No guide can prepare you fully for Marrakech.
This is a city which moves to its own frenetic beat - and visitors can either go against it or try to find their place in its chaotic rhythm. Within the labyrinthine medina, an endless convoy of zip-zappy motorcycles will whizz past you, leathery stall-holders will grab and yell and heckle to capture your interest, young men will follow and harangue with smiles on their faces but menace in their eyes, the modern world clashes with the medieval and scents and stenches unbeknown to you will strike at will. And then there's the heat; the cloistering, sweltering, sticky heat mixed with exhaust fumes and frying oil and tagine-tinged charcoal.
During our stay in Marrakech, we fell in and out of love with the city on an almost hourly basis. An experience would occur or a scene would unfold which would make our hearts swell, only for an interaction a little later to dash our hopes away and dent our confidence in whether Morocco was really a country for us.
Not everyone will love their time here, but nobody will be able to leave this city without a sensory experience which stays with them for a long, long time. This is how we recommend you spend your days here and our pick of the very best things to do in Marrakech.
marvel at Ben Youssef Madrasa
In the world of Instagram, Marrakech is king.
However, we implore you to not allow your time in the city to be fully shaped by staying at the riad with 'that pool', visiting 'that spa', drinking at 'that cafe' - by all means experience those places, but don't restrict your experience of a wonderfully complex and textured city by following the photogenic footsteps of your favourite 'grammers.
We would however ask you to make an exception - just this once - for the wonderful Ben Youssef Madrasa.
The fantastically preserved 14th-century former Islamic school is a fascinating representation of Moroccan design and architecture. Wander around the courtyard, inspect the ornate tiles and, if you're here early enough, bask in the tranquil silence. Make sure you take a trip upstairs to pop your head into the tiny rooms, once home to around 900 students, and then stick your head out of the wooden windows to gain an utterly new perspective on the skill involved in creating this place.
**Update March 2018: Unfortunately, the Madrasa is closed for refurbishment for the next two years**
Where | Kaat Benahid, Medina
When | 9am-7pm (6pm winter)
Price | 20dh
maison de la photographie
Whilst we spent many hours in Marrackech side-stepping puddles and dodging thunder storms (one of the risks of a winter visit), it did mean that we made a point to visit the Maison de la Photographie. And, oh my goodness, we're so glad we did!
Housed within this small building is the sort of street photography and portraiture that take our breath away, including some beautiful shots from over 150 years ago.
If you have even a passing interest in art or photography, or want a snapshot into Morocco's traditions and people, this is somewhere you absolutely can't miss - we spent hours here (not simply to avoid the rain). Just don't forget to make some time to enjoy a mint tea in the rooftop cafe, a spot with arguably one of the best views in town!
Where | 46 Rue Souk Ahal Fassi, Medina
When | 10am-6pm (everyday)
Price | 40dh
take a cooking class
At the top of most people's to-do lists when visiting a new country is trying out the local cuisine. Whenever possible, we like to go one step further and take a cooking class.
In Marrakech we opted for Souk Cuisine, which was an excellent decision.
A shopping trip in the local's markets with our gifted wallets of cash and giant shopping bags for the ingredients, then back to a beautiful riad where, along with the three local lady helpers, we learnt to cook a traditional four course meal which included some of the best food we've had in our two visits to Morocco. It was a fantastic half-day experience which left our bellies full and minds enriched, but also led us to parts of Marrakech which would have remained hidden otherwise.
Further information | read about our Marrakech cooking class experience here.
have an early morning coffee
The only time we felt we had control over Marrakech was when we returned to the city after our hot air balloon ride and took our morning coffee outside the riad.
The stalls all housing the same souvenirs were not yet open, the motorcyclists were still deep in slumber and only a handful of shops and cafes were opening. With so little traffic, and so few people, it was calm.
On a little plastic table, with the sun yet to turn the city into a furnace, we took so much pleasure in seeing a different side to the city.
There is a strong (male-centric) café culture in Marrakech and, when it all gets too much and too hot, find yourself a table with a view and watch the myriads of scenes unfold before you.
get lost in the medina
In our view, there are three parts to Marrakech.
There is the medina (the old town), the new town which exists outside the city walls (and is home to the vast majority of residents), and then there are the islands of tourist luxury in the hotels and all-inclusive resorts and golf courses on the periphery.
If you want to have a full-on Marrakech experience, then it is the medina where you should spend most of your time.
You will, undoubtedly, get lost.
All of Morocco's medinas seem designed purely to bamboozle the visitor, to misdirect them, deceive them and unsettle them. Sometimes, this may result in a wonderful discovery of a shop selling thousands of lamps away from the masses, or it might direct you to a part of town where you don't feel welcome; this is the risk and reward of discovering Marrakech on your own.
Taste the freshly fried sugary doughnuts, try out your garbled French or Arabic, stop for that syrupy dark coffee on a sidestreet pavement cafe, and play with the kittens that seem to be everywhere. It's free, it's rewarding and it's the best way to truly understand the city.
Travelling by yourself or scared of getting lost? Consider taking a walking tour.
TOP TIP: book your taxi from the airport in advance.
barter for a bargain in the souks
Wrinkled berber men proffer thick hand-made carpets, young shop keepers offer iconic Moroccan lamps, countless stalls flog everything from wonderfully crafted ceramics to traditional leather shoes, handbags and jackets.
The souks (markets) of Marrakech are a place made for those that enjoy a barter and a bargain.
Not the sort of spot for lovers of pre-decided prices, uninterrupted browsing or swift shopping experiences, instead, the purchasing of gifts and homewares from these sheltered labyrinths is much like a courting dance, a little give and take, never showing all your cards at once. You'll almost certainly overpay at least a couple of times, but, in some ways, that's half the fun (unless you get properly ripped off of course).
The souks in Marrakech are bewildering to the uninitiated so keep your bearings, looks for the (well hidden) signs and try not too panic if it becomes overwhelming (which it sometimes can). Want some more information on the layout of the Marrakech souks? Read this post.
Take a hot air balloon ride at sunrise
As the sun awakes from its slumber, rising up behind vast mountains and casting a golden glow over the Moroccan countryside, it's difficult to believe that here, you are less than an hour from the bustling streets of Marrakech.
We had never taken a hot air balloon ride before, but that morning a bucket-list adventure came to life.
Who | We took our balloon ride with Ciel d'Afrique
Duration | Entire tour lasts around 4 hours, with the flight being of one hour duration
Cost | 2050 dh
have a hammam
For those of you not entirely sure about what a hammam actually is, imagine this: a lot of nakedness, a soapy rub down, hot steam, a slightly aggressive exfoliation and an enthusiastic massage.
Settle down you at the back!
In Marrakech, having one of these is as much an integral part of the tourist experience as sampling a local tagine. Unfortunately however, after way too much research to try and find the perfect one, we left booking ours too late and couldn't get in to the hammam we were so looking forward to visiting on our last day - it's definitely top of our list if we ever go back!
Now, picking your hammam-du-jour depends very much on your budget. For those ready to rough it with the locals, you can find small hammams dotted throughout the medina (usually away from tourist areas) costing around 10 dh to enter, with additional fees for a scrub (15 - 30 dh) and massage (50 - 100 dh).
If you're looking to push the boat out and go for a much more luxurious experience catered for tourists, consider the Royal Mansour, La Mamounia, Heritage Spa or Les Bains de Marrakech. Just be sure to book in advance as, like we found out, they are incredibly popular.
admire the Koutoubia Mosque
In a world of looming high rises and shadowed streets, where cities swell and expand far beyond their intended limits, old towns can often lose a little of what makes them so special.
Not however in Marrakech, a city safe-guarded by local ancient laws stating that no building can be higher than a palm tree.
It's this decree which makes the Koutoubia mosque, located deep in the heart of the medina, such a tourist draw and standout landmark of the city. Off-limits to all but muslims, its minaret, visible from nearly 30 kilometres away, captures the eye and dominates the skyline.
Where | Corner of Rue el-Koutoubia & Ave Mohammed V
When | Closed to non-muslims
find peace at the Saadian Tombs
Bountiful orange trees, landscaped gardens and birdsong can be found in one of the most ornate mausoleums we've ever seen; the Saadian Tombs are proof that even in death, for some, wealth can truly live on.
This remarkable spot is the final resting place of Saadian Sultan Ahmed al Mansour ed-Dahbi as well as nearly 200 of his nearest and dearest. It was pretty much forgotten about until 1917, when aerial photographs revealed what his successor had chosen to hide.
A wonderfully peaceful place, even when busy, this is where to come when the medina has become a little too much. Wander the mausoleums and marvel at the Italian marble, the pure gold gilding and the intricate mosaic tiling - or simply make like the stray cats who call the tombs home and sit for a while in the sun.
There are a number of well-known gardens around Marrakech, some charging quite extortionate prices for entry, but we found this place a nice alternative.
Where | Rue de la Kasbah, next to the Koutoubia Mosque
When | 9am-4.45pm
Price | 10dh
visit el badi palace
Legend has it that on the day of El Badi's great unveiling, the Saadian sultan turned to the court jester for his opinion on the extravagant new palace. The jester's response? "It'll make a magnificent ruin.".
That jester may well have been the wisest man in the room!
Built in the 16th century by Saadian sultan Ahmed el Mansour (yep, the same one responsible for the grand tomb), this famous palace, translated as 'The Incomparable', has been stripped of much that once made it so grand, the gold relocated to Meknes by the sultan's successor.
Yet that does not mean that this vast palace is not worth a visit or that the true scale of its grandeur is entirely lost. These ruins are vast, and those with even a passing interest will needs at least an hour or two to truly take in the grounds. It also has some nice views over Marrakech, as well as some of the most fantastic tiles we spotted in the city!
Where | Visible on every map we saw, simply head through Pl des Ferblantiers and turn right along the ramparts.
When | 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Price | 10dh (to view The Koutoubia Minbar costs an additional 10 dh - we wouldn't pay it again)
stay in a beautiful riad
Although there are several beautiful resorts within Marrakech, to really get a taste of this centuries old city, opt instead for one the stunning riads within the walls of the medina. As well as being fantastically, uniquely Moroccan, they provide an aesthetic and tranquil oasis of calm - essential for any visitor spending a day or two in this city.
Look down on Plaza Jemaa el-Fnaa
We hated Plaza Jemaa el-Fnaa . In comparison to the beauty that can be found in Marrakech's medina, this was the ugly side.
There are men with monkeys on chains, unsavoury characters, scammers and pickpockets abound and an abundance of overpriced and very average restaurants. In a country where alcohol is pretty much forbidden, there is a cruel irony that its day-to-day experience made us crave a cold beer more than anything else in the world.
Instead, we settled for another mint tea overlooking the square - absolutely the best way to do it.
By all means visit, if only for the fred fish on offer at one of the many lively stands in the evening, but do not linger for long - this is not the Marrakech you have come to visit.