Marrakesh, also known as “Red City” and “Daughter of the Desert”, is a former imperial city in western Morocco; a major economic center and home to mosques, palaces, and gardens. Marrakesh is on everyone’s bucket list because the city is so exotic, mysterious and exciting. I had the pleasure of visiting Morocco, a North African country bordering the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, which is also distinguished by its Berber, Arabian and European cultural influences, for five days. I stayed in Marrakesh for the first night and the last two nights of my trip, while the second day, I had the opportunity to camp with the Berbers in the Zagora Desert. My trip in Morocco is filled with many stories and through different cities, so to keep this post short and precise, I will be breaking up my Morocco blog into four parts: 1) Marrakesh, 2) Aït Benhaddou, 3) Zagora Desert and and 4) Cooking Class at Hotel La Maison Arabe. This post will be focusing on the Red City, Marrakesh.
I flew from Budapest, Hungary to Marrakesh Menara Airport via RyanAir. My flight cost around £65 per person ($113 CAD), one-way. My hostel provides a shuttle service from the airport straight to the hostel for 150 Dirham (Dhs) for one group inside the car, which means that I shared the shuttle for a total of 150 Dhs, and if there was someone who wanted to tag along, the money would be split between everyone who took the same ride. It’s awesome. I booked the shuttle service via email prior to landing in Marrakesh and someone from the hostel was waiting for us right outside of the airport with “Rodamon Riad” sign in his hand. You definitely want to book a shuttle or have someone to come pick you up because 1) it’s very hot out. If you have a lot of bags with you, like myself, you’re going to have a hard time and end up walking for 30 min to one hour until you get to the medina (quarter of a North African town, or a distinct city centre of Marrakesh), where most hotels, hostels and riads are. 2) You can easily get lost. Marrakesh is a very confusing place to navigate; even Google Maps and other GPS may not be adequate enough due to the many alley and confusing roads of the city. Having a safe journey to your accommodation is important because you can very easily get lost or encounter pickpocketers.
For the rest of the trip, I did not spend money on public transportation (besides the shuttle service to and from the airport). My hostel was in the medina, and thus I was close to many attractions, so I walked to many places. I did, however, took one cab ride to my cooking class because I was running late and that cost around 200 Dhs…not worth it. Yes, I would recommend walking because it is a lot cheaper by probably 80%, but bare in mind that a lot of people will approach you, try to steal your belongings, or try to scam you and say that you are going in the wrong direction. Trust your GPS, even if it’s directing you in the wrong direction. Do keep an open mind, though, because not everyone in Morocco is like that, I did meet a couple of strangers who were kind and tried to help me get to places, too.
Money & Currency Exchange
1 Moroccan Dirham Equals (MAD) = $0.14 CAD
After arrival, I tried exchanging the Hungarian currency to Moroccan Dirham Equals (MAD), or just Dirham when speaking in Morocco. However, the currency offices inside the airport did not accept Hungarian currency…but I was lucky to have some British pounds cash on me and was able to exchange some money in the end. I would advise future travelers to exchange their currency before arriving to Marrakesh.
Also, I mentioned Moroccan Dirham Equals (MAD) instead of just Dirham because it is important to distinguish between the two. This will be important when it comes to converting your rates online. MAD is picked up easily as a Moroccan currency, whereas if you were to type in just Dirham on google, it will usually convert your currency to United Arab Emirates Dirham Equals, which does not have the same value as MAD.
You can expect things to be quite cheap in Marrakesh, however, bare in mind that because the city is a very popular tourist destination, many places will raise their price to make more money. A famous example of this is Jemaa el-Fnaa, a square and market place in Marrakesh’s medina quarter. A lot of restaurants and shops inside the square do raise their price to match foreign exchanges, such as Euros and British Pounds; often time, you can also see the price for goods at the shop or restaurants written in Euros and British Pounds, instead of MAD, in order to trick foreigners to believe that it’s cheap. However, the price for these goods may end up being cheaper by half or even more, so do not forget to bargain/haggle! It is not rude to haggle because it’s a custom in the city, just like in many countries such as Thailand. You’ll actually end up having more fun shopping when you are haggling and you will be surprised by how much discount you’ll actually end up getting. My tip is to first start big. For example, if the good is 200 Dhs, you can try reduce it to 50 Dhs. The seller will then say 100 Dhs, and then you can say 60 Dhs, and eventually both of you will end up at 80 Dhs or even less. 120 Dhs deducted! I used this method when I bought bundles of jewelry and souvenirs at the Souk, an Arab market or marketplace. I got a bracelet for 80 Dhs, instead of 200 Dhs, and a bunch of herbal oils for 150 Dhs, instead of 300 Dhs. It’s also important to stay respectful, polite, friendly, and playful. The merchants will likely give you better discounts if you are funny, instead of being rude and complain that things are expensive. Keep in mind that most of these merchants don’t make that much so they rely on raising their prices to foreigners to make a living. It’s okay to walk away if you find it too expensive and if you can’t haggle your price down to what you want.
Remember to also tip for your services! A lot of people in Morocco work for tips (receptionists, taxi drivers, shuttle drivers, servers, tour guides, etc). Some of them do get a little rude if you don’t tip them, which is normal, so try to not be discouraged and just tip however much you can afford. For example, I was traveling on a budget, therefore I cannot afford to tip a large sum, so I would just tip however much I can afford, even if it’s small, but at least it’s something.
In Morocco, and especially Marrakesh, you can expect Moroccans to speak three languages: Arabic, French, and English–and they are really good at it. The two dominant languages are Arabic and French so you can expect to see French imprinted everywhere, especially in restaurant menus. I had fun traveling in Morocco because I took French during high school and was able to speak it to some locals. Even though I was not great at it, I was able to understand a lot of things throughout our trip and communicate it to the locals, as well. So, time to brush up your French!
I stayed at the Rodamon Riad Marrakesh Hostels, which is a hostel that has the design of a riad, a traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden or courtyard. I paid $20 CAD per night per person. I also paid for the nights I was away in the Zagora Desert, because I wanted to keep my luggage at a safe place rather than bringing them all the way to the desert! For the price of $20 per night, I stayed in the Superior 8 Bed Mixed Form En-suite. There was a bathroom in the room and you can also borrow a hair dryer from the reception. The room was very clean and they seem to clean our beds every day. The staffs were beyond friendly and always tried to accommodate to your needs. Upon arriving at the hostel, the staffs greeted me by serving the traditional mint tree (free of charge). There is also a pool and a bar next to it. The hostel is decorated with the beautiful Moroccan Zelij (Moroccan mosaic tiles). The bar also serves food until a certain time. There is a pool table, many lounge areas and a rooftop.
Rodamón Riad Marrakech
Amssafah 32,، Marrakesh 40000, Morocco
Jemaa el-Fnaa is a large public square with small merchants, hawkers & entertainers, popular with tourists & locals. It’s located next to the famous Koutoubia mosque. I had my first meal here during the night time. I got to try the 10 Dhs orange juice (which is a highly recommended thing to drink in Marrakesh). The orange juice is known for being naturally sweet without sugar and is very refreshing. There were so many orange juice stalls at the market, all with the same price, so I am assuming that they were pretty much identical in terms of taste. However, I went to stall No. 1, which I read up somewhere online that it is usually the go-to.
I had my first Moroccan cuisine experience at Café Restaurant ARGANA, which is the restaurant that stands out the most in the market. I wanted to try this place since I could go up and have food with a full view of the market. The staffs, again, were so friendly. I got a tagine, which is a Maghrebi dish named after the earthenware pot in which it is cooked. My meal came to be about 200-300 Dhs ($30-40 CAD), which is a given because it’s a very tourist-trapped restaurant. However, the experience was great, the view was great, so I cannot complain.
Café Restaurant ARGANA
Jamâa el-fnna, Marrakech 40000, Morocco
The Souk is pretty much a marketplace, except it is mostly located in alleyways and confusing roads. You can easily get lost in the Souk and you can find more shops in the Souk, such as lantern shops, spice shops, and rug shops. I didn’t stay in the Souk a lot because I encountered a lot of people who tried to scam me, telling me I was going the wrong way and to follow them, etc. One boy also tried to steal my backpack right behind me. I would highly advise travelers to be aware of your surroundings and how you are carrying your personal belongings. I was lucky my backpack didn’t have front pockets and was tied on pretty tight on me. This is the reason why I didn’t have enough courage to take photos at the Souk, despite how cool it was. I also need to emphasize that, despite my experience with thieves and scammers, not everyone in Morocco is like that. I still met so many friendly and polite merchants and people in the market and I loved the Souk. It was so fun haggling with the merchants and I got to buy so many unique items to bring home to my friends and family.
The only main attraction I got to visit besides the markets was Bahia Palace; a palace and a set of gardens located in Marrakesh, Morocco. It was built in the late 19th century, intended to be the greatest palace of its time. The name means “brilliance.” There is an entrance fee of 10 Dhs per person ($1.40 CAD) for foreign visitors and they money is collected right outside the gate.
I actually have a story to tell about our journey to Bahia Palace. I was walking on the right path to Bahia Palace (just 5 mins walk away from the entrance). I found a door and thought that it was the entrance, so I quickly stopped to look. The door was closed and I assumed that it was not the entrance. Immediately out of nowhere, a man approached me, spoke in English and said, “Bahia Palace is closed today.” I was obviously skeptical about him so I just tried to walk away. He then continued to say that he will show me another place that’s better than Bahia Palace. I knew right there that he was tourist-trapping. I also knew that it was not the entrance of the palace because even if it was closed, there would still be massive lines of tourists nearby, anyway. So I walked away. Then I saw a group of foreigners and I thought it would probably be smarter to ask for directions from tourists instead of the locals at this point. When I approached them, they ignored me, and I could tell that they were probably trying to avoid the locals as well because they didn’t even looked at me. But then one of them saw my face and immediately smiled and then all of them had a change of attitude and directed me to the entrance. So eventually I found the right entrance, and I knew it was the right one because there was a long line of tourists paying at the gate and a lot of taxis nearby, too. The moral of the story is, trust your gut!
Avenue Imam El Ghazali, Marrakech 40000, Morocco
I definitely wished I had more time in Marrakesh to see other famous attractions such as:
- Majorelle Garden
- Saadian Tombs
- Ben Youssef Madrasa
- El Badi Palace
- Menara gardens
If you have the time to, do visit these places for me! I will 100% be back in the future. Despite my negative experience with local scammers (I even got scammed by the ATM machine there and could not dispute it because the machine did not print out a receipt for me…shady), I still enjoyed the rest of my trip and especially leaving the hustle and bustle of the city to Zagora Desert.