Marrakesh: Morocco’s Enchanting Fusion of Culture, History, and Nature
Marrakesh, a city that beckons with an irresistible blend of culture, history, and the beauty of nature, is a jewel in Morocco’s crown. For those planning a visit, here are invaluable tips and an enticing array of attractions to ensure your journey is nothing short of extraordinary.
Planning Your Visit:
- Ideal Seasons: The best times to explore Marrakesh are during the spring (March to May) or the fall (September to November), when the weather is mild, and crowds are thinner. Avoid the scorching summer months (June to August) when temperatures surge above 40°C, and the city brims with tourists.
- Stay Informed and Vigilant: Marrakesh is generally safe for travelers, but it’s essential to remain aware of common scams and local customs. Exercise caution with taxi fares, negotiate prices beforehand, and stand firm yet polite against pushy vendors or unsolicited guides.
- Accommodation Variety: Accommodation options in Marrakesh span from budget-friendly hostels to opulent riads, traditional Moroccan houses turned guesthouses. Riads offer an authentic experience but might have limited amenities. Booking platforms like Airbnb and Booking.com offer a plethora of choices.
- The Medina: A true marvel, the Medina is the heart of Marrakesh, dating back to the 11th century. Navigate through its labyrinthine streets and vibrant souks, where treasures of spices, carpets, leather goods, and pottery await. Immerse yourself in history at Koutoubia Mosque, Bahia Palace, Ben Youssef Madrasa, and the Saadian Tombs.
- Jemaa el-Fnaa Square: The pulsating heart of the city, this UNESCO World Heritage Site bursts with energy and color. Be captivated by snake charmers, acrobats, musicians, and storytellers. Surrounding cafes and stalls serve up local delights like tagine, couscous, and refreshing mint tea.
- Tranquil Escapes: Amidst the city’s vibrant chaos, Marrakesh offers serene gardens and parks. The Majorelle Garden, with its exotic flora and striking blue villa, and the Menara Garden, offering breathtaking Atlas Mountain views, provide peaceful retreats.
- Gateway to Adventure: Marrakesh serves as a perfect base for venturing beyond. Take day trips to the coastal charm of Essaouira, the desert city of Ouarzazate, the UNESCO World Heritage Site Ait Benhaddou, or even the awe-inspiring Sahara Desert for a taste of camel rides, sand dunes, and starlit nights.
Marrakesh promises a sensory delight, where every corner whispers stories of the past and the present. Immerse yourself in the culture, let the history unfold, and savor the diverse flavors.
Marrakesh was a popular destination for hippies in the 1960s, who were drawn to its exotic culture, cheap living, and easy access to drugs. Many hippies followed the footsteps of the Beat Generation writers, such as Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg, who had visited Morocco in the late 1950s and early 1960s. They were fascinated by the mysticism, music, and poetry of the Moroccan people, and often experimented with hashish and kif, local forms of cannabis. Some of the hippies also sought spiritual enlightenment and healing in places like Paradise Valley, a scenic area in the Atlas Mountains.
Marrakesh became a hub of hippie culture, where travelers from different countries and backgrounds mingled and exchanged ideas. The city’s souks, or markets, were filled with colorful goods, such as carpets, pottery, jewelry, and clothing, that appealed to the hippies’ sense of aesthetics and adventure. The city also attracted famous musicians, such as Jimi Hendrix, Cat Stevens, and the Rolling Stones, who were inspired by the local music and atmosphere. Some of them even recorded songs or albums in Marrakesh or nearby Essaouira, a coastal town that was also a hippie hotspot.
The hippie connection to Marrakesh in the 1960s was a significant part of the global counterculture movement, that challenged the mainstream values and norms of the time. It also left a lasting impact on the city’s identity and reputation, as well as its tourism industry. Today, Marrakesh still attracts visitors who are interested in its history, culture, and art, and who want to experience a glimpse of the hippie era.
The culture of Morocco is a blend of Arab, Amazighs, Andalusian cultures, with African, Hebraic and Mediterranean influences. It represents and is shaped by a convergence of influences throughout history. The official languages are Arabic and Berber, but French and Moroccan Arabic are also widely spoken. Moroccan people follow the principles of Islam and value hospitality, family, and honor.
Some of the popular pastimes in Morocco are:
– Shooffing: This is a term for sitting in a sidewalk café, drinking coffee or tea for hours, and staring at everyone and everything that passes by. It is a way of relaxing, observing, and socializing. Shooffing is mostly done by men, while women tend to meet in private places.
– Drinking mint tea: Mint tea is the national beverage and favorite pastime of Morocco. It is steeped in ritual and ceremony, and it is always served to a guest when in a home or shop. Mint tea is green tea, flavored with fresh mint and heavily sweetened. It can be served three times, with different strengths and sweetness. Mint tea means time and peace in Morocco, as it teaches people to slow down and connect with each other.
– Surfing, kiteboarding, golf, music, and hiking: These are some of the outdoor activities that attract both domestic and international travelers to Morocco. The country has a diverse landscape, from the Mediterranean coast to the Sahara desert, offering many opportunities for adventure and fun. Morocco also has a rich musical heritage, influenced by various cultures and genres.
– Riding camels and staying with the Bedouin: These are some of the ways to experience the traditional life of the desert people in Morocco. The Bedouin are nomadic tribes who live in tents and move according to the seasons and the availability of water and pasture. They are known for their hospitality, generosity, and wisdom. Riding camels is a common mode of transportation in the desert, as well as a tourist attraction.
Some of the traditional Moroccan dishes are:
– Tagine: This is a slow-cooked stew of meat, vegetables, fruits, and spices that is cooked in a cone-shaped clay pot. The name tagine comes from the pot itself, not the dish. Tagine can be made with chicken, lamb, beef, or fish, and it is usually served with bread or couscous. Tagine is one of the most popular and emblematic dishes of Moroccan cuisine.
– Couscous: This is a dish of steamed semolina grains that are fluffy and light. Couscous is often served with tagine or other meat and vegetable dishes. It is considered the national dish of Morocco and it is eaten on special occasions and Fridays. Couscous can also be sweetened with sugar, milk, nuts, and dried fruits.
– Harira: This is a hearty soup of lentils, chickpeas, tomatoes, and meat. It is seasoned with spices such as saffron, turmeric, ginger, and cinnamon. Harira is traditionally eaten during Ramadan to break the fast, but it can also be enjoyed as a starter or a main course. Harira is often served with dates, bread, or chebakia (a sweet pastry).
– Merguez: This is a spicy sausage made from lamb or beef. It is flavored with cumin, paprika, garlic, and chili peppers. Merguez can be grilled, fried, or cooked in a tagine. It can be eaten as a snack, a sandwich filling, or a main dish. Merguez is a typical street food in Morocco and it is also popular in other North African countries.
– Pastilla: This is a savory pie made from layers of thin pastry (warka) filled with meat, eggs, almonds, and spices. The most common version is pastilla au pigeon (pigeon pie), but chicken and seafood are also used. Pastilla is dusted with powdered sugar and cinnamon before serving. It is a festive dish that combines sweet and salty flavors.
here are some vegetarian dishes in Morocco, some of the most popular ones are:
– Couscous: This is a dish of steamed semolina grains that are fluffy and light. Couscous is often served with tagine or other meat and vegetable dishes. It is considered the national dish of Morocco and it is eaten on special occasions and Fridays. Couscous can also be sweetened with sugar, milk, nuts, and dried fruits. ¹²⁴
– Zaalouk: This is a traditional Moroccan salad made by cooking eggplant, tomatoes, garlic, and flavorings such as cumin, paprika, coriander, and parsley. Although it can be served on its own, zaalouk is also often served as a side dish, a spread for sandwiches, or a dip, when it is paired with crusty bread. ²⁴
– Bessara: This is a comforting Moroccan dish made with puréed beans – either split peas or dried fava beans. It can be prepared in the form of a soup or porridge, while the thicker versions are commonly used as a dip. The puréed beans are typically seasoned with olive oil, lemon juice, and garlic, and the dish is often served with paprika and cumin on the side, while crusty Moroccan bread is almost mandatory. Bessara is traditionally served for breakfast, and it is especially popular during winter. ¹²
– Maakouda: These are traditional potato fritters that are popular throughout the Maghreb, especially in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. The fritters are usually prepared plain, but they can also be stuffed with meat, tuna, or cheese, although not that often. They’re made with potatoes, parsley, garlic, flour, salt, and pepper. The potatoes are boiled, mashed, and mixed with other ingredients into small disks which are then deep-fried in hot oil until golden brown. Maakouda is traditionally served as an appetizer, a side dish, or an ingredient in a long sandwich roll that’s usually sold as street food and served with harissa, coriander, and lemon juice.
– Loubia: This is a dish of white beans cooked in a tomato sauce with garlic, onion, parsley, cilantro, and spices such as cumin, paprika, and pepper. Loubia can be eaten hot or cold as a main course or a side dish. It is usually vegetarian-friendly but sometimes it may contain meat so it is advisable to ask before ordering.
There are many things to experience in Marrakesh and around Marrakesh, depending on your interests and preferences. Here are some of the most popular and recommended ones:
– Explore the medina: The medina is the old city of Marrakesh, surrounded by high red walls and full of narrow streets, colorful souks, historic monuments, and lively atmosphere. You can walk around and get lost in the maze, shop for handicrafts, spices, carpets, and jewelry, visit the beautiful mosques, palaces, and museums, or just soak up the culture and watch the people. Some of the highlights of the medina are the Koutoubia Mosque, the Bahia Palace, the Ben Youssef Madrasa, and the Saadian Tombs.
– Experience Djemaa El Fna: This is the main square of Marrakesh and the heart of its nightlife. Every evening, it transforms into a huge open-air theater, where you can see snake charmers, acrobats, musicians, storytellers, magicians, henna artists, and more. You can also sample the delicious street food from the stalls that line the square, such as snails, kebabs, couscous, tagine, and mint tea. Djemaa El Fna is a UNESCO-listed intangible cultural heritage site and a must-see attraction in Marrakesh.
– Relax in a hammam: A hammam is a traditional Moroccan bathhouse, where you can enjoy a steam bath, a scrubbing with black soap and a glove (kessa), a massage with argan oil, and a refreshing mint tea. A hammam is a great way to relax your body and mind after a busy day of sightseeing. There are many hammams in Marrakesh, ranging from luxurious spas to local public baths. Some of the most famous ones are Hammam de la Rose, Hammam Dar el-Bacha, and Hammam Ziani.
– Learn to cook Moroccan food: Moroccan cuisine is one of the most diverse and delicious in the world, influenced by Arab, Berber, Andalusian, African, Jewish, and French cultures. If you want to learn how to make some of the typical dishes such as couscous, tagine, pastilla, harira, or bessara, you can join one of the many cooking classes offered in Marrakesh. You will usually visit a local market to buy fresh ingredients, then go to a riad (a traditional house with a courtyard) or a farm to prepare your meal with the help of a chef. Some of the best cooking schools in Marrakesh are La Maison Arabe Cooking School, Souk Cuisine Cooking School, and Amal Women’s Training Center and Moroccan Restaurant.
– Visit the Majorelle Garden: This is one of the most beautiful and peaceful places in Marrakesh. It is a botanical garden created by French painter Jacques Majorelle in 1923 and later owned by fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. The garden features exotic plants from all over the world, fountains, ponds, sculptures, and a striking blue villa that houses a museum dedicated to Berber culture. The garden is also home to more than 15 bird species that are endemic to North Africa.
– Experience the desert: If you want to escape from the hustle and bustle of Marrakesh and see a different side of Morocco, you can take a day trip or an overnight tour to the desert. You can visit the Agafay Desert or the Ouarzazate Desert near Marrakesh or go further to the Sahara Desert in Merzouga or Zagora. You can ride camels or quad bikes through the sand dunes, watch the sunset or sunrise over the horizon, sleep in a Berber tent under the stars, and enjoy traditional music and food around a campfire.
– Discover the Atlas Mountains: The Atlas Mountains are another natural wonder that you can explore from Marrakesh. They offer stunning views of snow-capped peaks, green valleys, waterfalls, lakes,
and villages. You can hike or bike through various trails that suit different levels of difficulty and duration. You can also visit some of the attractions in the mountains such as Ait Ben Haddou (a UNESCO-listed fortified village), Ouzoud Falls (the highest waterfall in North Africa), Imlil (a base for climbing Mount Toubkal), or Ourika Valley (a popular destination for picnics).
– Experience local culture: One of the best ways to experience local culture in Marrakesh is to stay in a riad or a guesthouse run by locals. You will have a chance to see the traditional architecture and decoration, taste the homemade food, and interact with the friendly hosts. You can also visit some of the cultural centers or museums in Marrakesh that showcase the art, history, and heritage of Morocco. Some of the most interesting ones are Dar Si Said Museum (a museum of Moroccan arts and crafts), Dar el-Bacha Museum (a museum of Moroccan civilization and culture), and Dar Bellarj Foundation (a cultural center that promotes local arts and crafts).
– Enjoy the festivals: Marrakesh hosts several festivals throughout the year that celebrate different aspects of Moroccan culture. Some of the most famous ones are the Marrakesh International Film Festival (in December), the Marrakesh Biennale (in February), the Marrakesh Festival of Popular Arts (in July), and the Marrakesh Marathon (in January). These festivals attract local and international artists, performers, celebrities, and visitors who enjoy the shows, exhibitions, concerts, and competitions.
– Shop for souvenirs: No trip to Marrakesh is complete without buying some souvenirs to take home or to give as gifts. You can find a variety of items in the souks or in the modern shops that reflect the Moroccan craftsmanship and style. Some of the most popular souvenirs are carpets, leather goods, pottery, lamps, spices, argan oil, and jewelry. You can also buy some unique items such as babouches (traditional slippers), djellabas (long hooded robes), or kaftans (loose-fitting dresses). Remember to bargain for the best price and have fun shopping.