to get yourself acquainted with Marrakech.
There are plenty of outdoor stalls, restaurants and shops. These sell ornate and colorful lanterns, spices, rugs, handmade shoes, clothing and more. The main square also doubles as an area for funky performances. These include Moroccan bands, daring acrobats and snake charmers – all of which add their own unique splash of color to a fascinating evening experience.
Explore Marrakech’s Cuisine with a Cooking Class
Expect slow-cooked, stewy meat and vegetable tajines, fragrant mint leaves infused in cups of tea, fluffy couscous and fresh fish spiced and tenderized to perfection.
Okay, enough teasing. You need to book yourself a cooking class!
Souk Cuisine, for example, is run by a Dutch-expat Gemma who now calls Morocco home. Other companies that host cooking classes include Ateliers d’Ailleurs or Faim D’epices (“faim” means “hungry” en Français, by the way!)
Once you return from your ingredients shopping, you’ll be steeping yourself into the spoils of your spices, meats, breads and more!
Experience the Unique Beauty of the Jardin Marjorelle
Your visit to Marrakech wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the Jardin Marjorelle, a unique and delightful botanical garden. With its brightly painted walls and planters, and lush flora, the “jardin” was a labor of love crafted over 40 years by the French Orientalist artist Jacques Marjorelle.
When you enter, you’ll experience a fascinating melange of cubist influences alongside pools of water lilies and lotus flowers. There are also elements of Moorish architecture and a hint of Art Deco. The result is unique and befitting the melting pot that was once 20th-century Marrakech.
Today, the crowded gardens also draw visitors looking to learn more about Berber art and culture.
Next door, visit the Yves Saint Laurent Museum, with more than 5000 pieces of haute couture, sketches, illustrations, photographs, videos and other exhibitions documenting the rise of the YSL luxury brand.
All this and more awaits you in Marrakech.